The Good Daughter
By Angilee Shah
Published Feb 22, 2011 8:30 AM
When Jasmin Darznik was naughty as a child, her mother Lili would say, "If you become like the girls here, I'll go back to Iran to live with my Good Daughter."
Growing up in America, this mysterious "Good Daughter" became a kind of phantom to Darznik, a strange Iranian expression she didn't quite grasp.
Years later, while cleaning up her parents' house after the death of her father, Darznik came across a photo of her mother as a young bride, just 13 years old. But the man in the photo was not Darznik's father.
Darznik '94 tells the stories that spilled from that photograph in her recently published book, The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother's Hidden Life. She spoke about unraveling her family's history at a reading on Friday, Feb. 18 at the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies.
Draznik's mother, now 73, often gave a nostalgic version of her own life story. In Iran, she was a midwife, the first professional woman in her family. As an immigrant to America in the late '70s, she ran a motel with her husband, Draznik's father.
But then Lili began to do "something remarkable," Draznik says. She created cassette-tape recordings, ten in all, in which she told a wrenching story about her life in Iran — and the real daughter whom she left behind.
In 1950s Iran, divorcees were considered no better than prostitutes. According to Iranian family law, Lili surrendered her first daughter and promised never to see her or speak her name in exchange for her freedom from an abusive man. When she came to America at the beginning of the Iran Revolution in 1978, Lili told no one about her past life.
An assistant professor of English and creative writing at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, Darznik turns a critical eye to her work's place among the spate of Iranian American memoirs that have come out in recent years. The 1993 memoir The Daughter of Persia by Sattareh Farman Farmaian and Dona Munker had great impact, for example, but also withheld the details of taboo subjects.
"[Farman Farmaian] told us the best story she could, the most important stories she had. The Daughter of Persia opened a space," Darznik says. "But some of the most evasive parts of that book concern her divorce."
To write The Good Daughter, Darznik took a more direct approach.
"I didn't want to flinch," she explains. "I wanted to look hard at domestic abuse, alcoholism and divorce. But I also wanted to give the beauty of Iranian culture and give an American reader a sense of how strong it is."
Lili, however, does flinch at times, and at times wants the intimate details of her life off the shelves. But Darznik says that her mother always, in the back of her mind, wanted to tell her story.
"Imagine holding the weight of the story for fifty years," Darznik says. "I can't imagine it."