This essay is based on a talk delivered at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Page Turner 2010 Literary Festival in Brooklyn, NY. The panel was called: Gag Order: Writers on What Goes Unpublished.
Over the last ten years, Iranian American memoir has become a cultural and publishing phenomenon through which millions of Americans have mediated their fears and fascinations about the Islamic Republic of Iran. Since the 1979 revolution that overthrew the US-backed Shah, Iran has occupied a special place in the American national imagination, eventually replacing the Soviet Union as this country’s arch nemesis. The drama of the Iran that the US lost, the ally turned enemy, plays out across the political spectrum. The right wing of the US political and media establishment casts Iran as a land of medieval-style fundamentalists and terrorists while the more liberal wing acknowledges a complete breakdown in the ability to make sense of the place at all. For most Americans, Iran is an enigma, shrouded in black and unbearably impenetrable to those on the outside. The Iranian American memoirist, whether she has grown up in Iran and immigrated to the US or was raised in the US and journeyed to Iran, is therefore placed in the indispensible role of offering access, an inside scoop, as no white American could¾of translating modern Iran and making it appear transparent for an English-speaking audience.
The fact that the overwhelming majority of these memoirs have been written by Iranian American women adds another layer to the cultural and political work these texts are called upon to perform, as the oppression of Iranian/Muslim women has been a troubling preoccupation of Western societies at least since the nineteenth century. Western readers still really want to know what’s going on under those veils!
Therefore, Iranian American women memoirists face quite a complicated situation: on the one hand, there is the importance of women’s voices and storytelling emerging into sound and print¾a major way in which women have been able to transform themselves from objects into subjects of history. But on the other hand, this imperative collides with a particular political moment when concern for the plight of Muslim women has been mobilized through popular culture and official state rhetoric as a justification for war.
This conflicted encounter has proved very lucrative for some, most obviously with the controversial book Reading Lolita in Tehran, which went viral on the book club circuit and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for over 100 weeks. When the publishing industry discovers a market niche, like most industries in a profit-driven world, each competing firm rushes to cash in. Since September 11, 2001, I have counted close to 20 published memoirs written by women of Iranian descent. Despite the uniqueness of each of their stories, a quick scan of the marketing blurbs on the book jackets, and the images of veiled women on the covers, gives you an idea of the narrow way in which these memoirs have been packaged and sold.
The description of Gelareh Asayesh’s Saffron Sky singles out mention of “the Ayatollah’s ubiquitous enforcers of female modesty” even though this issue takes up about one sentence in her entire story; on the back of Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad, Iran is referred to as “a dark country”; the back of Persian Girls promises readers a “harrowing memoir of the cruelty of men towards women” as well as “the exotic scents and traditions of Tehran”; the blurb for Journey from the Land of No says that Iran will be revealed to us and that we will understand “what life was like for women” after the revolution (even though the book is about a wealthy, literary Jewish family, hardly representative of the range of Iranian women’s experience); My Name is Iran’s cover jacket features almost identical language about “revealing Iran” to the reader by detailing a journey between “East and West, tradition and modernity.” I could go on, but I won’t.
When the most clichéd Orientalist language is being shamelessly recycled in this manner, it can lead to a sense of despair¾and a backlash of silence¾among Iranian American writers. Indeed many people I work with in the Association of Iranian American Writers are so fed up with this situation they feel the genre of memoir is irredeemably tainted and long for its demise, declaring fiction the great hope of Iranian American literature to disrupt the typecasting. While I look forward to a new wave of Iranian American novels, which I hope will break new literary and representational ground, I also want to recuperate memoir as a legitimate and vital part of Iranian American literature that can challenge, rather than perpetuate, facile and politically expedient constructions of “East” and “West.” This is, of course, easier said than done, as my experience tying to write and publish a memoir can attest.
Smack in the middle of the Iranian American women’s memoir craze, in 2005, I had started an MFA program in creative nonfiction. I had a story I was compelled to write, but I was, like many women writers of color before me, unsure how to tell it, unsure of what my voice could or should sound like, whether or not I was even allowed to speak, whether I would be enacting a form of treachery by writing about the ways historical legacies of oppression and political betrayals played out inside my family. With tremendous support from my professors and classmates, I began to reach through my fears towards sentences I hoped would one day say what I wanted them to.
And then suddenly, after just one semester of this necessary, disorienting and exhilarating process, I found myself living out every MFA student’s dream come true: I had an agent. My professor, a dear friend and mentor to this day, had sent my work to her agent who had agreed to represent me. Since an aspiring memoirist only needs a chapter or two tell sell a work of non-fiction, I was faced with the task of putting together a proposal to market a book I hadn’t yet written! My agent, a kind and, I still believe, well-meaning white woman, exuded confidence in my work. She’d go on about how Iran was “it” right now, how I was in the right place at the right time. But what about the writing? What about the story?
My agent told me how I should envision my book: it should start with 9/11 as a catalyst for my decision to travel alone on a one-way ticket to Iran, my first time going to the country my father was from, where his entire extended family still lived. I would then be like a tour guide, she said, outsider and family member at the same time, showing my readers what life in Iran was really like. The fact that my family members are working-class Zoroastrians was added caché. We haven’t heard that before! I should write about their rituals and attitudes towards the Muslim state. I should write about their persecution as religious minorities. Flashbacks to my childhood in DC with my Iranian immigrant father and Jewish American mother would then be interspersed with the action in Tehran.
Ever so grateful that someone had given me permission to speak, ever so araid of displeasing the powerful people who had gone out of their way to help me, I tried to write this book. But it wasn’t working. The writing felt timid to me, overly concerned with explaining myself and my family to an audience I was told to imagine as ignorant about Iran but open-minded and eager to learn. What was never said was that this presumed audience was white and middle class. I was supposed to write for this demographic because they buy the most books. What I couldn’t put into words at the time was that I felt I was being asked to participate in a new form of assimilation, to perform a certain version of difference, to become the “Other” who could then be revealed and made knowable within the dominant American cultural framework. As in–look! Behind the veil, Iranians are really just like us after all.
My agent praised my work to the skies, which only made me more uncomfortable. Right before she was about to send out my proposal and writing sample to her long list of publishers, I called her and told her I didn’t think the work was ready. I wasn’t happy with the voice, the “I” felt generic. The whole thing felt like it was for someone else, not for me. My agent disagreed vehemently and told me I had to trust her because she’d been in this business a lot longer. When I continued to ask for more time, she threatened me. I would hate to see you miss out on this market trend; a lot of memoirs are coming out. There will be a glut and you will have blown your chance. She told me to trust her and, not wanting to risk losing my relationship with her, starting to doubt my own judgment of my work (was I just an obsessive perfectionist?) I buckled under the pressure and allowed her to send out my manuscript.
I was more upset with myself than anyone else, and not at all surprised, when the rejection letters started trickling in. What did catch me off guard was their content. My writing was called “riveting,” my story heartfelt and best wishes were offered for the placement of “this talented writer.” This was disorienting and I began to wonder if publishers had lower standards for the quality of writing when the topic itself, in this case “Iran”, was supposed to be enough to sell a book. The reasons these editors gave for passing on my book seemed to have nothing to do with me, my story or my writing. One of the editors cited the “Middle East fatigue” reported by her sales force, another expressed the “worry that too many related books have been published in recent years” and still another was doubtful that the book would “break through to commercial success in this market. I wish I felt otherwise,” she added, “and I wish more than that that it didn’t matter.”
My agent called me and said it was too late, we’d missed the moment; the market for Iranian-American memoirs was saturated. Perhaps there is a saturation point for other kinds of memoirs¾say those by white men and women struggling with drug addictions or depression and we just haven’t reached it yet¾or the flip side of tokenism is the sudden glut of stories perceived to be alike because of an ethnic overlap. Publishers have access to a website where they can type in titles and see the sales figures, my agent explained. My memoir was not a good investment in this climate. I should stop writing it, she told me, and think of another project to work on. I never heard from her again.
There was only one problem with this plan to do something else; writing this memoir was the project around which I had organized my life for the last several years—completing the MFA, adjuncting and living frugally so I could have time to write. I was on my way to a month-long writing residency at Hedgebrook. Now what would I do there in my fairytale cottage in the woods?
Hedgebrook, an incredible residency for women writers on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound, turned out to be a turning point for me as a writer. It was there, among a small community of women writers that I realized failure could be liberating. The manuscript I hadn’t liked anyway was dead. The pressure to turn my art into a commodity before I’d even finished creating it was over. The audience I was supposed to be writing for had disappeared. I was finally free to play, to explore and experiment according to the whims of my own mind. At Hedgebrook I started my memoir over from scratch and had four of the most thrilling weeks of my life. With all that space, those woods and coastline, and with the six other women who became my accomplices, I gave myself permission to speak and to write in a way I’d never been able to do before. The first chapter of my new manuscript, “A Far Corner of the Revolution,” was subsequently published in a special issue of Callaloo that featured North African and Middle Eastern writers. And I was so pleased to place my writing in a journal with a long commitment to writing by people of color, writing that resists the assimilation and exotification¾which, as I experienced, are really two sides of the same coin.
I’ve been writing the new manuscript ever since and I’m going to keep on writing it at my own pace until I’m good and satisfied that I have at last told the story I wanted to tell. And then I’ll see what new encounters with the publishing world may be in store. So far, the story takes place in DC where I grew up, not exactly in the middle of a culture clash between my Iranian father and American mother, but in the midst of a battle over my political consciousness waged by my communist father and corporate lawyer mother, a battle that called into question the fundamental narratives America tells about itself and its place in the world. I’ve ended up writing about the historical forces that brought my mismatched family together, finding the meaning and the humor in that which seemed incomprehensible at the time. Think David Sedaris meets Maxine Hong Kingston.
Through my work in the Association of Iranian American Writers, I’ve also had the opportunity to see my writing in dialogue with that of other Iranian American writers. I can’t emphasize enough how important I think this is, not to approach memoir as an individualistic pursuit, as a jockeying for the few artificially scarce places in a market, but instead to situate one’s writing in conversation with a body of work that already exists, not repeating or competing, but contributing to and broadening out the field of what can be called Iranian American or Asian American literature. Memoir can be a vital way of, in Walter Benjamin’s words, “brushing history against the grain,” of democratizing the voices that get to speak with authority on embodied experiences of various forms of resistance. My goal is to balance my right to break silences, to tell my truth, with an awareness and sense of responsibility about the political climate in which I write. And the audience I imagine when I write has changed from the stock character of the clueless but open-minded middle class white reader to the diverse groups of people who have supported me by coming to my readings over the last two years and connecting with my story.