Roxanne Varzi on her ethnographic novel, Last Man Underground

Cover of Last Scene Underground by Roxanne Varzi

https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=25983

Harvey Stark: What inspired you to write Last Scene Underground and what one or two main things do you hope your readers will come away with?

Roxanne Varzi: I was most inspired by the theater I saw while I was doing fieldwork in Iran, but it wasn’t until I was I was teaching visual anthropology at SOAS in London and was writing a lecture about how Jean Rouch’s documentary, Les Maitres Fous morphed into Jean Genet’s The Blacks and it occurred to me that there was a  connection there that I could write about as an article in terms of how the Blacks is later interpreted in Iran by a young theater director, Hamed Taheri for a post-Revolution audience. I was interested too in what sorts of shifts happened in order to both radicalize and protect the budding theater movement in Tehran in the late 1990’s just after Mohammed Khatami’s election when the first real alternative artistic space in the Iranian public sphere began to form. Mostly I was interested in theater praxis as a political and a personal transformative art… How did practicing theater change the individual?  What did it mean for notions of community and nation?

The theater being done in Iran in 2000 inspired me to think about ways that I too, as an anthropologist, could push through boundaries–disciplinary, genre, political and personal to write about resistance, creativity and hope. To that end I wrote and re-wrote this ethnographic novel about a group of young Iranian college students who form an underground avant-garde theater group and, defying censorship and using other forms of social resistance and attempt to put on a play.

I want readers to come away with a greater understanding of the complex cultural world that is Tehran. I’d also like them to question their own notions of selfhood and identity and to think about ways that we perform and practice those.

For the anthropologist reader I hope Last Scene Underground is also a meditation on the possibilities and limitations of ethnography as a genre and as a medium at this political juncture. The book mediates and channels lives through the filter of other lives, political and theoretical and disciplinary frames.  It is also a political act in that it directly addresses the issue of censorship and the inability for an anthropologist like myself to write ethnography openly and hope to continue to work in Iran.

Harvey Stark: One of the most fascinating things about your work is the liminal space that exists between ethnography and fiction. How do you want your readers to understand this space?

Roxanne Varzi: Throughout my first book I used a variety of narrative voices, from the academic first person, to the essay to fiction, creating characters and events while staying within historic and ethnographic facts based on my own research. I also used passages from my ethnographic field notes and from entries quoted verbatim from either my diary or from the journals of my interlocutors. This second book experiments further with a new ethnographic form for my research findings. An ethnographic novel that is at once an act of experimentation and one that will protect my subjects and my future as an anthropologist of Iran. Writing ethnographic fiction allowed me to stay away from political specificities that might link a particular theater moment or individual to a particular political moment in time, be it 1999 (the dormitory protests in Iran) or 2009 (the green movement) while maintaining the ethnographic specificities at the heart of this theater movement.

The book has two convergent narratives that are wound around one another.  There is the “fictionalized ethnographic story” and “the director’s notes” — a fictional notebook kept by a fictional theater director but with real notes that are a culmination of my research, which ranged from the people whom I interviewed and plays that I read and watched to my reflections, observations and interpretations. They assume the responsibility of the writer and anthropologist to inform the story. In short, they are partially a version of my own notes from the field but fictionalized to the degree that nothing was included that an Iranian character like the director would not he himself have known or read.  They contain what as well would ordinarily be found in academic footnotes.  This allows all information equal footing…nothing is hidden away underground as it were in a smaller font and easily ignored as footnotes and endnotes often are.

Throughout is a story about representation, about manufacturing knowledge and lives, censorship and the role of creativity in social change.

Harvey Stark: Can you tell us about the complex and nuanced attitudes your characters have toward religion. 

Roxanne Varzi: Religion is a very personal practice that has been made public by virtue of folks living in a religious republic. I wanted to reclaim the notion of spirituality, which is the individual relationship with God and not one that is necessarily filtered through a nation-state, or even a strong religious organization.

Harvey Stark: If pressed, what one character in the novel do you most identify with?

 Roxanne Varzi: Hooman, the director. The director’s notes are my notes…and I think I secretly I have wanted to write and direct plays my whole life. My first theater class was as a child in Iran… and now this year, as an anthropologist I am doing a rough reading at the AAA of my first play ever (not counting a children’s play I did as a theater director at a summer camp in the Sierras!). It feels like a very natural progression and not at all strange that it would be my field, anthropology, where I could make this happen!

 

 

On Tour: Algerian Actors in the United States

Photo credit Chris Van Goethem

As the actors move between the two countries and across roles of artist, cultural translator, tourist, consumer, and North African Arab citizen in the United States, precisely what constitutes the “familiar” and the “strange” – and how they are interrelated – will be continuously shifting ground. Continue reading