We Couldn’t Do What You Do Here
The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life
By Jasmin Darznik
Reviewed by Persis Karim
When I was a girl of fifteen, I could not imagine myself in my aunt’s shoes. My American childhood was full of opportunities for sports, education, and even teenage romance, while hers was cut short by her marriage at the age of sixteen to a man nearly twenty years her senior. Although
When my aunt finally immigrated to the
So, when I read an early draft of a chapter of The Good Daughter and learned of Jasmin Darznik’s mother’s plight as a child-bride, I immediately recognized the story. Darznik’s mother was married off at age thirteen, and she gave birth to a daughter. To secure her freedom from her abusive husband, she was forced to relinquish custody—an experience she had kept secret until Darznik made the dramatic discovery, after her father’s death, of a photograph that showed her mother in her previous life:
The girl in [the photograph] was my mother, Lili, and though she couldn’t be older than fourteen, someone had rimmed her eyes with kohl and darkened her mouth with a lipstick so deep it looked black in the picture. Her dress was satin, [fitting] awkwardly where a wedding veil skimmed her body. The man at her side was not my father. I’d never seen him before. He wore a gray fedora with a tuxedo and his right hand encircled my mother’s waist with surprisingly elegant fingers.
Sympathetically narrated, The Good Daughter tells a complex story. Darznik, an immigrant herself, pieces together her history as the descendant of a long line of females who had to wrestle with their identities as women and Iranians. Unlike her foremothers, though, Darznik is able to make and fulfill her own destiny. Rather than frame The Good Daughter as the potentially sentimental story of finding “liberation” in
“If you want to know my story…you have to know about Avenue Moniriyeh, about your grandmother Kobra and your grandfather Sohrab, and what
After Darznik discovers the photograph, her mother sends her a series of cassette tapes, in which she tells of the experiences that shaped her life. She begins with Darznik’s grandmother, the alluring Kobra, the youngest of her great-grandmother Pargol’s nine children. At the age of eleven, Kobra is sent to a school that prepares girls to become professional seamstresses. This is unusual: during this period, prior to World War II and well before
Everything changes because of Kobra’s brother Al-Ahmad’s gambling. One night, to pay off his significant losses, he offers his sister’s hand in marriage. Kobra is married to Sohrab, a young man eager to produce a male heir to carry on his family name—even as he continues to pursue Simin, an older, more elegant woman who is twice divorced and unable to bear children. Kobra duly produces the heir, as well as a daughter, Lili, who follows in her mother’s footsteps: she too becomes a child-bride, not out of choice, but because of a patriarchal system that gives girls few other options.
Although Iranian-American writers have published a plethora of memoirs during the last decade, The Good Daughter is different. It paints a detailed picture of women’s lives in pre-1979, pre-revolutionary
She reached for the handkerchief. She could hear the women on the other side of the door, whispering noisily to one another. She slipped off the bed, clutching the silk handkerchief between her fingers as she went. The fibers of the rug itched terribly, but she did not dare move. Kazem lowered himself onto her again, and when the pain tore straight up through to her belly and she opened her mouth to cry he grabbed the fabric from her fingers and pressed it firmly over her mouth. Time seemed to stop then, to slacken and dissolve and recede, but she knew it was over when at last he thrust the square of fabric between her legs and rose from the floor.
We in the West tend either to discount or condemn all things Iranian, including the treatment of women. However, this scene is a reminder that for women of Darznik’s mother’s generation, Iranian or not, marriage and domestic life were riddled with oppressive and difficult circumstances. Darznik names the terrible reality of domestic violence, yet she also depicts women’s struggles to maintain their dignity and self-respect and bears witness to their strength and tenacity.
Lili’s father intervenes on her behalf and secures her a divorce. She finds a kind of freedom—but being a divorced woman in
Growing up in the small town of
My mother conjured her often … the daughter who stayed by her mother’s side, the daughter who knew not to wander off by herself. I still believed in her back then. I believed she could steal my mother away from me. The Good Daughter terrified me, and my mother counted on that terror to keep me safe.
The threat of the “good daughter” provides Darznik with a narrative thread back to
Very slowly, I began to understand that when my mother had sheltered me so fiercely as a child and then later as a young woman it was because of this daughter, the daughter she’d left in
As Darznik listens repeatedly to her mother’s tapes, she is able to fill in the gaps in her mother’s life-story—and thus in her own. Although many of her questions are still unanswered, she understands that the truth is a sore spot in her mother’s life:
I called my mother once, intending to ask her questions about Sara—how it had felt to leave her behind in Iran, whether they’d spoken in recent years, and if she wished she could see Sara again—but the truth had made us shy of each other and when we spoke on the phone afterward it was as if all her words had already been spent and she just couldn’t tell me any more.
For Darznik and her mother, discovering the truth requires a painful confrontation with lives suspended in time even while time moves forward. The process of telling the story is redemptive for both. In the end, Darznik feels tenderness toward her mother and curiosity about her lost sister, whom she hopes one day to meet. Only then will she be able to completely fill in the gaps.
Darznik’s book is exquisitely crafted, demonstrating the interwovenness of her own emerging life story and her mother’s; it reads more like a novel than nonfiction. Even though her confessional narrative remains incomplete, it serves an immediate, important purpose. She would not have been able to write this book in
Persis Karim teaches literature and creative writing at