[Vahid] symbolizes the unity of God, and thus the number 19 itself symbolizes the unity of God” (Hornby 415).
Each of the four “books” begins with a murder—the murder of a king, a prime minister, a mayor, and a mullah. As such, there is a certain crime/mystery inflection in the pages of the novel. Amidst the mystical descriptions of the impact that the poetess’s words have upon the characters around her, the narrative hints at a numinous connection between these murders of men in power and the poetess herself. In truth, all the events recounted in the novel consistently lead back to the poetess of Qazvin.
In the character of the poetess, Nakhjavani creates an enigmatic figure. The poetess of Qazvin is revealed through the thoughts and words of other characters such as the Queen Mother, the corpse washer, and the Sister of the Shah. Rather than a word-painted portrait of the poetess, however, Nakhjavani presents what might be likened to a dynamic negative space drawing. The poetess of Qazvin emerges through the views of the people around her, yes, but this technique is no mere third-person description. The reader comes to know the poetess through the thoughts and words of the vicious, vapid, corrupt, arrogant, and power hungry in the novel. In this way, a complex picture is created, one in which the derogatory descriptions of the poetess paradoxically prompt the readers to align themselves utterly with the protagonist.
Although the text reveals the poetess’s transgressions—involving the promotion of literacy, the refusal of the Shah’s advances, and the removal of her veil—Nakhjavani refrains from revealing the particulars of her religious philosophy, the very beliefs which lead to these revolutionary acts. Indeed, while the narrative itself makes mention of the Seven Martyrs of Tehran and references the Bábís, it never refers to the Bahá’í or Bábí Faiths by name. Nevertheless, Nakhjavani does not leave the true-historical aspect of her novel in question. At the end of the novel, in addition to the extensive bibliography, the author provides a “Chronicle of Cadavers.” In it, she gives a list of death dates and proper names, clarifying the historical basis of characters referred to by appositives throughout the text. This list includes the date of the martyrdom of the seven Bábís in Tehran, the martyrdom of the Báb in Tabriz, and the death of Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn herself (513). In this way, Nakhjavani leaves space in the narrative for the reader to decide whether or not to investigate the historiography behind the story—for those who, as she notes in her epilogue, may wish to distinguish truth from creative writing (511).
The independent investigation of truth is a foundational principle of the Bahá’í Faith and, as such, is a key component of the message conveyed through this intricate narrative. Put simply, this principle is an injunction against accepting “truth” uncritically, blindly, or unquestioningly. In a talk given in 1912 in Boston, Massachusetts, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, son of Bahá’u’lláh and named by Him as His successor in His Will and Testament, explains the concept as follows: “God has endowed [man] with mind, or the faculty of reasoning, by the exercise of which he is to investigate and discover the truth, and that which he finds real and true he must accept. He must not be an imitator or blind follower of any soul” (291). The independent investigation of truth, then, is a prerequisite for ascertaining truth; it is insufficient to base premises of the truth of reality on tradition, habit, or hearsay.
In The Woman Who Read Too Much, Nakhjavani creates a world in which the act of reading is placed in contrast with orthodox customs of the clergy and the gossip of the court; it is imbued with power and implies a subversive perspicuity. Moreover, the protagonist, this woman who reads, is the object of vilification by antagonists who stand in danger of losing power to the new way of reading reality that the poetess embodies and promulgates among both men and women. Indeed, if the independent investigation of truth is dependent upon the ability to read, then it is imperative that Nakhjavani create a world where to read is to open a way for truth, a truth not barred from either gender.
The protagonist of the novel is thus necessarily invested in teaching others to understand reality in a new way. The narrative describes the poetess’s work as infused with passion: “She exhorted, pleaded, begged and, in short, battled so that a way might be opened to truth” (393). Truth is worth fighting for, and for the poetess, as the reader discovers, worth dying for. With such an attitude, it follows that the poetess would not hesitate in teaching her “enemies” to read, for as she laments to her father, it is vital that people think for themselves (427).
The non-chronological nature of the narrative warrants comment. Nakhjavani plays with the time frames of past, present, and future. Although it is not unusual for postmodernist fiction to offer non-chronological narratives (Smyth 9), the use of this technique in Nakhjavani’s historical novel has the specific function of drawing our attention, metafictionally, to how we ourselves participate in the act of reading. The first sentences of each chapter, for example, require a certain puzzling out of the time being narrated: Is it before the poetess’s death, or is it after? Is it during her girlhood or during her imprisonment? The initial uncertainty is only eliminated as we read on. In this deliberate slow reveal, we as readers enter into Nakhjavani’s narrative, becoming aware of our own act of reading while reading the enunciated text itself. With her non-standard chronological sequence of chapters, Nakhjavani creates the need, in other words, for the reader to follow the tacit directive underlying the text: think, reason, figure things out for yourself.
As the trajectory of the poetess’s life is revealed through the non-standard chronology, her passion for learning and literacy, her accusations of heresy by the religious hegemony, her imprisonment, and her strangulation all are revealed. The narrative does not end upon the death of the poetess, however; rather, her words and her legacy remain a warning and a source of inspiration for the other characters of the novel and, implicitly, for the reader. And these lessons harken back to the investigation of truth and, through reading, the possibility of insights beyond one’s expectations. As the poetess of Qazvin teaches:
If you only look at the word that’s under your noses . . . you’ll never see the connection with what came before and what comes next. If you only see what’s happening now, you’ll never understand the link between yesterday and tomorrow. Let your eyes move across the page and you’ll remember the future. (65–66)
‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace. US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982.
Amirrezvani, Anita. Equal of the Sun: A Novel. Scribner, 2012.
———. The Blood of Flowers: A Novel. Bay Back Books, 2007.
Fleishman, Avrom. The English Historical Novel: Walter Scott to Virginia Woolf. John Hopkins UP, 1971.
Hornby, Helen. Lights of Guidance: A Bahá’í Reference File. US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1988.
Nakhjavani, Bahíyyih. Asking Questions: A Challenge to Fundamentalism. George Ronald, 1990.
———. Four on an Island. George Ronald, 1983.
———. The Woman Who Read Too Much: A Novel. Stanford UP, 2015.
———. When We Grow Up. George Ronald, 1979.
Neill, Rosemary. “The Face—Anita Amirrezvani.” Australian, 1 March 2008.
Shoghi Effendi. God Passes By. US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1965.
Smyth, Edmund J. Postmodernism and Contemporary Fiction. BT Batsford, 1992.
Mary A. Sobhani holds her doctorate in Comparative Literature from the University of Arkansas. This article is based on the research she did for her 2014 dissertation entitled Transnational Historical Fiction in a Postsecular Age: A Study of the Spiritual Theses in the Works of Luis Alberto Urrea and Bahiyyih Nakhjavani. She currently teaches courses in Spanish, Latin American Literature, and Latin American Civilization at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith.