PART III: You rebuild the country, I will rebuild my pocket
Maryam and I were married in 1994, while we were still students. I had been working as a layout designer for the academic journal of the Iranian Foundry men’s Society; Dad was still part of its Board. At the same time, between getting married, working at the hospital and my job at the journal, I wrote my first novel, The Grief of the Moon, about a doctor who has grown tired of challenging Death: it is an unfair battle which he always loses. Finally, he decides to embark on a quest, to find a weapon that can defeat Death. This quest, spanning 38 years, takes him to the border between reality and fantasy. There he discovers that it is not Death that he must defeat.
Then began the all too familiar adventure of submitting the manuscript, my first encounter with the Iranian publishing industry. I believed I was a new Dostoyevsky waiting to be discovered by the literary world. Unfortunately, none of the publishers were of the same opinion. Looking back after 14 years in publishing, I must confess that I, too, would have rejected my manuscript. Finally, I thought it best to publish The Grief of the Moon myself. My two-year stint with journal production had made me familiar with the process. I submitted the manuscript to the Book Department of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic the gaze of the gazelle
Guidance—yes, we have a ministry where people go to be ‘guided’—to get prepublication permission.
Muhammad Khatami had just resigned from the Ministry of Culture, protesting the passing of a resolution in the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution which sanctioned prepublication censorship. A publisher’s office had just been razed to the ground for publishing a novel about a gay cleric and the judiciary was already trying one of Khatami’s deputies for permitting its publication. Another book, Women without Men by Shahrnoosh Parsipour, a prominent Iranian female writer, had been banned. The author was in jail and the official who had signed the prepublication permission had been summoned to court. Ali Larijani, later Speaker of the Majlis (parliament) was appointed in Khatami’s place and he made sure that all the policies approved by the Supreme Council were implemented.
Although I feared that the controversial content of my book would encourage the censors to ban it, I received my prepublication permission without any trouble.
Printing 1,500 copies would cost around US$150: all my savings. But I was determined to go ahead. I did the cover design and typesetting myself and commissioned the printer at Dad’s university to print and bind it. The day I laid my hands on the first copies, fresh off the press, was the best day of my life. I was sure that all the critics in the world would discover my literary genius . . . I would sell hundreds of thousands of copies . . . I would win every literary prize . . . I would become an icon of contemporary Persian literature . . .
But I hadn’t thought about distribution! By the time I realized that publishing is nothing without effective distribution, it was too late. I had no money left for marketing. No distributor accepted my book. I was ready to give them any amount of discount but it wasn’t about figures. They were sure they couldn’t sell the book and warehouse space was too precious to be wasted.
I kept all 1,500 in my room and began to sell them, one by one. I sold around 200 to my friends, family, family friends and classmates. Then I set out for the booksellers. Every day I’d put 50 into my rucksack and go from one bookshop to another, trying to convince the booksellers to stock a few. Though I was mostly shown the door, I did manage to sell another 300. My main problem was that I was a medical intern: I had to work 90 hours a week because I needed to support Maryam and myself. I couldn’t visit the bookshops regularly to replenish their stocks. The book sold relatively well given the difficulties, and I also received good reviews. But I could spare it no more thought over the next two years.
I spent most of my time in the hospital. Back home, I worked some more. Sometimes I slept.