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'Liberated' Words: Iranian-Born Poet Swept From Censors' Office To Nobel Jury

Iranian-born Swedish author Jila Mossaed says her words were not appreciated in her country of birth, which she fled with her two children in 1986.

Words are everything to Iranian-born poet Jila Mossaed, who says she is obsessed with their "mysterious hidden powers."

"I breathe through words," said the 70-year-old naturalized Swede, who has written books and poetry collections in Persian and Swedish.

Her dedication to her art has now secured Mossaed election to the most prominent cultural institution in her adopted country and around the world -- the Swedish Academy that has awarded the Nobel Prize for literature since 1901.

Mossaed, whose writings are rich in symbolism and frequently evoke loss and longing, is thought to be the first immigrant to hold one of the centuries-old Swedish Academy's 18 lifetime seats.

She replaces Swedish author Kerstin Ekman, who ended her involvement with the Academy in 1989 over its refusal to condemn a religious fatwa issued by the late Iranian cleric and revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini against British author Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses.

Mossaed told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that her words were not appreciated in her country of birth, which she fled with her two children in 1986.

"When [one of my] books was published in Iran, there were two very insulting critiques of it that were very painful for me to read," she recalled, adding that she was summoned by officials in charge of literary censorship at the Culture Ministry to explain some of the passages.

Mossaed described herself as a hard-core atheist who did not belong in Iran, where Islamic laws and strict censorship have been enforced since a 1979 revolution.

In Sweden, she said, her poetry found freedom.

"It's very different here -- there is no censorship and in a way my poetry was liberated, it has reached purity, sincerity that is appreciated here," Mossaed told Radio Farda by telephone from the western Swedish city of Gothenburg, where she lives.

Jila Mossaed will take her seat when the academy meets next in December.
Jila Mossaed will take her seat when the academy meets next in December.

Mossaed said she was "shocked" and "honored" when the Swedish Academy contacted her after a secret ballot selected her and Swedish Supreme Court Justice Eric Runesson as new members on October 5.

"This is a very Swedish institution; until now no foreigner has [occupied] any of the seats there," she added.

"Of course, I was surprised. I became acquainted with [Swedish] at the age of 38 – and 10 years later I started to write in Swedish. I never thought I would be elected to the academy, even though I had been receiving good critiques for my work."

She said had worked hard to feel close to Swedish. "I had to bear witness to my existence in the West, because it hasn't been easy. It's been painful, leaving one's cradle toward the grave; my grave will be here," she added.

"The pain has made me shout and say some things in Swedish."

'Breath Of Fresh Air'

Mossaed's and Runesson's elections follow the creation of two fresh vacancies in May, after a sexual-harassment scandal created a deep rift in the Swedish Academy and prompted it to abandon plans for a literary Nobel in 2018. Instead, the academy has said, it will hand out two prizes next year.

Jean-Claude Arnault, the man at the center of the scandal, was recently convicted of rape and sentenced to prison.

Mossaed said she believes she was elected to the academy to bring some "fresh air" and a "different view" in light of her background. "I use Iranian symbols and metaphors in my Swedish poetry, and I think that makes it attractive here," she said.

She said she hoped to be able to offer others a taste of Persian poetry, which she described as among "the most beautiful" in the world. "Oil and gas are not [Iranians'] wealth, our poetry is our wealth," Mossaed said, adding that she felt Persian poetry has not received the attention it deserves in the West.

Iran has a rich tradition of poetry, including figures like the 14th-century poet Hafez, whose book of poetry is found in most Iranian homes.

"I've been given a rare opportunity, and I hope to make the best of it," Mossaed told Radio Farda. "I think both Iranian modern literature and classic poets must be introduced. They are not known, and now is the time."

Mossaed will be inducted into the Swedish Academy at its next annual meeting, on December 20.

With reporting by Elahe Ravanshad and Mehrdad Ghassemfar of RFE/RL's Radio Farda
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.