We conclude our week-long focus on an extraordinary book of essays with a review by Meg de Ronde from Amnesty International
Do you remember where you were when…?
I was 16. It was an ordinary morning, getting dressed in my school uniform. The television, with its heavy curved back, was on though. The TV was never on in the morning. But there were the Twin Towers, there was the smoke, there was that strange realisation a plane flew into a building.
Do you remember where you were when…?
I was 33. I’d left work early to have a beer with a friend. Work colleagues were calling me. I remember gulping back tears, mascara running down my face. We knew Muslim newcomers in Christchurch. They’d just arrived in New Zealand to start their lives fresh. We heard they were at the Mosque. I worked late into the night and then get very, very drunk.
Ghazaleh Golbakhsh, an Iranian-born New Zealander, has a lot to tell you. And god, do you want to listen. Her book of essays, The Girl from Revolution Road, is achingly familiar to me in parts. I know that girl doing sleepover calls with friends. Online dating is also a world I now understand. I recognise my values in hers as she points out the refugee crisis, the Iraq war, and the world-changing moments, 9/11, and March 15.
She has the self-deprecating wit of your favourite insta-influencer but she’s also a Fulbright scholar, a filmmaker, a PhD-holder. She’s one of those people who has an intimidating bio, that the publisher sends me with her book, but is also REALLY NICE. I know because I once shared a beer with her at a gathering of other interesting people. I didn’t have her bio on me at that stage so didn’t know to be quite so intimidated.
Currently, while reviewing The Girl From Revolution Road, I’m also reading Yasmina Khadra’s The Attack, a novel about the husband of a female suicide bomber. It is not light reading. I understand why it made such an impression on the friend who lent it to me. It too covers weighty topics. Centuries of political and religious conflict. Grief and violence. The extremes of human nature. And the hunt for truth. But through it all I couldn’t shake the male gaze of the author. His voice is one where a flush of anger in a woman’s cheeks “looks good on her”. Women are props for the anguish of the protagonist’s quest.
Gobakhsh’s voice is a welcome relief.
The opening essay of her book is a jumble of men’s tales that spill out of the first 10 pages. But already it’s a voice that feels familiar to me even though her initial narrative arcs are so far from my experience. She tells of the men fleeing war, living without protection in America, strapping explosives to their body in Iran. But she has a tender, shrewd hand with their stories. Her gaze is perceptive and focused outward. Her female characters are achingly real. This is her life, and the life of her loved ones, in all its rawness.
It seems pointed that I was reading her experiences of racist New Zealand on the day a white supremacist gunman was sentenced to life without parole for the murder of 51 people
Here is a woman who has faced trauma that is hard to imagine. But her touch is light and she still lets you see the beauty as she reflects on the night in Iran when her family are rounded up at a party by men with AK47s. The hindsight of a six-year-old’s observations of family and humour against a backdrop of History with a capital H. She has me smiling and laughing at her jokes on Iranian tea habits and make-up wearing, despite the quirks co-existing with her experiences of bombings just metres from her house.
But there is no mirth as she expertly brings her tale to a close. You are there now, with her. As she begins to show you the pain of memory and loss that displaced people carry. That their children carry. And that those of us who have never had to flee, struggle to understand.
She’s telling you a tale of horrific punishment dealt out to her loved ones years ago in Iran. But I know from my work that little has changed. Iran remains one of the most prolific users of the death penalty, even on kids. We’ve been campaigning alongside women’s rights activists who’ve been detained for their political activism. Our latest reports tell of widespread torture of detainees following protests in Iran in November 2019.
Her parents eventually fled their homeland, as so many Iranians did, to try to ensure their family could be free from oppression. But Golbakhsh’s point in telling her history is not to feed the ‘Iran bad, New Zealand good’ mantra. As she details, we have work to do in Aotearoa too.
It seems pointed that I was reading her experiences of racist New Zealand on the day a white supremacist gunman was sentenced to life without parole for the murder of 51 people. Speak fucking English another white supremacist says, cleverly disguised as a normal 30-something middle New Zealander in a fast-food joint. But that was the 1990s Meg, I hear you cry, we’re past all that. As people call Covid the Chinese virus. As politicians call Behrouz Boochani illegal. As a political candidate whose party is gaining momentum says his views intersect with that gunman who targeted a Mosque. She is us. And we made fun of her name and made her feel like crap because English wasn’t her first language. She is 38 and she’s tired of still experiencing it, she writes. My face burns with shame.
Golbakhsh’s work is rich with snippets of politics, history, pop-culture, psychology and film. Reading her work is like a wonderful dinner party (or an excellent first tinder date). She’s witty and vulnerable, not brash or self-involved. At times though, I would have liked her to linger more on her stories, allowing more detail to emerge and her ideas to be worked through.
Her reflections on representation of otherness in the essay ‘The Fawn in a Bubble’ are a welcome balance to her earlier light touch. She calls out the stereotypes and the focus on tragedy at the expense of any other narratives. Sometimes people forget, in their haste to recognise different experiences, all the fundamental aspects of humanity that do connect us. She talks about a play she saw in Auckland [editor’s note: Rendered, by Stuart Hoar], that othered Middle Eastern women. I saw that play and had felt a similar level of discomfort. But unlike Golbakhsh, I don’t have to carry the constant erosion of my identity that these representations result in.
In this collection of essays she has somehow managed to draw these different threads of her identity together. The tragedy co-exists with the banal. The persecution of Iranian women is faithfully told alongside the witty, independent women Iran has also bred. Golbakhsh’s love for New Zealand is as true as the racism she’s experienced.
The Girl from Revolution Road by Ghazaleh Golbakhsh (Allen & Unwin, $36.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.
*ReadingRoom reviews appear with the support of Creative NZ*
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