Winter in Tabriz - ‘subtle, serious fiction’
Author Sheila Llewellyn writes about the story behind her novel Winter in Tabriz (Sceptre), which was recently selected as one of the Summer Books for 2021 by the Times Literary Supplement…
"At its heart, Winter in Tabriz is the story of two men caught in the 1979 Iranian revolution. Damian, a university lecturer, originally from Northern Ireland, and Arash, an Iranian poet from Tabriz, meet each other at Berkeley, California. Damian follows Arash to Tabriz to live with him, but their relationship is tested as the chaos of pre-revolutionary Iran takes hold. Arash becomes one of ‘the disappeared’, and much of the novel explores Damian’s attempts to come to terms with the grief, and the ‘not knowing’ endured by the loved ones of those who are disappeared.
I spent the winter of 1978 in Tabriz, up in the north west of the country, during the run up to the revolution, supposedly working at the university, but the students were on strike. So I spent time wandering round Tabriz, trying to get a sense of the city. It’s on the Silk Road - Marco Polo mentioned its wonderful ancient bazaar, and it was once the capital of Persia. It’s been invaded many times, from Mongol rulers on horseback, to the Russian tanks coming over the border in 1941, in the Second World War. I lived on the edge of the Armenian quarter, down a kucheh, a narrow alley, typical of some parts of old Tabriz. There was a local Tabrizi joke that the kuchehs were built so narrow in order to keep the sun out in summer, the snow out in winter and the invaders out all year round.
Most importantly for me, in terms of Winter in Tabriz, I learned about the Iranian dissident writers, poets and journalists writing during the Shah’s reign, who had been censored, or arrested and detained, and in some cases, tortured for expressing their criticism. Later, after the Islamic Republic was declared in April 1979, some of them who’d stayed on in Iran, thinking things would be better, or had been in exile and came back, found that things quickly became much worse, and many suffered appalling treatment under the early repression of the new Islamic Republic in the 1980s.
I knew I’d write about Iran someday. I’ve always had an interest in poetry and politics and the relationship between them – how the politics can affect the poetry and vice versa, ‘poets stung into song by some public event’ someone once called it. There will always be dissident writers. Words are their only weapons. In 2012, I was at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry in Queen’s, Belfast, starting my PhD. A couple of my mentors, the late Professor Ciaran Carson, and Ian Sansom, encouraged me to develop the early drafts of my Iran work. I finished off my first novel, Walking Wounded in 2018, and was then fortunate enough to get an ACES award from ACNI, which enabled me to complete Winter in Tabriz. Sceptre accepted it for publication, as a follow up to Walking Wounded. It’s been selected for the Times Literary Supplement, Summer Books of 2021."
About the author:
Sheila Llewellyn was born in England, of Welsh heritage. She has worked in Africa, Iran, Singapore, Germany and Russia. In 2002, she trained as a cognitive behavioural therapist at the University of Oxford, moved to Northern Ireland with her husband and worked as a specialist in PTSD at a national trauma centre. She took up writing full time in 2010, and completed a PhD in creative writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry in Belfast in 2016. She won the RTÉ Radio One P J O’Connor Drama Award and the Silver Award for the Best Broadcast Radio Drama in the New York International Radio Drama Festival in 2012. She was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize, the Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Prize, and shortlisted twice for the Costa Short Story Award. Her short stories have been published in various anthologies and journals, including: Surge: New Writing from Ireland; The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland; and Irish Pages. In January, 2018, her novel Walking Wounded was published by Sceptre:‘An expertly imagined novel about war’s long trail of damage’ – Hilary Mantel; ‘A beautiful and humane debut novel’ – The Guardian. Her second novel, Winter in Tabriz, was published by Sceptre on 24 June 2021. It was selected by the Times Literary Supplement as one of their Summer Books for 2021: ‘Winter in Tabriz – subtle, serious fiction.’