Interview with Writer Athena Farrokhzad

by Sven Friberg, Gy1

Athena Farrokhzad is a Swedish poet, dramatist and literary critic. Her collection of poems Vitsvit premiered at the theater Unga Klara in Stockholm the second of October. I called her on the ninth of October, 2015, when she was in the middle of helping her friend move. So we decided to do the interview the next day, instead. She was on the train when I called.

Friberg: When did poetry enter your life?

Farrokhzad: I think it has always been there. As a child I was very interested in language and its quirks; what sounds weird, funny, exiting or incomprehensible. My parents read a lot of children’s stories in verse to me and that works almost like poetry, which also works with rhythm, so in a way I got a feeling for it back then. We read a lot of poetry in school and I started to write on my own in middle school. In high school I began reading and writing more frequently. For me the reading is very important, and writing is an answer to what you read.

Friberg: Do you have a favourite poem?

Farrokhzad: I have thousands. But there is this one book Migrationer – Migrations – by the Mexican poet Gloria Gervitz, which I love. It’s a very special book, almost like a bible; she has been writing it for over 40 years, coming out with new editions.

Friberg: Where do you get your inspiration from?

Farrokhzad: I don’t think inspiration is so important in relation to writing, it has just as much to do with enduring and making yourself stand out. But of course it’s important to have inspiration too.
Inspiration partly comes from other poems, but also things that are happening in the world – things which make me angry or heartbroken – and the people who take part in them. Also from matters unintelligible to me: I need to write about things I don’t understand.

Friberg: What was your role in turning Vitsvit into a show?

Farrokhzad: One person in a team of maybe 15; I’ve been to many rehearsals and run-throughs. I also talked to, and discussed the text with, the actors to achieve a collective understanding.

Friberg: What has the response been like?

Farrokhzad: Really, really nice. It’s primarily shown to nine graders from all over Stockholm. Some of the rehearsals I attended had a test audience, and after the run-through we discussed the meaning of the show. It was really exciting to hear how it had been processed and received. We were worried that it was going to be hard to understand – hard words and meanings – worried that it wouldn’t be easy to follow. But it’s been very cool to hear the opposite, that it was easy to understand. And even the ones who said they didn’t had at least felt very emotional, which is something we are very happy about.

Friberg: How do you view the relationship between the political and the poetic?

Farrokhzad: I think that all art and literature become some sort of a historic reflection; that all poems are written in a time and place and are a reflection of it. That means art will automatically become political. Then you can choose how much of society you want to portray in your literature, if you want to claim something political and pursue an agenda; but I don’t necessary think that it has to pursue an agenda to be political, the text just examines its time period. Then again I believe it is important to make a distinction between poetry and politics: you can’t change the world just through literature; you also have to fight.

Friberg: Have you had the ability to support yourself financially with your writing?

Farrokhzad: I have had the opportunity to do that this past year – which I’m very thankful for – but not everyone is able to. I wasn’t until last year, and in one way it feels like a privilege to be able to have that opportunity because so many of my friends don’t. I can now support myself with my writing if I want to. Before I had to find other ways, for example working as a critic or teacher.

Friberg: I know you grew up in Gothenburg and now live in Stockholm. What would you say are the differences between the two cities?

Farrokhzad: It is noticeable that Stockholm is the capital; partly because it’s bigger, partly because it leans more towards right-wing politics.
The distribution of power is much more distinguishable: it’s clearer who has power and money and who doesn’t, based on where they live. There is a larger variety of culture here in Stockholm. Gothenburg isn’t that much smaller but it’s not like Stockholm, which is the capital after all.

Friberg: It was pointed out in an interview that you and Farnaz (Arbadi, playwright and director in Stockholm) use your language very well. I think that was weird. What are your thoughts on that?

Farrokhzad: I also think it was weird. It is a pretty common question, and it makes me tired. I mean our works are built on our language, we are professionals.

Friberg: Are you writing something new at the moment?

Farrokhzad: Yes, I’m writing a play and as well as a new collection of poems (which are being released next rear) together with a Romainian poet named Svetlana Cârstean. She is a dear friend of mine and we have worked together before, translated each other multiple times.

Friberg: Was it hard to start a new project after Vitsvit?

Farrokhzad: I wrote Vitsvit more than three years ago. For me writing isn’t just poetry; I write all the time. Articles, reviews, translations and stuff like that. But I always think it’s hard to write, especially to get going: I’m not one of those people who write in stream-of-consciousness.

Friberg: Does your critical ear affect your own writing?

Farrokhzad: I don’t write as much criticism anymore. I think everything, writing criticism, writing poetry and teaching, all of that as – I said before – has its roots in reading. I would say that my reading is what affects my writing the most: criticism is a reaction to how and what you read. And then I’m also a formally educated writer, so I have learned how to think and write as a critic, and value other people’s works and listen when other people formulate criticism towards what I write. That has taught me a lot. We worked a lot with each other’s texts when I attended the college of literature at Biskops-Arnö (north of Stockholm). Now I work there and my students get to do similar things.