Genres Without Borders: Reading Globally between Modern Iran and the West

Ostby, Marie, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Ramazani, Jahan, Department of English, University of Virginia

“Genres without Borders: Reading Globally between Modern Iran and the West” challenges familiar associations between national culture and literary genre to show how twentieth-century experiments with genre and form in exchanges between Euro-American and Persian literary culture have enacted their own tangible and non-hegemonic forms of cultural globalization. While the centrality of Middle Eastern texts has been generally downplayed in scholarship and teaching on world literature, I focus on Iran because it has existed in a politically and diplomatically volatile climate for most of the twentieth century. This isolated position has made modern Iranian literature and its hybrid global adaptations especially alert to the task of border-crossing. By working across genres, the authors and artists I examine—from activist poets to experimental filmmakers to contemporary graphic novelists—deploy the flexibility of new literary forms to address new global reading audiences.

I first examine the transnational adaptation of the ghazal—a classical Urdu-Persian poetic form consisting of autonomous couplets with a rhyming refrain—in protest poetry by Adrienne Rich in the wake of the Vietnam War and by Simin Behbahani during the Iran-Iraq War. I argue that the ghazal’s formal flexibility made it adaptable to free-verse and open-form tendencies in 1960s American poetry in many of the same ways that the ancient form has been modernized by contemporary Iranian poets writing against censorship and human rights abuses. In the second chapter, I identify global and gendered palimpsests of experimental film in the work of early Iranian New Wave directors such as Dariush Mehrjui and Forugh Farrokzhad, whose work was intertwined with the work of French New Wave directors including Alain Resnais. I juxtapose two world-oriented contemporary cinematic counterpoints that both explore notions of spatial and temporal belonging, one filmed in Iran (Ashgar Farhadi’s Jodā’i-e Nāder az Simin) and one produced in diaspora (Shirin Neshat’s Zanān Bedun-i Mardān). In the third chapter, my examination of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis reveals that the graphic memoir form does more than merely hybridize text/image and Western/Iranian culture based on long transnational histories of intergenres such as miniature painting and newswriting. Persepolis marks the creation of a new genre, the global graphic novel, that engages with readers across borders through multiple modes of perception.

Through the interwoven modern histories of Persian and Euro-American literature, art, and film, the project demonstrates how often the crossing of national boundaries is mirrored and embodied in the crossing of genre boundaries. Locating Iran’s impact on world Anglophone literature and culture might help, ultimately, to reconceive the global turn in terms of genre and form, turning the malleable containers that literary forms inhabit into live translators who enable active and evolving forms of cross-cultural dialogue.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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