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10 Questions for Aliyeh Ataei

She was considered beautiful in the eyes of the common man, but she believed her womanly seduction outweighed her beauty. Yet she would feel guilty as soon as she turned on her charm. First she would pretend she had done nothing wrong, but then she would be gripped by the cardinal sin of being a woman, seeing herself as the prime suspect in all the romantic entanglements in her life. As soon as she was arrested at her father-in-law's in Birjand, the first and most definitive thing she uttered were the words "I am innocent." 
—from "Ten Minutes," Volume 64, Issue 4 (Winter 2023)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
The first story I ever wrote was about three men sitting down to play cards, with a ten-year-old girl watching, the girl being the daughter of one of them. Halfway through the game, the girl has her first period. Even though the story was later rejected for publication by the Ministry of Culture, it received an honorable mention from Iran’s distinguished author, Abbas Maroufi. He read the story on Radio Zamaneh which felt quite encouraging. I took heart from this and went on to publish my debut book.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Given the place where I grew up during my formative years, I was primarily exposed to classical Persian literature. It wasn’t until I turned 18 that I found myself exposed to modern Persian literature and literature in translation. In my early twenties, I would try to emulate a Western, or to be more exact, American way of storytelling in terms of form. With regard to content, however, my earliest writings had something to do with my own life and revolved around themes such as “identity” and “human connections.”

What did you want to be when you were young?
When I was very young, I used to envisage myself as a professional dancer in my dreams, but I never even got close to becoming one. Perhaps choosing dramatic literature and theater for my higher education was partially in service of pursuing that same dream. As soon as enrolling in college and having a dalliance with different aspects of theater—directing, acting, scenic design—I felt closer to writing. I did a couple of small gigs as an actress which wasn’t too bad, in fact. Even though I was only twenty years old at the time, I had an important moment of self-discovery which was that I sometimes needed to be away from a large crowd. If I had continued with acting, I would have had to be in the limelight more often than not, which is why writing was a better fit for me. It allowed me to get into recluse with just my laptop and notebooks.

What inspired you to write this piece?
I wanted to write a story with a woman at its center. I didn’t want it to be anything stereotypical, though. The intention was to speak of a kind of suffering that leads to a mistake which then results in an even bigger mistake. Basically, before writing this story, I was wrestling with the question of how a woman might find herself in a situation where she would commit a certain act, but then, because of the existing restrictions, she is capable of covering up a sin as serious as homicide. You could say that the notion of “sinning” was the main theme in "Ten Minutes."

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
As can be seen in this story, the part of the world that oftentimes finds its way into my stories is the border region between Iran and Afghanistan which is where I grew up. It is a place that’s deeply personal to me. However, not all my stories take place in that particular region. A lot of times, even if I’m writing about the shared borders between Iran and Afghanistan, I’m subconsciously keeping in mind all border regions in the world and writing about them. Border regions hold a special place in my heart and always find their way into my work. I, too, invariably introduce myself as a “border-dweller.”

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I don’t listen to music while writing because I need to give writing my undivided attention and focus. I view music as an independent art form, a world of its own. I’ve always envied writers who can listen to music while writing. I do, however, draw a lot of inspiration from different types of music. When I’m creating a character whose world is unknown to me, I think about the character, where the character lives, and the music of where this character comes from. I would listen to the music of a particular region for a long time to get a better sense of what that region might feel like or the kind of atmosphere it can produce. This precedes the writing process itself. I think that music is a telling language when it comes to cross-cultural interactions which is why, before reading anything about the characters that are alien to me, I tend to study the music of their region or country to figure it out or establish an emotional connection with it. This helps me whenever I’m creating a new character, but listening to music while writing is not something I do.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
For years, I used to be able to write anywhere. Then, I became someone who could write only at a certain place. Then, again, for a time, I had to commute between Tehran and a smaller town, and that was when I developed the habit of writing while on the bus, in the train, or on a plane. Later, I used to run a café and learned to write there, too. This bohemian writing habit allowed me to some extent to utilize any and all settings and be able to focus on writing. Recently, however, I’ve started to feel that I can only write in my personal office space. I don’t know. Maybe this is a byproduct of having turned forty. More than other places, I rely heavily on my office and personal work desk these days. Because of my generally industrious and prolific way of living, I never managed to develop a sharply defined set of hours for work or a certain set of rituals for that matter. A lot of this also has to do with motherhood. When you have a child, you try your best to tend to them while also tending to your own work. I can only have a certain quota of time to myself to spend on my work, so I try to use that time to the maximum effect.

If you could work in another art form, what would it be?
I think that I’m disinclined to make new forays and veer away from what I’m doing now. Perhaps theater would be the only other realm that I would work in. Right now, it would be far-fetched for me to do something drastically different. I hope I get to surprise myself, though. Who knows? Maybe I’ll become a professional dancer.

What are you working on currently?
I’m currently working on a new novel which is in part fiction and in part creative nonfiction. Part of the project revolves around refugees from different countries who find their way into Europe and whose dream is to reach America. It is a novel with a multitude of unique characters—characters who bond over “displacement.” They are trying to extricate themselves from the situations they find themselves in, and they see words as their way to redemption.

What are you reading right now?
I’m trying to improve my French these days. That’s why I’m reading in French the novels I have previously read in Persian. Not necessarily French novels, but novels from different parts of the world. These days, I’m reading The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa. Reading it in translated French is quite a baptism of fire, at least for me. I’m reading it at a snail’s pace, but I’m really enjoying the process. 


ALIYEH ATAEI is an Iranian-Afghan author whose books have won major literary awards in Iran, including Mehregan-e-Adab for Best Novel. In English, her short stories and essays have appeared in Southeast Review, Guernica, and Michigan Quarterly Review, among other journals. In 2023, Ataei’s collection of personal essays, Kursorkhi in Persian, was published to wide critical acclaim in translated French by Éditions Gallimard under the title La Frontiére des Oubliés.

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