Reza Baraheni, Lilith ( ‘finish the painting / fold the canvas’ ... )


Tenement #8 / ISBN: 978-1-8380200-9-5
110pp / 140 x 216mm
Edited by Dominic Jaeckle
Designed and typeset by Traven T. Croves


A first-time UK publication of a work of fiction by Reza Baraheni (1935-2022),“Iran’s finest poet” [Harper’s] ...

Baraheni is a literary man, so his revolt took the form of breathing “reality and harshness” into the Persian language, and turning it against his oppressors.


Baraheni’s vision was not confined to Iran. He was instrumental in having the wording of charter of PEN International changed to make it more universal. Its first words used to be: “Literature, national though it may be in origin, knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.” He proposed deleting the words, “national thought it be in origin.” That simple yet profound change was approved at the 2003 PEN Congress in Mexico City, the first change to the document since it was agreed to in 1948. The revised Charter now reads: “Literature knows no frontiers...”

Haroon Siddiqui, former president of PEN Canada, in tribute to Baraheni on his death in 2022, PEN International

‘I think therefore I am other…’ In Reza Baraheni’s Lilith, the mythological demon of the night gives a youthfully irreverent, viscerally wise voice to the lucidity of the rebel. Rather than renouncing freedom, Lilith is outcast for her outspokenness and sensuality—sequestered to a place wherein freedom is crucially situated in the power and beauty of language, and where that language is seated in stark opposition with the oppressive forms of authority that seek to make it mute.

Lilith can be seen as an allegorical take on the condition of the poet in exile. Like the banned and persecuted author, the demon refuses to yield to force and is, resultantly, a pariah. Her body becomes the dumping ground of all power-driven fantasies, and the figure of the exile is invested with the projected fears and compulsions of the dominant society. But it is the creative drive of language that permeates these pages.

A deeply lyrical and irreducibly subversive work, over little more than a hundred pages Lilith investigates the limits of a linguistic freedom via encounters between Lilith and a cast of fabled figures, and the vulnerable courage of the poet is set against avatars of patriarchal oppression and authoritarian rule alike via the demon’s dance with language. In Lilith, it is language that disrupts ordinary chronology; language that allows for the shade of a dream life to dint the light of day; harking back to an envisaging of poetry as music, as ritual. This is not language as an evocation of some distant golden age, but as celebration.

An experiment in word alchemy; a dance of grace and danger on the faultline of prose and song; Lilith explores with the reality-making function of language to pinpoint the antagonistic faculty and political felicities of poetry itself.

In 2006, Lilith was adapted for the theatre and produced in France and Geneva by Thierry Bedard (under the title Exilith). Bedard has also previously presented Reza Baraheni’s play Enfer to great acclaim at the Avignon International Festival in 2004. The novella has so far only been published in France (Fayard, 2007) in the brilliant French translation by Clément Marzieh. No edition of it has ever been published in Persian and, indeed, the original manuscript appears to have been lost. The Tenement translation is anchored in Marzieh’s version, fully authorised by Baraheni himself, and also—as afterword—includes Baraheni’s poem ‘Daf,’ as translated by Baraheni and Stephen Watts.  

Poetry is an affirmation of the possible. It celebrates life, its delights, sorrows and value. Affirmation is best when sung with passion and wit. Celebration needs to be individual and collective; immediate, and soaked with a sense of the past. When poems are written out of a cogent Marxist ideology and/or in opposition to a repressive, exploitative society, celebration can be fired by a spirit of practical revolution: a driving force for change that, by affirming the possible and recording its violation, ferments discontent and implies the need for struggle. Baraheni's writing is such an affirmation, and force for change.

Suloe Wenstein, in praise of Baraheni’s collection of poems, God’s Shadow, in Race & Class: The Institute of Race Relations (1977)

“So let us propose discussion of the idea that a new art, with its own rules, is being generated in the 20th century,” says E. L. Doctorow in his introduction to [Baraheni’s] The Crowned Cannibals: “the Lieder of victims of the state. It sings of regimes so repressive as to be fun‐house mirror images of civilisation. It recounts years of solitary confinement. It tells of pliers for pulling fingernails, it speaks of electric currents sent Into sexual organs, it describes prison cells in which person can neither stand up nor lie down. True, this is a necessarily small range of subject. There is a limit to the possibilities of metaphor. The subtext has to do with the degrees of death in life. But within these strictures the poet is entitled to sing with his or her own voice.” Mr. Doctorow is fending off imaginary critics before any punches have been thrown. He would protect Reza Baraheni from “those who insulate themselves in literature,” those who draw “patronising distinctions between what is aesthetically successful and what is only sensational,” those for whom “words are a tapestry, and of no value except in the pretty designs they make.”

John Leonard, The New York Times

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100 first editions will carry a cover sticker as adornment; a painting by artist Oliver Bancroft, ‘A Rig’ (2021).

Reza Baraheni (1935–2022) is one of the twentieth century’s major writers, whose work transverses poetry, novels and essays. With more than sixty books of poetry, fiction, literary theory and criticism to his name (oft-cited as a “founder of modern literary criticism in Iran,” the Washington Post), he is revered as a key figure in contemporary Persian literary culture. Baraheni’s works have been translated into several languages, and he has taught at universities in Iran, the United States, and Canada. Imprisoned under the Shah in 1973, he was arrested in Tehran; Baraheni claimed he was tortured and kept in a solitary confinement for 104 days—see God’s Shadow: Prison Poems (Indiana University Press, 1976) and The Crowned Cannibals (Random House, 1977)—and his involvement in the formation of the Consulting Assembly of the Writers Association of Iran necessitated his exile from the Islamic Republic. In Sweden—and in the United States thereafter—he joined the American branch of the International PEN, working closely with such authors and poets as Edward Albee, Allen Ginsberg, and Richard Howard at PEN’s Freedom to Write Committee. With Kay Boyle, Baraheni acted as the Honorary Chair of the Committee for Artistic and Intellectual Freedom (CAIFI) to release Iranian writers and artists from prison. A celebrated and insightful commentator on literary freedom(s), his prose and poetry has been published in such periodicals as Time Magazine, the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and the American Poetry Review. Eventually settling in Canada, Baraheni lived in exile in Toronto and held post as a visiting professor at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Comparative Literature and as president of PEN Canada (2001-2003).