Golnoosh Nour’s debut collection of short stories takes its title from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance based in Tehran. To paraphrase the available information on its own website, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance is primarily responsible for restricting access to any media that violates Islamic ethics or promotes values counter to those of the Iranian Revolution. For a book that traffics in nuanced attention to the Iranian queer experience, not only within Iran but across Europe, it is a provocative title. This collection is, however, so much more than merely provocative.
There are thirteen stories in all, opening with ‘The Ministry of Guidance’, in which the protagonist, an aspiring young poet named Sogol, must visit the “inexplicably intimidating” Ministry to enquire whether her collection of poems is to be approved for publication. No easy task, but Sogol’s mother reassures her: “We have already censored all the naughty things in your poems… It’s not difficult, just annoying.” From the start, then, this collection has something to say about the negotiation between the forces of ideal individual expression and those of lived state scrutiny. Nour’s approach to this theme is typically nuanced: there is no dark, carceral ‘closet’ in which her characters are trapped, but myriad acts of daily evasion, disguise, resistance and feint. These acts are figured in multiple ways, as play and as bravura performance; as spy craft, or as trick. Her characters try on different outfits, different make-up, different attitudes or masks in order to achieve their ends. These myriad acts of masking/ unmasking are sometimes forced, sometimes joyful, sometimes routine and tedious. Throughout they explore the complex play of tactical concealment and guarded disclosure that is the substance of literature, and the soul of the queer.
In the ‘Ministry of Guidance’ Sogol describes wearing the hejab as “like being a spy. It was a game, and she knew she would win.” Later, in ‘Threesome’ there is a wonderful scene where the central protagonist, Kiana, applies borrowed eyeliner in her cousin’s bathroom. Kiana gives a wondering, almost ecstatic description of the make-up she finds in the bathroom cabinet. This recitation has a ritual quality, evoking or invoking the different guises she could wear, the different women she could become. The collection is also concerned with what Nour describes as “hypocrisy”: One example of this is the subversive, survivalist hypocrisy of Sogol and her mother, dressing Sogol up in a black chador and modest maghna’e so that she might ‘pass’ as a “proper Muslim girl” and outfox the official agents of censorship. There is no visual shorthand, Nour is telling us, for the ‘truth’ of either cultural belonging or sexuality identity; neither is there some essential authentic self her characters are concealing or moving toward, but an endlessly evolving system of assumption and expectations against which and to which her protagonists are required to play. In this way Nour’s writing shares an associative affinity with Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella Passing. Larsen’s text explores the intertwining of cultural perceptions of race, class, and sexual identity in Harlem, New York at a period of history beset by anxieties about the blurring of racial and social boundaries, while Nour’s collection is concerned with the fusing and confusing of religious, ethnic and sexual identities, and the ways in which their intersection forces performances across multiple categories of belonging. Later in the collection, in ‘Transit’, a waiter bellows at Nour’s narrator that the sandwich she has ordered contains bacon: because she is brown, she is a Muslim. The collection is full of such assumptions and mistakings. Sometimes the characters can play them to their advantage; sometimes they are merely miserably subject to them. In this sense The Ministry of Guidance and other stories is indebted to Judith Butler’s notion of ‘performativity’. Identity isn’t inherent, she tells us, but constructed. Sometimes we get to choose those constructions, and sometimes they are imposed upon us.
The other kind of “hypocrisy” Nour identifies is the lascivious and predatory hypocrisy of Mr Mohammidi at the Ministry, who attempts to use his position of power to coerce Sogol into an unwanted sexual encounter. When Sogol’s mother tells her the chador “kind of suits” her, and that she looks like a TV actress, “chaste and fake”, Nour is speaking back to prevalent western assumptions about traditional hejab and the women who wear it. For the two women the chador itself becomes a site of performance and play; a scene of sorority, humour and mutual affection. When Sogol regales her mother with Mr Mohammidi’s “offer of help” and her mother explodes in a paroxysm of protective fury, Nour is letting us know in no uncertain terms that the menace to women in Iran isn’t Islam, but – as with everywhere else on the planet – patriarchy, of which religious intolerance is but one manifestation.
This might seem like an obvious point, but clearly it bears repeating. As Farzeneh Milani writes, the prevailing depiction of Iranian women in contemporary English Literature has been that of the “virtual prisoner… the victim of an immobilizing faith, locked up inside her mandatory veil – a mobile prison shrunk to the size of her body.” In a recent interview Nour cites Milani, and the way in which, since America’s ‘war on terror’ there has been a significant rise in the publication of literature by Iranian women in the West, literature that tends to, as Nour puts it, “comfortably confirm” the western right-wing narrative of Iran, “in which everything Iranian is dreadful and problematic” unlike everything western, which is ideal, liberated, liberating. Milani’s term for this literary subgenre is the ‘hostage narrative’. Such narratives, typically memoir, rely on the authority of personal experience, and presuppose an English speaking and predominantly American audience to whom the text is directly addressed. They play upon Western notions of Iranian womanhood as characterised by artlessness and sincerity, eliding both the artifice inherent in literary production, and the potentially problematic politics of translation. The version of Iranian womanhood propounded by such narratives is sterile, homogeneous and heteronormative. It excludes queer voices, while portraying Iranian women as two-dimensional victims of their culture and environment; women whose only salvation lies in western intervention, whose captive sexuality becomes an apology for war. Nour’s book, with its thirteen separate subjectivities is just about the furthest thing from a hostage narrative possible. The Ministry of Guidance and other stories is, rather, a book that dares to imagine an Iranian readership as diverse as its protagonists; a global queer audience, an audience of exiles.
In speaking about the short story as genre, Nour quotes Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s definition of queerness, suggesting that both the short story form and queerness itself share a “multivalent territory”, an “open mesh of possibilities”. According to Nour these qualities create a “comfortable cradle for queerness”, although reading the collection I have to wonder if “comfortable” is entirely the right word. Against the dominant literary status of the novel, the short story is often seen as minor, fragmented or underdeveloped. It is, as Alex Nissen writes, the “other of fictional prose narrative”, a genre that is constantly asked to account for itself, to “justify its existence” and “agonise over its value and identity”. The genre, then, attempts to embody through text, the lived experiences of queer persons and communities globally. Within the intimate territory of the short story, there is much that is necessarily left unspoken and unresolved; its narrative outcomes are allusive and ambivalent. The Minstry of Guidance and other stories engages these features of the form, playing with the pressured dynamics of disclosure and restraint that are inherent to both the short story as genre and to queer lived experience.
Nour does spellbinding things with intimacy. With consummate skill she evokes the particularities – both claustrophobic and tender – of family life. Some of the most poignant and well realised moments in this collection are the vignettes centred around her protagonists’ relationships with their parents or siblings. In the excruciating ‘God’s Mistake’, Setareh’s forbidding and religiously conservative mother reads her daughter’s private journal, forcing a desperate confrontation in which the need for acceptance and an irrational compulsion to protect and please vie with a furious and frustrated desire for self-determination. Nour distils these complexities within a few lines of painfully realistic dialogue and well-placed portraiture. The image of Setareh’s mother creeping into the kitchen still in the floral chador she wore to evening prayers as a kind of mute, aggressive “statement” is both convincing and unsettling. Here, Nour’s fearsome matriarch is using the traditional garment to engage in a kind of performativity radically different to that practised by Sogol and her mother in ‘The Ministry of Guidance’. This performance draws upon all the authority of cultural and religious tradition, deploying the iconic signifiers of Islam as a shorthand for moral worth. Setareh’s mother is invoking and embodying an idealised Islamic womanhood, one characterised by piety, obedience and suffering. There is no play in her performance, it is, rather, an oppressive iterative bludgeon, one that serves to confirm the orthodoxies to which Setareh’s mother subscribes.
In the final story, ‘Transit’, Nour presents a different kind of family relationship. Her jet-lagged narrator remembers the way in which her father makes a sandwich, a description Nour fills with such admiration and affection that it carries all the love and yearning of exile. The Ministry of Guidance and other stories is a book very much concerned with the idea of exile, with being a stranger in a strange land. However, Nour’s characters are not pining for some mythic monolithic ‘homeland’, a notion Nour links to the kinds of nationalistic script that produce intolerance, bigotry and war. ‘Home’ is, rather, a relational space, a memorial space; it is less a place than a series of sensory and subjective experiences, tied to the way food tastes, or the feel of words in the mouth, a sound of a loved one’s voice.
In ‘Soho’, and ‘Acid’ the feeling of otherness that so often attends migrancy is also intricately intertwined with queerness, so that Nour’s queer speakers emerge as perpetual exiles, people who belong to no place and every place, capable of wild flights of fugivity, of shedding skins, transgressing borders. This process is sometimes painful: in ‘Soho’ the protagonist’s combined baggage of shame and internalised guilt leads her to believe she has contracted HIV after sleeping with thirteen men, something prohibited by the dominant culture in her native Iran. Nour further complicates her character’s relationship to sex with an admission that “The tragi-comic part of my story is that after sleeping with numerous men, I’ve reached the conclusion that I’m not even into men”. The process of sexual exploration that led to her recognition of herself as queer has doubly marked her. She is both the promiscuous and sexually threatening woman, and the inaccessible woman, unavailable to male desire. Nour links the character’s queer identity with her hypothetical status as a victim of HIV, bluntly describing her prospective future as an “AIDS-stricken lesbian”. In doing so she gathers to herself an entire global history of negative assumption: queers are sexually indiscriminate, queers are unnatural, queers are disgusting, queers are diseased. It is not a simple matter of dissonance between ‘traditional’ Iranian values, and those of a sexually ‘liberated’ west that precipitate the character’s crisis, but it is the pressured intersection of those values that begin her spiralling cycle of shame.
In response to a faltering confession of her fears, her “only Iranian friend in London” tells her “Your disease isn’t AIDS. It’s immigration.” This idea is later picked up in ‘Acid’, when the narrator’s mother, at home in Shiraz, counters her daughter’s concern for her safety with “What’s the point of you living abroad when all you do is read Iranian newspapers and obsess about it?” The characters in The Ministry of Guidance and other stories are never quite at ease, never quite at home. In Iran they are yearning to expand their horizons; in Europe they are often caught in the act of looking back. As another of the collection’s formidable matriarch’s exclaims: “You won’t find peace there. Somebody with your attitudes should go and live on Mars!” This pronouncement is brutal, but it is perceptive, and as good a description as I’ve ever read about how it feels to be young and queer in a culture that does not want to accept you as such. It is also very, very funny. Nour has an understated, rather wry sense of humour, and some of her sharpest observations are reminiscent of Jeanette Winterson in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, but with a slightly more Byronic flavour, thus security officers at Ukraine’s Borispol airport resemble “a bunch of furious supermodels” and a pair of leather boots in a half empty suitcase remind their owner of “a baby’s corpse in its miniscule coffin.” There’s excess here, dramatic flare, and an appetite for life that propels her characters through even their bleakest of moments. They are vibrantly and individually alive, and demand to be seen as more than damaged or suppressed, more than Iran’s queer collateral.
In ‘An Evening of Martyrdom’ the young protagonist, Mina, explores her sexuality at a drunken bohemian party. Through Mina, Nour presents her readers with an extremely compelling account of burgeoning queer desire that might have come from any corner of the globe. And yet this particular party takes place on the night of an important Islamic holiday, the night set aside for mourning Imam Hossein, “for whom the whole nation was supposed to wear black, weeping over his historic martyrdom in mosques reeking of rotten socks.” As the party-goers play cards and drink “acetone-tasting whisky” the wailing of next-door mourners and the melancholy singing of the mullah suddenly cut across an awkward silence before the music starts again and the party resumes its woozy somewhat raucous course. It is a tense and haunting moment.
Being queer in Iran can have very real and very violent consequences, but Nour refuses a two-dimensional valorisation of her queer characters in favour of something more ambiguous, more ambivalent. Her protagonists oscillate between, on the one hand, moments of defiance, and on the other, moments of fear and of shame. There is an uneasy back-and-forth always at play between self-interest and self-loathing; between anger and exhaustion. In ‘An Evening of Martyrdom’ the police are called to the party, but are paid off by Mina’s host. The incident sends Mina into a tailspin, feeling “deaf and blind, and incandescent. All the stories and news she’d heard about people being lashed, imprisoned, and even executed for alcohol and homosexual sex started revolving in her head like a poisonous tornado.” In this scene Mina wrestles with her own fear, fear of victimisation as a queer person living under a regime in which her identity is outlawed, but she also struggles with a deep sense of anger at the complacency of her lover, and of the other party guests. This complacency is born of affluence and a sense of entitlement. It is both dangerously misguided, and morally compromised, implicated in the regime whose punishments they seek to evade by buying their way out of persecution. Something all Nour’s characters share is that they must, in their various ways, come to terms with the idea that the mere fact of their existence renders them inescapably political, and inescapably responsible to and for each other.
The Ministry of Guidance and other stories is a political book, then. It is also a keenly human book. Its humanity is, in fact, its deepest most important political act. Nour dedicates her collection to “all the queers”, and in their multiplicity, wit and exuberance her protagonists show just how radical and embracive such a dedication truly is.