Author’s memoir about her mother’s childhood portrays the texture of life in Iran — pre-1979

By Joe Tash

Jasmin Darznik

Jasmin Darznik was helping her mother sort through her father’s things shortly after his death when a photo slipped from a stack of letters written in Persian.

She was stunned — the photo showed her mother, then 13, on the day of her wedding to a man Darznik had never seen before. The revelation touched off a series of events that led to the publication in January of “The Good Daughter,” Darznik’s memoir about her mother’s childhood and early adulthood in the family’s native Iran.

Darznik, who will give a reading and sign copies of her book at Warwick’s bookstore in La Jolla at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 22, asked Lili, her mother, about the photo. Lili later sent her 10 cassette tapes, on which she recounted being physically abused, forced to give up her infant daughter, tricked into taking a near-fatal opium overdose and other secrets she had never shared with Darznik or her closest friends in America.

“This is all unknown to me, completely shocking, as if I was meeting another woman entirely,” said Darznik in a telephone interview about her reaction to her mother’s taped account. “She was very unsentimental. Listening to her revealed a woman I had never known.”

Among her mother’s reasons for keeping the story secret is that in Iran, especially when her mother was growing up, divorce was considered shameful and on a par with prostitution, even when the woman’s husband beat her.

Darznik, a professor of English and creative writing at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., said she decided to write the book because little has been written about the lives of ordinary Iranians during the 1950s and 1960s.

“What I can offer is a true story that hasn’t been told, and hopefully break down the shame and secrecy that we’ve preserved even in America in the Iranian community,” Darznik said.

At the time her mother sent her the tapes, Darznik and her mother were barely on speaking terms. Darznik said her mother’s harsh rules and restrictions during her own childhood had led to her to reject both her mother and the Iranian culture.

“I didn’t want to have anything to do with this Iranian world of hers,” Darznik said. “Iran was my mother, my mother was Iran.”
In fact, during her own youth and young adulthood, in the aftermath of the Iranian hostage crisis and later the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Darznik said she intentionally hid her heritage and sought to “pass” as another nationality.

Darznik used her mother’s tapes as a jumping off point — she spent a year meeting with her mother and interviewing her about her life and also conducting research. The result is a book filled with rich detail about the food, the home life, the clothing and rituals of life in Tehran, Iran’s capital, in the 1950s, especially from a woman’s point of view.

An example is a passage describing how 13-year-old Lili was prepared for her wedding night: “The Khorammis rented the whole bathhouse, and it was there that her aunts and cousins commenced to groom her from head to foot. First they washed her body with a mixture of milk and honey, lathered her hair with yogurt, and rinsed it clear with rose water… They scrubbed Lili vigorously with kiseh, the rough woolen mitts that drew out every impurity from the skin. They worked quickly, two of them tending to each part of her body, and when they finished rinsing and toweling her off they rubbed her all over with a mixture of Vaseline and rose essence… After a lunch of pomegranate-and-walnut stew, they slapped their copper bowls against the tiles to make music and danced for each other in turn.”

“I wanted to flesh out the textures of life in Iran, especially in the years before the (1979 Islamic) revolution,” Darznik said. “The sights and smells and sounds and feel of that old Tehran that really doesn’t exist anymore.”

While the book details the painful reality of life in pre-revolutionary Iran, including the mistreatment of women, Darznik’s appreciation for the culture shows through. And she said writing the book has helped her appreciate the positive side of her heritage, to the point where she speaks in Persian to her own son.

“I feel like in the writing of the book I was able to reclaim Iran in a very particular and special way,” Darznik said.
“The Good Daughter” was published by Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group Inc., and is also available on

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