Thus Speaks Mother Simorq
By Azadeh Azad
FriesenPress (June 8, 2018)
In this collection of short stories, we follow a Persian mythological bird woman, Mother Simorq, who appears in many stories as a wise woman or a nanny. We read about teenage girls experiencing their coming of age within authoritarian or male-dominated environments and one little girl facing questions of life and death. We enter the world of a woman who transgresses oppressive social norms to be free and the nightmare of another one who has to commit murder to save her children. We see how women lost their power in human society as we read about a handful of symbolic characters interacting in a magical land. Finally, we revisit Sudaba, a mythical queen, as a contemporary Iranian woman in Canada, who loves her step-son like a traditional mother and pays heavily for her son-worshiping complex.
Mother Simorq on book cover painted by Azadeh Azad
The MacGail Daily
Thus Speak Empowered Women
Exploring Feminism Through Magical Realism
Written by: Nadia El-Sherif
September 24, 2018
Thus Speaks Mother Simorq, a collection of sixteen short stories, is Azadeh Azad’s latest release. A sociologist, psychotherapist, art therapist, and self-proclaimed feminist based in Montreal, Azad lends her Iranian-Canadian identity and experiences to the stories she tells in her anthology.
I had the chance to interview her prior to the release of her book, and the conversation easily moved between discussions of Thus Speaks Mother Simorq, Iranian folklore, art therapy, and modern feminism. The conversation was in equal parts admiration of the perseverance of women and questions about her work as a feminist author and artist. The stories she shared situate her as an outspoken, self-assured Middle-Eastern woman, navigating her way through North American society.
Azad tells tales of female resilience, female imperfection, and female bonds, interweaving Iranian folklore with magical realism.
Simorq, a mythical bird in Persian folklore who often exists as either male, female, or sexually ambiguous, is entirely feminized in Azad’s version of the tale. She is an all-seeing and all-knowing entity that appears throughout the stories of other women in the collection, to guide or to share her wisdom. Azad’s decision to make Simorq explicitly female subverts the common presumption that a mythical, sexually indistinct bird-person should be male.
In addition to falling back on Iranian folklore, the book weaves aspects of magical realism into the stories of the 16 different women and their experiences of the patriarchy. Many of these stories, set between Iran and modern day Montreal, are authentic illustrations of the different aspects of womanhood. Azad tells tales of female resilience, female imperfection, and female bonds. In her depictions of female emotions, Azad celebrates the power of vulnerability and the importance of self-expression. In the second story from the collection, Safa of the Spring, the title character becomes so overwhelmed watching an emotional scene play out in front of her that every cell in her body begins to shed tears until all that is left in her place is her “fountain of tears.” When asked about whether the choice not to conceal negative emotions throughout the book was a conscious move, Azad responded, “I just wrote it that way to show the depth of her sorrow. That was my only goal. [The tendency to hide our emotions] applies only to Western societies; expressing emotions too intensely is not viewed as good here, but in the Middle East, outbursts, especially crying, are very normal.”
The sixteen short stories are filled with unwavering messages of female empowerment, and while some are more explicit than others, the book believes in the power of every patriarchy-defying move women make. These moves range from a wife walking away from her husband after a fight in Her father’s portrait, to a woman dressing up as a man from 20th century Tehran and fully integrating into male social circles only to narrowly avoid arrest through a combination of luck and careful strategy in Outside of the Box. No act of defiance is too small or too radical to be meaningful, and though never explicit in its call for action, these stories of female strength are a constant reminder of the need for feminism in big and small situations alike.
At times, Azad’s stories are deliberately provocative, and when asked about which story she enjoyed writing the most, she cited the final tale — a modern and controversial take on the story of Siavosh, a figure from Persian mythology. She explained that “Iranians are very sensitive to their mythical heroes. You can’t say anything against Rostam. He was a male chauvinist, a mythical national hero of Iran. He and Siavosh are very misogynistic; they are women-killers. I enjoyed showing them as they were. Especially Siavosh, as he shows signs of [mental illness] and exhibits schizophrenic behavior in Ferdowsi’s The Book of Kings. So, I made him a schizophrenic in this story. Many Iranians won’t like it when they read it. And that’s okay with me.”
As the conversation moved from Thus Speaks Mother Simorq to feminism and life as a woman, Azad proudly announced that she was a feminist, saying, “I have always been a feminist and I still am. What I have seen and felt since I was very young is the basis of my feminism. My feminism didn’t come from reading books, it came from my observation of my environment.” This prompted a conversation about the differences between Western and Middle Eastern feminism. She debunked the cliché of Middle Eastern women being more submissive and more oppressed than Western women, explaining that Middle Eastern women “are, and have to be, stronger” than Western women. For her, men envy the authority women have in the household as it represents a threat to their power and perceived superiority outside of home. Azad said that the individual efforts women take to shift traditional gender roles are a source of collective female power, ranging from political to personal subversions of these views.
She went on to explain that the reason she felt it was important to write this book was not to declare the superiority of one sex over the other, but to bring light to the collective struggles and strengths of women around the world, all of whom are ultimately fighting the same struggle but in different ways.
Her feminism, as she explained, is not bound to literature. Azad is also a painter, and has worked on art that is “beautiful, but at the same time says something.” There are many shapes with which she expresses her activism in art, ranging from images of domesticated brown women to work that is more overtly political and which directly subverts the patriarchal expectations of Middle Eastern women. An example of the latter depicts an Afghan woman sitting on a hill, using her burqa as a picnic blanket while wearing Western clothes. Azad expressed her conviction that portrayals of female strength are crucial, as they dismiss the idea that female characters only fall into categories of “good” or “evil.”
My discussion with Azad highlighted that vulnerability isn’t inherently bad: emotional nakedness can be a source of strength for women and for all people. I asked the writer what advice she would give women navigating modern society. Her reply was a confident affirmation of the power of self-love as the basis for all other relationships. Azad also stressed the power of female solidarity in allowing women to persevere through patriarchal social barriers to succeed. Azad’s words, both in conversation and in Thus Speaks Mother Simorq, were welcome reminders of the importance of female empowerment and resilience in our collective stories.
Thus Speaks Mother Simorq is now available in bookstores across Canada.
Book Reviewed by Karen Rigby
Clarion Rating: 4 out of 5
THUS SPEAKS MOTHER SIMORQ
Mother Simorq—equal parts witness, healer, and wise woman—offers a visionary alternative for women who transcend painful histories.
Azadeh Azad’s Thus Speaks Mother Simorq gives voice to a mythological Persian bird woman. In sixteen thematic stories, nightmarish cruelty melds with everyday triumph. Using magical realism, feminist fantasies, reimagined fairy tales, and moral wisdom, the book colorfully portrays women and girls in flux.
From the queen of a matriarchal society who loses her power when men conspire to usurp her, to a fairy who is rescued by a prince only to be murdered, to a girl who witnesses her parents arguing while growing resentful of her father, Azad’s characters live with betrayals. Some characters regain their strength. Others remain poised on the threshold of new knowledge. Most rebel against social expectations, leading to tension. In several stories, Mother Simorq offers advice or help, taking on a human form.
Whether set in imaginary lands or twentieth-century Tehran and Montreal, these provocative forays explore facets of violence. In “Aqdass at Impasse,” the sexual abuse of her children leads a mother to murder her husband. In “Rudi,” a child similarly confronts her abuser. Both stories refrain from straightforward revenge. The plots are complex because their protagonists face unintended results.
Less dramatic scenarios continue threads of misogyny and injustice. These range from short, two-page portraits to the longer “Hymn to the Waters,” which features an unplanned cesarean section in 1976. As a new mother mourns having her choices removed by a male doctor, glimpses of the future offer respite. At times, impassioned sentiments on natural childbirth threaten to supersede the character; the message is written with less subtlety than in other stories.
The strongest stories feature girls who are coming of age. In “The Hidden Roots of the Mulberry Tree”—an impressive, unsettling take on domestic abuse—an adolescent girl navigates her family’s secrets while the White Revolution unfolds. The girl’s mother is complicit in her daughter’s abuse, though she regrets the course her life has taken—a fact that adds pathos yet achingly comes to nothing. The narrator discovers that a solitary self-reliance will lead her to a new, more hopeful place.
These stories turn wild in their brooding. Shifts in modes and styles make the collection uneven. At times—especially in the final story, a psychological tour of divided loyalties—their traumas seem abrupt. The pace quickens with complicated events, then dissolves into a series of explanatory emails. Still, there’s a singular intensity that paves over the cracks. Behind all of the brutality and potential for bitterness, there’s a surprising belief in the female spirit.
Azadeh Azad launches short story collection Thus Speaks Mother Simorq’
September 17, 2018
Join Iranian-Canadian writer, poet and artist, Azadeh Azad (recent poetry books Taming My Animus and Standing Above a Sigh) for the launch of her unique collection of short stories, Thus Speaks Mother Simorq, on Wed. September 19 at popular feminist bookstore, L’Euguélionne . The stories are equal parts feminist fairy tales and memoir. Adding to the evening are the dulcet, hypnotic sounds from Amir Amiri’s santur, a 72-string hammered dulcimer, along with book readings and an inspiring Q & A with the author.
In Thus Speaks Mother Simorq, readers follow a Persian mythological bird woman, Mother Simorq, who appears in many stories as a wise woman or nanny. These captivating tales follow: teenage girls experiencing their coming of age within authoritarian environments, and one little girl facing questions of life and death; the world of a woman who transgresses oppressive social norms to be free, and the nightmare of another one who has to commit murder to save her children; and women who lost their power in society, as well as symbolic characters interacting in a magical land. Finally, Sudaba, a mythical queen, is brought to life as a contemporary Iranian woman in Canada, who loves her step-son like a traditional mother and pays heavily for her ‘son’-worshipping complex.
Mother Simorq’s legendary, supernatural functions are healing, protecting and guiding human beings. In Islamic mystical tradition, Simorq has become male. Azad is deeply disappointed with the change of Simorq’s gender, “It’s as if the divine cannot be female. I am honouring the original Simorq. Here she is capable of transforming herself and helping people around her with her wisdom,” she said.
Azad is also a sociologist from the Université de Montréal (PhD) and a trained psychotherapist and art therapist. After poetry/photography books, this is her first collection of short stories. Her warm, quick smile belies her deep ruminations about the struggles of Iranian women in their home country and of gender inequality in general. Using magical realism, she weaves connected stories of women of all ages striving, in their way, to overcome their condition.
Azad is fascinated by mythologies and fairy tales, “I love the idea of re-writing them in some contemporary context with modern characters, giving them a feminist twist or changing them into something where women are not submissive or helpless.”
Her experience living in Iran of the late Shah until the age of 21 deeply affected her, “Although women had many rights and some personal freedoms, we were constantly sexually harassed. My return to Iran of the Ayatollahs in the mid-90s, and my encounter with women prisoners in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison during my employment as a social researcher, distressed me, deepening my solidarity with all Iranian women living under brutal and corrupt religious dictatorship.”
Of the sixteen stories of the book, half are either re-creations of Persian myths and folktales or are written as new fairy tales as in Shadow in the Lake. In The Madness of Siavosh Hossein Rostami, the myth of Queen Sudaba and Prince Siavosh moves into 21st century Iran and Canada. The two royals become middle-class Iranians; Sudaba, a middle-aged architect living in Westmount and Siavosh, a 20 year-old ambitious, young man and Sudaba’s step-son, arrives in Montreal from Tehran to live with his father and step-mother.
The other stories are reality-inspired—two of the stories in the collection are based on Azad’s experiences. Aqdass at Impasse is the story of a woman prisoner who had no choice but to kill her shell-shocked husband who sexually abused their four children after returning from the Iran-Iraq War. Outside of the Box is a strange episode in the life of a female friend who has dressed as a man since the imposition of hijab on the women by the Mullahs in 1980.
For Azad, it’s important that people from different cultural backgrounds learn something about Iranian life, “What excites me about putting my first collection of short stories out there is that people can find out more about Iranian culture, the male-female relationship in Iran, the way I see them and the changes I wish to see brought about. For a feminist, these stories have been very satisfying to work on. They are real or imaginary, but all true. Observing injustices towards other females in my surrounding gave me a deep bond with women in general, especially the working class. It was quite natural that I would be drawn to stories about women’s issues in this book and in my other books.”
You can read excerpts of the book here:
The Book Launch
The launching of this short story collection took place on Wednesday, September 19th, 2018, 6:00-8:00 pm, at L'Euguélionne, Canada’s only feminist-focused bookstore and a non-profit solidarity co-op, 1426 rue Beaudry, Montréal.
The evening, hosted by Ani Gurunlian, included live music by Santur player, Amir Amiri <http://amiamiri.com>, book readings by Azadeh Azad, and an insightful Q&A. Admission was free and refreshments were served.
Azadeh Azad was interview by Ani Gurunlian. A lover of the arts in its many forms, Ani is currently forging her way through her first novel: a supernatural fantasy fiction set in the antebellum south. She has worked as a film producer and a script editor. Gurunlian is particularly inspired by Azad's strong feminist views, considered controversial in some of today's political climates, “The fearless way Azadeh expresses herself through her painting and writing continues to propel me on my own artistic path.”
Signed copies of Thus Speaks Mother Simorq were available for purchase, along with previous poetry books, Taming My Animus and Standing Above a Sigh, 2017.s
In the short story collection, Thus Speaks Mother Simorq, readers follow Persian mythological flying creature, Mother Simorq, a fabulous, benevolent bird-woman who appears in many stories as a wise woman or nanny. Half of the stories are re-creations of Persian myths and folktales, or are modern, magical realism fairy tales. Others are inspired by Azad’s experiences in Iran, i.e., Outside of the Box is a strange episode in the life of a female friend who has dressed as a man since the 1979 Revolution to avoid wearing the hijab.
“Most of my short stories have a feminist slant. Around six years old, I had a keen awareness that while my mother was more intelligent than my father, she had much less power. This made me feel puzzled and distressed. It was also my first sociological lesson that power was not distributed according to people’s merit.”—Azadeh Azad
You can read excerpts from the book here: <https://books.google.ca/books?id=VC1fDwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false>
BOOK SIGNING SESSION
On November the 3rd, 2018, there was a book-signing session at Leonidas Culture Chocolat Café, 318 Victoria Avenue, Westmount, Quebec, from 1 to 5 pm. It was accompanied by the Vernissage of the author’s Abstract Fluid paintings.