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February 6, 2024

Member Spotlight: Shokoofeh Azar

We are thrilled to share our February Member Spotlight features Shokoofeh Azar! Shokoofeh was recently announced as the recipient of Creative Australia funding for an upcoming project.

Shokoofeh Azar is an Iranian-Australian journalist and writer. After facing arrest and imprisonment for her journalistic activities in Iran, she sought refuge in Australia in 2010. Since her relocation, she has primarily focused on fiction writing, employing a magical realism style infused with social-political themes drawn from real-life experiences.

Azar embarked on her literary journey with her debut novel, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, which she began crafting in 2012 and published to great acclaim in 2017 through Wild Dingo Press. This work has been translated into twelve languages, including French, Italian, Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese. It has garnered nominations for numerous prestigious awards such as The Booker Prize, PEN, The Stella Prize, and various national and international accolades.

Recently, Azar completed her second novel, The Gowkaran Tree in the Middle of Our Kitchen, slated for publication by Europa Editions in the United States, England, and Canada in late 2024, with simultaneous releases in Italy through Edizioni E/O and in Australia and New Zealand via Allen & Unwin. This novel secured two grants, including recognition from The Australian Council for the Arts and Creative Victoria in 2019.

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is banned in Iran. However, due to overwhelming popularity among Iranians, it was published underground in Tehran.

Both of Azar’s novels were originally penned in Farsi and subsequently translated into English by anonymous translators, compelled to maintain secrecy due to security pressures from the Iranian regime.

Azar has now embarked on her third novel, Mona and Her Abandoned Tree, delving into the plight of Iranian women within the confines of Sharia Law. This work received the Australian Council for the Arts award in 2023.

Azar holds a background study in Persian Literature and Journalism, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree. Hailing from a family with a rich literary and artistic heritage, she furthered her education by completing an Honours degree in Journalism at Deakin University in 2019. Notably, in 2004, she made history as the first Iranian woman to hitchhike the Silk Road, showcasing her adventurous spirit and determination.

What inspired you to begin a writing career?

Since the age of 15, the works of great writers and painters from classical to modern, along with the verdant rainforests, have been a wellspring of inspiration for me. Residing amidst the rainforests of Northern Iran, I harboured aspirations of mirroring the pursuit of life’s meaning undertaken by these literary and artistic icons. My vision was to dedicate my entire existence to the pursuits of reading, writing, painting, and dwelling among the trees, or to live a life akin to the highs and lows experienced by the protagonists of their stories.

Moreover, an inner voice continuously interprets and analyzes life and my connection to it, urging me to write incessantly. Whenever I go without writing or reading for a few days, a profound sense of emptiness consumes me, except when I am enveloped by the forest. Critical thinking, writing, and the forests stand as the focal points of my life, molding the course of my existence.

What does it mean for you to receive Creative Australia funding for your next project?

It is both promising and hopeful. As a writer who crafts narratives in a foreign language (Farsi/Persian) and delves into life within authoritarian regimes like Iran, I harbour little hope of ever mastering the intricate art of storytelling in English, within my own style or on subjects that typically resonate with Australian readers.

The stark contrast in written language, coupled with the vast divergence in cultural and political landscapes depicted in my stories, consistently reinforces the sense of distance I feel from the Australian literary community. I perceive myself as an incongruous addition to the Australian literary scene, an awkward patch amidst its fabric.

The recognition through awards and literary grants bestowed upon me thus far serves as a tremendous source of encouragement. It reassures me that I am not as isolated and unheard as I once believed. This acknowledgment instils in me the confidence that my literary voice resonates within Australia, despite the inherent disparities between myself and other Australian writers.

Another challenge I face, one that these grants help alleviate, is that throughout my career as a journalist and writer, I have primarily focused on journalism activities and writing. Due to the language barrier mentioned earlier, I have never been able to secure employment in Australia within my preferred profession of journalism or any other field related to writing and literature. Consequently, opposite to many other Australian writers, I am unable to seek employment to cover my living expenses. The financial support from these grants enables me to continue my writing pursuits with concentration.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of your career?

The more I ponder this question, the clearer it becomes that I have no definitive answer. I embarked on my journey into professional writing and journalism at the age of 20, and as I mentioned earlier, this career choice was not merely external but stemmed from an internal necessity and compulsion. Since then, my life has been shaped by the most beautiful and challenging experiences, all intertwined with writing: from the joyous and solitary process of searching, contemplating, analysing, and writing, to the hardships of unemployment due to successive newspaper closures by the regime, arrests, interrogations, and imprisonment.

From embarking on a three-month solo journey along the Silk Road, to a harrowing five-day voyage across the Indian Ocean on a humble refugee boat from Indonesia to Australia, and the subsequent ordeal in the refugee camp on Christmas Island… from rebuilding my life from scratch in Australia (initially unable to articulate a correct sentence in English) to the ongoing struggles of finding English translators for my novels or finding a publisher, culminating in the publication of my novel in twelve languages… all of these experiences are indebted to the tumultuous path of exploration and writing.

This path has been arduous from its inception and continues to present challenges, yet it remains equally beautiful and singular. Looking back, there is nothing within this lived experience that would have led me to abandon this path had I known its trials from the outset.

Which Australian authors/illustrators have been influential for you?

While my English has improved since arriving in this country in 2010, regrettably, I still struggle to fully enjoy reading novels in English. Novels contain subtleties between the lines that one can grasp only with complete mastery of the language (and the culture it represents). Therefore, apart from a few collections of short stories and novels (despite the language challenges), I find myself unable to make comprehensive judgments in this domain. My familiarity with Australian fiction primarily comes from translated works thanks to the brilliant translators we have in Iran. 

One novel that I read in Persian translation in 2021, and thoroughly enjoyed is A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz. Although I felt that about 150 pages of the novel could have been omitted, overall, it was a stunning read. I read this novel twice and recommended it to my fiction writing students in Iran. What made me enjoy this novel was its ability to discard the repetitive and clichéd narrations often found in literary fiction over the past two to three decades, and instead, carve out its own unique storytelling. In my opinion, it was a poor judgment that the judges of the 2008 Booker Prize didn’t award the prize to this book.

In the realm of non-fiction, I am currently reading my friend Kylie Moore-Gilbert’s book titled The Uncaged Sky. I empathize with her as she recounts her two-year prison experience in Iran, a theme that resonates with me on a personal level.

Why do you think it’s important to be a member of the ASA?

I’ve utilised the Author’s Legal Aid service for both of my novel’s contracts, and it’s been the most crucial service I’ve received from ASA. As a foreign writer with limited knowledge of publishing laws in Australia, this assistance has been key. Additionally, I appreciate the wealth of general information available here, such as the rates for lectures or articles. Exploring the insights and perspectives of other writers has been particularly enriching for me. The Pitch to Publishers service also seems very exciting, although I haven’t yet had the opportunity to use it.

I’d like the ASA website to facilitate interaction between members. It would be beneficial to have articles addressing the professional challenges faced by writers whose primary language isn’t English, or perhaps a directory of reputable Australian translators.

Furthermore, I’d love to see each writer get their own dedicated page where they could share updates and publish their news. This would foster a sense of community and encourage members to engage more actively with the platform.