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Book of the Week: Disoriental by Négar Djavadi

Updated: Sep 6, 2019

"Djavadi here offers an account of an Iranian family, through revolutions, relationships, and diaspora, and she does so with a voice remarkably open to humor, warmth, and love. The prose is at once chaotic and precise, charismatic and familiar. Disoriental is a wonder and a pleasure to read.”―Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances

Shortlisted for the 2018 National Book Awards, one of The Globe & Mail's Best Books of 2018 and the winner of le Prix du Roman News, Style Prize, Lire Best Debut Novel 2016, and la Porte Dorée Prize, Disoriental tells the story of Kimiâ Sadr, who had to flee Iran at the age of ten in the company of her mother and sisters to avoid the Shah’s police and mullahs and join her father in France. Now twenty-five and concerned with the question of the continuation of her family as she waits it a Parisian fertility clinic, Kimiâ remembers her own story, that of a tomboy and a punk rocker in a repressive culture, and that of her family, from her grandmother - born in a harem - to her activist parents and gay uncle who still married a woman and had children so as not to lose face, nor his head. The comparisons between Iran and Paris provide a global frame which explores the theme of immigration and political unrest. The feeling of loss of social position is especially tangible with the father, who even refuses to take the metro escalator because it is for the French.

The novel's style is of great interest, partly because of its division into two sections, Side A and Side B, with two different narrative modes. The first one is a non-chronological account of her life, jumping through time and space, and mirroring the memory and thought process. Side B is more classical, and follows the narration as the family arrives in France, as well as the evolution undergone by the narrator, who comes to question her sexual orientation and own political views.

But Disoriental's greatest strength lies in its ability to intertwine the personal and the political to reveal how one's cultural milieu shapes one's identity. to quote Tim Mohr, author of Burning Down the Hau, “the novel blows up any lines between the personal and the political, intertwining generations of inherited family stories in a way that doesn't just bring history to life (though it does that as well), it shows the lingering and often cruel effects seemingly disembodied historical forces can cast on an individual.” The theme of disorientalisation which hovers above the narrative is central to the relation the narrator has with her family, countries, and sense of self. As Djavadi reminds us, "To really integrate into a culture, I can tell you that you have to disintegrate first, at least partially, from your own. You have to separate, detach, dissociate." And this process can be as painful as it can sometimes be necessary.

Constructed like a vinyl record, with its epic and novelistic A-side and its ‘awkward little sister,’ the personal and political B-side, Disoriental has many enticing tracks. These include its narrative strength, held up by the consummate art of digression, changes in tone and rhythm, and the richness of its themes, as well as the precision of the critical eye that it points most notably at French society.” ―Le Monde des livres

Disoriental is published by Europa Editions and it was translated by Tina Kover.

Négar Djavadi is a French-Iranian scriptwiter, director, film editor and writer. She grew up in Teheran but fled the 1979 Islamic Revolution with her mother and her two sisters, horse-riding through Kurdistan. She studied cinema in Brussels, taught it in Paris and has been working in the film industry since then. In 2016, her debut novel, Disoriental, was published in France and won the Best Debut Novel Prize. Translated by Tina Kover and published in English by Europa Editions in 2018, it was nominated for the National Book Award in the Translation category.

Tina Kover is a literary translator. She studied French at the University of Denver, and in La uzanne, and she attended the Next Level Language Institute in Prague, Czech Republic. She holds a Master's Degree in Medieval and Renaissance Studies from Durham University. Her translations have twice been nominated for the IMPAC Dublin International Literary Award and she was the recipient in 2009 of a Literary Translation Fellowship from the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in the northeast of England.

Her translation of Négar Djavadi's award-winning novel Disoriental was a finalist for the inaugural National Book Award for Translated Literature in 2018 and for the PEN Translation Prize in 2019.

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