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A few outtakes from our interview with Hakakian:
"I came to the United States a maladapted nineteen-year-old, with no English. If I can write a book, so can you."
"Whenever I hit a dead-end, I give in to my worst fear by "dislocating" myself. Traveling to unknown places has always enabled me to break through a writing block, as well as a living block. I don't drink, or smoke, not even casually. A clear mind is a writer's greatest gift."
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In the summer of 2004, Roya Hakakian took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
The Collected Poetry of Ahmad Shamlou, an Iranian poet. Ahmad Shamlou took all the best elements of the ancient tradition of Persian poetry, i.e. lyricism, mysticism, romanticism, and infused it with modern era sentiments. While he diligently worked on translating non-Iranian writers, from Federico Garcia Lorca to Langston Hughes into Persian, he was the most meticulous hunter and gatherer of new words and expressions in Persian lexicon and his influence on Persian are still felt even now that he is gone. What informed Shamlou's poetry, and energized it, was his commitment to social justice.
What are your ten favorite books?A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce -- The quest for spiritual sustenance is the greatest quest of every young person, and the journey to reach it becomes the roadmap of adulthood. On just such a quest, Stephen Dedalus makes his own journey, and encounters two timeless possibilities, as they lay before all of us: one in religion, the other in the art.
Sabbath's Theatre by Philip Roth -- Can humor work as devastatingly as tragedy, and can all the rules of writing be broken to create a masterpiece? In the pages of Sabbath's theatre, those and much more prove to be possible.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov -- Because with lines like "light of my life, fire of my loins," Humbert haunts the reader as eternally as Lolita haunts him. The encounter with the blossoming nymphet and the aging pedophile is also the encounter between Europe and the United States of mid 20th century. What seems upon first reading to be the account of a flawed romance serves as a grand work of historiography and much more.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe -- The best handbook for any writer who wants to speak of one race to another, without lessening the quality of his prose to compensate for the reader's lack of familiarity. Since Achebe's conviction and mastery of his ;subject are so solidly in place that the reader defers to him to provide what's necessary, and happily follows him to any place, no matter how foreign.
The Collected Plays of Bertolt Brecht -- Brecht's subversion of the relationship between the performer (or writer) and the viewer (or reader) engenders in every writer the proper awareness of the reader, and the reader's thinking process.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck -- The best example of how social and political convictions can have a destiny far more glorious than preachy, unengaging, and inartistic pieces of art, and how they can enhance a work of literature as opposed to compromise it.
The Collected Poetry of Forough Farrokhzad -- In Farrokhzad, Sylvia Plath and Anais Nin come together. With subtle lyricism and enlightened melancholy, she is the voice of women living in a hostile society.
The Portable Hannah Arendt -- In the life of a secular thinking person, Arendt fills the moral gap that religion leaves behind.
Jean-Christophe by Romain Rolland -- Christophe is as fiercely passionate about his art, and life in general, as he is about social justice. And in post-revolutionary Iran, he was everything every young revolutionary aspired to be.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion -- If the inner life of a writer can serve to illuminate subjects of social consequence, these essays are some of its best examples.
What are some of your favorite films?Annie Hall by Woody Allen
Belle du Jour by Luis Bunuel
Death and the Maiden by Roman Polanski
Rear Window by Alfred Hitchcock
Some Like it Hot by Billy Wilder
Closeup by Abbas Kiarostami
Frida by Julie Taymour
Life of Brian by Terry Jones
Ponette by Jacques Doillon
Mystic River by Clint Eastwood
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?Radiohead
The Cello Compositions of Sir Edward Elgar
Johann Sebastian Bach
Persian Classical Music
Depending on which piece of my memoir I was working on, I blasted one of the above albums and wrote away. When it came to editing, however, perfect silence dominated the room again.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
It'd be reading American Pastoral by Philip Roth. Besides masterful storytelling, the book paints a Vietnam-war period very much like the one we live in today, and shows its impact on both the country and a family.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
The classics of world literature.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I begin every writing day by reading a few poems.
What are you working on now?
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today?
Ever since I was a girl, I've been writing. I wrote not to be famous, or make it big. I wrote because it was what I knew to do. It was how I made sense of the world. The greatest reward I have always received from writing was the satisfaction of reading through the completed piece. So long as I keep working, the mere act has been rewarding. Only when I have had to stop have I felt desolation.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Avoid thinking about your work as a writer in the vernacular of the world of entertainment, of which the word "discovered" is one. Write because without writing your life won't feel as full.
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