Books·How I Wrote It

Nilofar Shidmehr's short story collection demands empathy for others

Divided Loyalties follows the lives of the Iranian diaspora in the Middle East and Canada.
Divided Loyalties is a short story collection by Nilofar Shidmehr. (House of Anansi Press)

Divided Loyalties by Vancouver poet, scholar and writer Nilofar Shidmehr is a collection of short fiction rooted in the Iranian diaspora and feminism. Shidmehr was born in Tehran and immigrated to Canada in 1997. The stories in her collection focus on the experiences of women living in the Middle East and in Canada before and after the Iranian revolution — and the difficult choices and sacrifices they make to survive. 

Shidmehr talked to CBC Books about how she wrote Divided Loyalties.

Drawing from real life

"I want people to know that there are people in different parts of the world who have different lives, who have hard lives. Their lives are fairly challenging, and they need to make lots of sacrifices and put themselves at risk. That has been my own life. I'm a very candid person. That's my ethics of writing: I don't censor myself.

"Some of the people I know might find themselves in my stories. The stories that are based on my life and based on the lives of people I know. But, of course, I dramatize the events. I fictionalize things and real events didn't happen the way they do in my stories.

"My name is blacklisted in Iran. I came here legally as an immigrant. I wasn't a refugee, but I cannot go back to my country. I live in exile from my country because of my writing in Farsi, because I'm in opposition to the current regime." 

Found in translation

"Some people ask me if I write my stories in Farsi and then translate them in English. I don't, but I do some translation work because there are concepts or physical objects in Iran that don't exist in Canada. For example, in the story Butterflies on the Bus, there is a [concept central to the story]... that doesn't exist in Canada and is not part of the Canadian culture. So I do need to explain it."

Writing process

"I live in a small apartment in Vancouver. I have a small desk that fits in the bedroom so I don't have a good writing space unfortunately! Sometimes I go to the public library or I go to the local university and write there for a few hours. I am a morning person. I tend to write from 10 a.m. until one in the afternoon. Then I take a break to go to the gym. At night, after dinner, I will do some more writing or revisions."

Poetic prose

"Poetry comes from the moment of inspiration. There is the central image or the central metaphor in the line. It starts from there and then it germinates. I have the same approach in writing fiction. There is some image and I get the ending of my story.

"Many people have told me that I have strong endings. Those moments stay with the reader. I start working my way back from the end to the start."

Creating empathy for the other

"I teach Iranian cinema and I show my students films from Iran. But, I also ask them, 'Do you find that your life is similar in some ways?'. 'Do you have similar experiences?' or 'Do these kinds of lives resonate with you?'. Surprisingly, there are lots of people who say yes. Many of the issues are universal. Anybody in the world, Canadians and those who are privileged, can connect to my stories. The same problems exist in Canada."

Nilofar Shidmehr's comments have been edited for clarity and length. 


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