Following the sudden death of her father, Jasmin Darznik flew back home to San Francisco for the funeral, then stayed with her mother to help her sort through their belongings. Amidst an accumulation of letters and photographs, Darznik came across an old photograph of her mother, Lili, standing dolefully next to an older man. In shock, Darznik suddenly realized that she was holding a wedding photo, and that the man next her mother was not her father.
Darznik took the photograph but did not broach the subject with her mother. When she finally showed her mother the photograph, her mother became angry with her and refused to talk about it. It wasn’t until Darznik went back home to the East coast that her mother divulged the story behind the photograph; she sent Darznik a box of cassette tapes into which she had recorded her gripping life story: growing up in Iran, Lili had been married off at the age of thirteen to a violently abusive man and suffered numerous traumas throughout her life as a result. As Lili talks about her life experiences, a family secret that sparks flashes of memories in Darznik’s mind is also revealed.
I can’t even imagine the horror Darznik must have felt as she listened to her mother talk about the endless suffering she experienced as a young girl growing up in a religiously conservative area of Iran, before foreigners began moving in and the cultural revolutions of the sixties and seventies became part of the norm. Luckily, Darznik is a talented writer. She masterfully recounts her mother’s experiences and contextualizes them by adding in some of the history and major political events that were taking place at the time. Of her mother’s marriage at the age of thirteen, Darznik writes:
Several years earlier, Reza Shah had raised the age of which girls could be married from nine to sixteen. There was, however, a provision by which families could handily circumvent this law. If a doctor or midwife examined a girl and found her body “mature,” she could be married at thirteen–three years earlier than the law formally allowed. The examination often included confirmation of the girl’s virginity, a detail without which the marriage preparations would not have proceeded.
The inclusion of these historical anecdotes certainly adds more nuance to the narrative and gives the reader a better appreciation for some of the choices Lili makes later in life. She grows up to become a midwife and often finds herself being asked to perform similar examinations on young girls; recalling the shame and vulnerability she experienced during the physical examination she was forced to undergo before marriage, Lili instead “examines” the girls by having an honest, private conversation with them. Knowing the impact that her “diagnosis” would have on the girls’ lives, Lili frequently certified far more “virgins” than she saw.
Naturally, I quickly grew to love Lili! She was always strict and held traditional Muslim values, but because of the hardships she faced throughout her life, she was also a realist.
Though the subtitle–A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life–is appropriate, the end of the book also serves as Darzik’s own memoir in which she negotiated her identity as an Iranian growing up in the United States:
I was doh-rageh, a two-veined child. Not “half” or “mixed,” as they say in America and many other countries besides, but double. Two. For Iranians, such legacies are carried in the body, intimate as blood and unopposable as destiny.
Parts of the book reminded me of another memoir I read earlier this year, Late for Tea at the Deer Palace; that author, Tamara Chalabi, is also a Middle Eastern woman who grew up in the United States. Though Chalabi writes of a lost Iraq and Darznik writes of Iran, both women wrote beautiful passages of that conveyed feelings of bereavement for countries that they barely remembered, yet were such an important part of their identity:
I’d forgotten home, I’d forgotten Iran, but just as some memories linger in spite of our longing to forget them, there are some loves that will take in just about any soil. When my mother Lili lined my bathtub with pomegranates, she was giving me an appetite for an unearthly fruit and the stories and secrets encased in its many-chambered heart, and this, she knew, was a pleasure from which not even a small girl could be exiled.
Darznik is a talented writer whose work is emotionally gripping. The Good Daughter is filled with the perseverance of strong Iranian women, though I couldn’t help but come away with a profound sense of sadness for all that they have lost; the overall effect is bittersweet. I would not hesitate recommending this to people.
The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life was released on January 27, 2011 by Grand Central Publishing, an imprint of Hachette Book Group.