I had the honor of attending a writer’s workshop with Iranian writer Shahriar Mandanipour this past week through City of Asylum in Pittsburgh.  We focused on point of view and read a series of short stories that focused on various perspectives and discussed how to recognize and read stories written from first, third person limited, and third person omniscient.

The first night we read “In the Grove” by Japan’s Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, out loud together, and prepared for the second class by reading, “The Shape of the Sword” by Jorge Luis Borges.  Our read aloud in the second class was “Lather and Nothing Else” by Hernando Téllez.  To prepare for the third and final class, we read “The Bath” by Raymond Carver and then prepared to read Ernest Hemingway’s, “The Killers” aloud together. In the beginning of the class, we discussed Barthe’s “death of an author” and the notion that the author’s intent is irrelevant once the story is complete.  As we prepared to read this final story, one of the seven members of our workshop got up and said, “Not tonight. Maybe another night, but not tonight.”

We broke for a regular five-minute break before reading and the author stepped out.  While we normally disperse and regroup, the six of us stayed in our seats to discuss the abrupt exit of our peer.

We were preparing to read a short mystery.  We, too, had clues about our classmate’s exit.  She was black, African-American.  The story was written in America, in 1927.  Not all of us had read it, but some of us noted the “N” word was used liberally through the story.  One group member, a white male, suspected that sparked her exit.  Another black woman in our group was certain.  We talked about the word; rather than put the decision on one person, we collectively asked, “Who would be comfortable reading this story?” We all had varying levels of discomfort and decided to ask for discussion when Mandanipour returned.

When the author returned, we subtly explained the situation.  He took a deep breath and told us a story that went something like this:

After the Islamic Revolution, we had two and a half years of freedom but after that we did not have the freedom to read and share literature.  Then there were attacks from Hezbollah on writers and we had to reorganize how we came together to share literature and writing.  A poet disappeared and his body was found in the desert.  Then, a translator— one famous for translating the work of Octavio Paz— disappeared.  It was made to appear as if he had died of alcohol, when really a poison was found in his body.  Another writer and his son on his knee were killed.  We then had a new president, a reformer, but assassination attempts on writers continued.  I, myself, was in a bus of writers headed to Armenia in which the driver attempted to crash the bus— unsuccessfully– into a valley twice.  It is because of these conditions that writers cannot gather to share their work and must gather together in each others’ homes to read to each other. It is this style of sharing that I wish for you to understand.

Now.  Who wants to start? 

No one was ready to start.  We looked at each other, unsure if there was an intentional message in his story about the importance of not censoring ourselves or if something had been lost translation.  In a second attempt, we explained more explicitly that the word “Nigger” is offensive and a loaded word, even when contextualized historically. Mandanipour laughed; he thought that we just didn’t like reading out loud. Now, he understood.  We talked a bit more.  Now, what should we do?

The black woman offered to read the story. No.  We will all read the story.  I started to read.

I never believed we should censor The Killers, but I immediately knew it was important to acknowledge and validate the feelings in the room before we moved forward.  In discussing the controversy, the context, and the difficulty we have as a nation confronting racism in our past and present, it seemed we had established some trust among us, so that we could read the story, and move beyond our emotions on the surface to the deeper point of view Hemingway’s story offered.

And there it was:  No censorship, painful prose, the human experience, point of view.

Oh— and, going back to that brief mention of Barthes, I believe Mandanipour’s story was a message about not censoring ourselves, even if that wasn’t his intent.