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Obituary | Simin Daneshvar, 'Queen of Persian Prose,' Dies at 90

by ALI CHENAR

09 Mar 2012 02:45Comments

Her 1969 novel, "Suvashun," is one of the most important works in modern Persian culture.

DaneshvarWriting.jpg[ obituary ] Simin Daneshvar, an iconic figure in contemporary Persian literature, passed away on Thursday in Tehran after being hospitalized for ten days with influenza. She was 90 years old. For six decades, she was considered among the leading figures of the Iranian intelligentsia. With the 1969 publication of Suvashun, she was celebrated as modern Iran's first female novelist, and her prose still is admired for its realism. Her life mirrored the history of Persian literature in the 20th century, encompassing its radical progressiveness, its nationalist zeal, and the continuous conflict between tradition and modernity. She represented that conflict in the most uncommon way -- the daughter of an elite family, she married the hero of Iranian traditionalists: Jalal al-Ahmad, the son of a cleric.

Born in 1921 to a physician father and an artist mother in the southern city of Shiraz, Simin Daneshvar was one of the most educated women of her time. She attended a bilingual school in Shiraz and later studied Persian literature at the University of Tehran. Following her father's death in 1941, she started to write for Radio Tehran under a pen name to support herself. Thus began a literary career that would ultimately span two continents. While still a student at the University of Tehran, she published her first collection of short stories -- the first ever by an Iranian woman -- at the age of 27. In 1949 she defended her doctoral thesis on the subject of beauty in Persian literature under the supervision of the acclaimed scholar Badiozzaman Forouzanfar.

She married al-Ahmad, whom she met on a bus ride to Shiraz, in 1950. Two years later, she visited the United States as a Fulbright scholar. Working on creative writing with Wallace Stegner at Stanford University, she published two short stories in English. In 1959, she became a professor in the University of Tehran's Faculty of Arts and Archaeology and was soon recognized as an exceptional teacher. She returned to the States in 1963 to attend the Harvard University International Summer Session.

When Suvashun appeared in 1969, it was hailed as a breakthrough; in the words of scholar Anna Vanzan, it is "the uncontested forerunner of [the] modern Persian novel." That same year, her husband passed away by the shore of the Caspian Sea. Her recollection of their marriage and her vivid description of al-Ahmad's passing, published in 1981, immortalized him for generations of Iranians to come.

While she retired from teaching in 1980, following the Islamic Revolution, she continued to write and in 1992 came out with her second novel, Wandering Island (Jazire-ye Sargardani). Her lifestyle was marked by dignity and lack of pretense. Vanzan described her 2010 meeting with Daneshvar as "moving." "In spite of her age," wrote Vanzan, "the queen of Persian prose is indomitable and witty." By then, Suvashun had been translated into 17 languages.

Retreating to her quiet corner in north Tehran, in the same neighborhood where Nima Yusij, father of modern Persian poetry used to live, Daneshvar did not appear in public often. She even refrained from attending ceremonies to celebrate her work, of which there were many. In summer 2010, Bukhara, the renowned periodical of literature and philosophy, dedicated its summer issue to her; she had just recovered from a serious illness.

In an irony of history, the first Iranian female author died on International Woman's Day. Her marriage was childless; however, she is survived by more than 400 Iranian women authors and scores of female journalists and bloggers. For them, she was the first to pave the way. More than one newspaper headline announced her passing thus: "Jalal's wife rejoins him in heavens." The struggles she faced in her life continue after her death, so we can appreciate her achievements even more.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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