Interview: Jasmin Darznik, Iranian author

THE photograph slipped casually from a pile of Persian letters. Just another photograph, Jasmin Darznik thought, as she helped her mother, Lili, clear her San Francisco house after the death of Darznik's father. But it wasn't.

As she picked it up, she realised it was of a young Iranian girl, no more than 14 years old, her eyes lined with kohl and her mouth stained with a lipstick almost black as olives. The girl looked on the verge of tears. That the photograph was of her mother was indisputable. And yet … her eyes skimmed over the photograph more closely … a satin dress pulled tightly over her torso … a veil over her head and skimming her body … Lili was a bride in this picture. Darznik gazed incredulously at the image. For the man next to Lili, the groom in the tuxedo and the grey fedora to cover his baldness, was not Darznik's father.

The photograph had a long white crease through it, was tattered at the edges, and its discovery began the unravelling of a hidden story that would change Darznik's life and her relationship with Lili. Eventually, it led her to write The Good Daughter, a truly mesmerising memoir of her mother's secret life in pre-revolutionary Iran. When the photograph was found, Darznik and Lili were almost estranged. "I had nearly broken off my relationship with her entirely at that point. I had moved away as far as I could and spoke with her very infrequently. I had a lot of resentment about her protectiveness and she disapproved of a lot of my decisions. There was, of course, a deep love – but very little contact."

For most people, discovering a parent had a past, secret wedding would be a devastating revelation. Yet this was not the most shocking thing for Darznik. It was Lili's expression, that hint of tears threatening to spill down her cheeks, that startled her most. "I had known her as this really steely, quite harsh woman. To see her as that vulnerable girl child was very striking to me. My father had just died so I was in a state of trauma and disbelief and this was yet one other thing I couldn't square."

Darznik could not easily speak to her mother about her discovery. When she finally held out the photograph silently to her, Lili was angry. This was none of Darznik's business. She snatched the photograph and left the room.

A few months later, cassette tapes began arriving at Darznik's apartment, ten in total. She had returned to Princeton by now, where she was pursuing an academic career. (A trained attorney, she is now professor of English and creative writing at Washington and Lee University.) Unknown to her daughter, Lili had, over the years, sent tapes to her female relatives during the Iran-Iraq war when it was difficult to make phone calls. Now, she made some for her daughter. "It was almost a family tradition for her and it was a way of reaching out to me. It was not a conversation that we could initiate face to face. She needed to sit alone in a room and tell the story without interruption.

It was the story of a woman in exile and Darznik felt almost exiled too, looking out at the woods through her apartment window, as she listened to the tapes. Lili's voice rang out, so familiar in places, so unfamiliar in others. "It was surreal, very confusing. I was struck by moments where she could be very descriptive and then her voice … I couldn't recognise it … so fragile and broken in places. She described preparations for her wedding, where she was locked in a room with her female relatives and they wax and scrub and depilate her and she cried recounting that. It was absolutely extraordinary."

Lili's story was one of domestic abuse, divorce, alcoholism: all taboos in Iranian culture. She had been a reluctant bride at 13, a mother at 14, a divorcee by 16. She had suffered poverty and public opprobrium, fought off men who considered her no better than a prostitute because she was divorced and determinedly set about getting herself the education she knew would be her salvation. But the biggest sadness of her life was her secret daughter, Sara, who had been taken from her as a divorced woman. "She had been through pain of an order I couldn't really imagine," says Darznik. "There was a curious absence of emotion when she talked about the surrender of Sara in those early years. She could not ever name her on the tapes."

As she listened, Darznik realised this woman who was talking was someone she had never met before. A stranger who was telling her that she, Darznik, an only child all her life, actually had a secret sister. "There was a swell of emotions, mostly I'd say shock but confusion too. I tried to understand how the pieces fitted together."

Little things suddenly made sense. The way she had sometimes discovered her mother's light spilling out from behind a closed door at night, heard her crying behind the door. Darznik had always tiptoed back to bed. Now she understood for whom her mother had cried. "But there was also a slight sense of betrayal. How could she not have told me … about this sister particularly."

When Darznik was naughty as a child, Lili used to tell her she would go back to Iran, to her "good daughter", who, unlike the Americanised Darznik, was modest, obedient and dutiful. "When I was really little, I used to believe her. It was terrifying. By the time I was a teenager, I thought, 'This is just another one of my mother's strange, bizarre, crazy, Iranian ways. This is her way of keeping me in line.' I didn't believe her at all."

But now, listening to the tapes, she understood so much. "I understood her protectiveness, her terrible fear of losing me. Of losing me also to America, I think, to a country that seemed to her very alien and forbidding for many years. I also saw so much more her sacrifice and her determination to make something of herself over and over, her dogged pursuit of an education. It was her only path forward and I suddenly understood why she had such ambition for me, why she had been so strident."

Lili had, Darznik realised. overcompensated for the loss of Sara. "Everything she had, she threw to me. All of her longing and her hopes and her fears. I am so touched by how much she tried to give to me what she could never give that first daughter. I see now the source of that was this terrible loss, the surrender of that child, which utterly shaped her love for me."

READING The Good Daughter is like opening a window into another culture. The heat hits as the glass swings open, and the scent of pomegranate and quince waft through the open space, honeysuckle and jasmine, and tea infused with rose water and cardamom. Chickpea cookies are piled high in the bazaar, lentils soak in the sun until green shoots sprout from the water, and the gypsy girls coming down from the mountains are laden with branches from the mulberry trees. The sound of Persian carpets being beaten of their dust fills the air. Then the sound of Lili crying, as every hair on her body is removed with string, filters through the window. She is little more than a child as she is prepared for her wedding to her pampered groom, Kazem. She is just 13 years old when the family's women gather outside the marital bedroom to receive the bloodied cloth, that proved her virginity, from her husband.

The first time Kazem beat her, he cried afterwards, swore he would never lay a finger on her again. But it was only the apologies that stopped. The beatings increased, until even her landlord and his wife had to step in. More than once, Lili fled Kazem's rages, clutching Sara to her chest. She was powerless: it was an Iranian woman's destiny to accept whatever her marriage brought. Divorce was inconceivable. One day, Lili heard Kazem's aunt talking with friends. "Poor thing," the aunt said of Lili. Remember what Kazem was like as a child? Lili, straining to catch the conversation, heard a foreign word whispered. "Sadisme." What did it mean? Lili did not know, but she soon understood there was a danger Kazem would one day kill her.

In her Princeton flat, Darznik heard Lili's voice harden on the tape when she spoke of Kazem, even 50 years after the events of which she spoke. "The tenor of her voice just registered such hatred. I wouldn't say fear so much as disgust and resentment and absolute loathing." The Good Daughter is not just Lili's story but the story of several generations of Iranian women, including Lili's own mother, Kobra.

Kobra, too, had a difficult marriage to Darznik's grandfather Sohrab, who had also been known to hit his wife and, much to her distress, took a blue-eyed mistress for many years. Yet Lili idolised Sohrab and, despite suffering at her own husband's hands, almost blamed Kobra for her own predicament.

It was to her father that Lili turned. Sohrab was reluctant at first to help, then spelled out the conditions for assistance. If she divorced Kazem, she would never see Sara again. Sara would be Kazem's property, brought up by the women of his house. "This is the story generations of Iranian women have lived under," says Darznik. "The almost absolute certainty that if you divorced, you would have to surrender your children." In some ways, Lili's father epitomised tradition. "In Iran, men had the only power. He was god of the house. Everyone trembled if he walked in to the room or looked at them. But he did something extraordinary which was seek a divorce for her – and most men would not have done that."

Iranian women's only power was attached to their youth and looks and was therefore shortlived. Kobra and Lili accepted, at times embraced, many of the cultural norms of their society, yet what is extraordinary is that their story could almost be the story of two early feminists, so strong and self-sufficient did they have to become in the course of their lives. "Lily is, in her way, a feminist," agrees Darznik. "She would say to me, 'Don't let men use you, don't give yourself away'. She's had so many horrific experiences, was once nearly raped, and she had a lot of anger, but her brand of feminism was, 'Hold fast and do not give yourself away'. She and my grandmother were, in their ways, very strong women."

When Lili divorced, she never completely gave up on Sara. As a small child, Sara ran away from Kazem to find her mother and, after that, Lili was allowed occasional access. But Lili, faced with severe difficulties obtaining employment, went off to study abroad, telling Sara she would earn enough money for a house for them. Did Lili feel guilty about her choices? "I think she did and I think that's part of why she suppressed this for so long. No one could possibly blame her. She was 14 and there was nothing she could do. It was a very minimal choice she had but I think it did, and still does, haunt her."

Lili left Iran with her brother, Nader, but their study plans were interrupted by the sudden death of their father in an accident. Lili returned to Iran to take responsibility for supporting Nader's studies rather than her own. The years that followed were a struggle against poverty and the unwelcome attentions of men who considered her 'loose'. Finally, she raised enough money to return to midwifery studies abroad and, during her years away, met Johann, Darznik's father, an ethnic Slav living in Germany, In Iran, only old men or those looking for a second wife considered her for marriage, invitations she found easy to resist. Johann was different and he converted to Islam and moved to Iran to marry her.

"My father was fantastically gifted at listening," says Darznik. "I think that was the one thing he could give her. She told me the story of the first time she told him about Sara. She felt she had to, and she remembers how he only listened. He let her speak the whole story out and towards the end, tears streamed down his face and she said, 'That's how I knew I had found a good man, that he listened and could feel so deeply.' In Iran she was unmarriable. It was a revelation that she could be heard like that and loved like that."

When Lili and Johann returned to Iran, there was no happy reunion with Sara, who had grown hostile, difficult and resentful. "My sister was brought up to believe my mother was a prostitute," says Darznik. "She was this terrible woman who had run away. I am sure it must have induced such confusion and also hatred in her to think this of her mother. She was very angry to have been left behind." But Lili had another problem by then. Johann was gentle, kind and bookish. He was also an alcoholic. Lili did not feel she could introduce an alcoholic into her daughter's already troubled life. She supported Sara by paying for her education, encouraging her to make something of herself, but it was too late to play happy families.

Lili, Johann and Darznik left, supposedly temporarily, for America. The Iranian revolution of 1979 prevented their return. Then came the Iran-Iraq war and Lili struggled even to telephone her relatives. In those years, Lili and Johann ran a motel but it was Lili who was the driving force, cleaning the rooms and manning the office when Johann drank and went missing for long periods. In later years, Kobra would visit them, sometimes for up to a year, and it was she who finally made Johann stop drinking, though Lili found him rehab. He was very grateful," says Darznik. "He always said he would have been dead otherwise."

Lili keeps in touch with Sara but the fractures between them are obvious. "Their relationship was broken and it is still broken. We have a saying in Farsi … 'like a broken vase or vessel'. You can try to patch it up but it's always broken and can never be whole."

THE GREATEST fiction about memoir, says Darznik, is that the story ends on the final page. The Good Daughter is a kind of beginning. The next chapter, Sara's chapter, has yet to unfold. When Darznik switched Lili's tapes off 11 years ago, she felt an instant tenderness for her mother. But the real rapprochement between them was slow, and still continues. Her relationship with Sara has not yet started.

Darznik has still to return to Iran. "My mother felt very strongly I shouldn't go back. She herself never wanted to. She would say, 'There's nothing left to see.' Now I understand it wasn't just the revolution, but also this terrible personal story that she was trying to overcome by coming to America." In the last few years, it has become increasingly difficult to enter Iran, but Darznik has felt her longing intensify. "I find myself very vexed that I have a sister I don't really know. In some ways she's an abstraction to me. She's still that good daughter."

But the truth was, Sara hadn't really been the good daughter, had she? "The good daughter is all of us and none of us," says Darznik. "As time went on, I think the years had a way of rubbing away the truth. My mother's feeling of having lost her daughter again when she came to America made Sara into something she had never been – the dutiful, good daughter."

As a child, Darznik rejected her birth country. When her mother tried to speak English in the grocery store, she flinched with shame. "This book has been my homecoming to Iran and has given me such pride in Iran's women. Through writing it, I recovered a whole Iranian world. I spoke with my mother daily, listened to Persian music and cooked Persian food. I have an abiding affection now for the rituals and traditions, which are possibly receding even in Iran."

America is a hard country to grow old in and Lili often longs for those old ways, and the support of an extended family. "The old ways of keeping family and community seem to me so rich and lovely," says Darznik. But as an only child – in America at least – she cannot recreate that for her mother.

Darznik is now divorced with a ten-year-old son, which gives her even more insight into Lili's loss. But Sara has been married nearly 30 years and has three children. "My sense is that her life is very much defined by her love for her children and her hopes for them. I can only speculate, but I think not having a mother made her lavish such love on her children."

She and Sara will, Darznik believes, eventually meet. "It's one of those journeys I feel I have to make with my life. I think about it more and more but I have to tell you that this book, though written to many people, is partly written to her. I don't think she really had a sense of how my mother suffered and why she gave her up." And yet, she also recognises how much Sara has suffered. It breaks her heart that she has a sister who has experienced revolution, war and family tragedy. One day she will listen to Sara, just as Johann listened to Lili. "I hope that one day I will travel to Iran and listen to her version of the story and hear what she endured."

• The Good Daughter, Heinemann, 12.99

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 13 February, 2011