An Interview with Alumna Somayeh Shams

Posted on Jun 24, 2015

Somayeh Shams was born in Tehran, Iran, and grew up in France. In 1996 she immigrated to Vancouver and now lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with her husband and five-year-old daughter. She was a recipient of the Lisel Mueller Scholarship and graduated in July 2014.


Do you write stories in French and Farsi, or only English? Are you constantly translating for yourself? 

I always loved making up stories, but I didn’t really begin to write until I was 27, when I finally felt comfortable enough with my English. I moved from France to Canada when I was seventeen knowing very little English. And it wasn’t until my late twenties that I didn’t feel like an English-as-second-language speaker anymore. I do perhaps translate unconsciously in my head from or into French, and I often dream in Farsi. I still find that though the English I’m writing is correct, my sentence structures are often French. People ask me why I don’t write in those languages, and I think it’s because my development slowed in them as soon as I left the countries. So in a way I feel I speak like a child in French and especially Farsi.


When did you first realize you had stories that needed telling?

The first story I wrote was about Iran, as were most of the stories that came after. But nothing interesting came out of them. They were more like paintings of moments that I kept on going back to again and again without truly trying to understand why they haunted me. It didn’t help that I highly censored myself from anything that was important to me. I kept my frustrations about my motherland and the false narratives surrounding it mostly to myself, like the good Iranian I was taught to be.

But you know, I don’t think it was really until I came to my first residency, during meetings with my advisor, David Haynes, that I realized what I felt truly passionate about. The residency and David pushed me out of my comfort zone and I felt all the stories ready to spill out. I wrote all new material that first semester. I cannot thank David Haynes and the program enough for the freedom they allowed me to feel able to write about what keeps me up at night. They gave me language, craft, and opened my eyes to other writers and their struggles.


Before then, was literature a big part of your intellectual and emotional life?

My mother was a literature professor so she was constantly handing me books to read, though sometime they went way over my head. Like War and Peace when I was twelve. Since I moved so much in my life, from country to country to country, the only way I could deal with the lack of roots was through books and the familiar writers’ voices. Actually that’s kind of how I began to write. When we were moving to Canada my mom gave me Kundera’s Laughable Loves and that book really made me want to write. I couldn’t stop reading “Eduard and God” and later when I began writing I came up with a story that totally mimicked his voice and style. I just loved the way he balanced the politics of his stories through his characters’ lives.

But to be honest once I moved to the States I was studying engineering and for a few years I did not read much of anything. Often the authors that were on the shelves of the bookstores were very unfamiliar to me. I sadly shied away from picking up anything good for some time.


Particularly, I’m interested in what movesyou to write. You know?

I write because creating stories is the one thing that has been constant in my life. But it wasn’t until I came to Warren Wilson that I really found the language and craft to write these stories down or the audacity to put them out there for others, the stories that I felt were only mine. And it is my advisors, David Haynes, Jeremy Gavron, Michael Parker, Sarah Stone and Kevin McIlvoy, that I thank for teaching me how to make my stories into the journeys I want them to be. Because of them I can be filled with pure joy by the way just one sentence has come out.

You know, I love to write about connections between people and their connection to the world that surrounds them. And my connection to Iran is an important fuel to my writing. There is a lack of information about Iranians out there, which has been due to the alienation of the country. And this lack of information has created these false narratives and portrayals of my motherland that are obsessively pushing me to write about it. At least for now.


Do you see some of your stories as a corrective of sorts?

I don’t think of them as correctives but as a view of a world that is almost never represented by Iranians to the West. I don’t think a good story should give answers but rather raise questions. I find my own stories successful and pleasurable when they challenged my own understanding of something. Especially if it was something I thought I had a solid understanding of.


You allow your stories to tread through a sociopolitical morass, at least in subtext, which some writers, including myself, avoid. What do you think fiction can do in such messy territory that historical/political/sociological nonfiction cannot? 

I am a little sad that people actively avoid politics. Can you imagine if there was no politics in any art? Isn’t art a conversation about what makes us happy, sad, outraged? And that’s exactly what writers like Tolstoi, Kundera, Gaines, Flaubert, Gordimer, Coetzee, Junot Diaz, and many, many more have done in their work. They have included politics as an element in their stories.

I mean why can’t work that has an important political background be fictional (and let me clarify here that I believe we are all affected by politics)? Should then fiction not exist, should we all just be writing history, or psychology papers? I write fiction for the same reasons you and anybody else writes fiction. Because I find making a fictional world extremely satisfying.

Let’s say I have a character set in Iran with a love interest that is deceiving him, but my character has trouble seeing that because of who he is and also because of the laws of the country. Laws that ban dating without intentions of marriage, so he has to spend his time getting around those laws without getting arrested. Why should I not show that? It would be dishonest of me not to and I would lose an opportunity to enrich my story.


I’m thinking particularly about Aminatta Forna’s recent keynote speech at The Muse and Marketplace, concerning the lack of political fiction in West. And I wonder what it’s like for you, when your heritage has been so politicized, when what’s close to your heart is also in the news cycle as debating points for politicians. 

Here is the thing, I do not believe that my heritage is more politicized than that of an American. Putting aside political agendas and the media, you have to remember that we are looking at Iran from the outside and as such we see things that perhaps Iranians in Iran do not. I think the same would be true for Americans in America.

I don’t want to go into the sociocultural or historical reasons as to why politics is seen that way but I do believe that in North America politics is kind of taboo. Having a strong political opinion is taboo, not just in fiction. David Haynes once told me that avoiding politics for American writers is a political act in and of itself. And I think David’s point of view is very interesting and something to be explored.

Politics affects us all from the smallest things in our lives like the price of bread to the biggest like our freedom to walk down the street without being shot. As writers we write about obsessions, passions and wants. And I think that only when we allow ourselves to write freely, without censorship of any sort, will our work, our art reach its most interesting and rich potential.



Adam Jernigan (fiction, January ’15) received The Carol Houck Smith Scholarship in July 2014. He lives in Black Mountain, North Carolina.