Sussan Deyhim Dramatizes the Poetry of Forough Farrokhzad in “The House is Black”

During a rehearsal at The Wallis, Sussan Deyhim is running through a scene with director Robert Egan, dramatizing the poem “The Wind-Up Doll” written by Forough Farrokhzad. Deyhim recites each line with a sharp staccato, her body jerks to mimic the rhythm of her voice:

One can be like a wind-up doll
and look at the world with eyes of glass…
a body filled with straw
inside a felt-lined box,
at every lustful touch
for no reason at all
I can cry out,
“I am so happy!”

She pauses on a deadpanned smile. Egan suggests Deyhim slow the down the text even more; channel the specificity of the language; the pain of the moment, “Like those women felt with Harvey Wrinstein and Charlie Rose,” he said, turning my way. “Don’t put that in the article.”

It seems, at first, a melodramatic interpretation, but it resonates with the times, and Farrokhzad’s: Born in Tehran in 1935; a fiery, free-spirited girl who climbs trees, gets into fights, and challenges her brothers to stand-up pissing contests while enduring her military father’s endless tirades about men being men; women being women. She seeks refuge in books; and poetry becomes her love. At 16 she marries, and has a son, but as she begins publishing her poems in magazines and traveling in risqué literary circles, her marriage fails. Love affairs rekindle her wounded spirit, and she moves to Europe to study film, returning to her homeland to make an award-winning documentary film. She adopts a child from a leper colony, and publishes several collections of poetry. As in her life, her work often challenges female stereotypes and shocked the political establishment. She dies in a car accident at the age of 32.

Through her words and images, Deyhim’s The House is Black attempts to capture the drama and influence of Forough — as she is most commonly referred, like Cher, or Oprah, or Beyoncé — one of the most under-examined international literary feminist figures of the modern age during a limited performance at The Wallis in Beverly Hills, which closes February 3.

“It’s a miracle to put this project together,” Deyhim later says, “because here — it’s always more challenging to stir interest around an unknown poet. She’s very known in Iran, but it’s a challenge here to convince people, “We’ve got to do this!”

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JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: How did you convince The Wallis to do this?

SUSSAN DEYHIM: This started four years ago. I really wanted to work with a contemporary Iranian literary figure. There’s a stereotypical aspect of looking at the Middle East as an archaic figure, either you’re a Sufi or you’re a mythological persona from an ancient masterpiece — all of which are fine. But when you have a country with incredibly dynamic, young, contemporary visionaries of artists and filmmakers and writers and political activists, you have to wonder, “Why are we not presenting ourselves in the way that we are living now?”

I created the visuals and presented it to Farhang Foundation and I said, “This is not something I can take to an American or European foundation. They don’t know who she is. They don’t know why they should care. You have to help me put this together.” And they’re not producers, they’re cultural presenters. But they trusted between me and Forough — everybody loves Forough — and I demo’d it, and they helped with a grant so I could put the skeleton together.

I ran into Kristy Edmunds, the artistic director of Royce Hall at UCLA — she’s a visionary and a feminist and a wonderful human being — and I said, “I’m doing this piece and I need an American figure to step in who will understand the importance of this projects. And she said, “Let’s workshop it.” She was immediately into it, and we gave it a residency period and shot all the visuals and presented it at Freud Hall as a work-in-progress. People really liked it, but my American friends said, “We don’t know her enough. You need to weave in a little more of her story.”

But I wanted to stay away from a linear narrative, and stay in the abstraction. And I thought, this is a really big responsibility I put on my shoulder to work with an artist that I really love. So I decided to stay away from my own aesthetic. I met Robert Egan many years ago through a common friend…and we both are good friends with my lighting designer, Anne Militello. Ann told him about the project and we met and really liked each other. I told him, “I really don’t want to turn this into a theater piece, but we need some narrative to introduce who she was and weave it into all the poetics.” Robert stepped in, and we created this woven narrative of her life, her personality and her journey into the whole abstract visual poetics. We then premiered it at Royce Hall, and then I took it to Chapel Hill University.

It came to The Wallis, because Paul Crewes (the theater’s artistic director) came to see the show, and I said to him, “I really want a second presentation in Los Angeles.” It took him a day and he came back to me and said, “I really want do this.” There is so much content here that is about now, and it’s okay to be theatrical when you have a reason for it. Then I lent myself to Robert’s theatrical experience. This is the complete version, and it’s a good version to present Forough.

What was your relationship with or introduction to Forough and her work?

Well she died when I was two or three, but in my generation — I went to a high school that was quite difficult — literature mattered. So I was aware of her persona, and my mother’s generation, my grandmother’s, they really liked her. There was no one who was so in pain, but such a trouble maker. She was such a perfect character that this contemporary, iconic figure, having the art, having the chops, having the vision, and enduring the suffering that she endured because of being an eroticist in that context. She and Nima Yooshij, these are the most important modernists of the linguistic aspect of Farsi. They really mattered because they not only tried something, but it worked. The poetry works, and it’s standing. So they became the torch carriers, the torch keepers, of something that was very challenging, and especially for Forough as a woman.

I sinned a sin all filled with pleasure
wrapped in an embrace, warm and fiery
I sinned in a pair of arms
that were vibrant, virile, violent.

In that dim and quiet place of seclusion
I looked into his eyes brimming with mystery
my heart throbbed in my chest all too excited
by the desire glowing in his eyes.

In that dim and quiet place of seclusion
as I sat next to him all scattered inside
his lips poured lust on my lips
and I left behind the sorrows of my heart.

-Excerpt from “Sin”
translated by Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak

Not only in literature and poetry, but Forough was also a filmmaker as well…

Yes, when she lost the custody of her son because she wrote this poem called “Sin,” and her husband, who was in another smaller city in southern Iran accused her of not being a good mother and ended up getting custody of the child, she ended up in a psychiatric hospital. She left Iran to Rome and studied film editing. When she came back to Iran, she met her muse and lover, Ebrāhim Golestan, who was a major intellectual and filmmaker and writer, and she started editing for him.

The story behind The House is Black, it was brought to Golestan to do a documentary on the lepers’ colony and he said he didn’t have the time. Forough was really urging to do something interesting, and she went and did this incredible film. It’s an astounding journey, not only in terms of the cinematography, but the human content; the metaphoric aspects of it. It’s really one of the most amazing documentaries of its time — no matter where you’re from. I’m using excerpts from that piece — snippets from the documentary — and then delving into her different poems and weaving a narrative about the story of her life; the different layers of her life and her vision.

Around 1964, Forough had really solidified her voice in the modern Iranian art and literary scene, but was still challenged by living under the guise of her lover.

She had a turmoil with her lover, the man she lived with while he was married to another woman living on the same street, and the times were open enough to say, “I’m doing this.” But she just was in turmoil with him. I think deep down, she hated being supported by a man. She hated that she was in a love affair with a man who had a wife and a family as much as everyone was adventurous, she doesn’t come from a place of wanting a man’s dominance — and Ebrāhim wasn’t dominant, they had a mutually passionate relationship — but she wasn’t making her money, and she wasn’t being the woman she wanted to be in terms of independence. Did some woman even exists like that at that time in Iran? Someone who could live off her poetry? That didn’t exist back then.

It rarely exists now.

Exactly. But being such an aware, forward-thinking person, she was always in turmoil. The rumor has it that they had this confrontation, like a fight, and she was in this very emotional state when she goes to visit her mother and said something to her mother about her death. It wasn’t a suicide, but was trying to avoid a school bus and ran into a tree. It was an accident.

There’s such a riveting story in this short life that she lived. How do you begin to know at what point in which to start—or was her film, The House is Black, provide that starting point to tell the story of who Forough was as an artist, a feminist and as a person?

My own work has been extremely personal and against the stream for all my artistic career, so I recognize what aspect of the work — their vision — is sacred. It’s the poetry — and with the poetry, you can’t bring it to prose. It has to remain poetry, and the aspects that are reality, the stuff of life. One of the reasons I have this whole visual component of the show is because I thought the words alone, especially in translation, would not be too difficult to translate because they’re really about us.

It’s not just her story. It’s the story of all the women before her, before me, who paved the way for someone like her to even exist, to even be able to say, “I’m just going to say it.”

It’s about a great era in Iranian literature and sensibility…where a lot of time and energy was spent on modernism — and the women were really, really active in that time — and all these interesting poets and literary people, painters; they’d get together and they spoke and exchanged ideas. There was partying going on. Big time. There were discussions about what was betraying the country and Westernization — and these are the godmothers and godfathers of everything that’s interesting coming out of Iran right now in cinema, literature and visual arts. This was the crowd.

So we really had to travel through different mediums to tell the story in a way that really navigates poetry and prose and storytelling; the cosmic vibration and the whole landscape. It really is very, very super textured piece.

It sounds like you’ve taken on quite a task with this.

It’s so much, but it really is really beautiful. [Deep exhale.] Never again. Never again. [She laughs.]

But I’m so happy to have done this piece. It’s also a little bit the story of my life, because I am not a popular figure in my own culture. I have humongous fans in the intellectual youth culture, but I have decided that life is not long enough for pleasing everyone. It’s just the way it goes — and I think Forough knew that. If I were going to use a language to speak out to my culture, to the culture here…the core message is: “Don’t put me in a box.” I am a genie, and I have my ways of getting out of that box; stagnancy. So she and I, and what I’m saying through her language, is also something that I would say if I were a poet.

I told my mother: This is the end.
Before you know it, it shall happen.
Let’s send my obituary to the papers.

Salaam strange loneliness.
I concede this room to you because
black clouds always are prophets
of new purifying verses,
and in a candle’s martyrdom lies a resplendent secret
that its last and tallest flame grasps.

Let us believe,
let us believe in the dawn of the cold season.
Let us believe in the ruin of imaginary gardens,
in idle inverted scythes,
in confined seeds.

Look how it snows…

-Excerpt from Let Us Believe in the Dawn of the Cold Season
translated by Sholeh Wolpé

Were there poems that you included in this work that really resonate with you?

All of the poems that I’m using were the ones that I thought represent or saying something that I have a personal relationship as well. But the ones I love most are the last two: “Another Birth” and “Let Us Believe in the Dawn of the Cold Season”that’s a masterpiece; absolutely profound. There are so many deep poems, mature poems — for her age — and the last one was published after she died. I decided with our literary scholar, Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, to stick with these last two because you can hear how her language has grown, her confidence; staying away from judgement and the obligations of society and letting it all completely function on the poetic level.

There is another amazing scholar, Farzaneh Milani, who is a very important feminist scholar whose work I studied — she has a fantastic book Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers and Words Not Swords: Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement, about the history of feminism in Iran and last year, she wrote a book about the letters and the life of Forough with Ebrāhim.

There’s a really big responsibility in editing a poet, or any literary artist. And I have Ahmad — if I can’t trust him, then… [she trails off, throwing up her hands]. So we sat down, and I asked him, which of the poems represents the essence of her eroticism, which is the essence of her political writing, which is the essence of her existentialist writing — so we really talked a lot. Then we narrowed it down. Then we talked more, and it was a lot of time spent. It was done with a lot of mindfulness.

Then Robert came into the picture as a dramaturge, and we went through it again with him: “What is she saying?” “What are we saying?” “Why are we using this?” “Is this translating?” “What is lost in translation?” “What is found in translation?” So it was a real process and conscious caring of a poet who is not here; she has no one to defend her, and her muse is a prominent person, but in his late 90s. So we relied on illuminated literary figures from Iran, and I’m confident that we’re not violating anything that she would not want. We just know too much.

You mentioned earlier that this has been so much work, and never again will you take this piece on. But once you have done all this work — the research, the commitment to the storytelling and all of that — is it easy to just let it go?

There is the artist thing — the creation — and then there’s world out there — the promoters, the artifice of what the time wants and who’s the star — who’s going to sell 500 tickets; 2000 tickets. People are always doing the same shows at the same theaters…it’s just this bug in society. Then after you do this amazing piece you have work with promoters and agents; this is way too big in scale to do this again, and way too time consuming. I do have a lot of other things in mind that I want to do. But the most important thing is that the piece was done at Royce Hall, it’s at The Wallis, and then it’s going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (March 10) as their first multimedia project. Hey, that is not too bad.

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