Finding our voices
24 May 2009 16:30
By MANIJEH NASRABADI in New York
[TEHRAN BUREAU] Our stories don't always mention the cataclysmic events that turned Iranian society upside down in 1979. We were children then, some of us swept up by our terrified parents and carried into exile and some of us already in the United States, watching our immigrant parents lose the Iran they knew as if for a second time. Despite the wide range of our experiences, Iranian American writers of my generation (I was born in 1975) have had to confront the impact of the Islamic Revolution at the level of childhood trauma as well as come to terms with our Iranian identities in its aftermath. This struggle forced us to enter the world of our imaginations, often the only place elastic and safe enough for us to explore the mixtures of fear, alienation and loss that might otherwise have defied articulation.
For Porochista Khakpour, the experience of fleeing Iran when she was three-years old, the confusion and the boredom of the trip, proved formative for her literary future. On a train hurtling across Europe in 1980, she told stories to fill the endless hours and her father wrote them down. The journey into exile would span several years and multiple countries before finally landing the family in Southern California, with the young Khakpour already dedicated to a life of letters.
"By the time we were settled in the US, I had no doubt what I wanted to be when I grew up," said Khakpour, whose debut novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, was published in 2007 when she was 29 years old. "Reading and writing were nearest and dearest to me at a time of extreme instability."
"If it weren't for the Islamic Revolution," she said, reflecting on her success, "I may never have gone this route."
This February marked 30 years since the Shah of Iran fled a rising tide of social and political unrest and the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to take the helm of a popular uprising. There were already 100,000 Iranians living in the US at that time, roughly half of them university students, like my father. Over the past three decades, educated professionals (1 out of every three dentist and physician), wealthy elites (taking with them $30-$40 billion), religious minorities (Jews, Baha'is, Armenians, Assyrians and Zoroastrians), draft dodgers (on the run from a bloody eight-year conflict between Iran and Iraq) and a smaller trickle of working class laborers have fled Iran because of persecution, war, economic crisis or some combination of all three. The 2000 US Census figures put the population of those born in Iran and those born in the US with Iranian ancestry at just over 500,000. However, many diaspora organizations estimate the figure at between 600,000 and 1 million due to under-reporting -- some Iranians do not like to identify themselves as such.
This hesitancy should not be surprising. February was also the 30-year anniversary of the drastic downgrade in US-Iran relations, from extremely close allies to mortal enemies. While many immigrant groups face negative attitudes from white Americans, Iranians were singled out for a special kind of demonization. The Iranian Revolution had adopted anti-American rhetoric, giving voice to popular resentment of the corrupt US-backed Shah and the US's role in profiting off of Iranian oil and thwarting democratic movements for twenty-five years. When a small group of Iranian students captured the American Embassy in Tehran in fall of 1979 and took its remaining occupants hostage, they unleashed a 444-day US media spectacle in which Iran began to overshadow the USSR as the main target of American animosity and threats.
An entire nation and its people became synonymous with terrorism. I remember my father coming home with stories about how a stranger called him a terrorist on the bus or how his colleagues at work had accused him of supporting terrorism because he tried to defend the right of Iranians to choose their own government. Some Americans organized racist anti-Iran rallies, and Iranians were the target of so many hate crimes that many changed their names.
Iranian American literature has not only developed in this hostile climate but it has achieved mainstream commercial success. Memoirs by writers who reached adulthood in Iran, such as Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), Journey from the Land of No (2004) and Persian Girls (2006), found mass audiences in the post-9/11 period, when the public appetite for knowledge about places that were poorly understood, and hyped as potential threats, seemed insatiable. These books, among others, put Iranian American literature on the map and painted compelling portraits of the lives of individual Iranian women on the brink of a final separation from Iran.
Now, the second-generation of writers in their 20s and 30s, who were born in the US or arrived here as children, are transforming Iranian American literature from an immigrant to an indigenous phenomenon. While the difficulties of being very young immigrants factor into some of our stories, we have all faced a daunting challenge: how to grapple with the violent legacy of revolution in an America that is both virulently anti-Iran and the place we've called home for most, if not all, of our lives.
The tension and discomfort that come with this territory have also been a powerful fuel for the literary impulse. "As a young person [in California], I always felt so ambivalent and awkward about my Iranian background, and I think that dispelling that sense through writing, even as an adult, has always motivated me," said Azadeh Moaveni, the author of two memoirs, Lipstick Jihad (2005) and Honeymoon in Tehran (2009).
As a beginning writer who left Iran as a young child, Moaveni drew inspiration and solace from the work of other Asian diaspora authors. "When I first read Salman Rushdie's novel, Shame, it was as though a new plane of existence had been revealed to me. What rich, spectacular, worthy things one could do with one's shame," she said.
Moaveni's memoirs are part of an increasingly popular trend among younger Iranian-American writers, which is not present in the first generation's body of work: the "return" narrative. Lipstick Jihad traces the author's journey back to Iran as a journalist, where, as she writes in the introduction, she went looking for "the generation I would have belonged to, had I not grown up outside." She details slices of modern life that debunk Western myths of Iranians as anti-American or uniformly devout, and that make it harder for readers to maintain the distance between "us" and "them" that is necessary for fear to flourish. Honeymoon in Tehran charts the fundamentalist crackdown unleashed in Iran after President Ahmadinejad's election, at the same time that Moaveni decides to start a family there.
Khakpour's work represents a more nascent trend: a turn towards unconventional fiction. "I care more about sentences than plot or characters," she said, "so the whole [novel] came out of issues of voice, style and structure." In Sons and Other Flammable Objects, Darius and his son Xerxes come close to being psychically crushed under the weight of a past that goes back, through the lineage of their names, to the kings of the ancient Persian Empire. Khakpour described her language as "energetic, sprawling and strange," but necessary to convey the absurdity and pain of her character's lives. For example, intense encounters with Darius's retelling of history leave Xerxes "[f]everish from bouts of familial chaos theory and hived with ancestral existential smallpox."
For most of the story, which is set in southern California and New York City, Iran as an actual place hardly exists. The novel "never showcases Iran as a real setting. It never wants to," Khakpour explained. "Everything happens in the diaspora. So it's a real product of the hyphenate identity, perfectly split between the two."
In Dalia Sofer's debut novel, The Septembers of Shiraz (2007), we learn the fate of an Iranian Jewish family targeted both for their religious and ethnic background and for their upper class status in Iran during the revolution. Simultaneous sections of the book also take place in Brooklyn's Hasidic community, where the college-age son of the family, Parviz, struggles to find his place in America -- providing the author with an opportunity to describe the suspended state of living in exile. Parviz is drawn instinctively to the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. Sofer writes, "A bridge, he thinks, is the only place where uncertainty is permissible, where one can exist with no connection to any land -- or any person -- but with the reassurance that connection is possible." Thus the narrative takes up what Sofer described as "a common theme for many of us -- a sense of living between two cultures, two places, two histories."
Sofer drew on autobiographical threads to tell her story. Her father was arrested in 1979 on false charges of being a Zionist spy. The family left Iran when she was ten-years old, and she counts herself among "the last witnesses of a vanished era, the record keepers of an historical incident gone awry." The Septembers of Shiraz transitions from a chronicle of what was lost to a speculation about what can be. "[Iranian American] writers of the newer generation are now exploring their alienation on the peripheries of multiple societies, and their inability to truly inhabit any given space," she said.
For some second-generation, Iranian American writers, the struggle to exist in several, often-conflicting, cultural spaces is a biological phenomenon as well, springing from the inter-ethnic unions of their parents. Roger Sedarat, a poet and professor at Queens College, was born in Normal, Illinois to an American mother and an Iranian father who then moved the family to Texas. "You could say I grew into my Iranian culture as opposed to growing up with it," he said. His first book of poetry, Dear Regime: Letters to the Islamic Republic (2008), intertwines references to American and Iranian cultures, languages and poetic forms "to both clarify and confuse."
Growing up in Texas in the 1980s, "There was something disjointed about seeing my father wearing cowboy boots, trying to use phrases with his thick Persian accent like, 'sure as shootin'," Sedarat explained. At the same time, this friction sparked his creative energy. "[My poetry] comes from the inevitable incongruity of my subjective position," he said.
Despite his physical distance from the Iranian Revolution, Sedarat nonetheless experienced its fall-out half a world away. "I felt the repercussions in San Antonio, Texas when the US hostages were taken at the American embassy," Sedarat remembered. "I'd pick up the phone to hear voices in Texan accents, possibly of our own neighbors, telling me that our family had to leave the country or we would be killed. I lived in constant terror during that time. All the windows of my father's car were smashed. Even at school, which in America is supposed to be a place of tolerance, kids in class would give me a hard time. One day a teacher confiscated disparaging signs about Iran from some kid; one showed Mickey Mouse giving the middle finger with a caption that said, 'Hey Iran.' [Later] I saw her laughing over them with the teacher next door." After incidents like these, Sedarat's father told him never to identify as Iranian in public.
Under such inhospitable, even dangerous, conditions, it's not surprising that it took Sedarat many years to decide to explore his Iranian heritage. It wasn't until after he received a PhD in American literature, that he began mixing ancient Persian forms, like the ghazal, with trends in contemporary American poetry. In a poem titled "In Praise of Moths" Sedarat writes a post-modern ghazal, which includes the following lines, playful and serious at the same time: "Double double boiling some trouble:/ Eye of Khomeini plopped into a ghazal./My Father's Buick, a real gas guzzler,/ Backfired, and wrote its own kind of ghazal." Working with such disparate influences as the 12th century Persian poet Hafez, the verses of Wallace Stevens and the rhymes of Tupac Shakur, Sedarat creates poetry that confronts the dissonance of his hybrid identity.
In addition to their diverse relationships to Iranian literary and political history -- and their various combination of biological identities and cultural influences -- all of the writers interviewed for this article showed a keen awareness of yet another fraught terrain that we must navigate. Due to the systematic demonization of Iran and Iranians in the US media, the same popular interest that has produced a market for Iranian American literature also comes loaded with assumptions, stereotypes and prejudices.
"I don't want the American reading public to come away [from reading Dear Regime] thinking Iran is backwards or any more in violation of human rights than any other country, including the United States," Sedarat said.
But he is also wary of writing that goes too far in the other direction. "To avoid this stance brings another problem, producing a kind of feel good, ethnic pat on the back that showcases the surface of the culture without sufficient depth."
The pressure that comes from being part of a targeted group has often led immigrant families to construct protective walls of silence. "Like many Iranian Americans of my generation, [when] I grew up there was so much you were never supposed to talk about, especially as women, and also so much you were never supposed to write about," said scholar, critic and memoirist Jasmin Darznik "In part this had to do with saving face in front of Americans, and in part it was simply the continuation of long-standing cultural taboos," she explained.
Now Darznik is in the process of breaking these taboos as she completes her first book, a memoir titled The Good Daughter (2010). Darznik, left Iran when she was five-years old with her Polish father and Iranian mother. She grew up with "a very carefully edited version of Iran's history, politics and culture" and, it turns out, of her family's history as well. Then, one day in 1999, shortly after her father's death, Darznik accidentally discovered a photograph of her eleven-year old mother dressed as a bride and standing next to the Iranian man who was her first husband. When her mother finally decided to break decades of silence and tell her story to Darznik, she revealed the existence of another daughter left behind in Iran.
Now, with her mother's consent, Darznik is turning this story into a book that must contend with such controversial issues as child brides, abusive husbands and polygamy. And she knows this means wading into potentially dangerous waters.
"There's been a huge backlash against Iranian American women writers in the last few years, particularly memoirists and particularly Azar Nafisi [the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran]. [T]here's a sense that we're playing into the hands of a conservative agenda," Darznik said.
She hopes her audience will be more open-minded and attuned to the nuances of her story. "[I]t's abhorrent to me to think someone would read my memoir as proof of the backwardness of Iranian culture or the oppressiveness of Islam," she said. "But while it's important to me to write a story that ultimately upends such prejudices, what do I do with aspects of my story that seem to confirm those stereotypes? Do I not write those parts?" The solution she's found is to write "the most complicated story I can in the most engaging manner I can write it."
Poet, novelist and visual artist, Aphrodite Desiree Navab uses satire to challenge racist and sexist stereotypes of Iranians in her one-woman performance art piece Super East-West Woman (2002-present). "I took my chador [the black cloth religious Muslim women use to cover their bodies in Iran] and turned it into a cape," Navab recounted. "The Superman figure of popular Western culture is transformed into a Superwoman," her "chador turns into a cape of agency. She pokes fun at herself, her two cultures and the ludicrous situations in which her life, between East and West, has placed her."
Navab, who was born in Iran to an Iranian father and Greek mother, also uses her work to celebrate the multiple cultural spaces she inhabits. She is currently working on Tales Left Untold, "a transnational epic, which draws from both real and imagined stories of my life." Her poetic prose cannot be neatly classified. "It is at once fiction, and not, autobiographical, and not," she said.
The desire to resist classification, and the tokenism that can go along with it, informs the vision for the future that many younger Iranian American writers share.
"I am elated to walk into any bookstore and pick up one of many books written by Iranian American authors like Anita Amirrezvani or French-Iranian author Marjane Satrapi," said fiction writer Parissa Ebrahimzadeh who left Iran at the age of two and grew up in Mission Viejo, California among a large Latino population. Some of her short stories look at the intersection of Latino and Iranian immigrant groups thrown together in exile. "I am happy for a younger version of me who is growing up now and has so many voices to pick up and relate to."
Ebrahimzadeh also sees the potential for Iranian American literature to continue to diversify. "My generation is still holding on to so many stories that haven't been shared yet," she said. She is hard at work on her first novel about an Iranian immigrant family in California. "I always have so many questions for other Iranian Americans: What has their experience been like? What new ways of being have formed?"
The impulse among Iranian American writers to ask and answer these questions and to support each other's work led to the formation of the Association of Iranian American Writers (AIAW) in May 2008 -- a network whose membership spans the genres and the generations, and which is dedicated to promoting emerging writers alongside more established ones.
Persis Karim, professor of literature at San Jose State University and AIAW's founder, also co-edited A World Between (1999) and edited Let Me Tell You Where I've Been (2006). These two anthologies have introduced new voices and showcased the development of Iranian-American literature over the past ten years. "While the conflicts between the US and Iran continue to loom large and pose an important part of the backdrop, second generation writers are aware that they can't resolve these tensions," Karim said. "There is confidence in the idea of writing outside those debates, in exploring, rather than attempting to reconcile, the conflict."
"There is, finally, a sense of a community of Iranian-American writers," Darznik said. "And yet, the more Iranian Americans publish their writing, the more aspiring writers must distinguish themselves from what's been 'done' before. Whether this creates more or less opportunity for the younger generation is debatable, but I do think that pressure it what keeps the literature from stagnating."
Khakpour also hopes her generation will continue to chart a new course for Iranian-American literature. "My generation of writers is still emerging. I'm hoping they will be more irreverent and wild and quirky," she said.
Sedarat offered his "ideal vision" of the future: "to have the super rich living in the Middle East revive the old Persian courtly tradition, subsidizing the kind of poetry I write," he said. "Barring that, my ideal is for Iranian-American writers to cohere around some kind of literary movement, a circle of writers getting together, exchanging ideas, reading and discussing the same books, etc. To a certain extent, I'm starting to see something fantastic happening with AIAW, of which I am a proud member," he said.
Sofer, whose next novel is about an elderly man living in the south of France, emphasized a sentiment that was echoed by all of the writers interviewed here, that great writing is what really counts no matter where you come from or what topics and settings you chose. "Powerful connection, from the writer's pen to the reader's mind -- and hopefully heart -- far surpasses labels and categorizations. So my advice? Let "Iranian-American literature" think of itself as just plan old "literature."
This story first appeared in Hyphen Magazine.
Manijeh Nasrabadi holds a master of fine arts in creative nonfiction from Hunter College. This fall, she begins a doctoral program in American Studies at New York University. She's writing a memoir about her relationship with her Zoroastrian, communist father and his family in Iran.