To prepare for an issue that coincides with the 42nd anniversary of the Revolution, I went back to my copy of Tara Bahrampour’s memoir To See and See Again. The opening captures a moment of stunning confusion after the exodus from Iran to the United States, especially for those who found ourselves in the Golden State:
Just before I turned twelve, my family drove to Oregon to outrun the spring. Every time it looked like we were going to stay in one town, the weather would warm up and my father would pluck us out of the life we were considering and swing us back north on the highway. I think that deep down he believed that acknowledging the change of seasons would mean admitting we were in America to stay. So from January to March the days got shorter instead of longer and the backseat windows grew colder as we slipped off the golden piecrust of California, wound through muddy mountains, and descended into a gorge where evergreens blocked out all but a strip of sky.
When Bahrampour’s book was released two years before September 11, 2001, it was quite a novelty, especially coming from a major publisher. As noted by Sanaz Fotouhi, from 1980, the year after the Revolution, to 9/11, only 16 memoirs were published in English by exiled Iranians, but there were at least 50 more from that date through mid-2014, when she published her own scholarly work on the topic, The Literature of the Iranian Diaspora.
The attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon seemed to have triggered and compounded our own pre-existing trauma and our desire to express it.
Reasons for immigrants to write in English range from it being a means to communicate with the people of their host country, to having a voice where they did not have one, to reconstructing “a sense of damaged identity and (redefining the) already established stereotypes through their narrations.”
“English has often been the language used to discriminate against them in the West, and it has been English that has given them a voice and allowed them to create their sense of subjectivity,” writes Fotouhi.
But as the decades passed and generations of immigrants multiplied, the lines blurred, further muddling our identities.
Can I confess to you that I’m glad I’m only half Iranian? That I’m glad I’m also half Croatian, i.e., white European? That my green-eyed mother has saved me from feeling like the infidel?
The quote is from author Ottessa Moshfegh, whose fiction is at the center of the inaugural issue of the Tehran Bureau Review of Books, our literary supplement. As her work demonstrates, we have moved on, in various ways.
Our way, to have English as the focus of Tehran Bureau today, is far less the so-called infidel’s perceived “use of and challenge to the dominant language of the colonizer” as some grand strategy “for transformation, critique and negotiation of recognition,” and more in line with the optimistic goal proposed by Eva Hoffman in her essay published in Letters of Transit, Reflections on Exile Identity:
We need to develop a model in which the force of our first legacy can be transposed or brought into dialogue with our later experiences, in which we can build new meanings as valid as the first ones. This can be done only through a deepening investigation, through familiarization. It is fine, and illuminating, to see all the structures that construct us for what they are and to see through them; but we must acknowledge the need for frameworks that contain us, for sites that are more than temporary shelters. And we need to see that in our world it may be insufficient to define ourselves as Other in opposition to some archetypal oppressor or hypothetical insider. Our societies are too fragmented to have an easily discernible inside or permanent centers of power. At the same time, we need a conception of a shared world, a world in which we exist by virtue of shared interests rather than mutual alienation, to which we can bring our chosen commitments and hopes.
Fotouhi has published an index of 259 memoirs and works of fiction by diasporic Iranian writers in English. We welcome your input as we update the list and expand its scope for our Reading Room and Bookshop, the purpose of which is to promote Iranian writers, on the one hand, and to promote books on Iran, on the other. Please tweet us your recommendations @tehranbureau.
Kelly Golnoush Niknejad
Editor in Chief
Cover photo: © David Burnett/Contact Press Images