An Interview with Golnoosh Nour

In one of your interviews, you mentioned how “short story as an art form provides a comfortable cradle for queerness.” Did this idea influence how you brought The Ministry of Guidance to life? And what was the overall journey of writing this story like?

Yes, this idea certainly influenced The Ministry—one of my main objectives with this book was to represent as many Iranian queer characters as possible, so short stories seemed like the best option. But I also enjoy writing short stories a lot. I can write one in a day, which agrees with my temperament. I find it a hugely rewarding artform.

Identity is a critical facet of the narratives we surround ourselves with. We want to see our varied selves represented on the page. As a writer, what was the driving force behind bringing together Iranian cultural identity and queer identity?

Ironically, one of the things that inspired Ministry is what one of our former presidents once said. In 2007, Mahmood Ahmadinejad announced that there are no homosexuals in Iran. Although I’m not a homosexual myself (I am bisexual), I was enraged by this statement. I am also extremely interested in and inspired by gay literature. I also felt invisible as an Iranian queer woman. I have attended the most decadent gay parties in Iran, so my experience of my country is a very queer experience, despite what its government wants and what the Western narratives of Iran insist on.

One very strong theme in many of your stories has been that of exile and belonging. Where does this emphasis on the ceaseless feeling of being an outsider in your own land and elsewhere come from?

I’ve always struggled with belonging. I feel like an outsider in Iran, and I feel like an outsider in the UK. As a queer writer, I’ve often felt bored and suffocated by heteronormative societal rules. I don’t mean to generalize, but many Iranians feel like outsiders, especially Iranian queers and younger Iranians who seldom feel welcome in Iran—but it’s not easy to leave either, for emotional and financial reasons, and the racism of other countries towards Iranians. But many queers from all over the world feel like outsiders, too. Perhaps there is something about our historically taboo desires that still makes our presence awkward. Originally, I didn’t plan to write about issues of exile and belonging, but it just happened . . . In retrospect, you can’t write a book in the mode of literary realism about Iranian queers and not end up exploring exile.

You once spoke about overturning the “hostage narrative” of Iran and its sexualities through your work. This hostage narrative is a result of how westernized and exoticized literary works set in the Middle East tend to be. How has this impacted your writing in both the short story and poetry genres?

“Hostage narrative” is a genius term coined by the Iranian scholar Farzaneh Milani, who came up with it to address the descriptions of Iranian women—often produced by Iranian women themselves—in the West. Milani argues that these descriptions focus on a victim narrative and offer “caged” representations of complex and contingent reality, thereby dismissing Iranian women’s contribution to culture. When I read this, it deeply resonated with me. I was sick of simplistic narratives of us and our sexuality. Every time Iranian women are discussed or represented in Western art or media, they are often cishet women, who’ve been abused by every man in Iran, managed to achieve freedom in the West, and now happily planning to get pregnant by their lovely white husbands. Frankly, it’s boring, reductive, and heteronormative. So, yes, it was one of my main objectives to write against this narrative, to show Iranian queer women, powerful Iranian women, with non-heteronormative desires and intentions, who have complicated relationships with Iran. I don’t think anything should be simplified, especially about a country as complicated as Iran.

We’ve spoken at length on some of the critical themes that your writing covers. On a personal level, what made you want to be a writer, and what made you persevere in this challenging field?

I wanted to be a writer even before I learned to read and write. From an early age, I was fascinated by stories, words, and ideas. I started journaling as soon as I learned to read and write. I wrote my first poem when I was nine, and my first story when I was fifteen. I started blogging when I was eighteen until I was twenty-three. Being a writer wasn’t really a decision, it was more of an urge, a deep and urgent desire that I just followed. My literature teachers at school always praised my writing, which gave me a lot of confidence. By the time I was accepted to study English Literature at Shahid Beheshti University, I knew full well I wanted to do literature for the rest of my life. However, I had to accept the tragic fact that I could never get published in my own country, on my own terms. In fact, the title story, “The Ministry of Guidance,” is closely based upon a real experience of mine with the publishing industry in Iran. But I was young, restless, and ambitious, so I trained myself to write in English; that’s why I did an MA in Creative Writing in the UK. Being praised by my friends, teachers, and blog readers wasn’t enough, I wanted to be a published author, so I set a goal for myself. I kept telling myself, you will die young, so you need to publish a book before you’re thirty, and my first book was finally published when I was twenty-nine—almost dead in many ways, but not quite gone . . .

You’re both a writer and a poet—how has poetry impacted you? What are some of the deep-seated motivations and stories behind the poems you create?

I don’t know about the motivations. Sometimes poetry erupts out of me. I know it sounds deeply pretentious and slightly crazy, but I have an instinctive relationship with poetry. I read and write more prose than I read and write poetry because poetry has that power to really kill me. It erupts out of me often in the most inconvenient moments, sometimes during insomniac anxious nights, or after a panic attack or when I’m struggling with something. Whereas I have a much healthier (!) relationship with prose. I enjoy writing it more because I can plan it properly, so my prose is much more measured and deliberate.

Given how The Ministry of Guidance is full of pop culture references, what are some books and music you’ve enjoyed this year that you would like to recommend to our readers?

Last year, 2021, was a fantastic year for books, both prose and poetry; my favorites are:

Some of my favorite songs from last year are:

  • “Beautiful James” and “Surrounded by Spies” by Placebo
  • “Chemtrails over the Country Club” and “Yosemite” by Lana Del Ray
  • “If You Say the Word” by Radiohead
  • “Woman” by Little Simz

Congratulations on the publication of your newly released poetry collection Rocksong! It looks absolutely gorgeous. What was the process behind writing this collection? What are some writing projects next on your plate?

There is no such a thing as a “process” behind my poetry. These poems just erupted out of me throughout the years, and when I put them all together, I realized I had enough for a collection. Of course, it has a measured structure, and I polished the book a lot, but it took me a long time to find the order in the chaos of my poems!

I am working on another short story collection, and I’m having a lot of fun with it. I am doing everything I please with the form and content, and so far, it’s been a wonderfully wild ride! One of the stories, which I believe is my best story yet, will be published in Japan in an exciting leather-bound Neo-Decadent anthology edited by Justin Isis.

What are some words of advice that you would like to share with up-and-coming writers trying to break into the writing industry?

Read ferociously.

Follow your instinct and intellect.

Don’t let this capitalist industry affect your art or your enthusiasm for art.

Don’t be ashamed of your words, if you feel ashamed, it might mean your work needs more editing and cutting; kill and celebrate your darlings but most importantly, be wild and enjoy the ride!

Golnoosh Nour, Interviewed by Asmaani Kumar

Golnoosh Nour was born in Tehran in 1988. She did a BA in English Literature at Shahid Beheshti University. She then moved to the UK to do an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. Her first poetry book Sorrows of the Sun was published in 2017 under her then pseudonym Sogol Sur. In 2019, Golnoosh gained her practice-based PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London. She taught creative writing at UEL, Birkbeck, and the University of Bedfordshire. She is now teaching at the University of Reading and Westminster. Golnoosh’s debut short story collection The Ministry of Guidance was published in 2020 by Muswell Press, and has been shortlisted for the Polari Prize. In 2020, Golnoosh also designed and hosted a literary radio program for Soho Radio Culture, and appeared on the BBC Cultural Frontline and Woman’s Hour to discuss her work. Golnoosh’s full length poetry collection Rocksong is forthcoming from Verve Poetry Press in October 2021. Currently, Golnoosh is co-editing issue 80 of Magma and Queer Life, Queer Love forthcoming from Muswell Press. Golnoosh has performed both her prose and poetry in numerous events and festivals in the UK and internationally, including at the Stoke Newington Literature Festival, Humber Mouth Literature Festival, Fringe Festival, SOAS, the Poetry Café, UCL Art Society Exhibitions, Tate Lambeth Library, Royal Vauxhall Tavern, and isn’t everything poetry in Berlin. Golnoosh’s fiction has appeared in Granta, her poetry translation in Columbia Journal, her nonfiction in The Independent, and her poetry in many publications including Poetry Anthology, The Bombay Review, Spontaneous Poetics, selffuck, and Ink Sweat & Tears.

Asmaani Kumar is a graduate in Sociology from Delhi University. Brought up in Guwahati, Assam and currently living in Delhi, she works as a writer for a media company. You’ll always find her taking the longer road for walks while blasting music in her ears. A hardcore postcard collector who spends too much time writing letters, reading poetry, gazing up at the skies and daydreaming of being in the mountains or a seaside village, these days she has been trying to learn new things like a language, an instrument, and cooking. What brings her happiness more than anything is stories, seen, read, or heard and she hopes she can spend a lifetime telling stories, sometimes her own but mostly of the people she comes across. She’s always ready to listen.