First-time author, Ashley Dartnell, is our guest blogger this month. Farangi Girl was published in June

‘Just put your anxiety aside and write the book.’

Ashley DartnellThis was the advice my teacher (the writer Blake Morrison) gave me as I spiralled through yet another cycle of self doubt. I was in the second year of an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths. I had given up my job to do the course, my husband had just lost his job and my six year old had just been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. What Blake was referring to was not any of those problems but my chronic unease about the subject matter of my book. This was despite the fact that I had applied to Goldsmiths after twenty-five years of working in business and media explicitly to write this particular book: an autobiographical memoir of my growing up in Iran during the time of the Shah.

What was causing such disquiet, as Graham Greene so brilliantly put it, was ‘the bitterness leaks again out of my pen.’ I was upset and horrified at how much anger, how much bitterness was flowing out of me. Every day, I would sit at my desk in a trance: lost in the sights, sounds and emotions of my childhood. At the end of the day, after I switched off my computer, if anyone asked me what I had written, I had absolutely no idea. The material was coming from some very deep and well hidden reservoir. The next morning I would read through what I had written in a state of anticipation and despair—the scenes of my childhood were so vivid and often difficult and sad.

And, the secrets—so many secrets! All my life I had successfully avoided thinking about the complicated web of secrets my mother had woven. Now I was untangling the strands of deceit and obfuscation and it was painful.

What was giving me such profound anxiety, though, intense enough that over the two years of the MA and then the subsequent three during which I actually wrote the book was my feelings of guilt. All my life, my mother had admonished that we keep our dirty laundry to ourselves and yet, here I was, airing it for the entire world to see. Despite the fact that both my parents had died years before, as I wrote I was beset with remorse.

I considered many options: ditching the

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idea entirely, fictionalising it or simply eliminating the bits that were causing me consternation.

Blake has written two memoirs—When Was the Last Time You Saw Your Father and Things my Mother Never Told Me—and in both he revealed similarly painful material. Yet, he urged me to continue to write the book as a memoir and to tell the truth, even if it came at an emotional cost. I knew that by not writing the book honestly, I would deprive my parents of a legacy to their extraordinary lives. Plus, as a writer, I believed that it was a great story and that if I could capture it, I would have a book that was gripping and could change people’s lives. For someone as passionate about books and reading as I, this was powerful.

I knew that fictionalising wasn’t an option—the people who were sensitive would still be hurt regardless of whether it was a memoir or fiction. And finally, the painful bits, the sad bits, the shameful bits—the bits my family wouldn’t want revealed—I felt that these are what make a life and we no longer live in a world where people believe that any life is immune from pain or mistakes. It doesn’t mean that I wasn’t worried about revealing our family secrets, just that I had thought through the implications. So, I followed Blake’s advice and I wrote the book that was true to my life. And of course, probably predictably, it was the right decision because even just a few weeks after publication, I know that the book resonates with many people. Every day I receive emails, texts and messages telling me how moved people are and how much they relate to the book. Having said that, there are still moments when I feel a sharp prick of guilt and I quickly say, ‘Sorry Mom, sorry Dad’…

11 responses to “writing farangi girl (and learning to put anxiety aside – well, mostly)”

  1. bernice weston says:

    I found it fascinating to re-read Ashley’s book a second time and the second time it was even more marvelous. Ashley is a great writer who should keep on writing because writing for her is a captive art. I shall keep on reading the many comments about her book that others have written. Bernice Weston.

    • Ashley dartnell says:

      Thanks Bernice
      Thrilled by your reaction to Farangi Girl. Very grateful you read it twice! wow! I have an idea or two for my next book and will get started on them as soon as I have done the marketing for this one–I have a number of talks and book groups lined up for the autumn which look like a great deal of fun. Keep recommending Farangi Girl and thanks so much for your support. Ashley

  2. bernice weston says:

    I think Ashley should post her reactions to our comments

  3. Jo says:

    The best book I have ever read, thank you so much !

    • Ashley dartnell says:

      Gosh Jo that is an amazing response. Thank you so much. I am about to do a number of speaking engagements over the next months so depending upon where you live perhaps you can come to one? I will be posting some on my FB page. The next one is at Asia House in london on september 7. Thank you so much for your enthusiastic reaction! ashley

  4. […] To fictionalize or to write a memoir? […]

    • Ashley dartnell says:

      Thanks Nina, I was moved by your blog and wish you all the best in tackling what is a difficult decision. Another memoir writer who has written sensitively about this is Kathryn Harrison–well worth reading some of the pieces she has written around the subject. Best, Ashley

  5. Well, Hello Ashley!

    I haven’t yet read your “Farangi Girl”; I only learned of its existence sixteen hours ago. I’m looking forward to, though, with great anticipation, and will be giving it as a (big!) surprise gift this holiday season to some dear former colleagues with whom you also share a tiny piece of your past.

    Warmest regards and True Congratulations!!

  6. richard alpert says:

    Ashley, how can I get an autographed copy of “Farangi Girl”?

  7. […] did Ashley decide to write the book in the first place? I’m attaching a link to an earlier blog of Ashley’s which answer some of those […]

  8. Shell Brebner says:

    Thank you for this wonderful book Asho. It has been a great privilege to walk through your lives.

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