Hiding from watch lists and lost in translation: Marjorie Lotfi Gill on self-censorship

Marjorie Lotfi Gill explores what censorship means for her when writing about friends, family, and the Iranian Revolution.

Earlier this year, a friend looking to organise an event exploring the poetry of the jihad told me that none of the academics she’d tried to contact had returned her emails (even though articles on the subject had already appeared in The New YorkerThe Atlantic and newspapers like The Guardian). She then joked that perhaps, by including the word jihad in the subject line of her emails, she’d quietly placed herself on some kind of watch list.

That exchange got me thinking about what I censor out of my writing, both from a fear that I’ll either get it wrong, or worse, implicate others in ways that I haven’t imagined or anticipated. Because of current world events, I’ve been writing a lot about my experience of growing up in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution, and specifically about my memories of family during that time. Now, every time an Iranian family member makes it into one of my poems, my instinct is to take that person out and find another way forward. While I know that poems are best grounded in detail, they tend to be vague in meaning by design, and I can never be certain how the poems will be read once the words leave my care. (One of the best things about poetry, that possibility that narratives and words can mean different things to different readers, can also be dangerous in the context of a politically sensitive country.)

Of course, it’s not just the political danger I want to avoid, but the possibility that my intention could be lost in translation, that the words could contain some cultural slight that I didn’t consider or remember. When using words in Farsi, I always have a lingering concern that the words I want to use (because they’re the ones I remember or would have used) contain another meaning. And then there’s the worry that the use of Farsi alone might tag me or my family in some way, land us on a list.

These issues aren’t unique to me; as writers, we’re all considering the words we choose to use and their impact on those around us, adjusting and editing to be sure that we don’t unintentionally injure or implicate others in the process. Writers often say that they weren’t able to write a certain work (or any work, in some cases) until a particular family member died, that the story being told would have caused too much harm during a particular person’s lifetime. Other writers change the people and places in their work with the hope that they become unrecognizable, but that too can lead to suspicion and the projection of people and places into work where they don’t belong.

How does the foreknowledge of our self-censorship affect what we choose to write about, both in terms of the subjects we tackle and the points of reference we use? Do I make different decisions when writing a poem about Iran? Most definitely. Do I choose to write about other conflicts – Syria, say, or Palestine – rather than the ones directly affecting my family? Sometimes. If I’m already aware of this self-censorship when I write, how many other subjects, people and places am I also subconsciously avoiding? What work might emerge if I were to lift the ban?