‘There’s power in sharing these secrets’ – Shabnam Curtis
Shabnam Curtis says, “Art doesn’t die. People have an innate need to create. The government can suppress it, but they cannot kill it.”
Curtis repeats those words often. She knows what it’s like to be told to stay quiet, to keep her opinions and her talents to herself. And she knows what it takes to give up everything familiar to her to stay true to herself.
Curtis was born in Iran in 1972, seven years before Iran’s revolution that ousted the last monarch of Iran, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and ushered in an era of Islamic extremism and repression. As a young girl, Curtis watched as her father hauled away his precious books to be burned, as friends were arrested, and as women like her mother and aunt grew ever more marginalized.
At 19, she reluctantly married. When she later gave birth to her daughter, Parnian, she was determined to give her a better life and that meant escaping Iran.
Escape from Iran
Leaving the country with her daughter became the biggest challenge of her life. Her second husband won a lottery green card for the two of them to move to the U.S., but they could not take Parnian. In Iran, custody of children goes to the father when the mother remarries after a divorce, so nothing could be done.
Shabnam made the heart-wrenching decision to leave her behind, knowing she would work tirelessly to get her daughter out of Iran.
“The day I left I made sure she was going to the best English classes in Iran so that she was motivated and she knew that getting her out of Iran was my sole purpose in moving to the U.S.,” Curtis said.
Her husband at the time did little to help reunite mother and daughter, leaving Parnian’s name off any of the immigration paperwork, which only made it more difficult to get her immigration approved.
“He didn’t want me to tell anyone in America about my daughter. He was hoping we’d come to the U.S. and live a totally different life without her,” Curtis said. “I told him ‘no, you’re taking a big part away from me. You can’t just change me like that.’”
Six years after she moved to the U.S., she finally got the needed approval to bring her daughter with her.
“It felt too long for both of us, but in a weird way, it bonded us. She knew how much I wanted her to have a life of opportunity.”
‘This is what repression looks like’
Finally U.S. authorities approved her daughter’s immigration status. Thereafter, the two tried to settle into a new American life. Curtis got out of her second marriage to another controlling man. She landed a great job as a program analyst, putting her engineering degree to good use.
“It was kind of like the American dream, but I still felt some void—I was like, ‘what is wrong with me?’”
She felt pulled in two directions. Part of her wanted to rid her life of anything that reminded her of Iran. But part of her missed the food, the language, the culture. She’d listen to the Iranian national anthem—the anthem of the Iran’s previous, less oppressive government—and she couldn’t help but cry.
“I felt this huge confusion inside. An inner fight. It got to the point of, maybe I need to write these feelings down.”
So she started writing what became her memoir. The book, My Persian Paradox, released in March 2019, details her experience growing up under the Islamic Republic.
“As soon as I started writing it was like, oh my gosh, this is what was missing,” she said. “Writing, and telling my story, became my passion. I wanted to say, this is what repression looks like. This is what it does to you.”
‘I can’t keep the secrets of my experience’
Curtis doesn’t downplay the impact, for better or worse, of her book on her life and the lives of her friends and family. She knows she’s risking so much to shine a light into a little-known world, but she says the risks are worth it.
In the forward of her book, Shabnam makes clear that she is not religious. The punishment for that in Iran is execution.
But she says she’s no longer willing to yield to a culture that keeps women—their talents, their beauty, their voice—in the shadows.
“You know that cliché ‘don’t air the dirty laundry?’ Well I can’t keep the secrets of my experience. I feel lonely and other people who are having the same secret feel lonely,” she says. “There’s power in sharing these secrets.”
The struggle of Iran’s artists
She talks about artists, writers and musicians who the Iranian government has arrested, tortured and killed for their work.
“I’m not the first person to do it but I wanted to continue the path that other Iranian artists started. To share the secret. To open up.”
She and her family have risked their safety to get the book into the hands of Iranians still living in the country. She sent a few copies back to Iran with her uncle and mother. “My mother was so nervous. She said ‘what if someone opens my suitcase?’
Shabnam Curtis stays in touch with several Iranian artists to encourage them to continue producing their work. When one artist wrote her, “I wish I had a copy of your book,” Curtis immediately emailed her the manuscript.
“I told her, feel free to distribute it to anyone in Iran. Because I know it’s not possible for this book to be published in Iran but I want people to read it.”
Curtis knows she cannot return to Iran, even for a short visit. “Because of this book, as long as this regime is in power, I can’t go back.”
A New Chapter
Still, she says sharing her story was worth it. And she’s writing a sequel to My Persian Paradox that will be published in 2021.
She says that each little act of expression in Iran is an act toward change, and she’ll continue using the written word to do just that.
“A friend of mine said something really beautiful: that a culture that has good storytellers never dies. It’s not about a powerful military or economy. It’s about sharing these stories of everyday people. And in Iran we do have powerful storytellers who share stories through various art forms,” she says. “That’s why I wrote this book.”
Journalist and author Danielle Nadler grew up in South Dakota, where a patient writing teacher fostered in her a love for stories told well. She's worked for newspapers in the Midwest, on the West Coast and the East Coast, and recently launched a storytelling company called Tales and Ales.