Despite America’s fabled history as a melting pot, many immigrants have not been welcomed with open arms into this land.
Iranian immigrants, who began emigrating to the United States in the 1920s but did not arrive en masse until after the Iranian revolution of 1979, have been among the most demonized.
A new collection of essays, “My Shadow Is My Skin: Voices From the Iranian Diaspora,” edited by Katherine Whitney and Leila Emery, offers a deeply personal glimpse into the lives of these immigrants and their descendants.
As Farnaz Fatemi says in her essay, “The Color of Bricks”: “Foreigners write Wikipedia entries shrinking the place Iran. They list current despots and convince themselves there is little left to know. I — we — Iranians — know better.”
During more than 40 years of hostilities between the United States and Iran, acceptance for Iranians has not come easily. For many of the authors in this collection, telling their stories means opening themselves to judgment from within and outside their communities.
In the stunning essay that begins the collection, “The Summer I Disappeared,” author Jasmin Darznik expresses her fear that writing about her mother’s violent reaction to her losing her virginity will be scrutinized by outsiders as evidence of unbridgeable cultural otherness. “For years I worried that to tell this story would be to have Americans say, ‘Of course that happened. That’s how those people are.’ “
As they attempt to come to terms with both the Iranian and the American sides of their identities, other writers describe the cultural messages they receive to suppress signs of their Iranian-ness. For Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, it was the “misspellings . . . in harsh black ink” of a difficult name on a Starbucks cup that led him to consider changing his name to Anthony March Harris, while Persis Karim has refused the “contagion of nose-reduction operations” intended to reduce the “bountifulness of a proboscis” in her extended family in favor of American beauty standards.
In high school, Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh and her sister, “distinguished by our unibrows, mustaches, and hijabs,” endured, on good days, pizza thrown at them in the quad, and on bad ones (post-9/11), their classmates accusing them of being terrorists. Rajabzadeh, in the humorous and moving “My Mom Killed Michael Jackson,” tells us that Jackson’s music, which she first heard one summer in Tehran, provided the perfect shield to help her get through an often-painful California adolescence and to remind herself, “You are not alone.”
Second-generation Iranian Americans, or those who came at an early age, struggle to make sense of their memories to better understand their parents’ sense of dislocation. Roia Ferrazares remembers the “dark-green lacquered wood” steamer trunk delivered to her parents in 1975, which conjured up recollections of “paper schoolbooks and pots of steaming rice; the bright orange of a glass of fresh carrot juice.” A bite of her mother’s halvah, a mix of “toasted flour and the pungent, sweet smell of rose water,” sends Nazanine Attaran back to her childhood, where she tried to piece together the upheaval of social relations in her grandparents’ household after the 1979 revolution.
For other authors, trying to create new cultural stories in the absence of actual ones, particularly for children, remains an abiding challenge. In the beautifully narrated “Mothering Across the Cultural Divide,” Katherine Whitney, living in California and married to an assimilated husband with scant interest in tradition, describes her clumsy but well-intentioned attempts to re-create Nowruz, the Persian new year. Although at the time she despaired, over the years she realizes that the work of “interpreting and creating family traditions — some that were not mine to start with” — is much more complex and nuanced than she initially thought. Despite having little interest in celebrating holidays, her husband’s “warm hospitality and lavish Persian cooking” were very real aspects of Persian culture that he was passing on to his children.
Many of the essays explore universal themes: loss, family estrangement and the battle to escape the weight of family expectations. Dena Rod writes of the challenges of coming out in a traditional community, “despite our families’ wishes for a glass-closeted existence.” In Babak Elahi’s splendid “Errand,” Elahi juxtaposes a diary of returning to Iran after 40 years, while his mother is dying, with meditations on the films of Abbas Kiarostami, whom he met during the same period.
Other essays are more political. In “Shadow Nation,” the essay that lends the book its title, Cyrus M. Copeland muses that shadows are “that part of our personality we reject out of fear, or ignorance or shame,” but he also suggests that Iran and America share many of the same traits, namely ethnocentrism, “overriding egoism” and a “preoccupation with self.”
“My Shadow Is My Skin” offers a fine balance between the stories of first- and second-generation Iranian Americans, who, as Amy Malek writes, often feel “alternately included and excluded in the only home one has known, while also feeling attachments to a place one may never have experienced and may or may not be welcome even to visit.” The best essays in this collection subtly weave the impact of politics into the personal experiences of growing up between two worlds.
Iran is now experiencing one of the world’s most severe coronavirus epidemics, but because of the continued refusal to see that country beyond our mutual political hostilities, the human stories arising from the pandemic remain largely unheard. The narratives in this collection go a long way toward making Iranian American immigrants visible.
Offering familiar stories with a distinctive flavor, “My Shadow Is My Skin” deftly explores their mixed feelings of pride and love, and of dislocation and criticism, for both the lost ancestral homeland and the new world, providing an important addition to our ever-unfolding understanding of American immigrant experiences.
Newcomb is a cultural anthropologist and professor at Rollins College.
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