We Couldn’t Do What You Do Here

The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life

By Jasmin Darznik

New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2011, 324 pp., $24.99, hardcover

 

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 Iran in the 1950s and 1960s, when my aunt was growing up, was a “modern” nation, women’s education and career prospects were limited. Arranged marriages of teenage girls, even in seemingly enlightened families, were not uncommon. My aunt’s generation of women was caught between tradition and modernity; mothers could imagine no life paths for girls other than marriage at an early age, and the wise parent looked out for her daughter’s prospects.

When my aunt finally immigrated to the US in the late 1960s, it was under a cloud of controversy: she was taking her four children out of the country, after seeking a divorce from an abusive and violent husband. She came here alone and raised her children by herself, in her new country. Years later, at a party she hosted for my elderly father, she told me how angry she still was at him and my uncle for failing to prevent her parents from marrying her off to the man who had robbed her of happiness. Because she had been an intelligent, beautiful, and flirtatious girl, her parents had believed that marriage was the best way to calm her restless spirit.

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 America, Darznik reveals a more important truth: that any individual woman’s narrative is deeply embedded in those of the women who came before her. She suggests this in the epigraph to the first chapter, in which she quotes her mother:

“If you want to know my story…you have to know about Avenue Moniriyeh, about your grandmother Kobra and your grandfather Sohrab, and what Iran was then. Because we couldn’t just do what you do here—forget your name and who you belong to. Our lives were not like that. No.”

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 Iran’s rapid modernization in the 1960s, girls live in their fathers’ homes until marriage and rarely receive any formal, secular education. However, Kobra is deemed by her mother to be less marriageable than her other children because she is the youngest, who will have the responsibility of caring for her aging parents.

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 Iran, which are usually assumed to be either unimportant or too painful to discuss. Here is Darznik’s description of her mother’s wedding night with the feckless and cruel Kazem Khorrami, an experience that prefigures the rest of Lili’s short-lived first marriage:

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 Iran in those years is tantamount to being a prostitute, so her father sends her to Germany, where her brother is studying. There, she begins her first “remaking,” setting out to discover her abilities and strengths in a country and culture far different from the one in which she was born. She meets and marries Johann Darznik, Jasmin’s father, who follows Lili back to Iran, where he becomes her damad farangi (foreign groom)—an unusual sight in Iran, even though the country is rapidly westernizing. Lili reinvents herself as a married woman. After the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 and the start of the revolution, as Iran is thrown into tumult, and anti-Western feeling is at a fever-pitch, Lili and Johann emigrate to California seeking a better life for their young daughter and themselves.

Growing up in the small town of Tiburon, California, where her family owns and operates a motel, Darznik often hears about the “good daughter”:

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 Iran and her mother’s early life. Her discovery that her mother really did have another daughter, Sara, is revelatory:

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 Iran and had never been able to forget in America. The Good Daughter.

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 Iran: self-disclosure in autobiography and memoir is still highly discouraged there, especially for women. Her revelation of her family’s painful secret opens a window into Iran’s modern history. The Good Daughter testifies to Iranian women’s resilience and their amazing capacity to carry on in the face of difficult choices and circumstances—which persist into the present.

Persis Karim teaches literature and creative writing at San Jose State University. She is the editor of Let Me Tell You Where I Have been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora (2006).

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