Adolescence is a universally grave hour. Mine was made graver by a revolution in 1979 in my beloved birth country of Iran. The mutiny I felt within had an echo in the world without. On the streets, martial law was in effect. Tehran was burning, bleeding.
A popular American belief holds that the act of writing can somehow save the writer. But having written a couple of books and countless essays, I disagree. What saved me was not writing, but reading.
The belief that writing can bring one back from the brink existed in Iran, too. I avidly kept a diary, and wrote poetry. Eventually, a painter took me seriously and introduced me to a literary critic: a dour, lanky man with a Che Guevara mustache, a dramatic head of salt-and-pepper curls and a memorably hoarse voice. In his kitchen — immaculate enough to conduct surgery in — he proceeded to doexactly that to the dozen poems I read him. A minor grunt here, a sigh of boredom there, each to emphasize an imperfection in what I’d composed. In the end, he only said: “You must read. You must do nothing but read. Read the great modern poets. Above all, read Ahmad Shamlou.”