'Most good art is queer': Fran Lock interviews Golnoosh Nour
Wednesday, 08 April 2020 05:46

'Most good art is queer': Fran Lock interviews Golnoosh Nour

Published in Fiction

Fran Lock interviews Dr Golnoosh Nour, who was born in Tehran, about her new book, The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories. Her debut poetry collection Sorrows of the Sun was published in 2017, and she teaches at Birkbeck College and the University of Bedfordshire. 

FL: Thank you so much for agreeing to answer these few questions about your debut collection of short stories, The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories. I really wanted to do this interview with you because reading the book has initiated in me such a profound period of reflection on notions of queer subjectivity, politics, and nationhood, themes that feel especially relevant and pressing in the current climate.

GN: Thank you for having me, Fran. I’m delighted you found the book so engaging!

It has always seemed bizarre and slightly suspect to me that wherever in the world British or US political interventions are at their most militaristic, swingeing and destructive, we develop a directly proportionate appetite for the literature of those nations. We’ve seen this in Palestine, Afghanistan, in Northern Ireland, and I don’t know if you agree, but I think we’re starting to see it now in Iran. My own feeling is that there is a tendency within publishing, and also within the wider culture, to simultaneously exoticise and assimilate the places and peoples it fixates on. The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories is such a nuanced book, one that seems to revel in ambivalence and ambiguity. I wonder how conscious you are of writing back against literary culture’s tendency to homogenise and make a fetish of Iran or of some seemingly ‘typical’ Iranian Experience?

Yes, you’re absolutely right, but unfortunately, this is nothing new. Hamid Dabashi and several other Iranian scholars have discussed this issue in depth; since America’s ‘war on terror’, there has been a significant rise in the publication of literature by Iranian women in the West, sometimes to international recognition and praise. These books are often memoir/ nonfiction, and they often have a formula that comfortably confirms the western right-wing narrative of Iran, in which everything Iranian is dreadful and problematic unlike everything western that is ideal and liberating. Farzaneh Milani has coined a term to define this literary subgenre as ‘hostage narrative’. A narrative which offers ‘arrested representations’ that are ‘caged images of reality that is perpetually moving and shifting’. Hostage narrative generalises and simplifies by portraying Iranian women as victims thereby dismissing their contributions to Iranian culture. So yes, I was very aware of this. And the other thing I noticed is that all the characters in these books are heteronormative. So, my book, I hope, is also a reaction against the heteronormative and monolithic portrayals of Iran and its sexualities. 

1 Nabeela Vega

From the series Visiting Thabab, by Nabeela Vega

As a kind of inelegant follow-on to the previous question: one of the joys of this collection is that through the varied subjectivities of your speakers you present an image of Iran, and also of queer identity that is characterised by multiplicity, polyphony and contradiction. How important was the short story form to you as a vehicle for exploring this diversity of voice and experience? And do you perhaps see radical or subversive potential in the short story form as genre? Is there something about it that makes it ideally suited for the transmission of queer narratives in particular?

As you know, the short story is not my favourite literary form. But for this specific book, I felt that it was the most suitable form. Because this book is about representation and I wanted to show as many Iranian queers in depth as possible. And I had many stories to tell about queerness, so I believe these thirteen short stories do the job perfectly well. But also, the famous definition that Sedgwick offers of queerness that queerness is an ‘open mesh of possibilities’ and I have to admit I feel the same way about short story as a form. In this sense, short story as an artform provides a comfortable cradle for queerness. 

To stay with the idea of queerness, would you mind speaking briefly about what the notion of queerness means to you, and where you see yourself in terms of building and contouring a modern queer canon?

One of the most wholesome definitions of queerness has been provided by Sarah Ahmed in her seminal book, Queer Phenomenology. She says anything that disrupts is queer and anyone practicing nonnormative sexualities is queer as they disrupt heteronormative structures. I myself identify as queer. And all my protagonists in The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories are queer. They express a lot of same sex desires, but also other desires that can’t be tamed, labelled, and defined by the mainstream discourses of sexuality. In his essay, Queer Past, Queer Present, Queer Future, Jonathan Kemp says queer is about ‘not simply imitating the norm but exploring alternatives’. And I think this is a great place to start. 

I think the queer canon has always existed, in fact, I believe most good art is queer. As for the modern queer canon, there are so many thrilling queer voices, including Saleem Haddad, Alan Hollinghurst, Danez Smith, Joelle Taylor, Ocean Vuong, Jay Bernard, Eileen Myles, Sophie Robinson, Jonathan Kemp, Tomasz Jerdowski, Paul Mendez, Chloe Caldwell, Keith Jarrett, Julia Bell, Jericho Brown, Richard Scott, and of course yourself, and we are just some of the contemporary ones. I think Audre Lorde, Allen Ginsberg, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Forough Farrokhzad, and Iris Murdoch still count as modern queer canon, right? And then a bit further back we have artists like Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. So, the queer canon is a never-ending and ever-expanding canon, an open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances, and I am floating in it too if I’m lucky. 

2 Alpha Beta Burqua by Parisa Parnian titled It is Complicated

It's Complicated, by Parisa Parnian

At the heart of queerness there is a condition or a feeling of otherness, of being ‘other’. Reading your collection, particularly the stories ‘Soho’ and ‘Oshima’, I am reminded that this is also the feeling that attends exile, the feeling that accompanies being a migrant or a refugee, a stranger in a strange land. I know you’re familiar with the Edward Said quote about exile, that it is ‘the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted’. Your stories intertwine queerness and migrancy in intricate and moving ways, but even when your protagonists are speaking from their native place they often seem divided and estranged. Is there something of the perpetual exile in all of us queers?

Wow, this is such an interesting connection! I love it so much. I think you’re absolutely right in that there is definitely a sense of exile in queerness, especially considering that queerness by its very definition does result in otherness, and being otherised by the society; but partly, it is self-exile too, which isn’t necessarily a sorrowful place. I think there can be joy and strength in exile, in staying away from societal norms, to mock them, to push them away, to question them, to escape them. And to be proactive about it, rather than passively exiled.  So, although I agree with Said, that there is sorrow in exile, I also think there is hope and joy in it, too. 

Staying with this thought, I do want to stress that this is also a playful collection, full of humour and joy. One of the things that struck me particularly was its attention to moments of solidarity; mutual expressions of friendship and care. Queerness also figures in your work as a scene, a vibrant and nonconforming fellowship, and I wondered how the notion of a queer community – or communities – has shaped your identity as a writer, and conversely, how you think that literature has helped to foster the idea of queer community?

I’m incredibly grateful for the queer communities both in Tehran and in London, not just as a writer but as a nonconformist individual who still needs to survive the heteronormative societies. So, I do think we need communities for our survival and nourishment, at the same time I believe it’s important to know that community is not the only thing we need and it is not enough. Bear in mind, that communities, especially big ones, tend to create their own hierarchies and power structures. So, I think as queers, we also need a lot of solitude, self-love, and individuation. As the great Audre Lorde argues, for queers, especially queers of colour, caring for oneself is a ‘political act of warfare’. 

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Occupy Me: Topping from the Bottom, by Hushidar Mortezaie

Reading back through these questions it strikes me that they seem quite political in tone, and I find myself wanting to apologise for that because the luxury of not being political is something a number of your protagonists struggle with. I’m thinking particularly of ‘An Evening of Martyrdom’, and reading this story I had in mind something that the American poet Patricia Smith once said, that even if she were to write a poem about meadow flowers it would still be a political act by virtue of the fact that she is a working class black woman in an elite cultural space. Being queer in Iran – being queer in a lot of places – can have very real and very violent consequences, which I think makes it tempting for straight white western audiences to valorise being Iranian and queer as uniquely defiant or ‘brave’, which in itself is a form of violence, a form erasure, in that it ignores the daily negotiations individuals undertake – when to conceal, when to disclose – the oscillation between moments of defiance, and those of fear or of guilt for not being political enough. These tensions are something you handle admirably in your story, and that sense of yearning for a time and place where queer people will be granted the freedom to desire without being crudely politicised. I’d be interested to know if you believe this place and time exists – can ever exist, and how these tensions influence both your choices as a writer, and the way you feel your work is perceived out there in the world?

I agree with Jonathan Kemp that being queer is ‘inherently political’, so no unfortunately there is no escape from politics with capital P during these highly politicised times, where everything is inherently political and politicised, not just one’s sexual identity. There is still a lot of queerbashing in the world, and being queer is still one of the most political positions one can occupy. I’m a bit of an optimist, so I do think, if we keep fighting, there will be a time and place when people can honestly express their nonnormative sexual desires without being bashed or politicised. But at the moment, we have a long way to go. And that’s why, I believe, queer visibility is vital. And I hope I am creating a lot of queer visibility with my literary endeavours as well as by my very existence and day to day survival in an extremely conservative world. 

I want to move away from the explicitly queer aspects of your work now to focus on a theme I think is of equal weight and importance. Some of the most poignant and well realised moments in this collection are centred on familial relationships: cousins, brothers and sisters, mothers and daughters, daughters and fathers. I wonder if you could speak a little bit about how your own sense of family has shaped your writing, both the short stories, and your poetry?

I am very close with my family, and I know very well how family dynamics can be beautiful but also intense and even destructive at times. I think I am lucky with my family, because I have a rather unconventional family. My late mother was a powerful philosophy professor from whom I learned how to be unapologetically strong and intellectually ambitious. And my father is an adoring and adorable person who is also a bit of an individualist who doesn’t care much for social conventions. He’s always enjoyed making jam and pickles, sewing, and maths. And I cherish my three siblings, and my amazing niece and nephew. My older brother is also a writer, so we have a nourishing writerly relationship as well as a loving siblinghood.

From an early age, I never really learned to take gender roles very seriously, even though I was born and raised in an extremely gendered country. I could see that my parents didn’t really abide by the usual gender norms and they were just fine and they didn’t try to suffocate my natural tendencies either. They never told me to ‘act like a girl’ or be a certain way because of my gender. For that alone, I shall always be grateful to them. And I think my lack of respect and sometimes acknowledgement of gender roles and gender norms come across quite strongly both in my personality and my writing. And this is just my blood-related family, my partner who is also a writer inspires me a lot, and we’ve fought a lot of homophobia and racism to be together. And as you know, these are also recurring themes in my work. 

I mention poetry because it is a constant presence in your stories, from Iranian modernist poets like Forough Farrokhzad to the decadent Romantics like Lord Byron. I feel like I know the answer to this question, but has poetry been a source of solidarity and nourishment for you as a writer? Has it been influential in fostering your own sense of queer identity?

You do know the answer indeed and it is, ‘yes!’. I cannot imagine my life without poetry. My own poetry and as well as other people’s poetry has definitely strengthened me both as a writer and an individual. Audre Lorde is right, for marginalised voices, poetry is a necessity. A method for reclaiming power, and for me it has also been cathartic and inspiring. Also, from a technical point of view, I believe, even prose writers need to learn poetry and read poetry even if they don’t have the desire or urge to write it. Poetry is where language can be at its most polished, its most beautiful, and its most revolutionary. I do not trust writers who say they have no interest in poetry. Poetry is an artform that needs to be understood and engaged with, even if not deployed, if one wants to be any good at literature. 

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bedoone onvan/untitled, by Kiyaan Abadan

Staying with poetry a bit, I’d like to finish – if you can possibly bear it – with a rather boring question about form.  Could you tell me about the role these different forms of writing perform for you, as both writer and reader? How does the process of creation differ across short stories and poetry? Are their things you can say in one, not easily accommodated by the other?

This is not a boring question at all! Quite the opposite. 

For me writing short stories and poetry are two very different modes of being. My poetry comes naturally, effortlessly, almost how Wordsworth defines it as a spontaneous overflow of emotion, except that for me there is no ‘tranquillity’ when I’m writing it. My poetry erupts, whereas that is not the case at all with my short stories. I meticulously plot my short stories before writing them. I have an idea, I know exactly what I want. I know the characters, the setting, the protagonist, even the dialogues. I have it all in my head first. Whereas with a poem, I have no idea where it’s taking me, a poem has its own force, direction, and destination, so I just go with it and I know it will take me somewhere cathartic, whereas with my short stories, I tell them exactly where to take me so I have a more active role with them. 

Thanks so much for talking to me! I hope that wasn’t too painful.

Thank you for your thought-provoking and intelligent questions. It was a pleasure to answer them. 

The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories is published by Muswell Press and will be available to purchase here from the 2nd April.

In praise of strangeness
Wednesday, 08 April 2020 05:46

In praise of strangeness

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock writes in praise of a working-class poetics that revels in richness and strangeness, and includes a strange and rich poem taken from her forthcoming collection with Culture Matters, In Need of Saints.

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives… As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas. – from Poetry Is Not a Luxury, by Audre Lord.

Each time I read the above the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and my pulse sprints just that little bit quicker. Sister Outsider, the collection of essays and speeches in which I first encountered “Poetry is Not a Luxury” was published way back in 1984, and yet its radical message has resonance and relevance that still outstrips most of what is written in defence of poetry today. This is both a testament to Lorde’s legacy as an activist and a writer, and a slightly depressing comment on the state of poetry and poetry discourse in the twenty-first century.

Almost by accident, over the last couple of years I’ve found myself an increasingly vocal participant in this discourse. My own erratic contributions have centred around the myriad ways in which working-class participation in poetry is policed; the ways in which our exclusion is engineered, our voices and ideas homogenised, defanged and defused. I’ve written at length on the importance of recognising our right to poetry; that poetry is ours, its art emerging of necessity from the economic conditions in which we find ourselves, from this climate of precarity, apprehension and threat. Poetry’s mode of production is fitted for lives mired in unlovable labour, anxiety and deprivation. It’s portable, it’s cheap, it communicates in flashes and fragments, moments or phrases pulled from the true. It functions as both an expression of and an escape from all that besets us. It is radiant and necessary.

You’d be amazed, or maybe you wouldn’t, by the number of people who take issue with this definition of poetry. Can you eat a fucking poem? A friend of mine asked. Is poetry going to feed the meter or wash my clothes or pay my bus fare? No, of course not. A poem doesn’t belong to the same order of things as a jacket potato or a five pound note. It won’t satisfy your hunger, but it does provide a language in which to describe being hungry, in which to expose and to challenge the political and economic conditions that keep you hungry. Poetry is a resource for those without recourse. It is a space for those whose struggles and sufferings are exiled from quotidian language. It points to the deficiencies and failures of the systems that administer us. It’s the one place we get to define who and what we are, a place where we are visible, present, where our experiences enter and infiltrate English on our terms. Daily discourse doesn’t allow for this.

This is why poetry matters to me. As far as I’m concerned, this is the point of poetry. Since about 2016, as I began to refine this argument, to test its weight out there in the world, I have been lucky enough to meet with and share poetry across various cohorts of working-class writers. These experiences have been some of the most valuable and nourishing of my creative life. And yet, I find that even among my colleagues and comrades I’m continuously butting heads about what poetry is and what it's for.

The biggest bone of contention has been this notion of accessibility, specifically the notion of accessibility constructed as some kind of absolute and unassailable moral category, in violent opposition to a parallel tradition of academic elitism. I take issue with the idea that my work should strenuously enact this kind of accessibility, that it has an ethical obligation to communicate in “the language of the people”. Such an idea is disingenuous and patronising in the extreme. Poetry simply isn’t speech. Whether you’re talking about Attila the Stockbroker or J.H. Prynne, poetry is crafted, tailored and shaped; refined and heightened, larded or stripped. Poetry is deliberate, each line transmits tension, intention and meaning. To pretend otherwise is to deny the discipline in what we do, to be afraid to call ourselves artists, to effectively edit ourselves out of art. Besides which, who says that working-class people must find poetic complexity off-putting? Who says we should not be stimulated and provoked by difficulty? That our experiences and ideas do not demand and facilitate strange and complex registers of language?

To accept this is inherently impoverishing to poetry. I have come to believe that the onus should not be on working-class creators to limit their field of expression, but that access – that is full cultural participation – is better achieved by bringing pressure to bear on the institutions and funding bodies driving this perceived dichotomy to implement real, radical systemic change in the way resources are allocated, in the way that poetry is taught, and to the provision of not merely equal but fair opportunities for creative cultural contribution. Poetry isn’t accessible or inaccessible, but our current educational system operates a hidden curriculum that manipulates and limits working-class imagination, telling those from the margins what is and isn’t for them, what parts of poetry they have a right to partake of, practice and enjoy.

Staking radical political claims upon rendering individual creative projects accessible is seductive. It’s seductive because it’s easy, a kind of cop-out that avoids engaging the deep systemic and structural inequalities inherent in the publication and dissemination of poetry, and in language itself. To be poor, for example, and to be marginalised, is to find yourself everywhere described, relentlessly recorded and administered, spoken of, but never to, figuring not as persons but as problems within the apparatus, language, and collective imagination of the state. Daily discourse serves to elide or to invisibilise grim material reality; stock phrases reduce and dehumanise you; bland bureaucracy circumscribes your testimony, inhibits and restricts you. You are failed by language, by the sterile functionality of commonplace language encounters. We might be accustomed to thinking of words as tools for expression, but more often than not they mediate and mask, filter and constrain; they neutralise potential threat, they blunt language’s capacity for affective moral witness. So it is no longer enough to say I am cold, I am hungry. Those words have lost their meaning, their ability to shock people into awareness. To expose what ordinary language obscures requires strangeness and hybridity; new phrases, new ways of saying to retune attention toward human suffering.

The continual backlash against richness and complexity in poetry both frustrates and perplexes me. To be dexterous with language, to force it into strange conjunctions, is to feel a little less at its mercy; to accelerate at warp speed away from the diminishing institutional lingo of government departments, and the easy dismissive stereotyping of popular parlance. It is to escape the narrative demands placed on me by a world that has asked me every day for the last eighteen years to account for myself, my mental state and my experiences in a vocabulary unfit for the task; to dilute my perceptions, thoughts and feelings to a linear stream of commonplaces, commonplaces that have no room for creativity, inventiveness, ambiguity or élan. It makes no sense to me to use the words, phrases and formulations of the systems that harass and hound me to tackle those systems. It would bring me no joy, it would offer me no release, and most importantly of all, it wouldn’t do a thing to redress the stupid, stupefying force of those systems. We must recognise our right to poetry, to all poetry, as both writers and readers, but as working-class activists we must also pursue a radical imperative towards polyvocality, complexity and richness.

I do not mean by this that poetry has room only for baroque multi-clausal psycho-dramas, but that our definition of what working-class poetry is and can encompass be expanded to include ways of using language that deviate from the expected and accessible; that we do not decry as “inauthentic” or manoeuvre out of our communities and publishing cohorts working-class voices that approach poetry in difficult or unconventional ways. It seems to me to be untenable – and yes even “elitist” – to insist working-class creators conform to and perform one monolithic vision of working-class identity, cutting ourselves off in self-policing enclaves away from wider cultural conversations about the practice of our art. Elitist, and monstrously self-defeating. Inverted snobbery is still snobbery, and professing some kind of political bias against the beautiful, intricate or challenging is erecting a massive wall between yourself and much that is nourishing, interesting and inspiring. 

If we begin by taking issue with the ways in which working-class voices are allowed to express themselves through poetry, we end by adjudicating on what are authentic and acceptable subjects for working-class poems. It is true that a great deal of what finds its way into print says nothing to us about our lives, but is that really to say that a working-class poetics is a poetics that consciously and continuously engages with one very specific material and economic reality? Is there no room in our conception of working-class poetics for poems about mountains, stars, the sea, quirks of nature, kinks in history, penguins, flowers, Carmelite lace? In denying ourselves and our poetries those things, don’t we allow their imaginative colonisation by intellectual and economic power elites, their ways of seeing and knowing the world? I don’t want to rid poetry of the view from a steep and windswept hill. I just wish that view wasn’t monopolised by people whose vision is tinted by a security and a certainty me and mine will never possess. We have so much to say about beauty, our sense of it is urgent and acute, bound about as it is by the pressures and privations of our daily lives. Say what you like about what I do, but when Fran Lock looks at a sunset you fucking know about it.

More than all of this, though, I write in praise of a working-class poetics that revels in richness and strangeness because I believe the subjects of my poems warrant and deserve that level of attention and intensity. I’ve fought hard to bring these landscapes into print, and to defend my vision of these places and these people as beautiful and good. Most don’t look at squats and doss houses and rusty caravans and council estates and flyovers and petrol station forecourts and muddy rec grounds as sites of and occasions for beauty. They’re wrong. These were my places, my people, and they’ve just as much right to intelligent, nuanced and textured language as anything or anyone else. By this practice they are lifted and cherished. Richness is an act of remembrance, preservation, grieving, a radical act of love.

Homobonus in Primark

by Fran Lock

where will it end? the long-sleeve t-shirts
sleep, all folded over themselves like bats.
black lycra’s pirate sinew stretched to slack.
and tubes of ruined wool relax and lose
their shape. sleeves wear the gape empty
snakes. disfigured fabrics frayed in heaps.
a woman shaking out the prissy shapes
of a summer blouses. a hanger’s embittered
caress. for two pound ten! each pleat
a gauntlet of skirmished thread, rough to
the touch. it costs so little! the woman said.
impossible pasture of rags, dear god! it costs
so very much. where will it end? i stroke
the mesh, the weft, the weave, from cheviot to
chiffon-cling. grope a glut of sturdy twills.
my hands surge out across an odyssey
of cotton, serge. and batiste gowns are
grown in rows like off-white heads of
lettuce. crisp and sleek. and underfoot,
the scattered wits of covered buttons. look!
it’s in the sale! adrenaline and penny pinch.
cash canters horselessly between the heels.
hemlines. oh, i have loved the cambrics
and the calicos, the way a seam will meet
like steadfast hands in payer. i have loved
the self-important bombazines and obsolete
brocades, stood in satin-transfix running
a bolt of blue charmeuse through my hands
like a live fish. but no, not like this. no,
not this way. the woman who sewed
this blouse, this dress, her lungs are diseased
heirlooms huffing dust; her shoulders cramped
askew. not like this, a child in a stocking
of sweat with eyes as dull and flat as coins,
his name a smudge on a label. the day
that factory became a dirt red funnel
for human grief. it’s just so cheap, dirt
cheap! yes, dirt. your cambrics, buckrams
heresies. and what’s it worth, a mewling
life? how many assiduous stitches, tucked
and running? in lamé gold is interwoven -
sweet secret vein through common cloth.
as pain pursues its jagged course, in every
shirt you smooth and touch.

Note: Being the Patron Saint of tailors and businessmen, Homobonus provides an ethical exemplar for commercial life: scrupulously honest, and using his fortune to help those in need. Primark use sweatshop labour. In 2013 one of their factories in Dhaka collapsed killing and trapping hundreds of workers. At a subsequent demonstration in Dhaka by factory workers in 2015, police opened fire on grieving protestors. Primark avoided paying over 9 billion in corporation tax this year. They are still open for business. This is not okay.