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Afarin Majidi: “Talent doesn’t trump privilege”

I have women writing me, thanking me all the time for voicing their suffering. Not only are domestic violence survivors getting raped by their spouses, but so are employees who are afraid to speak out against their coworkers. Sexual assault is a serious problem and it’s not addressed in the media. The #MeToo movement, for […]

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I have women writing me, thanking me all the time for voicing their suffering. Not only are domestic violence survivors getting raped by their spouses, but so are employees who are afraid to speak out against their coworkers. Sexual assault is a serious problem and it’s not addressed in the media. The #MeToo movement, for instance, didn’t touch the publishing industry. And it’s happening there. It happened to me and many other women.


As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Afarin Majidi, an Iranian-American writer. She holds a BA in English Literature from Barnard College and an MFA in Fiction Writing from New School University. Writing and Madness in a Time of Terror is her debut memoir. Her novel-in-progress, Ziba, is set in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

My family and I moved to New Jersey when I was six years old. My dearly departed uncle Madgid Madgidi was the Minister of Development for the Shah of Iran. When insurgents and rebels began to attack anyone related to the Shah, we knew we were in danger. The Islamicists were already rounding up people and throwing them in prison, later assassinating them all.

We were an upper-middle class family in Iran, despite scandals claiming that the royalists were all decadently rich. Still, we were comfortable and could not bring our savings or sell our home and cars when we escaped. We came to America with close to nothing. It was very difficult, especially because nearly everyone my family knew was murdered by the new regime.

I escaped into books. As I grew older I became a feminist and racial justice advocate because I was treated differently and I saw that despite women’s rights in the U.S. women here are not treated equally. Attending Barnard College was what propelled me into activism and writing for the sake of activism.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

I was always drawn to African-American writers and I did not know why because Iranians are technically Caucasian. But my classmates were not always kind because I was Muslim, even though I didn’t wear a veil. When I read Beloved by Toni Morrison, I knew I wanted to be a writer. She was proof that you can be a woman of color and write brilliantly. I read every single book of hers and each one was perfect! And then I realized there is another writer who takes up where Toni Morrison left off with her book, The Bluest Eye. It’s called Push (later turned into the film Precious) by Sapphire, who later became a mentor and teacher when I was working towards my MFA in fiction in writing.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I have bipolar disorder and was not diagnosed until 2013. Prior to that I became my characters, one at a time. You could call it a gift, I suppose, but it got me in a lot of trouble. Unfortunately, some people are not as understanding about my breakdown as I wish they were. My lesson was to get the proper medication. People romanticise mental illness for writers, but the truth is that you’re not writing well when you need medication. I wasn’t, anyway.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

With my candor and brutal honesty in Writing and Madness in a Time of Terror, I want to show every rape victim and every rapist out there that sexual assault can’t and won’t crush us. We will persevere and keep speaking out until violence against women comes to an end. I’ve already made an impact. I know that the magazine where my rapist drugged me has had a complete rehaul in staffing, and there are many more women there than there were when I was an editor there.

I have women writing me, thanking me all the time for voicing their suffering. Not only are domestic violence survivors getting raped by their spouses, but so are employees who are afraid to speak out against their coworkers. Sexual assault is a serious problem and it’s not addressed in the media. The #MeToo movement, for instance, didn’t touch the publishing industry. And it’s happening there. It happened to me and many other women.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

James Lasdun, a former professor, exploited me in his book and made me out to be a monster because I was suffering from complex PTSD after sexual assault. I was in California, he in NY and I kept writing him emails in my character’s voice and he filed stalking charges that the police laughed at. He later wrote a novel calling me a Eurasian pig and saying I lied about being raped. Trust me, losing 10 years of my life to insanity was not opportunistic move. Victims of rape don’t lie in a large majority of cases.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

I needed to tell my story in order to heal. I wanted to finish my novel which was unfinished when I was raped. By then James Lasdun had ruined my reputation so I had no choice but to tell my story in a memoir.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Women who have been raped write me every week. Domestic abuse survivors thank me for going through every single time I tried to leave and failed. There is also a group of sex workers who shared a copy of my book and said it was life changing. Like me, some of them were also victims of statutory rape. When young girls are raped, they often go on to sex work. Or, like me, they develop zero boundaries and find themselves in abusive relationships. Also, a large percentage of women who are raped are raped again. It felt really good to touch women who’ve been through far worse than I have.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Address rape in the publishing industry. They target women of color because we don’t file charges and when we do they are not taken seriously, as you’ll see in my book. Keep the conversation going. It’s the job of editors to keep writing stories so rapists don’t think they can do this “in the dark.” The statistics are shameful. Why do we accept rape for our daughters?

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I define leadership as leading and lighting the path. I was promiscuous when I was younger, and as it stands now in the U.S. if you have a past with one too many men, no one will believe you when you say you were raped. Implicitly that means that we are all fair game, and that a promiscuous women deserves sexual violence and men can’t be punished for it.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Talent doesn’t trump privilege. Push 300%.
  2. Publish independently if the big publishers won’t give you the mic.
  3. Rapists are every day people, and they gaslight everyone around them so you look like a liar.
  4. People will keep trying to bury your truth but keep pushing.
  5. Be your own publicist. Even publishing houses only publicize you for six months and then are done. Keep going!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Pick yourself up by the bootstraps and keep going. No one is going to save you. You may be one of the lucky ones, but in most cases no one will. Be resilient. Learn to be resilient if you’re not. After I was raped, most of my friends ditched me because I was drugged and raped (by whom who knows) at a big magazine and they were all writers and musicians who didn’t want to end their careers. My family wasn’t supportive, being very Iranian and not used to these discussions. You have to do the work yourself of clawing yourself out of the hole a rapist tries to bury you in.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Kamala Harris because that woman is the fiercest and most beautiful creature to walk this earth and she’s going to destigmatize mental health, which she said she would. I believe her. Also, I hear she makes awesome Indian food, which is my favorite, so I hope she’s cooking!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I don’t blog as much as I’d like but visit afarinmajidi.com because I should have my novel out in 2021!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!


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