Born: 1983 in Tehran.
Raised: In Gothenburg.
Lives: Until and including August in Berlin, but then again in Bagarmossen south of Stockholm.
Family: “Partner and two daughters – they’re the ones I share a household with, but my family is big.”
Books: Debuted with “Vitsvit” (2013). Then came “Trado” (2016), which she wrote together with Svetlana Carstean, and “In motion” (2019). She has also translated poets such as Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Juliana Spahr and Natalie Diaz into Swedish.
Do this summer: “I’m going to be completely free for a month, for the first time in a long time, with my gang. In Berlin, Barcelona and Bagarmossen.”
It’s festival season and Athena Farrokhzad has just stopped over at her home in Bagarmossen outside Stockholm. The kitchen window is ajar, acquaintances pass by and cheer in through the gap. She is soon going back to Berlin – to the parks with donkeys – and to the finals of a year-long residency grant. Now she has been to poetry festivals, most recently in Rotterdam where she read the first ten pages of her forthcoming fourth book. She read in Swedish while projections of the Dutch and English translations were shown on the wall. She likes to read in front of an audience.
— It’s not for everyone. There are great poets who are not at all fond of it, but I like to try the words in the body, in the room, in the meeting. It gives me a lot.
Athena Farrokhzhad lives up to the first name she shares with the warrior goddess of ancient Greece. Already the rosy and richly translated debut “Vitsvit” made her a tone-setting poet and her writing is often described in terms of political and activist. If she has been less in the limelight in recent years, it is partly because she has devoted herself to parental leave and her own writing.
For twelve years, she has also been a teacher at the writer’s course at Biskops Arnö – but no longer. This autumn, together with her colleague Ida Linde, she will be the curator of the literary activities at Kulturhuset Stadsteatern in Stockholm.
— I’ve never felt so attracted to work at a publishing house or newspaper, it would have been difficult to go from working at a public college to a company. What is very nice is that we will now be working on behalf of the residents of the city of Stockholm, it feels so good to be able to do a literary activity with breadth and depth.
The proletarian of the animal world
In addition to poet, critic, translator, playwright and literary curator, she is now also an expert on donkeys. “The Year of the Donkey”, coming at the end of August, is about a narrator who deeply identifies with the proletariat of the animal world, the faithful servant who is declared stupid in order to be exploited, as she says, which can’t even be rhymed. Perhaps not so strange for a poet with a bust of Karl Marx (actually a piggy bank, Das Kapital) next to the coffee maker, but “donkey” is also a killer insult. In her eyes, that’s why it’s extra interesting.
— Is there any animal as complex as the donkey? says Athena Farrokhzad, retrieving the very origin: a rather large, rather improbable porcelain saucer with baskets now filled with habanero fruits and garlic.
She found it during a flea market visit with her eldest daughter.
— I was deeply moved by this donkey – by the fact that it stood there dusty on the shelf – and felt: “come, I’ll take you home”.
“What do you know about where life will take you?” she asks herself a year and a half later. “Year of the Donkey” is thematically just as cohesive as “Vitsvit”, but in terms of form it is almost a rebellion against the aesthetically chastened debut. “Vitsvit’s” sheepish poems took five years to compose. In the new one, she has allowed herself to be swept along.
— I like “Vitsvit” too. That book had to be like that. But there is also something about writing a poem that deals with migration and struggle and racism and yet is so respectable in its tone, that I am not entirely fond of, says Athena Farrokhzad.
In just one week, “The Year of the Donkey” will go to print. Perhaps it is only now that she better understands what she wrote, and why a dusty porcelain saucer in Skarpnäck could have such profound consequences for her life and writing.
— I think this is a book about carrying, if there is a verb that is central, it is to carry. To carry one’s history, to carry children, to carry a lot of projections, to carry grief. I wouldn’t have been able to say this a year ago, I find myself completely amazed that I wrote a whole damn book about donkeys.
The donkey as a cultural historical figure is included, central both in Christianity and Islam. But her donkey also harbors a heavy sadness for brothers – or cousins - who died prematurely and were sent home to their mother in coffins.
Athena Farrokhzad has not visited her first homeland, Iran, for ten years. Like the writer Edward Said, she notes that exile is “captivating to think about but terrible to experience”. In “The Year of the Donkey” there is also the realization of how a journey back, and the discovery of all that no longer exists, could break something forever.
— What is a home? I have never had as much home as in Bagarmossen, it is my home on earth. But in the book there is still an image of the donkey who wants to rest his head in the straw, in his stable, but who never gets there.
Today, she is 38 years old and, despite everything, thinks that life has become much, much better.
— I was a rather unhappy child, in a way I have been happy every day ever since I moved away from home, but a lot has also become more difficult. I think the rest of life will be about burying people you love. It’s not just my life condition – it’s everyone’s and it’s unreasonable. But exile in the sense of being separated from people one loves is another nasty complication in this already nasty relationship.