Our guest editor Porochista Khakpour explores the protean category of “Iranian-American” and its assorted manifestations.
Photograph via Flickr by Iman Khalili
There was a time, not long ago, when I was downright allergic to journal issues devoted to ethnic and/or racial grouping—about as aesthetically relevant as clusterings based on eye color or mole placement, I insisted. To be put in a box based on something you did not choose seemed uninspired, reductive, and even dangerous. Plus, I had personal reasons: categorization and its many cons had haunted me since I came to this country as a wee preschooler. With looks described as exotic at best and a hyperethnic multisyllabic name regarded as unattemptable at worst, I was coronated an ambassador of my particular brand of other just by virtue of being someone else’s first. When I was four, I decided to be a writer precisely because the realm of the imagination freed me from confinement regarding how and to whom I was born. But by the time the writing touched any remote professionalization (college workshops, for instance) I was again asked to “write what I know” by wide-eyed, smiling professors—whose “knowing better” was nestled somewhere between an oily did and flaky didn’t—and sheltered students who seemed torn between “coo” and “ew” when it came to me. By a combination of dead-end fatalism and pure accident, I went there (or at least I attempted to), merging the writing of the many whats that I knew with my interests in art, language, and slightly experimental forms (outcome: my first novel). It was only through doing it that I found I actually did have some genuine interest in who and what I was (outcome: years of personal-essay writing on Iranian-American issues).
The seesaw between Iranian and American appeared to have arrived at a miraculous balance. “Iranian-American” was not a label I could necessarily nest in, but at least one I could take a breath at. Even with its pigeonholes and pitfalls, traps and hurdles, stereotypes and caricatures and clichés, it was something I could live with, and this was more than I had ever had. So my disregard for ethnicity-focused anything was ultimately tempered by some authentic self-discovery, some admitted abnegation, and a consequential phobia of hypocrisy—and only really intensely inflamed by those starless lows of overwhelming suspicion and cynicism at everything and everyone American.
When was the last time you saw a book by an Iranian author that did not feature on its cover a Persian carpet, pomegranates, faux Middle Eastern arabesque fonts, or a woman in some sort of headscarf?
But I never lost my skepticism altogether thanks to fixtures of the identity-brand curse, from classic Orientalism 101 to auto-exoticization. As the “Iranian-American” ascended as an entity in the ’00s, the discourse churned out by seemingly intelligent American outlets often had the cultural cachet and anthropological depth of a slightly browner Not Without My Daughter. When was the last time you saw a book by an Iranian author that did not feature on its cover a Persian carpet, pomegranates, faux Middle Eastern arabesque fonts, or a woman in some sort of headscarf? Big publishing and mainstream media in the U.S. seemed just as eager as the Islamic Republic to cast highly photogenic women in veils-and-lashings tearjerkers; they relegated their writers, particularly women, to victim ingénues. Yes, these are true stories, but only one type of story, which is particularly frustrating when so many others remain untold.
Just thirty years after the Iranian Revolution sent many Iranians, like my family members, fleeing en masse, Iranian Americans are finally approaching some visibility, thanks to sheer numbers and inevitable assimilation—and, of course, the Islamic Republic’s penchant for newsworthiness. As a result, there emerges the problem of how to “come out” here. Perhaps no milestone heralds arrival like last summer’s announcement that Ryan Seacrest Productions will follow up its Kardashian franchise with the first-ever reality TV show about Tehrangelenos, L.A.’s sizable Iranian diaspora, called The Shahs of Sunset, set to premiere in 2012—interestingly press-released in the same season as a CNN poll that declared half the American public sees Iran as an enemy. Indeed, who can blame a public that possesses the capacity only to stomach us as villains or “reality karachters” when the media so seamlessly abandoned Green Revolution hopes for the shadow of that eminently more spectacular, never-ending menace, our greatest nightmare—mine and yours, I’d wager—war with Iran?
I wanted to capture the extraordinary scope that defines this young-diaspora-with-an-ancient-culture’s literature.
What’s a people to do? My only hope is that we Iranian-Americans, in all our separate parts, will prove not only unpalatable but indigestible. If I could have it my way, I’d freeze the world at this moment, where we hover between semi-obscurity and total visibility. I wish that no one had the concept Iranian-American—which might sound pessimistic, but just ask any of your local neighborhood Others what identification has done for them lately.
Given these qualms and reservations, you might wonder: could Guernica have made a worse choice for the curator and editor of their first Iranian-American issue? But in putting this issue together, I found that the contrarian instinct in me was useful for soliciting a broad spectrum of writers and writings for a reader unfamiliar with the work of diasporic Iranians. Instead of showcasing commonalities in crude clumps and bulging brands, I wanted to present a collection that’s testament to the fact that ethnic origin is where oneness ends. In this way, the grouping is intentionally unsettling. It reaches way past my personal tastes and preferences—and hopefully the tastes and preferences of any one person—as any good anthology should.
I wanted geographic diversity (West and East coasts, plus the Southwest, with writers submitting from Tehran to London), an array of generations (our youngest writer is thirty; our oldest, sixty-five), and a range of experience, from lesser-known up-and-comers to heavily championed veterans (from zero books to six books). I wanted the recognition of legacy (Nahid Rachlin, our first Iranian-American published fiction writer who held Stanford’s Wallace Stegner Fellowship in fiction before the Revolution) and a subversion of expectations (Hooman Majd, a celebrated nonfiction writer whose excellent reportage and commentary have deservedly landed him many talk-show-pundit stints, here writes in a genre he has rarely published in, which agents and editors originally steered him away from: his first love, fiction). I wanted aesthetic eclecticism, from Amir Parsa’s genre-defying, acrobatic prose to Azadeh Moaveni’s intensely observant narrative nonfiction. I wanted comedy (Iraj Isaac Rahmim’s rollicking fantasies in modern-day Tehran) and tragedy (Sholeh Wolpé’s poignant coming-of-age fairy tale gone awry). I wanted a range in their very Iranianness and Americanness: Sayrafiezadeh’s and Fathi’s pieces show no traces of their Iranian roots, while over a third of the others go back entirely to Iran. I wanted the mythic Iran of Roger Sedarat’s ghost horses set against the more familiar, gritty realism of life in the country today. I wanted to capture the extraordinary scope that defines this young-diaspora-with-an-ancient-culture’s literature.
“Every time you write,” I tell my students, “you reinvent the universe. No two worlds are identical to any two writers.”
And of course, if I dare pigeonhole/stereotype/caricature myself for a moment, there is something so Iranian in trying to evade identification, something I was reminded of when I emailed my participants asking them to share their thoughts on the label “Iranian-American.” As I suspected, only about a third of the writers felt okay with it. Sayrafiezadeh wrote, “It was very liberating for me to finally cease referring to myself as Iranian-American. In other words, to stop defining myself by how others see me. I am an American writer and America is my subject.” Majd: “I most definitely do not feel, nor believe myself to be, hyphenated. I am American sometimes, Iranian others, but always just (hopefully) human. I suppose my work reflects who I am—Iranian sometimes, American others—but not always married to either.” Fathi: “I do see myself as an Iranian-American, totally shaped by the mixing of both cultures, but it’s harder for me to see my poems, the poems themselves, as reflecting a distinctly Iranian-American heritage.” Moaveni admits that if she were awakened in the middle of the night and asked this question, she “would say that I consider myself an Iranian writer working in English,” while her work belongs to “a fairly specifically American genre of memoir-as-reportage, which hasn’t really developed with such verve in other countries.” Rahmim jokes about his Jewish-Iranian-Texan-American status, saying, “I am generally not a fan of the hyper-categorization that we come across these days, which seems, often, used to separate us rather than draw others in and allow them to experience our experiences—an act of generosity that, I think, all writers should aspire to.” And it took Amir Parsa no fewer than 951 words to articulate and even begin to dissect his own French/German/English/Spanish/Farsi-writing Iranian/Parisian/Brooklynite existence.
I often think of the great Jean Rhys quote “reading makes immigrants of us all,” and the many temporary homes I’ve found in all the books from around the world that I’ve loved. In that way, we writers are the creators of entirely unique homes. “Every time you write,” I tell my students, “you reinvent the universe. No two worlds are identical to any two writers.” As long as we have books, there will be multitudes of homelands, multiplying at the rate of writers writing. Although operating under the same hyphenated label here might suggest too many relatives talking over each other in one stuffy living room, I hope you can appreciate this as an invitation to many different homes with different ambiances and temperatures and furniture and architecture, with different families and different gods, whether in the heavens or simply behind the pen.
“Dog Days in Tehran,” by Azadeh Moaveni
“Bijan,” by Nahid Rachlin
“Ghost Horse Prelude,” by Roger Sedarat
Porochista Khakpour was born in Tehran and raised in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, and Salon, among other publications. She has been awarded fellowships from Johns Hopkins University, Northwestern University, VCCA, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Ucross, and Yaddo. Her debut novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove/Atlantic), was a New York Times “Editor’s Choice,” Chicago Tribune “Fall’s Best,” and 2007 California Book Award winner. She is currently Picador Guest Professor at the University of Leipzig, Germany, and core faculty at Fairfield University’s low-residency MFA program. Her website is porochistakhakpour.com.