My Persian Corner is all about sharing the rich Persian culture with the world, and among this is its literature. But it isn’t just the well-known tales of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh or the poetry of Hafez’s Divan or Sa’adi’s Golestan that enrich this culture. It’s also the lesser-known tales recounted by our parents and grandparents, often orally. That’s why I invited Shaunie Shammass to write a guest post about the book she co-authored with her husband, Saeid Shammass: My Mother’s Persian Stories, a collection of thirty bedtime stories told by Saeid’s mother when he was a child. These stories have been preserved in the original Persian by Saeid while Shaunie has made them accessible to an English-speaking audience. A big thank you to Shaunie Shammass for writing this guest post about the aim and process of writing My Mother’s Persian Stories: Folk tales for all ages in English and Farsi.
About My Mother’s Persian Stories
Stories. All cultures have them. All children hear them. While my husband was a child growing up in Shiraz, Iran, his mother would tell stories to her many children before they went to bed. They listened eagerly. There was no electricity, running water, or any of the modern necessities that one now takes for granted. Hearing these gentle and touching stories made them feel like “the richest children in the world”. His mother could not read or write. She remembered these tales by heart from her mother, who remembered them from hers, and so on for many ages.
The art and tradition of storytelling from one generation to the next is unfortunately not as usual as it once was. Those special moments of cultural communication between the ages are dwindling in our modern world. Instead, today’s families consume digital material, fleeting in nature and often bereft of the deep cultural roots that come with age-old storytelling.
Hearing these gentle and touching stories made them feel like “the richest children in the world”.
Gathering the stories
Fearing that his mother’s stories would be lost forever, my husband and I decided to write them down. After all these years, my husband remembered almost all of the stories and pieced the ones he did not together by asking his brothers and sisters. Each sibling remembered different parts or even the same parts differently. We then knew that she told the stories in a different way to different aged children. Thus began the two-year long endeavor of writing them down. My husband orally told me the stories as I wrote them in English, my native tongue.
A bilingual book
As a linguist, I realized that the stories had a very different flavor in English. Every language tells folk stories in its own way, and the language that it is told makes such a big difference in the overall feel to the story. My husband then started to write them in his native language, Farsi. I thought it would be an interesting idea to write each story in both languages, to get the full flavor of how each one sounded in both English and Persian. Thus, the idea of a bilingual story book was born.
Fearing that his mother’s stories would be lost forever, my husband and I decided to write them down.
We sat many hours together, sometimes revising parts of a story or even combining two stories together. We wanted to make them accessible in both languages. We tried to find the ‘even ground’ of storytelling so that both western and eastern readers could understand them as folk tales. Many times we synthesized a new way of storytelling for this happen. For example, the opening line is a combination of the Persian “There was a day and an age under the purple dome”, and the English “Once upon a time”. We created our own story opening line of “Once upon a day and once upon a time under the purple dome of the sky…” Thus, the English part is not a translation of the Persian, and the Persian part is not a translation of the English. Rather, it is a joint effort in a combined type of writing to convey the flair and nuances of both languages. Poems were particularly difficult to write in this way, since particular rhythms also had to be maintained. We were surprised to find out that writing the stories bilingually made them richer and more vibrant in both languages.
This is our aim – to preserve these stories and perhaps revive the special moments that generations can share between each other by passing them down from one generation to the next.
East meets west
At all times, we aimed to create a story that was comprehendible by both cultures, but that still reflected the flavor of Persian storytelling. We tried to find the elements that are shared between east and west. For example, the witches in our stories never fly like in western stories, but are still mean and have potions and can cast spells. Sometimes we changed the Persian, sometimes we changed the English. We crafted the stories so that they would flow in both languages and invoke the same kind of emotions in our readers, regardless of background.
We were surprised to find out that writing the stories bilingually made them richer and more vibrant in both languages.
The stories are varied and encompass the many religions and sects of Iranian culture in simple, folkloric tales. Some are based on ancient Persian mythology, some are mystical, some are humorous, and some are perhaps allusions to actual historical events. His mother told many more stories than those included in the collection, but we chose those that, to our knowledge, were less familiar. The last three in the collection were made up by my husband in the vein of oral storytelling.
Illustrations and cover art
My husband also did the illustrations and cover art painting, some of which he had envisioned in his mind’s eye as a child while listening to his mother tell the stories so many years ago. The illustrations use a mixed media approach that combine pictures and drawings. Most have Persian elements, such as a Persian carpet, or Persian motifs found in the ancient Persepolis ruins near Shiraz, or elements from classic Persian miniatures.
These stories were originally made by wise and loving souls whose names have been forgotten but whose works have remained eternal. Like all gems, the art and tradition of oral storytelling and the stories they produce can become lost if not gathered for posterity. This is our aim – to preserve these stories and perhaps revive the special moments that generations can share between each other by passing them down from one generation to the next. It is our greatest wish that parents will read these stories to their children, perhaps embellishing and changing them as they see fit, or even adding new tales of their own.
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