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Massy Interviews / Golrokh Nafisi

In December, Massy Books + Massy Arts hosted Iran-based artist and writer Golrokh Nafisi for the in-person launch of her book “Gham/Sorrow/Tristezza” (2021, Oreri Publishing) in collaboration with Italian artist and writer Giuila Crispiani.

At the event, on the occasion of Nafisi’s visit to Vancouver, the author presented her book to the audience – a collection of illustrations paired with texts in Farsi, Arabic, Italian, and English, on the theme of sorrow and how it’s expressed in different languages. Copies of the book – directly from Italy – were available to purchase.

To understand more about Nafisi’s artistic process, Community Engagement Coordinator Rafael Zen interviewed the author for Massy Books, investigating the realms of sorrow – and how to extract knowledge from it.

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Golrokh Nafisi – Sorrow and the hidden emancipation in mourning

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Rafael Zen – In a text about the book, you say that in the past two years death has become a present matter in the minds of many of us, and we must create new spaces for poetry in grief. What do you think happens when a majority of people start grieving together – in a collective, global process? Do you think it allows us, as a society, to understand sorrow better?

Golrokh Nafisi – I do not think it is about a better understanding of sorrow, but rather an invitation for people around us to understand themselves better and see their wounds and pains. We often like to imagine what could happen if we mourned collectively—I believe we need to go through collective mourning to become more aware of the potential of our collective body.

In fact, there is hidden emancipation in mourning that allows us to show ourselves without the usual pretending. The fragility, honesty, and compassion we have in the moment of mourning make us more real beings. The moment of loss, as much as is the moment of ending, can give birth to unexpected new things.

In any geography, if people gather and mourn for a common cause, there is an unpredictable potential in their dynamic, and we will all be surprised when those potentials are released.

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RZ – You also claim that your book is in praise of the beauties of sorrow, a kind of poetry that addresses hidden layers of sadness, and different shades of blues. What are these different layers of sadness your book approaches? Could you give us an example—sending our readers one or two pages from the book that you think investigate these new shades?

GN – Before being ugly or beautiful, Gham is a complex combination of things. For example, if we are sad to lose someone, we experience a variety of emotions. Grief can turn into laziness or too much energy to do all the things the person who passed could not complete. It can turn into fear or into extraordinary courage. During the mourning period, we move from one of these feelings to another and experience them like a tumultuous journey.

As the result of a collection of free sketches over the time of mourning, this little book is in fact a suggestion for accepting this complexity and understanding its various layers. Of course, in the joint discovery of these layers, there is a collective charm—that is the beauty of empathy, solidarity, and compassion.

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RZ – Why choose to pair illustrations with texts in four languages: Farsi, Arabic, Italian, and English?

GN – Of course, this book is not a book in four languages, it is more of a book without language. Giulia and I have an ongoing conversation based on our shared experiences, and the outcome is often a combination of Giulia’s words and my illustrations. We have done various works based on this long conversation, along with the letters we write to each other.

In this conversation, English, a second (and colonial) language for both of us, is used only for the purpose of communication, but the way we express meaning, feelings, and terms that refer directly to our life experiences comes from our mother tongues: Italian and Farsi.

We try to add words in our conversation language and discover new meanings and connections. There are images inside each word and expression, which we constantly describe to each other.

The book Gham is a book in English and Italian with illustrations that include Persian words and expressions, some of which are common in Arabi too. The parts in English are not always a consequential translation of the Italian, because each reader is meant to grasp different things about the book.

Ideally, people could come together and see what they have felt, or what they can relate to. Basically here Giulia and I tried to share a map of the words, meanings, and images we drew around grief—more than making a book in several languages.

This book is an exercise in not reducing a word or an expression to its direct translation.

I should also mention that Luca and Andrea, the publishing house’s founders (Oreri, in Cagliari, Sardinia), and their dedication to design and publishing was a very important aspect within the final result, as important as the words and sentences inside the book.

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RZ – The book’s synopsis says that Sorrow is a reflection on sadness — and its names. What are the multiple names we will find/recognize by reading the book? What surprise turn / unexpected route has this investigation shown you?

GN – I wish I could ask this question to the readers of the book—and on the day of the book launch, a few comments and feedbacks were really interesting for me: someone had empathized with some of the figures in the book, for instance with an illustration of an upside-down body—she said one day when she woke up she felt that the world was upside down because she was deeply sad.

Or another friend talked about the illustration that had a hole in the middle of her body… for me this observation was quite unexpected because I thought it was just my personal experience.

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RZ – Could you send us your favorite illustration from the book? Why this one?

GN – Now that the book has been published, it is not easy for me to choose one since each of these images reminds me of a specific situation and about a day, but the illustration on the first page had the power of breaking suffocation for me. And when I was able to capture that suffocation, then I managed to draw the rest of the illustrations as well.

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Check + Purchase other titles on the theme of sorrow + grief

Click here to purchase “Invisible String” by Patrice Karst + Geoff Stevenson

Click here to pre-order “The Invisible Web” by Patrice Karst + Geoff Stevenson

Click here to purchase “The Art of Losing It” by Rosemary Keevil

Click here to purchase “Notes on Grief” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Click here to purchase “Crying in H Mart” by Michelle Zauner 

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