Jasmin Darznik *07 discovers a painful past and a half sister in Iran

Jasmin Darznik *07 explores her mother’s life in Iran and the daughter she left behind.
Jasmin Darznik *07 explores her mother’s life in Iran and the daughter she left behind.
Grand Central Publishing

When Jasmin Darznik *07 went home to California after her father died in November 2000, she made a shocking discovery. As Darznik was organizing some papers, a photograph of her mother dressed as a very young bride, pictured with a man who was not Darznik’s father, fell out from among some old letters.

At the time she didn’t ask her mother who the man was. But when Darznik returned to Princeton, where she was in her first year of a doctoral program in English, she brought the photo with her. Several months later, she asked her mother about it, and the answer came a month or two later, with the arrival of the first of what would be 10 cassette tapes. Darznik holed up in her apartment, skipped classes, and listened over and over again as her mother told her story. Those tapes provided the backbone for The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life, published by Grand Central Publish­ing this month.

T he man in the photo had been her mother’s first husband — the result of an arranged marriage when she was just 13. Her mother, called Lili in the book as all the names have been changed, soon had a daughter. The mar riage was abusive, and Lili’s father arranged for her divorce. She was told to forget her daughter and tell no one about her marriage or child, though she did manage eventually to keep in intermittent contact with the girl.  

Darznik’s Iranian mother had met her father, an ethnic Slav, in Germany, and married him in Iran, where Darznik was born. The family moved to the United States in 1979 when Darznik was 4 to escape the worsening political situation in Iran.

The Good Daughter tells the story that had long been hidden from Darznik — about her mother’s first marriage and daughter — and the trauma of leaving behind her child and her home to move to America. The memoir also recounts the difficult life she led in the United States.  

Initially upon listening to the tapes, “I was very confused. It didn’t seem to square with anything that I knew, or only very vaguely,” says Darznik. But then she began piecing together snippets of conversation that she had heard as a child and making sense of some childhood experiences — like her mother sobbing at night and her mother’s protectiveness. Knowing about that first marriage and child, Darznik says, “I could understand the source of those better.”

When Darznik was working on her dissertation on Iranian immigrant literature at Princeton, she was unable to find memoirs that spoke of intimate family matters. “Iranians are very private about what happens in the family — almost superstitious about telling family secrets,” she says. With her own memoir, she has written the book she was searching for. It’s one that gives voice to subjects not commonly discussed in Iran — domestic violence, divorce, mental illness, and alcoholism.  

One day, Darznik hopes to travel to Iran, spend months getting to know her half sister, and learn about her story.  

An English professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., Darznik tells her creative-writing students to write the stories that “you feel have to be told.” The Good Daughter, she adds, “is mine.”