Author and editor Atossa Shafaie is one of the featured contributors in the inaugural issue of the SFWP Annual, a new anthology of fiction and creative nonfiction from the Santa Fe Writers Project that just hit the shelves in print and electronic format everywhere books are sold. The Annual brings together a group of authors who have been featured in issues of the SFWP Quarterly. This online lit zine has been running since 2002, and the Annual curates pieces since its latest iteration in 2015.
Shafaie has been widely published in a variety of journals, including Scribes Valley, Dream Quest One, Coffee House Fiction, Fish, Savage Press, Winning Writers, and Richard Peabody’s Paycock Press. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University and has served as Fiction Editor at So To Speak, Publications Assistant at AWP, and Senior Editor for Bartleby Snopes, A Literary Magazine.
Born in Tehran, Iran, Shafaie moved to London shortly before the 1979 revolution and then made the jump across the pond to Virginia, where she currently resides. We sat down with her to learn more about her work.
Santa Fe Writer’s Project (SFWP): Having been born in Iran, what inspiration do you draw from your home country?
Atossa Shafaie (AS): Because I am a very proud American, and also Iranian, these two worlds find an organic way into my writing almost every time I write. But in doing so, I try to dispel a great deal of myth that is perpetuated. I want to create a bridge, with characters that are just as likely found here as there. I want to shed light on the rich history Iran has, and unravel the complicated disconnect between the Iranian and American cultures by showcasing characters everyone can care about. At the end of the day, that is what interests me most. Changing views with my writing, or at least making people think in a way they might not have before.
I grapple with a lot of things happening in Iran, in the world, and here at home. So I also must add that I feel writing should, when it can, be the voice of the voiceless. I always want my writing to make a statement, to bring those that are being undermined in the shadows into the light. The difficult task in doing this is letting the story and the characters propel that outcome. I think that might be the common thread in not only my favorite authors, but books as well. So I suppose I should round this question out with everything inspires me. Human nature most of all. What awesome and awful creatures we can be.
SFWP: Your story in the Annual, “Wheat to Bread”, sheds light on homosexuality and transgender people in Iran. The story is introduced with an author’s note about the level of tolerance of LGBTQ individuals in Iran. Though homosexuality is punishable by death, hormone treatment and sex reassignment surgery is, paradoxically, accepted. Could you elaborate a bit on this and the social impact that it has on this portion of the population?
AS: Being a theocracy, the tenants of the Koran strictly bind the laws of Iran. Homosexuality is clearly and uniformly forbidden. But, there are no mentions of transsexuals in the Koran. Therefore, the laws cannot technically consider it illegal or punishable. To close this “loophole” and for many other reasons, both economic and social, Iran’s government decided to declare being transgender a medical condition.
There are actually two portions of the population this has socially affected — not just the transgender community, but the homosexual population as well. Though neither is safe from social discrimination, there is a “protection” that the law gives one group over the other from criminal punishment. As a heterosexual who has lived her entire life in the U.S., it would be nearly impossible for me to elaborate on the social intricacies of these two groups living in Iran, but the fact that Iran is second only to Thailand in the number of sex-reassignment surgeries, to me, is very telling. One can interpret this as sign that transsexuals feel empowered and free by their government to be who they want, though I find this unlikely given the social atmosphere. It can also be interpreted as a pressure on homosexuals, just by the human impulse to survive and breathe, to pretend they are transsexual.
SFWP: What inspired you to write about this topic?
AS: Over a decade ago, I was working as a manager in a doctor’s office. A young Iranian woman walked in with paperwork from Iran. She was transgender, and Iran was subsidizing her transition. It made me curious and I started doing a bit of research. Then, there was a great documentary about this topic called Be Like Others that came out a few years later. I watched it with fascination. It never left me. When I decided to do the collection of short stories, I found myself going back to this topic. I wanted this incredible group of people in Iran to be brought into light. I wanted there to be a bridge between the struggles faced by marginalized and persecuted groups like the transgender and homosexual communities both here and a world away.
The possibility of someone feeling forced into a different gender to survive haunted me. The human condition: we can be awesome and awful creatures anywhere in the world. It made me so sad that people can’t just be who they want. And Bahar just sprung from all that. Her story developed from there.
Still, at this “highly evolved” stage of humanity, we have not managed to eliminate spaces where people are forced into a life, a gender, a body they do not want, just to survive. I kept asking myself, how far would I go not to be jailed, persecuted, executed? The answer to that question, and what stepping over that line does to an individual, I could only attempt to translate through the language of my own experiences. But I wanted people to think about these lives, to let the impact sit for a moment, and then, I wanted them to see how these themes play out in their own world. Because they do. It’s a lot to ask of a story, but, in the end, I believe it’s our job as writers to ask a lot of ourselves, our stories and those reading them.
SFWP: What are you currently working on?
AS: I am working on two projects currently. “Tahmrayis” is a full-length manuscript and historical fiction which I have been working on since I graduated college. (I won’t say how long ago that was). It is in its fifth iteration, and finally, I think, the right POV. It tells the story of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, through the voice of Queen Tahmrayis, the woman who stood by him, loved him, and ultimately, killed him. This is the first book in a trilogy, and the first draft is almost finished. I am also working on a collection of short stories, of which “Wheat to Bread” is one, that are bound together by the characters in the anchor story, “Professional Mourner,” published in the Abundant Grace Anthology by Paycock Press. This project is, I would say, halfway finished.
SFWP: What do you do when you aren’t writing?
AS: I love nature, and I love animals. I have two horses — Guinness and Doodle Bug — a little rescue dog Percy, and Merlin, a Belgian Malinois that I’m learning to do obedience with. I have competed with my horses in Dressage, Eventing, and Hunter/Jumpers, but mostly, any time I spend with the animals is salve for the soul. We also have a 350 gallon aquarium in our basement, which is less my hobby and more my place to go when I want to sit and be still, or write.
SFWP: Do you still compete in Dressage, Eventing, and Hunters/Jumpers?
AS: It has been a couple of years. I think the last competition I did was in 2014. I got a new job that demanded a lot of my time, and Guinness (the now 23 year-old brown horse in the picture I’ve had the privilege of having since he was 5), needed a bit of a break too. So, until recently, my rides have been hours of wonderful bareback trails that recharge my mind and keep my horse happy. My other horse Doodle Bug (the younger white horse in the picture) is being leased at the same barn by a great friend and he is in the competition ring, jumpers. I try to ride three to four times a week, though, and I’m finally getting to a place where Guinness and I are training again and almost ready to step back into some local Dressage competitions, you know, show the younger folks how it’s done. (Shafaie laughs.)
SFWP: What do you think are the benefits of independent publishing? The drawbacks?
AS: An independent press is vital to the survival of great writing and the integrity of our art. It is the safeguard of the artist that lives to perfect their art, and not just churn out work for mass production. Not that mass production is altogether evil. It has its place, I suppose. But I think an independent press, to be a bit political about it, is the guardian of free expression, raw talent, and often, the rebellious nature that keeps a society strong.
I don’t know that there are any drawbacks. I do wish the publications were more accessible, but I’m not sure that’s a drawback you can pin on the independent press itself. So, no, I don’t really think there is a drawback.
SFWP: What is the one thing you wish to communicate to your readers?
AS: Overall, that we are all human beings, no matter our gender, culture, sexuality. When we cannot accept each other as such, very sad things happen. But, I have always believed every interpretation of a work of fiction is on some level a true one, as it is formed from the reader’s own experience. So really, what I want them to know is less important than what they take away with them after reading it.
Atossa Shafaie will be attending the AWP 2018 conference in Tampa, where she will be signing copies of the SFWP Annual at SFWP’s booth, number 622. In the meantime, you can get your own copy of the Annual right here.