RESIDENCE OF THE SOUL
By Bill Kohlhaase
Say this word to most Americans and a flurry of connotations come to mind: Tehran, the 1979 hostage crisis, Islam, America, violence, war. Vague specters of xenophobic dread and geopolitical doom haunt our notions of the Persian state.
For members of the Iranian diaspora (any people or ethnic population forced or induced to leave their traditional ethnic homelands), these connotations aren’t just the flotsam of historical memory; they are landmines in the delicate journey to negotiate an identity in a world that views them largely through lenses of suspicion, ignorance and superiority. For women of the diaspora in particular—whose mother country views their gender through similar lenses—safely locating an identity can be even more perilous.
The complicated question of identity is one of the overriding themes of Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been, a new anthology of writing by women of the Iranian diaspora, edited by Persis Karim. While the collection is not overtly political, the political subtexts are as ever-present and unavoidable in its poems and stories as they are in each woman’s personal identity. All of the contributors, Karim writes, “have felt compelled to respond to the view of Iranian women purveyed by both the Islamic Republic and the Western media.” At a time when American-Iranian relations are as tense as ever—when, as Karim writes, “events and people associated with September 11th and with violent conflict in the Middle East generally are conflated with Iran and Iranians”—the writings in this collection offer a significant insight into the people behind the nation currently in our presidential crosshairs.
With 52 contributing authors and more than 100 works, including poems, prose poems, essays, memoirs, and fiction stories, Let Me Tell You is a diverse collection. Some of the writers are accomplished veterans, others are less experienced, but all of the voices are strong, and all are unified in a way that only writers who come form the same place can be. That place is not a literal spot on a map—these women live all across the globe—but a residence of the soul, described by Karim as one of “exile, immigration, otherness, and assimilation.” To be a person of the Iranian diaspora is to be uprooted. To be a woman of the Iranian diaspora is to feel doubly or perhaps triply so—displaced from a geographical and cultural home, displaced from any self-identifier that does not fit with the Iranian or Muslim mores, be it “lesbian,” “single woman,” “sexual woman,” or “woman outside the home.”
The theme of alienation from both Iran and American culture is one frequently taken up by these authors. In the poem “Home Stories,” Zara Houshmand lashes out at her father’s assimilation into American culture, and the shaming and silencing he submitted himself to. “He polished his English/watching Cyrano/over and over on the silver screen/and like his hero, hid/his protruding foreign parts/in the fabric of his dreams.” The subsequent effects on her own sense of alienation and dislocation were devastating. “Home?” she asks near the end of the poem, “What home?”
Another common strain is the way the events of 1979 have defined those of Iranian descent in the United States. In a memoir piece called “1979,” a writer named PAZ describes how during the crisis in Iran her mother, “a woman who was fiercely proud of her country,” told her not to reveal she was Iranian, and how her teachers, formerly admiring of her sharp reading and math skills, now “treated her with an icy glare of suspicion.”
And, as if you don’t get enough of it just by watching the news, the book also makes for frequent cringing at Americaness. In numerous memoir pieces, Americans are the ones repeatedly pelting the authors with questions about rugs and cats—the only things they associate with Persia. And they haven’t a clue about geography. In the memoir piece “With a Little Help from My Friends,” Firoozeh Dumas recalls, “even as a seven-year-old, I was surprised that so many Americans had never noticed us on the map. Perhaps it’s like driving a Yugo and realizing that the 18-wheeler can’t see you.”
Editor Karim says that her goal in Let Me Tell You was to gather a richly diverse collection into a unified whole, a “chorus.” She succeeded. This anthology sings, and even with so many disparate voices, it sings as one.
Persis Karim and several authors talk about the book at the Riverside Public Library
3581 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, (951) 826-5369. Thurs., Oct. 5, 7 p.m. Free.
Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been: New Writing by the Women of the Iranian Diaspora, edited by Persis Karim; University of Arkansas Press, Hardcover, 400 pages. $24.95.