Sholeh Wolpé performs The Conference of the Birds

20 Aug 2018

Iranian-born poet and writer Sholeh Wolpé says from a young age she “knew words were powerful”.

Sholeh Wolpe

Sholeh Wolpé will perform The Conference of the Birds at UNSW on September 7.

Ms Wolpé, who grew up in Iran, said she had a good childhood but “always felt suffocated by the rules, even at a young age”.

“From the time I was as young as ten in Tehran, I used to write plays and stage them for our family,” she said

“I wrote stories and poetry and understood even from a young age, that this was how I could reach out and make them listen to me.”.

Wolpé, who is a poet and playwright, began translating poems by fellow Iranians from Persian to English because she wants “the world to see Iran through the eyes of its poets, not its politicians”.

“I believe literature has the power to bring people of different cultures and languages together,” said Ms Wolpé.

“These are dark times, and the light of literature and the arts is necessary to brighten our lives and bring us closer to one another.”

Ms Wolpé will present a masterclass on September 6 and a dramatic performance of The Conference of the Birds by 12th century Iranian Sufi mystic poet, Attar, on September 7.

Ms Wolpé says the Conference of the Birds is a “life-altering work of literature” which took three years to translate.

“In the Conference of the Birds, it is as if Attar pulls his chair close and says: Let me tell you a story about inflated self-regard,” she said

“How about the tale of the donkey who farted? He then tells you a very funny story that teaches you about the dangers of an over-blown ego—a story that instructs through entertainment.

“This is a very effective way instruction through entertainment.”

Ms Wolpé’s performance will be accompanied by Iranian musician Siavash Sadr and will begin with poems that describe her own journey.

Her performance will be a combination of music, poetry and “images as music for the eye”.

“I grew up in a culture that sings its poems,” she said.

“I wanted to bring it to the English-speaking public as a modern, readable, entertaining work.

“I hope that by the end of the evening you feel your soul has taken that journey with the birds, and with me and Siavash.”

UNSW researcher in contemporary Iranian literature, Dr Laetitia Nanquette said she started to read Sholeh’s inspiring translations years ago.

“Sholeh Wolpé is one of the best positioned today to offer valuable and accessible translations to English-speaking readers,” she said.

“Classical Persian poetry is relatively well-known, with poets like Rumi, and increasingly Attar, thanks to Sholeh’s translation and others.

“Contemporary memoirs by Iranians, especially by women, who have migrated to Western countries also get some attention.”

She says modern and contemporary Persian literature from Iran struggles to become visible on the world literature scene.

“There are many explanations and the fact that Iran is isolated, due to sanctions as well as its own restrictions is important

"There are lots of interesting things happening in the Persian literary field, mostly in Iran and I believe it is important to make this visible to English-speaking readers,” said Dr Nanquette.

The Australia Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) fellow in the School of Arts and Media said UNSW is becoming a hub of Iranian Studies in Australia, with scholars and PhD students working on Iranian culture, primarily literature and cinema.

“There is a strong Iranian student community at UNSW working in fields like engineering and medicine, active in organising cultural events,” she said.

Dr Nanquette is a scholar and translator of contemporary Persian literature and frequently travels to Iran for research fieldworks.

Sholeh Wolpé’s visit to UNSW is sponsored by the School of the Arts and Media as a part of the UNSWriting series.

“I am happy to once again be in your beautiful country and share my perspective and journey with you through poetry and performance,” Ms Wolpé said.

“I feel that when I translate our literature, people begin to understand the soul of the Iranian people.

“Students will find themselves in a new land, with new eyes.”

Join us for Sholeh Wolpé's exclusive masterclass and performance at UNSW. To secure your tickets, book here.