In PEN International Congress 2015 held in Quebec City, I met an amazing South African writer, lawyer and activist, Bettina Wyngaard. I was impressed by her intellect, strength and kindness. We talked about many things and she decided to interview me. This is what she wrote about our encounter. I felt exposed by what she had written, I decided to share it nevertheless. The Afrikaans version was published but she kindly sent me the English version which I will share with you here.
By Bettina Wyngaard
“If we have to say what writing is, we would have to define it essentially as an act of courage”-Cynthia Ozick
Loss and repression are themes that run like a golden thread through Ava Homa’s writing. This Iranian-born Kurdish author’s first anthology of short stories, Echoes from the Other Land, shines a sharply critical light on the repression women live with in modern day Iran.
Her writing is heart rending and evocative, probably more so because she is writing about a country that she left in 2007, knowing she would never be able to return. Every reader reads through the lens of their own expectations and experiences. Even though I consciously admonished myself to remain open to the stories and not to try to see the author in the stories, it was difficult to read Echoes and not experience a profound sense of the loss of home. Home is a word we use carelessly every day. I’m going home, I left something at home. For those who cannot go home, however, it is a loaded word.
Homa grew up in an Iran that was transformed by the Ruhollah Khomeini into a theocracy that repressed citizens and used legislation and divine rule to limit and extinguish any criticism of the regime. As member of the Kurdish minority, Homa experienced the intersectionality of discrimination based on race, gender, religion, culture and language at an early age. This experience appears to have had a lasting influence on her creative writing and her activism.
I spoke to her on the eve of her European tour, where her story Lullaby is being released in Germany and Italy. She has also completed a novel, Many Cunning Passages. Our conversation encompassed a wide range of topics :identity, creative writing, activism, memory, family and much more. She is a fascinating, eloquent conversationalist, with her finger firmly on the political pulse of what’s happening around her.
Homa was very firm about her identity; she’s a Kurd first and foremost. She does not identify as being Iranian. When I asked her why, she explained that Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq are being repressed in the same way as Kurds in Iran. Artificial geographic boundaries do not change the suffering they endure. Our conversation took place days after the attacks in Ankara, Turkey, where allegations were levelled that the government was behind the attacks on pro-Kurdish peace groups. This placed her words in a chilling perspective.
Homa currently lives in Los Angeles, but held the position of exiled writer in residence at George Brown University in Toronto, amongst others, where she taught creative writing. She holds an M.A in English from Iran, a further M.A. in Creative Writing obtained in Toronto, as well as a diploma in editing. She writes about the Kurdish condition for a number of publications, articles that are at the same time enlightening and frightening.
It’s almost impossible to listen to what Kurds are going through today without drawing parallels to the situation Black South Africans found themselves in during apartheid in South Africa. For example, Homa was not allowed to receive instruction at school in her mother tongue. All Kurdish children are compelled to be taught in Farsi, the official language and the language of the ruling majority. As expected, this leaves the Kurdish child at a significant disadvantage: they not only have to cope with new material, they have to do so in a language they are struggling to understand. They are then portrayed as being inferior if they do not excel academically. This is a stark reminder of the way in which Black South Africans were forced to receive instruction in Afrikaans, leading to the 1976 Soweto uprising. In Iran, however, the discrimination is in some ways worse, as Kurds are not even allowed to speak Kurdish to each other in public. There is a constant threat that some government agent will report citizens who speak Kurdish. Kurdish captives in Iranian jails are also not allowed to communicate in Kurdish.
Homa learned to write in Kurdish as a young adult, only to discover that the version of Kurdish they were allowed to speak at home, was a pale imitation of the rich language. She does all her writing in English. I can understand her refusal to write in Farsi as politically driven. She explains that her decision to write in English rather than Kurdish is to make her work more accessible to a larger audience. She wants the world to know what it means to be Kurdish, to be repressed and discriminated against based on your cultural identity.
The one topic Homa shied away from discussing was religion. She was quite happy to explain to me the difference between Suni Muslims and Shi’a Muslims, and that most Kurds are Suni Muslims. When I asked about her own religious beliefs, though, she clammed up. She knew that I’m active in church (we were both staying as guests of the Anglican bishop of Quebec), and she advanced that as reason for her reticence. I though afterwards that most traditional Christians would probably share her misgivings about my spirituality- my beliefs are simply too radically inclusive to be acceptable to many.
I wish I had told her that.
It was only afterwards, when I read through her short stories and articles, that I realised the extent to which ordinary Kurdish life is governed and repressed by religious rules. The Ruhollah claims a divine right to rule, and as such cannot be questioned or criticised. There are rigid dress codes to which people must adhere. There are strict social rules for how men and women may interact with each other. Just recently, for example, two Iranian bloggers were sentenced to 99 lashes each for the offence of shaking hands (at an international conference) with members of the opposite sex who are not directly related to them.
Homa’s fiction portrays a country where parties with alcohol are considered decadent and illegal. Small wonder then that she is suspicious of religion; she has witnessed it being used to repress people for too long. Kurdish Muslims are called najes (filthy) because they are not Shi’a Muslims, for instance.
Her entire family remained behind in Iran. As a young child, her father was arrested because he was found in possession of forbidden publications. At a time when most Kurds struggled to complete high school, her father had a master’s degree. I imagine that in itself must have been sufficient to paint a target on his back. For the two years that he was detained, they never knew what his fate was, where he was kept or even if he was still alive. Their only source of information was the radio, where every day a list of the names of executed prisoners were read out. For two years Homa, her mother and two younger brothers lived in limbo, constantly fearing that his name would be amongst those killed. When he was finally released, he came home a changed man, Homa says. He could no longer provide for his family, as he was listed by the security police as a dissident. I can only imagine how utterly soul destroying it must have been for a man to be unable to provide for his family in a paternalistic society.
Homa is visibly affected when she describes the scars of the lashes that was administered to her father- a reminder once again that not all scars are visible. Her father bore the physical scars, but for her and the rest of her family, there had been emotional scars, far more difficult to heal because they are not seen.
Self-immolation is disproportionately high amongst Kurdish women. For many, Homa explains, it is the only form of control they have over their bodies. Her activism in large part focuses on empowering these women. The organisation she works with, sends volunteers into the villages to raise awareness around a number of issues. This poses considerable risk to the volunteers, something that seems to weigh heavily on Homa’s mind. Contact is furthermore kept through the use of discussion forums where topical issues are discussed. Participation is anonymously. There is a risk that government agents will attempt to infiltrate these forums, and identify participants, says Homa. This is a risk the participants are willing to take, though.
My last question to her was whether she would ever return to Iran. “Only if I want to kill myself”, she answered.
The ease with which I could imagine her self-immolating scared me. She is eloquent, highly intelligent, in turn vulnerable and a seemingly unstoppable force, a caleidoscope of contradictions, a talented wordsmith and activist whom we will see and hear plenty more of. There is also a sense of being balanced on a knife edge, however. It doesn’t matter how much Homa tries to leave behind her bond to Iran, her writing, her activism, everything that seems to drive her is shaped in that arid land.
She reminds me of the lyrics of that well-known Leonard Cohen song “There is a crack in everything, that’s where the light gets in.”