Marashi's novel follows three modern Iranian women caught between tradition and desire.Literature Review
I’ll Be Strong For You is the English translation of Payiz Fasl-E Akhar-E Sal Ast, an award-winning Persian novel by Iranian journalist Nasim Marashi. It has the distinction of winning the 8th Jalal Al-e Ahmad Prize, a highly reputed literary award in Iran, prompting multiple editions to be released since it’s initial publication in 2015.
Translator Poupeh Missaghi has done an outstanding job conveying Iranian culture. Marashi’s recurrent use of a “stream of consciousness” technique in the subsequent chapters could have distracted English-speaking readers had the translation been anything else than what it is — smooth and free-flowing. However, one could only wish that the English translation would have stuck to the original meaning of the Persian title: “Fall is the Last Season of the Year,” which is more poetic and carries a sense of hope for this otherwise bleak novel. However, given the English-language title, one keeps on wondering “Who is this You that is being referred to here?”
I’ll Be Strong For You painstakingly details the lives and problems of three modern Iranian women who are caught between traditions and desire. It is worth reading for the flavour of war years, post-War Iranian society, and how it affected the lives of common women. The narrative is forceful when it comes to realistic portrayal of anxiety and depression in a way that causes one to empathise with the characters, particularly given that they are from marginalised cultures, and are caught between politics, patriarchy, and the lack of freedom of expression.
Despite the author’s stream of consciousness approach, the novel has a conventional overall structure. It is divided into two major sections, Summer and Autumn, and further subdivided into three subsections, one for each of the three female protagonists — Leyla, Roja, and Shabaneh. Such a neat division gives equal weight to the points-of-view of the three friends who have known each other since their days at the University of Tehran.
Out of the three main characters, Leyla’s is perhaps the more unnerving and puzzling. She suffers from mental health issues and is obsessed with her “departed” husband, Misagh. “Departed,” not in the sense that he is deceased but that he has immigrated to Toulouse (in search of better prospects for them), and as she remarks to Roja afterwards — it is a “graveyard” of the people whom she loves. Leyla’s entire life revolves around her husband and his departure which ultimately pushes her into depression and anxiety. She plays the charade of the “good wife” who packs his bags and lets him go while simultaneously hoping he will turn back and realise that he loves her more than anything. When that does not happen, her entire world comes crumbling down. One wonders why Leyla, who comes from a rich family, does not go to France herself when has the means to do so and when all she ever wants in her life is to be with her husband?
Misagh is the epitome of a sensible, understanding, and loving husband and friend, as constantly reinforced by both Shabaneh’s and Roja’s narratives. But his cold and practical advice to Leyla not to while away her talents as an engineer in useless pursuits is completely at odds with her desire to finding her “creative” footing in newspaper reporting. The incredible lack of communication between the couple eventually leads to their divorce.
Similarly, Shabaneh is on the verge of a mental health crisis which has a moving context behind it. Born into an aristocratic family, Shabaneh’s “queen” mother is deeply ashamed of her mentally disabled son, Mahan, and blames her daughter for his condition. In a post-war society, with dwindled fortunes and social prestige, her mother holds on to shreds of the past and turns its violence (shelling during the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988) towards her impressionable children. Shabaneh thus internalises this rampant maternal abuse and focuses on protecting her beloved brother. Shabaneh’s utter love and devotion towards Mahan is one of the highlights of the novel. It is moving to the core and well-written with just the right amount of poignancy and hope.
As a result of her childhood experiences, as an adult Shabane is unable to speak up or resist the advances of a suitor, Arsalan, whose overbearing persona causes her to recede into her shell against his passive-aggressive onslaught. Arsalan is a direct foil of Misagh and only interested in Shabaneh because she would make a good wife. He does not let her speak or ask about her likes and dislikes, and even stakes a claim on her by letting everyone in their office know that Shabaneh is his (girlfriend). Surprisingly, both Leyla and Roja reinforce this problematic idea of romance to make Shabaneh believe that she does love him but is too shy to accept it. Shabaneh, herself justifies her psychological and emotional abuse at the hands of her boyfriend because she is afraid of dying alone, and because her main concern is ensuring her brother can be well taken care of. She wishes for a partner who would let her keep Mahan with them even after marriage, which is generally impossible in Iranian society. Therefore, the red-flags in Arsalan’s character are hidden by this balm of romantic logic.
In comparison, Roja seems like the sanest of them all and the only one who acts as a bridge between the other two main characters. She is practical, ambitious and wishes to leave Iran to pursue a PhD in Toulouse just like Misagh. She too has an old and widowed mother to look after, which makes her feel guilty about leaving. But unlike Leyla, Roja’s mother is genuinely proud of her daughter’s acceptance into a PhD program in France.
Roja’s narrative serves as a critical gaze at the other two. She stands as a proverbial missing piece who voices the reader’s dissatisfaction in the novel. She calls Leyla a “masochist” who feels miserable only because she wants to but still tries to be there for in her depression. She is, in fact, the only one who stays in touch with Misagh. And interestingly, Roja also has an ulterior motive in encouraging Shabaneh to accept Arsalan’s marriage proposal. He gave Roja a massive loan for her visa application that she would have to return in the event that Shabaneh declined him. Through all this, and grappling with the denial of her visa, Roja’s character is the most believable and makes one root for her.
Her emphatic last lines give a fuller context to all that has gone before: that they are modern women who are trapped between culture and modernity. Unlike their mothers, who knew what kind of lives to live and be at peace with it, they want more from their fates and hence, face misery in the process.
If you like this article, please consider becoming a Patron and contributing to the work we do here at The Mantle.