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BOOKS: Starting a New Conversation About Iran

Omid Memarian

BERKELEY, California, Aug 10 2006 (IPS) - Amid the overwhelmingly negative media coverage of Iran in the west, a chorus of new literary voices has emerged that portrays a far more complex image of that nation and its culture.

Persis Karim, editor of the anthology “Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora” (University of Arkansas Press, 2006), suggests that literature can contribute something important, even essential, that has been absent from the conversation about Iran.

And she is especially interested in documenting women’s participation in that conversation. In an interview with IPS, Karim spoke about writing during a time of war, the increasingly polarised rhetoric that dominates discussions about Iran, and the ways that women writers outside of Iran are resisting simplistic notions about Iranian women and bringing “newness” to this emerging literary voice.

Karim is also co-editor and contributing author of “A World Between: Poems, Short Stories and Essays by Iranian-Americans” (George Braziller, 1999), and is an associate professor of literature and creative writing at San Jose State University.

IPS: Tell me how the idea for this book came to you and why you think it’s important.

PK: This book is the outgrowth of a longstanding interest I have in the ways that immigrants and diasporic subjects come to grips with their identity and make claims about that identity through a fluid and creative process called “art”.

As a child growing up in the U.S., I was often asked “where was I from?” because I had a foreign-sounding name and looked different from many of my peers. My father was an immigrant from Iran (post-World War II) and my mother was an immigrant from France. I was often at a loss for what to call myself. I looked for people like me in books, in films, you know, people of multiple heritage, and there just weren’t very many.

I always gravitated towards literature and writing. And I was drawn strongly to Iranian culture, so, while working on a dissertation about exile writing, I felt a strange need to ask the question, where were the Iranian writers writing in English? Why haven’t there been any notable writers dealing with their experiences? Where was the literature of the Iranian diaspora? What had the last 20 years meant for people of Iranian heritage, like me, who weren’t really Iranian in the truest sense, but who identified with that place and the culture?

>From that question, the book “A World Between: Poems, Short Stories and Essays by Iranian Americans” was born.

After that, people, mostly women really, kept sending me their poems and stories. There seemed to be an explosion of writing and a hunger for more writing to represent ourselves. I was fascinated by the power of these women’s voices and struck by the urgency of these women to challenge the very simplistic views of Iran and Iranian women that were depicted both in the U.S. media and also coming from the government of Iran.

IPS: One section is called “Axis of Evil”. How did you get to this topic?

PK: Well, as you know, Iranians can’t live without politics – it’s in our blood. It’s also impossible to be an Iranian in the 21st century and not have a kind of politicised sensibility given the current state of Iran and its relations with other countries.

When [U.S. President George W.] Bush gave his notorious “Axis of Evil” speech in January 2002, I understood that that was the beginning of new climate of Iranian villanisation. It’s impossible not to hear that kind of language and feel that it’s going to do damage in the world. I felt I had to write a poem with that title. I kept thinking about my family in Iran. I kept thinking about how much I love them and want to be close to them and terms like “Axis of Evil” cause us pain, separate us, separate them from me, separate Iranians from the world, from America.

I felt a real sorrow about language like that entering the public discourse. I felt already that Iranians have been ravaged by the politics of both Iran and the U.S. That’s the real evil in the world. The abuse of language and ideas and the Orwellianness of where we are. It’s not people who are evil, not countries, but those who hunger for power, who abuse power, who abuse language. My poem, “Axis of Evil,” is about the ways all people everywhere – Iran, Iraq, the U.S. – are abused by the evil of governments and lose sight of humanity. This section is also dedicated to those in Iran and the U.S. who resist that abuse.

IPS: What is the difference between such a collection and something like a memoir?

PK: A memoir is guided by an individual writer’s desire to tell their story, their memories. It’s a perfectly valid form and one that Iranians have not totally embraced because of the proscriptions against self-revelation, because it celebrates the individual for example, over perhaps the group. It’s also been a kind of elite genre in Iran. But for women, it’s been a very important genre outside of Iran.

It [also] gives people an opportunity to see the diversity of Iranians outside of Iran. There are Jews, Bahais, Muslims in this collection, but more importantly the idea that not all Iranians are the same or have had the same experiences. And that no one, not the U.S. media, not the Iranian government, not the so-called Iranian community can or should dictate what that Iranianness is. For me what is interesting is to see how the Iranian culture is manifesting itself in new forms, shaping American culture, challenging the old and subverting the paradigms that have been around for a long time.

It’s troubling to some Iranians and they have even asked me, well, these aren’t really Iranian women are they? My answer: Sure they are. Why not? Don’t they say something that has been in your heart? Don’t they have a place to speak from? That’s partly what an anthology can do; it can help you see things through a kind of “kaleidoscope” effect. There’s a real richness to that.

IPS: Iran is at the top of the news these days. How can books like yours offer a more real, more clear picture of Iranian society?

PK: I am not sure that they can make a clear picture about Iranian society, per say, but what it can do is open up a dialogue about Iran that has been so absent in the U.S., or even among Iranians themselves. My interest is in the way that literature, art, discourse can enable us to have a deeper understanding of ourselves, the way we have made mistakes, the way we’ve changed, our flaws even, and sometimes it’s a safer conversation to have about something like a book than it is to do by ourselves.

I think some people will object to some of the stories or experiences here, but my goal is to complicate the image that has been presented about Iran in the U.S., in the media. There’s so much racism, so much oversimplification of the Middle East, Iran, Islam, etc. There are many faces and experiences to all these. Literature can offer a humane vision.

At a time when there are men in power eager to go to war, and eager to engage Iran in military conflict, it’s essential to give Americans a sense of the humanity of that place. Literature can touch people in ways that other forms cannot. I was not born in Iran, and I haven’t been there. I can’t go there at this time because of my own complex biography, which I won’t go into, but I don’t want to pretend that I can offer a singular understanding or image of that place. It’s not one thing. It’s complex, just like the people. And what I am most intent on doing is showing Iranians and Americans, or readers anywhere that Iran and its people, scattered across the globe, are not static. They’re changing, adding to, taking from the societies in which they live. This is a book that is more about a process than a place.

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