The Woman Who Read Too Much: A NovelJanuary 19, 2018 — 8 mins
Reviewed by Mary Sobhani for The Journal of Bahá’í Studies.
Bahíyyih Nakhjavani’s novel The Woman Who Read Too Much is a work of literary art. Although neither the Bahá’í nor the Bábí Faiths are mentioned by name in this narrative, the novel centers on a Bábí heroine acclaimed by Shoghi Effendi as the “first woman suffrage martyr” and declared by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to be “the calamity of the age . . . a brand afire with the love of God” (Shoghi Effendi 75; ‘Abdu’l-Bahá qtd. in Shoghi Effendi 75). Based upon the life of the historical poet and scholar Táhirih Qurratu’l-Ayn, The Woman Who Read Too Much offers a fictionalized retelling of the life, death, and prophesies of the woman known in the novel as the poetess of Qazvin.
If one holds with the tradition exemplified in Avrom Fleishman’s The English Historical Novel—that novels are best examined within their national contexts—one is presented with certain complexities in reviewing Nakhjavani’s novel. In which context should it be situated? Although Nakhjavani writes in English for a Western audience, she sets this novel in nineteenth-century Persia. Given the transnational nature of her fiction, I propose that her work can best be appreciated by means of two distinct contexts.
To begin, one can situate The Woman Who Read Too Much within a recently growing body of English-language Iranian historical fiction. We can compare Nakhjavani’s work with such Western writers as Iranian-American Anita Amirrezvani, author of two historical novels set in ancient Persia: Equal of the Sun (2013) and Blood of Flowers (2008). If, as expressed in her interview with The Australian, Amirrezvani hopes “to broaden outsiders’ perspectives of Iranian culture” through her narratives (Neill), this is a hope likewise reflected in Nakhjavani’s novel about a woman equated by Shoghi Effendi with the greatest heroines of all religious dispensations (76). While Amirrezvani puts social and gender issues at the fore of her historical novels, Nakhjavani’s novel privileges spiritual-secular interactions of gender and social issues through a Bahá’í subtext. To put it another way, they are contextualized in the ever-present if silent spiritual orientation of Nakhjavani’s religious beliefs.
This brings us directly to the second context within which we can situate Nakhjavani’s novel: Bahá’í scholarship. Based on the authoritative writings of the Founders of the Bahá’í Faith, the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, Bahá’í scholarship is concerned with promoting universal inclusivity and unity in diversity. Ideas of global unity, universal education, gender equality, and the elimination of prejudice are some of the concepts that motivate and give shape to texts of Bahá’í scholarship, be they historical, sociological, or literary. Although one cannot simply equate Bahá’í scholarship with Bahá’í fiction, these underlying concepts are shared.
Using Bahá’í religious writings to formulate a framework for scholarship is a relatively young academic practice, considering the quite recent date of the religion’s founding (1844) compared to other world religions such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Judaism. Nakhjavani herself, before her debut as a historical novelist, was already participating actively in the field of Bahá’í scholarship with works such as When We Grow Up (1979), Four on an Island (1983), and Asking Questions: A Challenge to Fundamentalism (1990). This is significant because it demonstrates the importance of religion to her literary production. In light of Nakhjavani’s oeuvre, then, the deliberate absence, in the narrative content of The Woman Who Read Too Much, of any mention whatsoever of the Bábí or Bahá’í Faiths underscores the novel’s focus on sacredness unbounded by labels.
The novel is carefully crafted, composed of four sections or “books.” Each book takes its title from one of the four traditional roles of women in Persian society: mother, wife, sister, and daughter. No proper names are given; only appositives are used. The novel advances non-chronologically, with chapters moving forward and backward in time over a span of approximately fifty years. Each of the four “books” is narrated primarily from the points of view of the novel’s female characters, and each is divided into nineteen chapters. This division is not arbitrary, as the number nineteen is significant in Bahá’í symbolism. As Lights of Guidance explains, nineteen is the numerical value of the Arabic word for unity, vahid: “It [Vahid] symbolizes the unity of God, and thus the number 19 itself symbolizes the unity of God” (Hornby 415).
Each of the four “books” begins with a murder—the murder of a king, a prime minister, a mayor, and a mullah. As such, there is a certain crime/mystery inflection in the pages of the novel. Amidst the mystical descriptions of the impact that the poetess’s words have upon the characters around her, the narrative hints at a numinous connection between these murders of men in power and the poetess herself. In truth, all the events recounted in the novel consistently lead back to the poetess of Qazvin.
In the character of the poetess, Nakhjavani creates an enigmatic figure. The poetess of Qazvin is revealed through the thoughts and words of other characters such as the Queen Mother, the corpse washer, and the Sister of the Shah. Rather than a word-painted portrait of the poetess, however, Nakhjavani presents what might be likened to a dynamic negative space drawing. The poetess of Qazvin emerges through the views of the people around her, yes, but this technique is no mere third-person description. The reader comes to know the poetess through the thoughts and words of the vicious, vapid, corrupt, arrogant, and power hungry in the novel. In this way, a complex picture is created, one in which the derogatory descriptions of the poetess paradoxically prompt the readers to align themselves utterly with the protagonist.
Although the text reveals the poetess’s transgressions—involving the promotion of literacy, the refusal of the Shah’s advances, and the removal of her veil—Nakhjavani refrains from revealing the particulars of her religious philosophy, the very beliefs which lead to these revolutionary acts. Indeed, while the narrative itself makes mention of the Seven Martyrs of Tehran and references the Bábís, it never refers to the Bahá’í or Bábí Faiths by name. Nevertheless, Nakhjavani does not leave the true-historical aspect of her novel in question. At the end of the novel, in addition to the extensive bibliography, the author provides a “Chronicle of Cadavers.” In it, she gives a list of death dates and proper names, clarifying the historical basis of characters referred to by appositives throughout the text. This list includes the date of the martyrdom of the seven Bábís in Tehran, the martyrdom of the Báb in Tabriz, and the death of Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn herself (513). In this way, Nakhjavani leaves space in the narrative for the reader to decide whether or not to investigate the historiography behind the story—for those who, as she notes in her epilogue, may wish to distinguish truth from creative writing (511).
The independent investigation of truth is a foundational principle of the Bahá’í Faith and, as such, is a key component of the message conveyed through this intricate narrative. Put simply, this principle is an injunction against accepting “truth” uncritically, blindly, or unquestioningly. In a talk given in 1912 in Boston, Massachusetts, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, son of Bahá’u’lláh and named by Him as His successor in His Will and Testament, explains the concept as follows: “God has endowed [man] with mind, or the faculty of reasoning, by the exercise of which he is to investigate and discover the truth, and that which he finds real and true he must accept. He must not be an imitator or blind follower of any soul” (291). The independent investigation of truth, then, is a prerequisite for ascertaining truth; it is insufficient to base premises of the truth of reality on tradition, habit, or hearsay.
In The Woman Who Read Too Much, Nakhjavani creates a world in which the act of reading is placed in contrast with orthodox customs of the clergy and the gossip of the court; it is imbued with power and implies a subversive perspicuity. Moreover, the protagonist, this woman who reads, is the object of vilification by antagonists who stand in danger of losing power to the new way of reading reality that the poetess embodies and promulgates among both men and women. Indeed, if the independent investigation of truth is dependent upon the ability to read, then it is imperative that Nakhjavani create a world where to read is to open a way for truth, a truth not barred from either gender.
The protagonist of the novel is thus necessarily invested in teaching others to understand reality in a new way. The narrative describes the poetess’s work as infused with passion: “She exhorted, pleaded, begged and, in short, battled so that a way might be opened to truth” (393). Truth is worth fighting for, and for the poetess, as the reader discovers, worth dying for. With such an attitude, it follows that the poetess would not hesitate in teaching her “enemies” to read, for as she laments to her father, it is vital that people think for themselves (427).
The non-chronological nature of the narrative warrants comment. Nakhjavani plays with the time frames of past, present, and future. Although it is not unusual for postmodernist fiction to offer non-chronological narratives (Smyth 9), the use of this technique in Nakhjavani’s historical novel has the specific function of drawing our attention, metafictionally, to how we ourselves participate in the act of reading. The first sentences of each chapter, for example, require a certain puzzling out of the time being narrated: Is it before the poetess’s death, or is it after? Is it during her girlhood or during her imprisonment? The initial uncertainty is only eliminated as we read on. In this deliberate slow reveal, we as readers enter into Nakhjavani’s narrative, becoming aware of our own act of reading while reading the enunciated text itself. With her non-standard chronological sequence of chapters, Nakhjavani creates the need, in other words, for the reader to follow the tacit directive underlying the text: think, reason, figure things out for yourself.
As the trajectory of the poetess’s life is revealed through the non-standard chronology, her passion for learning and literacy, her accusations of heresy by the religious hegemony, her imprisonment, and her strangulation all are revealed. The narrative does not end upon the death of the poetess, however; rather, her words and her legacy remain a warning and a source of inspiration for the other characters of the novel and, implicitly, for the reader. And these lessons harken back to the investigation of truth and, through reading, the possibility of insights beyond one’s expectations. As the poetess of Qazvin teaches:
If you only look at the word that’s under your noses . . . you’ll never see the connection with what came before and what comes next. If you only see what’s happening now, you’ll never understand the link between yesterday and tomorrow. Let your eyes move across the page and you’ll remember the future. (65–66)
‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace. US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982.
Amirrezvani, Anita. Equal of the Sun: A Novel. Scribner, 2012. ———. The Blood of Flowers: A Novel. Bay Back Books, 2007.
Fleishman, Avrom. The English Historical Novel: Walter Scott to Virginia Woolf. John Hopkins UP, 1971.
Hornby, Helen. Lights of Guidance: A Bahá’í Reference File. US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1988.
Nakhjavani, Bahíyyih. Asking Questions: A Challenge to Fundamentalism. George Ronald, 1990. ———. Four on an Island. George Ronald, 1983. ———. The Woman Who Read Too Much: A Novel. Stanford UP, 2015. ———. When We Grow Up. George Ronald, 1979.
Neill, Rosemary. “The Face—Anita Amirrezvani.” Australian, 1 March 2008.
Shoghi Effendi. God Passes By. US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1965.
Smyth, Edmund J. Postmodernism and Contemporary Fiction. BT Batsford, 1992.
Mary A. Sobhani holds her doctorate in Comparative Literature from the University of Arkansas. This article is based on the research she did for her 2014 dissertation entitled Transnational Historical Fiction in a Postsecular Age: A Study of the Spiritual Theses in the Works of Luis Alberto Urrea and Bahiyyih Nakhjavani. She currently teaches courses in Spanish, Latin American Literature, and Latin American Civilization at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith.