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In an opinion column for CNN in September 2022, Marina Nemat declared: “I would never have believed it if someone had told me that, in 2022, I would be lying awake at night in my bed in Canada, thinking of innocent young women still being beaten to death in Iran because of being ‘immoral.’” In the winter of 1979, at the age of 16, Nemat was arrested, tortured and sentenced to death for writing articles in her school newspaper, for speaking out. She spent two years in Tehran’s notorious Evin political prison. She arrived in Canada in 1991. Nemat is the bestselling author of two books: Prisoner of Tehran: a memoir; and After Tehran: a life reclaimed. Today she teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto.
In the wake of mass demonstrations, Nemat continues to speak out, a fact that doesn’t surprise people who have read her story. Her response is the natural reply from a life of struggle but unbreakable conviction.
Proust believed the answers to certain questions could reveal an individual’s true nature, their true story. The courage, the impossible peril, of Nemat’s story cannot be fully apprehended in her answers to Proust’s questionnaire. But the urgency of her call can be.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I don’t believe there is such thing as perfect happiness in this world. From what I have seen and experienced, people go through various traumas, which leave scars that sometimes,
even after a long while, open and bleed. And there is no cure for it. The best we can do is to learn to manage the weight. And this can be done quite well, but it requires hard and constant attention. I believe that despite our traumas, pains and griefs, we can find moments of joy filled with light. For me, being in nature at my little cottage and spending time with my loved ones and my dog, going for walks and swimming, bring me happiness. I love standing by the lake and watching droplets of sunshine dance on the water.
What is your greatest fear?
I have experienced the agony of physical and psychological torture and being held captive in a prison where those in charge can do anything they want to you without ever being held accountable. I know how you’d feel if you believe that the whole world has forgotten you and doesn’t give a damn what will happen to you. All these scare me. I have also lived through war, and I find it terrifying when you know that bombs could fall out of the sky and destroy you, your home and the people you love. This also terrifies me.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
I hate myself when I get very angry.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Disregard for other people and their rights.
Which living person do you most admire?
There is no specific person. I admire lots of people. Anyone who speaks out against injustice.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Taking the time to be still and marvel at the beauty of the world.
What is your current state of mind?
At this very moment, I’m concerned about terrible injustices that are occurring in so many parts of the world, especially in the county of my birth, Iran.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
On what occasion do you lie?
I tell little white lies when I believe they can help people feel better.
What is the quality you most like in a person?
When and where were you happiest?
When I was a child at our cottage by the Caspian Sea in Iran.
Who are your favourite writers?
Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Emily Dickinson, Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, Abul-Qâsem Ferdowsi, Forugh Farrokhzad, Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov
Who is your hero of fiction?
Alice in Wonderland.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
All forgotten prisoners.
What is your motto?
I don’t have one.