Writing and Madness in a Time of Terror by Afarin Majidi
Independently published, 2017
326 pages / Amazon
Afarin Majidi first gained recognition in the literary world under the pseudonym “Nasreen,” the muse-turned-villainess in James Lasdun’s memoir Give Me Everything You Have. Lasdun described Nasreen as an Iranian-American student with “far more promise and talent than the others.” His book was his account of their obsessive and volatile relationship, and speculation among readers swiftly began after the release of the book. “Who is the real Nasreen?” became the most Googled question in relation to his book, and while Majidi calls her book a response to his, it is so much more than that.
Majidi’s debut memoir Writing and Madness in a Time of Terror recounts her family’s ties to the Iranian Shah, their tumultuous escape from Iran during the Islamic Revolution, and the harsh realities they faced assimilating to a new culture in New Jersey.
Majidi’s sisters suffer from mental illness while they all attempt to adapt to a new and foreign life. Even in exile, they remain under threat and her cousin is murdered by an American vigilante while her father remains on a death list in Iran. Majidi muses on the complexities of growing up between two cultures and the xenophobia she experiences. She maintains good grades in school despite her severe anxiety and the financial instability her family faces. She turns to literature to escape being outcast at school and the reality of being coerced into an emotionally manipulative relationship.
While attending Barnard College and eventually earning her MFA in creative writing from The New School, Majidi deepens her love affair with literature and writing. She develops her voice as a writer inspired by “raw, downtrodden women who bled through the pages of their work”: writers such as Maggie Estep, Lydia Lunch, and Karen Finley. It is at the New School where Majidi first encounters James Lasdun as a professor and mentor.
Writing and Madness in a Time of Terror contains powerful reflections on Islamophobia, sexism, mental illness, trauma, identity, rape, and war. She demonstrates a love for language and a yearning for truth, and her confessional style of writing gives her work a tremendous intimacy with the reader.
Majidi suffers a series of destructive and abusive relationships while working at several different magazines and simultaneously working on her novel. She jumps in and out of relationships, yearning for love and connection, but often leaves these relationships more damaged. ”I wanted to distract myself from this maddening reality and the only pleasure I could think of to replace my pain was sex,” Majidi reflects.
She examines the exotification and fetishization of herself as a woman of color in these relationships and tears apart the slut-shaming and “playboy” double standard when others use it in attempts to demean her.
Majidi also delves into her experience living as a Middle Eastern woman from a Muslim family in New York City during and post 9/11, drawing parallels between the war she narrowly escaped in Iran as a child and the war that is launching around her as an adult. She laments:
I was worried that others were wary of me and could tell my nationality just by looking at me. I was horrified when I went back to work and my editor in chief turned to me and said: “Afarin, You’re Iranian, tell me, why do they hate us?
….I was afraid to vocalize my strong political opinions and my deepest disappointments in the U.S. government, especially when it came to its brutal foreign policy in the Middle East…..
I took on the suffering of the Iraqis as my own… I refused to watch the news; which was full of lies and gave no clear reasons as to why we were bombing a relatively weak country with such intensity. I was horrified watching Baghdad and its citizens go up in flames while reporters pretended that our government wasn’t burning hundreds of thousands of civilians alive. I was sure Iran was the next target and I hated myself for having the privilege of leaving that part of the world unscathed. I began curling up in bed and listening to the news and crying all day and night. I couldn’t tell if there was something terribly wrong with me, or if something was wrong with everyone around me who didn’t care.
As an American living in New York City, it was disheartening to read how Islamophobia so closely mirrors the wars many immigrants have come to America to try to escape.
Society doesn’t relent in reminding Majidi that she is an immigrant throughout the book and the landscape of war is never far away.
Cultural differences endanger Majidi’s one romantic relationship that begins with promise because he is Jewish and she is from a Muslim family. Majidi writes:
What cut me the deepest was that Alex kept alive his twisted fantasy that my mother was an Eastern European Jew who’d been forcedly converted to Islam and didn’t know it. My stomach pains returned every time he brought up this fairytale. Knowing that I wasn’t good enough weighed heavily on me.
I felt the heavy impacts of discrimination reading that paragraph and throughout the book.
Majidi is elated when she is hired by Rolling Stone magazine, but her experience is soon soured as she is eventually drugged and raped by two co-workers at the magazine. She illustrates this environment as a hellish and misogynistic boy’s club. Following this trauma, much of Majidi’s work vanishes and she descends into madness, ultimately relying on Ritalin to achieve the unrealistic deadline for her novel.
As her world crumbles, she reconnects with her writing professor James Lasdun, and becomes fixated on him; emailing him furiously during her periods of mania. She oscillates between detesting him and imagining him to be her savior, while overwhelmed with paranoid delusions and plagued by scenarios of what had happened to her in the lost hours of consciousness while she was drugged. When we write openly about crucial subjects like mental illness and rape; we are helping to de-stigmatize these issues.
Gut wrenching at times, Writing and Madness in a Time of Terror is not for the faint of heart. Majidi does not hold back in her often lurid and sometimes graphic descriptions of horrific memories. It became arduous at times for me to observe the severity of her mental deterioration and to absorb the depictions of abuse and trauma.
After being sleep deprived for nearly two weeks. My lips turned purple, and I weighed one hundred pounds, nearly twenty pounds below my normal weight. I was filthy too, my black hair slicked with oil. I refused to shower, believing the water was laced with the same poisonous gas I was already breathing…..
A thick fog cast an ominous cloud over the empty cul-de-sac. I knew it was an obscene hour to be awake, so when my neighbor came outside, I panicked. He ran to his car when he saw me, which made me even more suspicious. Was he watching me for Homeland Security or for the people who’d hurt me in New York? My face was still wrapped in the scarf to keep the gas away but I could smell it again-even outside. I ran through the complex, my heart hammering while I pounded on all the front doors, yelling for everyone to get out because of a block-wide gas leak. It was only a matter of time before someone lit a match and the entire neighborhood went up in flames.
As someone who lives with Bipolar Affective Disorder, with which Majidi is eventually diagnosed, I found paragraphs like these to be profound in their candor. I could relate to the delusions and mania she experienced.
At times Majidi writes with a sense of urgency as if she’s had these stories erupting inside her for far too long, begging for release.
It was easy to empathize with Majidi, as her evocative writing made her experiences real for the reader, too. Passages like this one intensified my heartbeat and heightened my anxiety:
He took his aggression out on me in a quieter way. The sex got rough, rougher than my underdeveloped fifteen-year-old body could handle. Having sex with the man I didn’t love and to whom I wasn’t attracted to was painful enough…He hurt me so badly one day that I was bleeding.
But as painful as it was at times to read Majidi’s memoir, it became difficult to look away and impossible to stop consuming her words on each page. I quickly became immersed in this book and wanted to see her survive against the odds. And survive she does.
Majidi’s memoir doesn’t end like a fairytale. Nobody swoops into her rescue. There are no trivializing and simplifying anecdotes regarding how everything gets better. It was refreshing to me that this book doesn’t impose a “happily ever after” narrative, a cliché that alienates readers like me, who are still struggling. Ultimately, Majidi rescues herself. Sometimes we must become our own saviors. The very act of her survival was an act of defiance.
Majidi does not disappoint in baring her bones for this gritty and revealing debut. Her work delves into and examines the darkness, but that is not to say that it is devoid of light. On the contrary, she emerges from her struggles resilient and thoughtfully reflective.
There’s always been something hypnotic for me about memoir; hearing someone’s deepest memories, thoughts, and struggles. It quells feelings of alienation and gives a deeper understanding of the human psyche.
She grapples with her past behaviors during manic episodes in this book. I have grappled with similar realities after manic episodes, and for me, Majidi’s work helps demonstrate that our behavior during states of mania don’t have to define us. While her work gave me insight into experiences and struggles not of my own, Majidi’s theme of self-discovery and her message of survival are universal.
A survivor’s story, well-timed to coincide with the #MeToo movement and women taking their narratives back, Writing and Madness in a Time of Terror is a testament that Majidi is far from the one-dimensional trope of the mad woman that James Lasdun portrays her to be. For every woman who is called mad, hysterical and histrionic, there is a very human woman with her own memories of the truth. In this case, her name is Afarin Majidi, and this is her brave story.
Lily O’Delia is a writer currently working on her full-length memoir. She is published in several anthologies and a handful of great outlets. You can follow her here (She follows back!): https://twitter.com/SarahShutterson