Originally published in 1998, Women Without Men is a fascinating contemporary narrative about five Iranian women who break the mould of the heteropatriarchal society that perpetually confines women. It is not only a revolutionary novel that challenges the normative practice of gender policing and gendered politics in Iran–but Parsipur’s use of magical realism and Islamic imagery, as well as her impeccable writing also make the novel a feminist classic. Okay, I know, this post is supposed to be about Marjan Kamali’s The Stationery Shop–so let me move on.
I picked Kamali’s latest novel for Iran because I have heard a lot of Kamali who was born to Iranian parents in Turkey. She’s traveled extensively and lived in Kenya, Germany, Turkey, Iran, and the United States. Her multifaceted identity axiomatically complicates her positionality as an Iranian writer only, making The Stationery Shop the perfect novel for my project.
The novel tells a story of love, loss, grief, and rebirth. Although the focus is on the seventeen-year-old Roya and Bahram whose lives change after they run into each other at a stationery shop in Tehran, Kamali explores the various shapes and forms that love takes: passionate love, compassionate love, love for books, love for one’s homeland, queer love, and so forth.
The narrative moves back and forth in time, taking us to 1950s Tehran when PM Mohammed Massadegh was overthrown in the 1953 Iranian coup d’état. As fissures between pro-shah, pro-Massadegh, and pro-communist groups increase dramatically, the hope for democracy, equality, love, and a meaningful future is overthrown as well.
The difficulty of holding on to love in the midst of chaos and political rivalry is a recurrent theme in Anglophone and Farsi novels from Iran. Unfortunately, history has repeated itself more than once; one of the fundamental human needs, the right to be who you are and to choose whom you love has been overlooked in a divided society that has long grappled with coup attempts, protests, political and social conflicts, and ongoing violence (Isn’t it heartbreaking that this statement applies to the majority of the nations around the world?).
In this context, The Stationery Shop is not merely a love story; it is part of recorded history, a cautionary tale, if you will.
The plot tackles displacement, nostalgia, aging, the power of places and memories, highlighting the magical ways in which serendipity unfolds, despite the ongoing conflicts and violence. “Time is not linear but circular. There’s no past, present, future,” as our omniscient narrator finds the seventy-seven year-old Roya ruminating at the end, “Roya was the woman she was today and the seventeen-year-old girl in the Stationary Shop, always. […] The past was always there, lurking in the corners, winking at you when you thought you’d move on, hanging on to your organs from the inside.”
Some of my favorite quotes from The Stationery Shop:
Other Books to Read From Iran:
A Door Between Us by Ehsaneh Sadr (2020), Blackstone Publishing. ***I read an advance copy of this novel–you can read my reflection here.
The Girl from the Garden by Parnaz Foroutan (2015), Ecco.
Together Tea by Marjan Kamali (2013), Ecco.
Touba and the Meaning of Night (2006) (Tuba va ma’na-ye shab, 1990) by Shahrnush Parsipur, translated from the Persian by Havva Houshmand and Kamran Talattof, The Feminist Press at CUNY.
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (2003) ***I always suggest that RLT be read along with Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran, by Fatemeh Keshavarz (2007), which is a brilliant reaction/response to Nafisi’s memoir.