Friday, March 12, 2010

Novels in Historical Research: THE SEPTEMBERS OF SHIRAZ and Questions of Material Culture

My friend, Lissy, is a history Ph.D. candidate at University of Michigan. In a recent email to me she mentioned that she has been using Dalia Sofer's novel, The Septembers of Shiraz in her graduate school research. I was curious about how this novel could be used in the study of history, so I asked her about what she had been studying and how the book fit into it.

This is what she had so say:


I first came across The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer last year, and as I read it, I was incredibly moved by the story. The Septembers of Shiraz begins with the arrest of Isaac Amin, a Jewish businessman in Tehran, and goes on to trace the intersecting narratives of Isaac and the members of his family in the aftermath of his arrest. Throughout the novel, the interwoven voices of Isaac, his wife, son, and daughter, create a powerful and layered portrait of the family and this experience. I was fascinated by the way Sofer described a particular aspect of the Iranian Revolution and explored the dynamics of a Jewish community I knew little about. But perhaps what struck me most in reading the novel was the deep emotional connection I felt with Sofer’s characters and their story. On the precipice of exile and loss, the voices of the Amin family truly seem to convey the turmoil of change and the power of memory.


I encountered The Septembers of Shiraz again rather unexpectedly. As a graduate student, I recently attended a lecture on women writers and material culture. The lecturer, a professor of anthropology, used The Septembers of Shiraz as the centerpiece of her talk. She read the novel through the lens of material culture, using her own research on the Iranian Jewish community to explore the hidden context and significance of the objects Sofer describes. She argues that material objects, such as a teapot or a ring, play a determining role in how the characters conceptualize their self-identity, their memories, their relationship to others, and their connection to Iran. Throughout the lecture, the professor analyzed the experiences and characters I had found so poignant in an entirely new way, making me appreciate the complexities of The Septembers of Shiraz even more.

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