OUR STORIES don't always mention the cataclysmic events that upended Iranian society in 1979. We were children then, some of us literally carried by our parents into exile. Others of us, already in the United States, watched our immigrant parents lose the Iran they knew, again.
Iranian American writers of my generation - I was born in 1 975 - reflect a wide range of experiences, but we've all had to confront the Islamic Revolution's traumatic impact on our childhood, as well as come to terms with our Iranian identities in its aftermath. This set of challenges has produced good writing.
For Porochista Khakpour, the seeds of her literary future were planted at age 3, during a confusing and tedious trip out of Iran. In 1980, on a train hurtling across Europe, she told stories to fill the hours; her father later wrote them down. Several years and multiple countries later, when the family had ended up in Southern California, the young Khakpour was 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," says Khakpour, whose debut novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove Press), was published in 2007. "If it weren't for the Islamic Revolution, I may never have gone this route."
February marked 30 years since the shah of Iran fled a wave of social and political unrest and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to lead a popular uprising. At the time, 100,000 Iranians already lived in the United States; roughly half, including my father, were university students. In the three decades since then, educated professionals, wealthy elites, religious minorities (Jews, Baha'is, Armenians, Assyrians and Zoroastrians), draft dodgers (fleeing an eight-year conflict between Iran and Iraq) and working-class laborers have fled Iran due to persecution, war and/or economic crisis. The 2000 US Census indicated that persons of Iranian birth and those of Iranian descent living in the country numbered just more than 500,000. However, diaspora organizations say that census underreports the actual Iranian American population, which may be 600,000 to 1 million.
Taken in historical context, this apparent hesitation to identify as Iranian is unsurprising. Many immigrant groups have faced negative treatment by Americans, but when US-Iran relations took a drastic turn 30 years ago - from intimate alliance to mortal enmity - Iranians were singled out for special demonization.
The Iranian Revolution had adopted anti-American rhetoric, bespeaking resentment of the corrupt US-backed shah, and of the United States' profiting off Iranian oil and thwarting of democratic movements for 25 years. In the fall of 1979, when a group of Iranian students took hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran, they unleashed a 444day media spectacle in which Iran replaced the Soviet Union as the target of American animosity. The subsequent surge of hate crimes in the United States prompted many Iranians to change their names.
In this hostile climate, Iranian American literature not only developed but achieved mainstream commercial success. Memoirs by writers who reached adulthood in Iran such as Reading Lolita in Tehran (Random House, 2003), Journey from the Land of No (Crown, 2004) and Persian Girls (Tarcher, 2006) - found mass authences in the post-9/1 1 period, which was marked by an insatiable public appetite for knowledge of little-known places that were being hyped as threats. These books helped place Iranian American literature on the map.
Today, a second generation of writers - those born and/or raised in the United States - is transforming Iranian American literature from an immigrant into an indigenous phenomenon. Now in our 20s and 30s, we have all faced a daunting challenge: how to grapple with a violent revolutionary legacy while inhabiting an America that abhors Iran and yet constitutes our home.
Conflict as Literary Fuel
The uncomfortable tensions inherent in this challenge have powerfully fueled 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," says Azadeh Moaveni, author of two memoirs: Lipstick Jihad (Public Affairs, 2005) and Honeymoon in Tehran (Random House, 2009).
A writer who left Iran as a young child, Moaveni has drawn 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 says.
Moaveni's memoirs are part of a growing trend, the "return" narrative, which distinguishes younger Iranian American writing from the first generation's work. Lipstick Jihad traces the author's journalistic journey back to Iran where, as the introduction explains, she sought "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 as uniformly devout, thus breaking down the distance between "us" and "them" that enables fear to flourish. Honeymoon in Tehran charts the fundamentalist crackdown that followed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election in Iran, which coincided with Moaveni's decision to start a family there.
Khakpour's work represents a more nascent trend: a turn toward unconventional fiction. "I care more about sentences than plot or characters," she says, so her fiction is wholly driven by "issues of voice, style and structure." Khakpour uses language that is "energetic, sprawling and strange" in conveying the absurdity and pain of characters' lives. For example, in Sons and Other Flammable Objects, where father Darius and son Xerxes bear the crushing psychic weight of a lineage stemming from ancient Persian royalty, Darius' historical accounts leave Xerxes "feverish from bouts of familial chaos theory and hived with ancestral existential smallpox."
Sons, set in Southern California and New York City, "never showcases Iran as a real setting. It never wants to," Khakpour says. "Everything [in the plot] happens in the diaspora. So it's a real product of the hyphenate identity, perfectly split between the two [cultural spaces]."
Novelist Dalia Sofer has also mined this liminal space. Her debut novel, The Septembers of Shiraz (Harper Perennial, 2007), depicts the fate of an Iranian family targeted during the revolution for being Jewish as well as for being wealthy. A parallel plot thread takes place in Brooklyn's Hasidic community, where the family's collegeaged son, Parviz, struggles to find his place in America.
Parviz is drawn 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." Sofer is intrigued by this "sense of living between two cultures, two places, two histories" - which, she says, is a "common theme for many of us" secondgeneration Iranians.
Sofer's novel incorporates autobiographical elements. In 1979, her father was arrested on false charges of being a Zionist spy. The family left Iran when she was 1 0, and she counts herself among "the last witnesses of a vanished era." Accordingly, 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 says.
Growing into an Iranian Identity
For some second-generation Iranian American writers, the struggle to span disparate cultural spaces is further complicated by biological factors - namely the interethnic unions of their parents. Roger Sedarat, poet and Queens College professor, was born in Normal, IL, to an American mother and an Iranian father. The family moved to Texas after his birth. "You could say I grew into my Iranian culture as opposed to growing up with it," he says.
Growing up in Texas in the 1980s, Sedarat observed "something disjointed about seeing my father wearing cowboy boots, trying to use phrases with his thick Persian accent like, 'sure as shootin'." Such oddities sparked his creative energy. "[My poetry] comes from the inevitable incongruity of my subjective position," he says. His first book of poetry, Dear Regime: Letters to the Islamic Republic (Ohio University Press, 2008), intertwines references to American and Iranian cultures, languages and poetic forms "to both clarify and confuse."
Now Darznik, with her mother's consent, is turning this story into a book that confronts such controversial issues as child brides, abusive husbands and polygamous marriages. She knows she is wading into dangerous waters.
"There's been a huge backlash against Iranian American women writers in the last few years, particularly memoirists and particularly Azar Natisi [author of Reading Lolita in Tehran]. There's a sense that we're playing into the hands of a conservative agenda," Darznik says.
She hopes her authence will be openminded and attuned to her story's nuances. "It'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 says. "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?" Her solution: to write "the most complicated story I can in the most engaging manner I can."
Poet, novelist and visual artist Aphrodite Desiree Navab uses satire to challenge racist and sexist stereotypes of Iranians in her one-woman performance piece "Super East-West Woman" (2002-present). She takes her chador - the black cloth religious Muslim women use to cover their bodies in Iran - and turns it into a cape. Thus "the Superman figure of popular Western culture is transformed into a Superwoman," and her chador becomes "a cape of agency." In this piece, the performer "pokes fun at herself, her two cultures and the ludicrous situations in which her life, between East and West, has placed her."
Navab, born in Iran to an Iranian father and Greek mother, also uses her work to celebrate the multiple cultural spaces she inhabits. She is now working on Tales Left Untold, "a transnational epic which draws from both real and imagined stories of my life." Her poetic prose, as she describes it, cannot be neatly classified: "It is at once fiction and not, autobiographical and not."
A Collective Vision
Resistance to classification, and to the tokenism that accompanies it, informs the shared ambitions of younger Iranian American writers.
"I am elated to walk into any bookstore and pick up one of many books written by [Iranian American author] Anita Amirrezvani or French Iranian author Marjane Satrapi," fiction writer Parissa Ebrahimzadeh says. Ebrahimzadeh, who left Iran at age 2, grew up in Mission Viejo, CA, among a large Latino population. Some of her short stories depict the intersection of Latino and Iranian immigrant groups thrown together in exile. "I always have so many questions for other Iranian Americans: What has their experience been like? What new ways of being have formed?"
Spurred by the impulse to ask and answer such questions, Persis Karim, professor of literature at San Jose State University, founded the Association of Iranian American Writers (AIAW). Karim also coedited A World Between (George Braziller, 1 999) and edited Let Me Tell You Where I've Been (University of Arkansas Press, 2006). These anthologies introduce new voices and showcase Iranian American literature's evolution in the past decade.
"While the conflicts between the US and Iran continue to loom large and pose an important part of the backdrop, secondgeneration writers are aware that they can't resolve these tensions," Karim says. She identifies among these writers a confidence "in the idea of writing outside those debates - in exploring, rather than attempting to reconcile, the conflict."
Khakpour hopes her generation will continue to chart new literary paths. "My generation of writers is still emerging. I'm hoping they will be more irreverent and wild and quirky," she says.
Sedarat's "ideal vision" of the future is "to have the super rich [who are] living in the Middle East revive the old Persian courtly tradition, subsidizing the kind of poetry I write," he says. "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." In that vein, Sedarat says, "I'm starting to see something fantastic happening with AIAW."
Sofer, whose next novel is about an elderly man living in southern France, voices a sentiment echoed by all the writers interviewed here: What really counts, regardless of an author's personal background or her chosen topics and settings, is great writing. "Powerful connection, from the writer's pen to the reader's mind - and hopefully [to the reader's] heart - far surpasses labels and categorizations," Sofer says. "So, my advice? Let 'Iranian American literature' think of itself as just plan old 'literature.'"
Check out iranianamericanwriters.org for more information.
Writer Manijeh Nasrabadi
Manijeh Nasrabadi holds a master of fine art in creative nonfiction from Hunter College. This fall, she begins a doctorial 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. Visit her at manijehnasrabadi.com.
As a second-generation, mixed-heritage Iranian American writer, MANIJEH NASRABADI is personally invested in the future of Iranian American literature, which she reports on for this issue's Books section. Nasrabadi, co-director of the Association of Iranian American Writers, was excited to find "a consensus developing that Iranian American literature needs to break out of the confines of a niche and become a more versatile and rooted part of American literature." The Queens, NY-based writer shares one gem of wisdom received from a cousin in Iran: "All the things we have were things we once wished for."