Two years ago I had the special pleasure of interviewing Angella Nazarian, one of the Iranian Jewish community’s best-selling authors and award-winning poets. Her last book “Life As A Visitor” was indeed powerful because it revealed the difficulty she and her family faced as Jewish immigrants fleeing Iran during that country’s 1979 revolution. Nazarian is among the emerging group of highly educated and influential female writers in Southern California’s Iranian Jewish community who are making waves not only within her own community, but also beyond to other groups.
With the recent release of her new book “Pioneers of the Possible: 20 Visionary Women of the World”, Nazarian profiles some of the most incredibly powerful women of the last century. Her book takes an in depth look at how each of these women from different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds overcame greater difficulties to transform the lives of others for the better. While “Pioneers of the Possible” does feature a Jewish woman— Golda Meir, I think what is one of the most remarkable things about the book, is the author herself. Nazarian, who despite originally coming from a country like Iran where women are today treated like second class citizens, has had the courage to compile this very honest collection of stories about incredible women worldwide. For that reason, I recently sat down with her to chat about her new book…
Your last book focused on sharing your personal experience as an immigrant from Iran to the U.S. three decades ago. What motivated the shift in the focus of your current book which profiles 20 incredible women of the modern era?
As a psychology professor, who has been leading personal development groups for women, visionary women from different backgrounds have always intrigued me. Before I knew that I would be writing this book, I found myself on a quest to discover what the essential ingredients were in making a person extremely fulfilled and successful. My passion has always been to encourage women to lead their best lives, so I started with reading biographies of inspiring women from all around the world who changed history. My notes were voluminous, and then it clicked—I found myself with the makings of my next book. “Pioneers of the Possible: Celebrating Visionary Women of the World,” was born.
How exactly did you select the ladies for your book? And have any of them had a particular impact on your career or life?
I first started reading about the women I’ve always been more curious to learn about. But I also had a system to my research: all these women must have hurdled gender or ideological or creative barriers and should have been from different cultures. Also, these visionary women should have radically changed the landscape of their discipline, whether it was dance or architecture, or being an entrepreneur or leading a country. I am happy to say that I found that women all over the world have had a tremendous impact on their community and culture at large. The past year I had the great privilege of being inspired by their lives and I hope to share their stories with everyone else. These stories of course had a positive impact on me. One thing that it validated in me is the whole idea of “following your bliss.” One of the most important things we can do for ourselves is to listen closely to what makes us happy and keep doing more of it. Following that path will surely lead us to places that we would have never known but will nonetheless bring us a sense of discovery and aliveness.
During your research into each of the women featured in the book, were there any ladies in particular that you were especially impressed with and if so, what specific facts about them really stood out for you?
All the woman featured in the book are extraordinary, but for me discovering heroes and pioneers that I had not known before was very exciting. Helen Suzman, a Jewish woman who was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace prize, was an incredible inspiration to me. For 13 years she was the only member of South Africa’s parliament who openly challenged Apartheid policy. Nelson Mandela was deeply indebted to her for visiting him while he was in prison so many years—while she fought their shared cause. On her final visit to Victor Verster Prison, six months before Mandela’s release in 1989, the world’s most famous political prisoner asked Suzman to autography a book she had brought him. He, in return, autographed “Fear No Evil”, a book by Natan Sharansky, the famous Russian dissident and activist, who was sent to the Gulags for nine years. Sharansky indeed is a hero in Israel and that I have had the distinct pleasure of meeting. How interesting to see that the biggest activists are connected in such a way. Suzman’s life much like Mandela’s or Sharansky’s—was a message for all the world to see: to stand up for your convictions, even if you are alone. Master Cheng Yen was known as the Mother Theresa of the Far East. Here was a nun with just a primary school education and five disciples in a poor, remote corner of Taiwan. She suffered from a heart condition that did not allow her to fly outside her country yet she dreamed of building hospitals and helping the needy all over the world. Today her Tzu Chi organization has 10 million members and is one of the largest non-profit organizations, with an endowment of $850 million. When asked how she could build a global organization, she calmly smiled and responded, “When the time comes, I will know exactly what to do.” She embodies the message of hope and faith to believe in our dreams. Certainly faith in our abilities is one way of combating self-doubt.
You seem to paint a very raw and realistic picture of each of these women and their power/influence in the world. I found this particularly to be true of your section on Golda Meir. Can you please shed light on the portrayal of each woman and also the section on Golda Meir?
It is easy to write a biography of people listing their accomplishments and awards but somehow I feel we miss on the true spirit of the person. The deeper lesson for me was to probe and ask: what motivated each woman to commit such a large part of their life energy to a field, who was there support them, how did they manage to succeed against such odds? Answering these questions seemed to paint a more humanistic picture of these women. Golda has always been a hero of mine and an entire country. I found that her magnetic leadership was really based on her being able to connect to ideas and people on an emotional level. She once said, “It’s not accident many accuse me of conducting public affairs with my heart instead of my head. Well, what if I do? Those who don’t know how to weep with their whole heart don’t know how to laugh either.” Golda led a country through war and one of her sparring partners was Anwar Sadat. But when one watches clips of her talking to Sadat in 1977, on the cusp of signing a peace treaty, she approaches him on a human level. She first starts out by saying how they are both grandparents, she gives him a gift, she makes him laugh, she pokes fun of her age, admonishes him in gest. But then she also tells him, with serious intent, of the importance of meeting face to face, of dialogue and the hope for having peace in the region. That clip captures it all. What the viewer sees is two real people who happen to be people interacting with each other. In a world where so much is scripted and rehearsed, polished leaders run the risk of appearing two dimensional—not resonating on a human level to people they serve. Golda had the gift of doing things wholeheartedly, but also making sure she had a human touch, or should I say, a woman’s touch.
What was your overriding objective in creating this particular book?
Our purpose in life may be large or small. In most cases, it’s multi-leveled. But no matter where we are headed, learning about the lives of other women is an inspiring way to honor who we are and to encourage each other toward greater and deeper lives.
You’ve seemed to cover significant women from various regions, cultures, religions and ethnicities. Was there a specific purpose to make this a multi-cultural focused book for everyone? Or were these women just chosen for the merit of their works?
The saying goes, “we live in a global village”. So, it was important to me to write about women from different cultures because often times books and magazines tend to have a more Western focus. And, all these women deserve recognition especially because of what they have accomplished against all odds.
Both you and your husband come from families with very strong women and female role models. Can you please share what if any of them have had an impact on your life?
I take great pride in being raised in a family where I was encouraged to pursue my love for learning. I can say that my gratitude for my mother deepens with every year. I see that she has a tremendous spirit and resilient nature. It is as if she has a commitment to being happy and there is nothing more empowering to see a mother happy in her life—it gives the message of the sweetness of life to her kids. I am also extra lucky that I have spent the past 23 years in my husband’s family. When I was thirteen years old, I once saw my future mother-in-law at a party and I was dazzled by her. I thought to myself right then and there that I one day I would like to be gracious and warm like her. Little did I know that she would become my mother-in-law. She has shown me that it is possible to nurture one’s own gifts while keeping up with a family life. She is a talented sculptor and she works with a great deal of love and passion. Last year, in her gallery exhibition she said something to an audience that has stayed with me ever since. She told a group of young women that “being feminine and soft spoken is not a sign of weakness but can be our strength.” These are just two examples of women in my family and I can list more. I think the single most important inspiration comes from personal examples of those around us and I am lucky to have so many around me.
Iranian Jewish women of the last century seem to have a tremendous amount of inner strength. Where do you see the next generation of women from the Iranian Jewish community going?
There is tremendous potential and opportunity for the next generation of Iranian Jewish women. I see so many who are striving for higher education. There are women who are now surgeons, consultants, and attorneys. There are also those who are in some way committed to their growth as a person. It is not that every woman needs to work outside of the house. I think what is more important is that every woman needs to feel that she is a positive force in the life of her family and community. As much as there are opportunities around us, great distractions abound. It is up to each and every one of us to make growth and learning a priority in our lives, and it is up to all of us to support one another towards that path. The more important question is how I, as a parent or a friend, support other’s dreams and needs. Because we come from a traditional and collective culture, we tend to have a harder time supporting those who have different ideas for a vocation, or time of marriage, etc… Not everyone can be fulfilled by one path set out before them.
With the current poor status of women in Iran, can you please comment on the significance of the fact that you as an Iranian woman have featured a book containing another well-respected Iranian woman and other women of prominence in the world?
From what I understand, more women in Iran nowadays go to college than their male counterparts. And yet, they lack many human rights. In doing my research on the brilliant and pioneering poet, Forough Farrokhzad, so many writers referred to her need to express her personal feelings as a form of unveiling. Forough paid a high price for her brilliance indeed, but she felt that pursuing her quest for her deeper self was not a choice; she had to surrender to it. In her poems she discovered herself, and in her poems she craved understanding and through the process she became a giant in Persian literature. All the women that I have showcased in the book have had to face many challenges and yet they were driven by the pure fire of a calling. Forough serves as an example for all of us, that our work in life can serve a higher purpose. There are women now in Iran who tread the same path as Forough but in a different way. I just met the brave Sussan Tahmasebi, who led the Million-Signature Campaign in Iran to ask for women’s greater rights. She too is a pioneer in the symbolic unveiling of women.
You don’t have daughters of your own, but what message would you like young women today to be left with after reading your book?
I love this question Karmel. It is true that I don’t have daughters of my own, but I hope this book is an inspiration to my sons as well. Just recently my son, Phillip came back from college and was excited to tell me that he was reading the works of “Simone de Beauvoir”—another woman I have showcased in the book. I feel that the world is a better place when men respect and support the efforts of the women around them as well. But the overriding message of the book is that as women, we need to first look at our talents and strengths and not focus as much on our weaknesses. We are not supposed to be perfect in everyway…none of the women I have read about had a perfect life. But what research has shown me is that the most effective and successful women have managed to tailor a life that is based on their strengths and talents. Vibrant and happy women chose activities that bring meaning to their lives and nourish their inner needs. There is no true definition of the right path for we all have our unique calling and we are all capable of being pioneers in our own lives!