10 Questions for Siavash Saadlou
- By Franchesca Viaud
Rakhshan believed no sins existed, unless a woman had committed one. That may be why her life had always progressed like a chain of dominos, invariably promising complete destruction with the fall of the first piece, after which she would have to build everything anew. Ever since childhood and into her youth, until now, at thirty-five years of age, she had always known what awaited her down the road with every first mistake, paying the price dearly and later beating herself up helplessly to get her life back in order.
—from "Ten Minutes," Volume 64, Issue 4 (Winter 2023)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you translated.
My first work of literary translation included a trilogy of poems from the Iranian poet Rasool Yoonan which ended up appearing in Washington Square Review in early 2016. Yoonan’s poetry has this deceptively simple style that can be mightily difficult to translate, but I tried my best to capture the essence of what he had to say. One of my friends, Sheida [Dayani], who was teaching Persian language and literature at Harvard at the time, thought I’d done a good job, so having her imprimatur was certainly more than enough to make me feel overjoyed.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Different authors have inspired or influenced me in unique and unexpected ways. I remember, for example, reading Philip Roth’s American Pastoral about five years ago and being enthralled by his sheer verbal inventiveness. At the time, I lived in Iran, and I was so enamored by Roth’s writing that I ended up hunting bookshops all over Tehran for his entire body of work. I’ve also been influenced by Jhumpa Lahiri’s meticulous attention to detail. She could be writing twenty pages about cooking a meal and still command your full attention. I must also mention Sarah Manguso, who was my most insightful professor during graduate school. I’ll never forget the day Sarah told us about Chekhov’s idea of being “cold” as a writer if the aim were to get in touch with the reader’s heart. It sounded somewhat oxymoronic at first, but then all the pieces began to fall into place for me. Among Iranian authors, I’ve learned a lot from Aliyeh Ataei, with whom I’ve been working closely for the past year. Her oftentimes bare-bones style of writing and no-nonsense approach to storytelling are the things I find powerful about her work. Funny enough, Aliyeh, too, is a big Philip Roth fan.
What other professions have you worked in?
My BA was in journalism, and I have previously worked as a soccer journalist for almost six years. This one was not really a “profession” per se, but when I was seventeen, one of my friends and I used to sell bootleg CDs and DVDs of Western music in Tehran. We had figured out a way to record satellite TV via our desktop computers using something called a DVB Card (DVB stands for Digital Video Broadcast). We would record the latest foreign-language music videos from a variety of satellite channels and then sell them to various computer shops who, in turn, would secretly sell the CDs and DVDs to their select clients. The whole thing was both fun and dangerous. I’ll never forget how, on one occasion, I was on the verge of getting arrested.
What did you want to be when you were young?
The schools I used to attend when I was younger had no room for dreamers. They were specially designed for kids whose dads had either died or been maimed in the Iran-Iraq War, and we would find ourselves subjected to nauseating levels of political and religious indoctrination. My life only changed when I began learning English in earnest at the age of eighteen and later, in my early twenties, enrolled in translation and literature courses taught by Mahmoud Rezvani, who is a brilliant literary translator in his own right. He’s been teaching for more than five decades now, and he is the one who gave me the courage to want to be a writer and literary translator in the first place.
What drew you to write a translation of this piece in particular?
When “Ten Minutes” was first published in original Persian, I was immediately struck by its boldness in terms of form and characterization. You would rarely see a female protagonist in Persian fiction as modern and complex as the one portrayed in Aliyeh’s short story—a woman who is fierce, seductive, manipulative, and perhaps vindictive, all at the same time. I think Aliyeh is one of the few writers who can write equally impressive genre fiction and literary fiction.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I lived in Boston for about a year between 2017 and 2018, and I thought of the city as being infinitely charming to be honest. Even though my time in Boston coincided with some challenges—financially and otherwise—I absolutely loved the city itself. Every now and again, I would run into people who happened to be somewhat neurotic or out-and-out grumpy, but I also met a lot of wonderful people while there, some of whom I keep in touch with to this day. I most certainly would love to go back to Boston and live there again, this time for more than just a year and hopefully with a stronger mental and financial wherewithal.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
If I’m translating, I’d be listening to music. If I’m working on my own writing, that’s a different story. I can only write at some ungodly hour during pre-dawn when the whole world has quieted down. In fact, prior to the pandemic, I used to follow a strict routine for a year or so, where I would go to bed at 9:00 sharp every night and wake up at 5:15 the next morning. I would then write between 5:30 and 7:00 before I would spend the rest of the day doing physical exercise, reading, and writing away from digital distraction. Unfortunately, my writerly routine turned topsy-turvy after the pandemic.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
It all depends. I happen to have the privilege of being in touch with writers across all genres, so if, for instance, I write a poem, I will first share it with my dear friend Darius [Atefat-Peckham], who is an insanely gifted Iranian-American poet. When I write prose, my friend Edmund [Morris], whom I’ve known for almost twelve years now, will get the first read of my work. He is a psychology major but also quite well-versed when it comes to literature and languages, so he can offer a unique perspective on my work. Ryan [Buell] is another friend of mine who was among my MFA cohorts at Saint Mary’s College. I tend to trust his judgment on and critique of my work as well.
What are you working on currently?
I recently finished translating a highly anticipated book of poetry, the details of which I’m not at liberty to discuss. I’m currently working with Aliyeh on some of her works of fiction. With regard to my own writing, I’m working on my memoir titled Congratulations and Condolences these days, a book that chronicles my war-tinged childhood and adolescence in Iran.
What are you reading right now?
Nowadays, I’m reading How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee. I’m also reading The Applicant, a Kafkaesque novel by Nazli Koca.
SIAVASH SAADLOU is a Pushcart Prize-nominated writer and literary translator. His short stories and essays have appeared in Malahat Review, Southeast Review, and Plenitude Magazine, among other journals. His poetry has been anthologized in Essential Voices: Poetry of Iran and Its Diaspora and Odes to Our Undoing: Writers Reflecting on Crisis. Saadlou is the winner of the 2023 Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize and a recipient of the Cole Swensen Prize for Translation.