Bahiyyih Nakhjavani (on the burning itch to do something about it)

Hear voices? Maybe I do, but it’s banal: they’re all mine, or snippets of this song or that. (Recent visits: Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe”, and “Frosty the Snowman”. No explanation.) I’m as egotistical as the selfie-ing man-boy next door, but I don’t think everything refers back to me. This was happenstance. I know that Bahiyyih Nakhjavani wasn’t writing to me, personally, and even if you’ve been hauling around some weighty notion that you burn to DO something about, she might not have been talking to you, either.

"So, get on with it, then!" she might have been saying to us in this Guardian newspaper photo from 2015.

“So, get on with it, then!” she might have been saying to us in this Guardian newspaper photo from 2015.

Nakhjavani is a prose writer with the heart of a poet, and while her short book Four on an Island purports to be about 19th-century political prisoners in Cyprus, it’s more like meditative non-fiction, to coin a genre, than historical biography. She muses elegantly about Earth and Water, Air and Fire, and returns continually to these elemental themes. She teases the reader, occasionally, and finally admits on page 55 that she’s been somewhat coy, offering a kind of pseudo-confession at the halfway point about what the book is actually about. I don’t know whether this was genuine discovery, one of these mysterious cases in which writers claim that the book they are writing, or characters in it, taught them how to write it and what to say. I suspect Ms. Nakhjavani knew where she was going from the start, her twisting and mystical route notwithstanding. (Twistical!)

I was struck by how she prepared the ground for Four on an Island’s change in direction on page 55. Oh, it’s elegant, mildly amusing, and skilfully disguises its sharpness until the point sinks in. But it’s as if she was writing, say, of a book I haven’t finished writing. (It exists.) She could’ve also been gently prodding me about a concept I’d been brooding about but mainly avoiding for months, another sort of output whose Actual Writing suddenly flared into urgency on Monday night. (I realize they have any number of cures for that. Netflix. NBA League Pass. Rolaids.) But look how eloquently kind she is, whether she was talking to me or not! (The italics are mine, but the rest is all Bahiyyih. Spoiler alert: the hidden direction of her book was that it was about being a pioneer.) She takes a self-mocking stance about how clumsy it can feel to take action on something. I wonder if it reminds any of you of a Thing that you might be Doing:

“There comes a point in anyone’s life, if an idea has taken root in the mind, and feelings have been strong enough, and preoccupation with the idea and the feelings have persisted long enough, when to that person’s considerable dismay it begins to dawn upon [her] that ‘something ought to be done’. This is a very awkward state of affairs for anyone who has enjoyed the comfort associated with theoretical complacency….And as this awkward ‘desire to do’ rises like a threatening cloud on the horizon, the solid gravity of reason cautions one to beware of doing the wrong thing, or doing it at the wrong time….And meanwhile, what about that cloud? It goes on growing. It says: ‘if you really thought this problem through, and feel about it as deeply as you do, then something must be done. You cannot get away with this one…’

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani (1948- ) is an essayist and novelist of Iranian heritage, African upbringing and European and American education. She is named after one of the greatest heroines in the history of the Baha’i world community, and Nakhjavani’s most recent novel centres on another, the 19th-century Persian poetess and feminist Tahirih.

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