"Exclusive Interview with Author Afarin Bellisario"
Afarin Bellisario is a native of Iran who received her Ph.D from MIT and has dedicated her career to bridging the gap between cutting-edge technology and the marketplace. This unique background places her squarely at the intersection of technology and society. In addition to her extensive portfolio of business and technical articles, she has recently embarked on a new creative venture. Her latest project, "The Silent Whispers," is a novel that unfolds in early twentieth-century Iran.
"The Silent Whispers” tells the story of an Iranian woman's battle for freedom-- personal and national-- amid profound societal changes, and her forbidden love for a Russian reformer. It explores such themes as gaining agency, search for identity amidst transformation, and the clash between individual desires and societal needs at a time of profound change. These themes remain relevant in today's rapidly changing society, shedding light on issues such as East-West relations and the over hundred years of Iranian women’s struggle for independence.
Drawing from her Iranian upbringing and family-including her Russian great grand-father--Bellisario's novel vividly portrays life in early twentieth-century Iran, inspired by the women who have fought for Iranian democracy.
Here is what she had to say to Writers Life Magazine…
Tell us a bit about your background.
I was born and raised in Tehran in a family with its feet in the past and its head in the future: whereas my grandmothers could barely read, my university-educated father and uncles were prominent members of Iran’s new technocratic elite. My great grandfather had 25 wives and concubines. I have a PhD from MIT. I think that is progress.
I began writing professionally in major women and youth publications and the literary magazine Ferdousi at the age of 14, in pre-revolutionary Tehran. I came to the US to study and stayed when the Islamic Revolution happened. Most of my professional career has been spent in the high-tech world in both technical and business capacities. But I have continued writing. In 2013, my essay “Movies with My Aunt” was published in the anthology Love & Pomegranates, edited by M. N. Sayers. The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe have published several of my op-eds, and I write regularly about the clash between tradition and modernity on Medium (Counterview). Through my writing, I actively seek to create a conversation around the themes covered in my book.
What was the impetus for writing your new novel "Silent Whispers?"
Like most in the diaspora, I have thought long and hard about what happened (and is happening) in Iran. There had always been a chasm between the more traditional and more western oriented segments of population. I could see that as I grew up, but I never thought it would get to a point of boiling over. At the same time, I have always dealt with bleeding edge of technology, some—like smart phones—are now coming to their own and transforming societies. Then I thought about the avalanche of innovation—mechanical, electrical—that were introduced to the west in the 19th century but came to Iran all at once and by a small section of society. Along with modernity, came western ideas. As both the innovations and the ideas spread, it created the chasm I experienced and see deepening today. I did a lot of research, from old stories to books and magazines to archives of British and US governments. Of course the oppression and corruption under Pahlavi’s had a role to play—mostly in uniting both modern and traditional to oppose him—but given what happened, I believe the clash of cultures was at the root of the problem. And it had started in the late 19th-early 20th century with the introduction of modernity in Iran. I was also inspired by the prominent role of Iranian women in fighting for Iranian democracy during the constitutional revolution of 1906-1911, and afterwards till today. Their fight didn’t start in 1979, or 2022. They have been fighting for over 130 years! I have known some of these women. So this is their story.
Why was it important for you to tell this story?
Because the image of Iran in the minds of people in the west is that of women under cover, or the mullahs, or the Pahlavi gilt. Or they think the Iranian women’s movement started in 2022. Iran is a vast, multicultural, multi-ethnic country, with so many facets. And women have always been strong, they are fighters. I wanted to take my readers there, not as a tourist, but as a traveler.
What most surprised you about writing the book?
That the first version of the story came to me so quickly. It has been revised a number of times since with help from editors and readers. But the core has remained the same. All through writing this, it was as though my protagonist, Gohar, was dictating her memoir to me.
Can you tell us what the significance of the title is?
Whispers are big in Iran because of all the taboos and restrictions (political and cultural). But there are secrets in the life of my protagonist that even the whispers had to be silent.
What would you say is the primary message of this book?
The book is about transformation, and transformations are always painful.
To change, you have to break away from known and familiar and reach for something unknown and risky. Worse, most of the time you don’t even know who you will be when you are transformed. And that takes courage, even if the current situation is not ideal.
But being born in painful and frightening. One minute you are in the nice cocoon of your mother’s womb where everything is provided, and the next you are pushed out to a cold environment where you have to breath on your own and fight for your survival. Coming to your agency takes guts and creating an authentic self is hard both for people and for nations.
The book is also about freedom and yes, love. But the kind of love that frees you and is life affirming.
What would you like readers to take away from it?
First of all I want them to enjoy themselves. It is entertainment after all. But I also want to entice them to find out more about the country and its diverse culture. Perhaps read another book by an Iranian writer, taste the food, see a movie. It is a complex society with its good and bad characteristics.
And I want them to think about their own journey. Our society is going through a lot of changes because of the speed and sheer volume of innovations, we need to take a minute to find out who we want to be and how we want to live.
Do you have any other projects coming up you would like to tell us about?
Yes, Silent Whispers is the first of a trilogy. The second part, The Russian Road, is drafted and will be published in 202. The third and last part is called The Trees of My Country. I also have a lot of notes from my journey to ancient countries (China, Egypt, Eastern Europe, Vietnam) who, like Iran, are going through a journey to modernization and search for a national identity. But I have to pace myself!
For more information on Afarin and her book please visit: https://www.afarin.net/