Ruth Martin interviews Shida Bazyar

The emergence of themes like microaggressions, far-right terrorism and power relations in the story wasn’t a direct decision. These themes came up because they are a part of the world we live in.

Shida Bazyar

Ruth Martin writes: Shida Bazyar was born in 1988 in Hermeskeil, and studied creative writing and arts journalism in Hildesheim. Her prize-winning debut novel, Nachts ist es leise in Teheran, (Tehran is quiet at night) was published in 2016, and her second novel, Drei Kameradinnen (Sisters in Arms) comes out on 15 April 2021. It shows Bazyar as a real master of her craft, combining fresh, ultra-realistic dialogue and minutely detailed storytelling with a subversive narrative structure that only fully reveals itself in the final pages. It’s my favourite novel of 2021 so far, and its three complex, sympathetic female protagonists will stay with you long after you finish reading. Ahead of its publication, Shida Bazyar was kind enough to speak to me about it for NBG.

Ruth Martin: Where did the idea for the novel come from – what planted the seed for it, so to speak – and could you tell me a bit about the process of writing it?

Shida Bazyar: I was always a little envious of the enthusiasm my male friends had for stories of friendship, and I didn’t understand where their fascination for them came from. Until the penny finally dropped: the stories of great friendships are mostly about friendships between men. And of course there are female counterparts to these in literature and pop culture, but they tend to be more sneered at than admired. It might be because stories about female alliances automatically contain political potential. In a world full of stories centred on men, every single female character who is portrayed as complex and drives the plot forward is a statement in itself. If you have several such characters interacting, then you already have a suggestion of resistance and empowerment. For me, that was a reason not to just live with my envy, but to do something productive with it and write this story. Though to begin with, I didn’t plot it out, I just allowed the characters to develop as I was writing. And strangely, even in my early drafts I had a really vivid picture of Saya, Kasih and Hani, and they developed a life of their own. The emergence of themes like microaggressions, far-right terrorism and power relations in the story wasn’t a direct decision. These themes came up because they are a part of the world we live in.

The book’s German title – Drei Kameradinnen – is an echo of Erich Maria Remarque’s Drei Kameraden (Three Comrades). What made you choose that title, and are there any other echoes of Remarque in your novel?

I love Drei Kameraden. Though admittedly, I would never have read a book with a title like that, positively dripping with masculinity, if I hadn’t happened to be on holiday with nothing else to read. And I’m so glad I was, because for me, reading Remarque’s novel was the tipping point. After that, I was so in love with the way those three men stuck together that I finally started writing my second novel, and chose the working title Drei Kameradinnen. It gave me motivation each time I opened the document. There are a few parallels you can draw, if you want to. Like him, I didn’t name the large metropolis where the story takes place, and a lot of what I wanted to say about the zeitgeist is told through marginal and minor characters, in a similar way to Remarque. My comrades can hold their drink, too, which was something I consciously borrowed from him. And then, of course, there is the political dimension, though I’m wary of historical comparisons and I don’t want to relativise anything. While Remarque’s comrades came together through the trauma of the First World War, for mine it’s the shared experiences of discrimination. And in both novels, people are seemingly powerless in the face of proliferating right-wing groups – though in our own time, of course, we don’t know where it’s all going to lead.

Kasih, Saya und Hani are three multi-faceted and very likeable women, and their deep friendship and solidarity are the beating heart of the novel. But (without giving too much away!) Kasih, the first-person narrator, doesn’t always tell us the truth, and that was something I found really interesting about this book. Why did you want to use an unreliable narrator?

Marginalised groups are used to people not believing them. So when Kasih writes about her experiences of discrimination, and explicitly addresses this to a white audience who are not exactly well-disposed towards her, her narration – and thereby also mine – automatically reaches a point at which we have to assume mistrust from her listeners. Here, literature runs up against our political discourse, in which we have to fight every day for the authority to say what really is racist and what isn’t. And that’s exactly what I am playing with in my novel. Kasih is a radically subjective narrator, and she really pulls out all the stops – which society doesn’t usually allow her to do – because as a narrator, a storyteller, she is finally powerful. And for that reason, she keeps doing what only authorial narrators do as a rule, and then pointing out that she isn’t actually allowed to do that at all. I thought it was important that the form of the novel reflected the dilemma of marginalised voices, and at the same time dealt with it in a playful way. And I also wanted to suggest that the forms of conventional novels might not be intended for stories by authors like me.

Saya and Kasih experience racism everywhere, from microaggressions and a lack of understanding all the way to encounters with genuine far-right terrorists. Has racism in Germany got worse in recent years?

Yes, absolutely. A far-right party has seats in the Bundestag and in all the state parliaments. The conservatives, but also the left-wing parties, are vying to attract its voters, and far too often that makes them sound just as inhuman as the far-right politicians themselves. And with every fresh terror attack, civil society is learning that you don’t have much to fear as a far-right terrorist in Germany; at the same time, far-right chat groups are being exposed by the police on a weekly basis without any talk of consequences. When our institutions are failing to this degree, it doesn’t take a lot to imagine the effect it’s having on the daily lives of non-white people. 

And finally, who should read Sisters in Arms? Did you have any specific audience in mind when you were writing this story?

I’m always very bad at defining an audience. I think that as I was writing, my main point of orientation was what I myself want from a book. To that extent, it’s a book for people like me. People who have an interest in thinking through the smallest, subtlest experiences of everyday life and locating them within power structures; people who like to laugh for a moment as they’re reading, even if they might just as easily be weeping; people who like a bit of tension; fans of coming-of-age stories. And above all, people who aren’t afraid of female protagonists.

Read Ruth’s sample translation from Sisters in Arms here and see our recommendation of the book here.

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