Green MP Golriz Ghahraman made history as the first refugee to be sworn into the New Zealand parliament. She has just published her first book, Know Your Place, detailing her journey to, and life in, Aotearoa. Editor Nida Fiazi catches up with Golriz to discuss the books of her childhood.
The book Know Your Place and its author, Golriz Ghahraman
What is your earliest memory of stories/story-telling?
I had book-lovers for parents, so reading was always a big part of my life. My strongest early memories of storytelling are of my dad patiently reading me the Shahnameh—a very long epic poem by the Persian poet, Ferdowsi, which most Iranians love and know well. It’s a mythical world of heroes, dragons, and a really cool horse. The story was very engaging, but my dad had to translate most of the original writing to me into age-appropriate, bite-sized stories after reading them aloud. It was magical.
Were there any books that helped you foster a sense of belonging in New Zealand/made you feel more Kiwi?
When I first learned English well enough to read books, I was immediately into Roald Dahl. I was introduced to Kiwi authors in high school and my favourite was Patricia Grace. She captured an Aotearoa that probably hadn’t been published in literature in that way before, and that doesn’t appear often—even now.
Golriz (left) and her aunt Nahid (right) in Mashhad, Iran circa 1981
Can you recall your first experience of feeling represented in a book?
I think when you’re a young woman from a minority background, you learn to empathise with characters who aren’t like you. You look for universal experiences even if they don’t closely reflect your life’s circumstances. Growing up, I loved The Bell Jar for capturing the feeling of being out of place. I loved The Outsiders, for all the nuance it brought to the experience of people who are often judged by society based on how they are marginalised. In that book, it was young boys from broken homes or poor backgrounds, but I felt that at its core, the book had applications to race minorities too. When I finally got to see someone actually like me, with my background and family stories, in print, it was in the graphic book Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi. That was very meaningful!
When you're a young woman from a minority background, you learn to empathise with characters who aren't like you.
Have you ever encountered a book that explained you to yourself?
I think that’s an incremental experience of many books over time. It really is what reading is all about, learning how we are different and infinitely similar to one another is so sweet and human.
Is there a book that feels like home to you?
Two classic autobiographies are close to my heart: the human rights lawyer and Nobel Laureate, Shirin Ebadi’s Iran Awakening, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley, which I first read many years ago in school. They tell the stories of two courageous leaders who rose to the challenge of acknowledging and fighting oppression for their people in different ways.
Golriz happily missing school on a snow day in Iran.
What types of stories did/do you gravitate to most? Why?
I always loved life stories. As a history major, I like the extra perspective that a personal life story brings to our understanding of a different time and place.
Were there any subjects that were taboo/not discussed at home that you learnt about through stories/books?
Nothing was really taboo in our house. My mum was a trained psychologist, but she never worked in Iran because she refused to sit the required religious exams after the Revolution. She believed in being very open about sex and gender issues. My dad always told me to talk openly about alcohol or drugs, since I would inevitably encounter these things as I got older, and it was normal to be curious. So that took all the rebellion out of everything.
I like the extra perspective that a personal life story brings to our understanding of a different time and place.
Can you name any books that have left you feeling homesick? Not necessarily for a particular geographical place (although it can be), but perhaps a human home or a place in time?
Probably Shirin Ebadi’s life story. That left me homesick for my childhood and the life I may have lived in Iran as a human rights lawyer—something I won't ever really know.
Do you prefer stories in Farsi or English?
Sadly, my Farsi isn’t nearly strong enough to be able to read Persian adult literature.
Golriz Ghahraman made history as the first refugee to be sworn in as a member of New Zealand’s parliament in 2017. Iranian-born, Golriz arrived in New Zealand with her parents seeking asylum as a child. She studied human rights law at Oxford and has practiced as a lawyer in New Zealand and for United Nations tribunals in Africa, The Hague, and Cambodia.