Divided Loyalties by Nilofar Shidmehr, reviewed by Lea Bickel • Empty Mirror

Divided Loyalties by Nilofar Shidmehr / House of Anansi / 978-1487006020 / 2019 / 320 pages

Divided Loyalties by Nilofar ShidmehrWith Divided Loyalties, Nilofar Shidmehr takes on the demanding challenge of uniting historical events, relatable characters, and complex stories; and succeeds incredibly. She takes us through the suffering of a country and that of the individual, establishes a marvelous reading experience, despite the deep sadness many of her stories entail.

In a time where more than 200 individuals are believed to be killed during protests in Iran, and more than 1000 have been arrested since they began in November 2019, Divided Loyalties gives insights into the lives of Iranian women during the turbulent times that the country has gone through since the revolution in 1978 and 1979. To date, Nilofar Shidmehr has published four Business Relationships of poetry, a novella, and two collections of short stories in Farsi and English.

After a moving novella in verse, Shirin and Salt Man and Between Lives, an intimate collection of poetry, Divided Loyalties is her debut collection of short stories published in English. From the first story which takes place in Teheran one year before the Iranian Revolution until the last story of the collection, set in 2008, the author takes us on a journey through Iran’s turbulent history, from before the Iranian revolution, through post-revolutionary Iran and the Iranian diaspora in Canada.

In each of the nine moving stories, the author opens a door to the individual stories of these women and establishes a personal connection with them. While united in the constant search of identity and belonging and of managing the ramification of expectations laid upon them, the narratives, lives, and experiences of each woman are inherently different.

“Maman?” Homa turned to her daughter, who stopped bobbing her leg. “Yes.”
“Yes, what?” Roya asked.
“Yes, I am coming to talk to your father,” Homa announced. “You are my daughter, and I love you.” As she hugged Roya, the door opened and Soraya stepped in. “What about me? Please take me to Canada too,” she said, joining their embrace, framed in the silver-rimmed mirror. “You are next on the list, Maman.” Homa laughed.

The last story, “Family Reunion in the Mirror,” closes with the introduction to a complicated relationship between a mother, Homa, and her daughter Roya on the base of the daughter’s wish to immigrate to Canada. Grief, loss, and pain often fill the stories, and yet the author forms a space within that she discusses complicated matters of race, gender, inequities, and class in the realms of poetic language. There is absolute darkness present in the collection, that one can find in many of the characters as well, presenting the reader with a psychological challenge. It is the mysterious, yet provoking, darkness that makes me want to keep reading.

“I am sorry,” Mary said. The old man didn’t seem to hear her. He had his gaze fixed on his own daughter. The aid workers brought two plastic covers from the tent. As they lifted the girl’s body to place her in the bag, the old man suddenly jerked forward and ran toward them. He ripped the plastic from the body and kicked his daughter’s corpse back into the ruins. “Leave the girl who mortified me here to rot.”
The girl’s body fell on its back, her big brown eyes wide open.

The close recount of the aftermath of an earthquake in “Saving the Dead,” carefully tells the story of a tragedy after a father’s discovery about his dead daughter. It is depicted with such rawness and authenticity that I wished this story could never resemble reality. While reading, I am riding an emotional rollercoaster, caused by an intensely intimate relationship with the women and fascinating imagery, leaving me speechless. Shidmehr succeeds to craft complex and determined characters, who are each torn between sides, countries, individuals. Divided Loyalties. She portrays the double lives and secrets, defining many of the women’s reality, in extraordinarily raw and honest prose, which is nothing like I have read before. In stories moving between Canada and Iran, she crafts an authentic account of the divided loyalties of Iranian women. Their pain, their desires, their wishes, and the lives they constuct for themselves pull through the collection as the central theme.

The way the author organized the stories enables us to quickly understand the conflicts these women have, including the various difficulties and challenges they are facing. These strong, incredible women are at different stages in their lives, live in Iran or Canada, are concerned with their family back in their home country, or face the adversities of immigration. However, Shidmehr astonishingly creates a bond between them through the question of what it means to be an Iranian woman. What it has meant in the past and what it means today. She indeed shows the divide of loyalty all her characters face, whether that concerns their family, love or homes. With Divided Loyalties, Shidmehr wrote a masterpiece, uniting a feminist and political discourse with the questions of identity and migration in astonishing prose.

As the country of Iran continues to face political, social, and historical struggles, causing manipulation, death, and danger by police forces, other parts of the world normalize the happenings. If one has not already, now is the time to read Divided Loyalties.

About Lea Bickel

Lea is a creative writing student from Germany, currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. She has been reading and writing prose ever since she was little and imagines to spread the word about feminist and political discourses.

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