| How To
Origin Story How to Write Iranian-America, or The Last Essay
“The essay will feel like it’s killing you and the ending will not be what you thought it might be.”
Begin by writing about anything else. Go to the public library in your Los Angeles suburb and ask for all the great books people in New York City read, please. Wonder if the reference librarian knows a living writer and ask her what would a living writer read— and an American one, please . When she realizes you are still single digits and asks, Where are your parents, young lady? don’t answer and demand Shakespeare and take that big book home and cry because you can’t understand it. Tomorrow, go back to reading the dictionary a letter at a time and cry because you can’t learn the words. (Ask your father if you will cry daily for the rest of your life and remember his answer decades later: When you are older you will care less about things. ) Pray to a god you still believe in that you will once more avoid ESL with all its teachers who look to you with the shine of love but the stench of pity: refugee, resident alien, political asylum , immigrant, foreigner the only words you know that you don’t want to know.
Write because it’s something to do, something your parents will let you do because it looks like homework. Write because one place to live is in your head and it’s not broken yet; write because it’s something to drown out the sound of their fighting deep into every night. When the second-grade teacher—the teacher your father calls an alcoholic—tells you that you will be an author one day and suggests The Market Guide for Young Writers, step right up and call yourself a Young Writer. Decide to really write and write about anything but Iranian-America. Ghosts. Victorian girls, maybe ones with tough names. Easter bunnies that are homicidal (you might have ripped off Bunnicula ). Candy. White girls. More white girls. (Even then you understood sales.) Worry about the fact that your family won’t be able to afford a computer and worry about how your fingers get stuck in between the keys of a yellow typewriter your father brought back from Iran, and learn that the only way for your brain not to spiral in worry is to write.
Worry about how you, Young Writer, will ever get to New York City, until you do. Get a scholarship to a fancy college with writers and writing workshops , a thing you’ve heard of, full of other students told they’d be an author one day. Ignore the dorm politics and the suitemates who tell you their dads paid for you to be there, and write, write about anything else. Los Angeles. The devil. Literary theory. Art. The East Village. White men. And more white men. Become known as a writer there, a writer who doesn’t write about that, in a time when everyone is talking identity. No identity for you, you tell yourself, you tell them. Wear black and smoke cigarettes and big glasses, because you are a New York Young Writer and that can be anyone. When your favorite professor senior year fails your paper on Modernism that you’ve worked on for weeks, when she tells you that she can tell English is your second language, when she tells you maybe writing is not for you, that maybe you need to go into a field like those new Iranian Studies fields —you keep imagining these fields like those villages of your homeland they label “third world”—go to your dorm and expect to cry but don’t. Chainsmoke a pack of cigarettes and never forget her words and commit yourself to writing more, writing more about anything else.
Years later, attend another prestigious college for grad school, and spend long hours with a famous writer as your professor and advisor who tells you to forget that other professor, that you are a writer, that you can do this. Hold on to her words and almost miss it when she says but why don’t you write what you know? Thank her as you always do and hope she doesn’t see your tears— writing what I know was never my thing, you whisper. Keep turning in stories about anything else. Math. Chaos theory. Rape. (The time you were raped but in a sci-fi premise; the time you were raped in a fantasy premise; the time you were raped in something they call metafiction.) Dogs. Suicidal people. Suicidal people with dogs. 9/11 , which gets a little too close to writing what you know, but keep reminding them it was because you were a New Yorker, not because you were a Middle Easterner, that you felt the trauma; keep reminding them the hijackers were not Iranian. When they tell you they don’t know what you are anyway, don’t say a word, just keep working harder than they ever will and tell yourself you will beat the ones who hurt you most for that fellowship for another year. Get the fellowship and avoid all their eyes.
When your advisor suggests you work on a novel—that you are, after all, a novelist—hear novel like a curse: an arranged marriage and a death sentence, all that unknown potential for devotion to writing anything else.
Until suddenly you can’t write about anything else. Sit in your first apartment without a roommate and realize you have nothing else to write about for the span of a novel. Hate yourself and it and then go ahead and write it, your Iranian-America, because no one else will see it. This is your first real novel and what do you know. You are a fellow at the most famous university in Baltimore which doesn’t pay you enough to teach, so you add on being a hostess at a bistro where the parents of your students go, sometimes with the tenured professors of your department who pretend they don’t see you as they kiss and hug the owner who sexually harasses you every day. Why would a word you write matter?
Quit smoking, start smoking, quit again, start again.
And watch it come out, more and more in every draft: anger with your parents, frustration with your blood, anxieties surrounding the somehow still-new land—all that is Iranian-America. Let your truth come out hard and fast and untranslatable because no one else will see it anyway.
Until they do. Four years later, after all sorts of troubles, it is your first novel and it is published and you are Miss Literary Iranian-America , a friend jokes. First Iranian-American novelist , a journalist mistakenly writes, while another calls your debut novel the first work that is entirely Iranian-American, all diaspora with no Iran setting, which gets closer to the truth but you want to think still not close enough. Who can even tally who they ignored before you? When they ask you to represent the Iranian diaspora in Los Angeles, start by explaining you grew up a half hour and many realities away from Tehrangeles, that your family could never afford those areas, that you were raised in a tiny apartment in the low-income district of a small suburb, with no Iranian people.
When they ask you to do it anyway, go through with it. Regret quitting smoking. Try to speak of other things. But about Iranian-Americans , they always go, and a friend who is tired of your sighs tells you, Look, you did that to yourself, it’s all in your novel . Say fair enough and start smoking again.
Around Persian New Year, months after your first novel comes out, start to run out of money again. Old problem but maybe now a new solution, you think. Ask friends if they know someone at the most respected newspaper of the country—the venerable paper where they gave you a very good review of your debut novel. Pitch a piece on Iranians celebrating Persian New Year that 2008. Your angle: being Iranian in a bad time to be Iranian. Think to yourself when was there ever a good time to be Iranian here and pitch it anyway. Hear nothing back and tell yourself you and your Iranian-America are not yet worthy of that newspaper.
Be more shocked than gracious a few months later, when out of nowhere, an editor at another section of that very paper writes you and mentions he is a fan of your work and would you like to contribute an essay to this author series on summer? You can’t believe it—this editor has acknowledged your novel and yet is not asking you to write a particular thing about Iranian-America. But when you sit down to write, surprise yourself: It’s about your mother and you and so it’s about Iranian-America. Feel slightly defeated— writing what I know was never my thing, you know you used to whisper—but a part of you anticipates they will want this and they do.
Behold the awe of everyone around you, behold your own awe: You are in your dream paper, an essayist suddenly. Editors who never heard of you or your novel start asking for your essays of Iranian-America. Soon, you are back in that same paper with another essay about, of all things, Barbie’s fiftieth anniversary and somehow you make it also about Iranian-America. You’ve learned to interview your parents and dig up whatever they will give you from their past and add that to messy memories of your childhood and glue it all together: an essay on Iranian-America! Be amazed at how your formula sometimes helps you work out some things, be amazed at how it sometimes seems to help others. Remind yourself this can’t last. Iranian-Americans from all over the country write you and thank you, and you tell everyone this was a nice run—you did your part—and now you will go back to what you were meant to write: anything else.
Except you don’t. They ask and you keep writing it. Tell yourself this is your new life every time an essay comes out in that venerable paper of yours—you start to call it yours , because three-figure checks must mean love if two-figure checks mean like, or so you tell yourself. Occasionally try to remind them you were a journalist before all this, a writer who wrote about music and art and fashion and books but no one remembers or cares anymore. Editors start asking for a collection of essays, but you think, I’ve just begun. Tell them in 2009 you’re just entering your thirties, what do you know?
Know you’re an essayist and know you can’t back out now. During an interview someone asks you why essays, and you remind them you write fiction and they ask again why essays, and you joke about them finding you, and they ask again why essays, and you stumble on another answer: service . That somehow your people are not visible, these three decades of being in the US, and people have needed you and while you can’t speak for everyone, you can speak some part of this truth. Service? Service. Afterwards, bum the few cigarettes the interviewer offers and smoke through a silence you did your best to create.
Start to wish other Iranian-Americans would write essays; even try to introduce the few who seem interested to editors but the editors always ask for more essays from you. How many essays can you write, you wonder, but every time one comes out you start to see how they see it, and you see more. Step back from yourself and spin absolutely everything from the lens of Iranian-Americana. An Iranian-American sensibility, an Iranian-American outfit, an Iranian-American state of mind, Iranian-American flora and fauna, an Iranian-American bowl of goddamn fruit. Watch yourself pitch the editor at the venerable publication an essay on the hit TV show Thirtysomething , a show you loved, and because in 2009 it’s a big deal that it’s out on DVD and it seems like something to watch it in your thirties now. Hear the editor in your head long before your real editor asks you if you can include your Iranian-American family in it, and catch yourself saying yes of course , and do it, and never imagine years later you will teach that own essay of yours as a mistake. Consider later that maybe you knew and didn’t care, you knew the service and moreover you knew your function: You were not just writing Iranian-America, maybe you were helping them create it.
Write the Persian New Year piece you once wanted though it’s no reported piece, but a personal essay—that’s what they want and that’s what you deliver. By this point your parents know why you are asking when you call, by this point they have gotten used to the fact that you will write about them and anything else Iranian-America. When friends and family begin to marvel at all this, Miss Literary Iranian-America, don’t you deny it—smile and be grateful and lie that this is exactly what you dreamed of one day.
When another section editor of that same paper emails you (a section that pays a lot more—if three is love, four figures must mean marriage), accept their request for a new essay, knowing that you can write an essay on absolutely anything for these people, provided it’s about Iranian-America—which it will be. Muslim reality TV the first time , Iranian reality TV the second time , but we’re big fans of your essays, so can you make it an essay not a review ? They want feelings, not facts, you know this by now. Write the first and write the second and duck all the love hurdling itself at you, a love you can’t feel, a love you might fear.
Writing Iranian-America turns out to have some downsides, but you think you know how to handle it. When Iranians write you and say you are not Iranian enough for them, thank them, and when others say you are too Iranian for them, thank them too. Too pro-IRI and too Royalist, too anti-Iranian and too nationalistic, too relatable and not relatable enough, maybe neo-con and maybe communist—and where is your name from? Are you really Iranian? Why are you not married? Are both your parents really Iranian? Why do you say Iranian and not Persian? Why are you embarrassing us? Why are you not writing happy things? Why are there so many jokes? What do you think of us? Are we good or bad? Are you good or bad? Why do you call us brown? Why are we not brown to them? Why do you not look more white? Why do you look so white? What god is your god? Why can’t you write in a way I can understand? Why do you write at all? Why don’t you stop writing? Why don’t you stop smoking? When you get those messages, learn to let them say what they need to say. Occasionally engage, and often don’t. Service .
Learn to live with hating yourself. Learn to live with hating Iranian-America. Imagine the hell of dying in America while your parents envision the beauty of dying in Iran, and you wonder if there was ever anything in between for you.
When your editors leave the section where they first published you and when the paper experiences horrible layoffs, think this is it, what you’ve been waiting for—your run is over. Tell everyone you know it’s been great, four years as an essayist of Iranian-America! Imagine all the topics you were supposed to write about but you can’t quite remember what. Try to remember and fail. Hip hop? White girls? Bars? Wars? Try to remember and fail.
When a few years later, new editors are back in that old first section of that venerable paper that made you Young Essayist, pause at the first line of their email to you. A pitch in the greeting, a story you know of: An Iranian band in Brooklyn has been the victim of a murder-suicide. For days you’ve considered reporting on this, thinking of the right venue, but now here is the op-ed section again wanting a personal essay. “ It seems to me like there might be something interesting to say, about the Iranian expat community, the American dream betrayed, or something along those lines.” Think about her take for a moment and think about how you can’t: how this story has nothing to do with assimilation but is about a deranged person from your part of the world who shot some people from your part of the world but is much more about gun control and America and its dream not betrayed at all. Ask her if you can face America here not just Iranian-America in the only piece you can write, pitch this to her and know the answer.
Remind yourself that you have been chronically ill for many years and buying cigarettes is no longer an option.
Write for other sections of that paper—the book review, where you sometimes wonder why they don’t give you topics relating to Iranian-America—until once again, in 2017, another editor from that section writes you, this time with a name that is definitely of Iranian-America. When she says she wants a Persian New Year piece, a sweet nostalgia piece, remind her that four years ago, many editors ago, you wrote one. Tell her you have nothing happy to write this year and you weren’t going to write this and tell her your idea of New Year in the time of the Trump Administration’s Muslim Ban. Remember your first Persian New Year pitch to this paper : being Iranian in a bad time to be Iranian, and now a decade later witness that same silence with awe. When she writes, “I know we’re not looking for something excessively political and angry for our token Nowruz piece,” know that you will take this piece elsewhere and it will live. Try to put away any disappointment you have for her, your fellow Iranian-American, because ultimately both you and her are microscopic cogs in the venerable paper’s unfathomable machinery. Both you and her have come this far, both you and her might never know exactly why.
Observe others writing about Iranian-America. Encourage and amplify the many voices and viewpoints of your people, now nearly four decades a minority in this America, finally with their own stories surfacing too. Enjoy reading their accounts, until readers warn you against your own enthusiasm. I feel like they’re ripping you off, go messages from the concerned and you don’t know what to make of it. Against your better judgment, read more closely. Decide you will pretend not to notice. Pretend you are better than this competitive game they have set up for all of you to destroy yourselves in. Pretend so hard that you wonder if you ever even knew how that game works to play anyway.
Pretend to chainsmoke a couple packs of cigarettes, killing hours in bottomless depression—pretend you’re all smoke and ashes, let it burn right through you—and pretend Iranian-America is all theirs, whoever wants this wreckage.
Tell yourself this is The Last Essay, but remind yourself of all the other Last Essays. Wonder how much more of this you can take. Count that out of seventy pieces of nonfiction you’ve written since your first book came out in 2007, forty-eight have had to do with Iranian-America. Ask yourself if it’s too much or too little given where America is at, still at. Watch the news and marvel at how your entire life they obsessed over your country of origin, and continue to. Wonder if you and your family will end up in Muslim Camp after all. When people look at you with the pity and the regret again— refugee, resident alien, political asylum , immigrant, foreigner —let them have it, and let yourself take it. What has changed but nothing at all?
Write about it and make sure you keep writing about it. Plan out three more books and call it the end; each and every one is about Iranian-America. Write all the secrets like every essay is a suicide note: one that reveals your Zoroastrian name is a fraud and you are a Muslim and watch everyone applaud it, from all sorts of people online to your own father who gave you your name. Wonder if anyone is reading properly. Put “Iranian American refugee” in your Twitter profile, the way all the other refugees are doing. Question if this is empowering. Imagine you’ve been throwing yourself off a cliff every time you’ve been writing, but it’s hard to know if you are killing yourself or trying to fly. Wonder if a cliché like that is all you’ve got. Wonder if the death you’ve been imagining is just you becoming a bad writer.
Watch yourself making posts on Facebook and Twitter more than ever in 2017. Watch Americans at first dive into it and then over time walk away from it, until you start to find yourself asking white people to repost or echo the same sentiment, so your ideas can get heard. Watch white Americans listen to one another but suddenly they are not so sure about your words. Remind them that you know Iranian-America and that they seemed to love reading you—quote your own pieces, send them the links, remind them they knew you—but watch them slowly back away. Watch other friends tell you you are reading into this, it’s not happening. Watch yourself worry about every word. Watch yourself apologize for things no one understands. Watch yourself think only in Farsi, like this—America—never happened. Watch yourself burn out on the worry and remind yourself of where this essay started: Begin by writing about anything else. End by thinking about anything yourself , you tell yourself, but look at how you’re all out of jokes about smoking.
Be a little astonished that there is still one more section of The Last Essay which is not The Last Essay, you and your editor and whoever is still here must know by now. Notice you’ve learned a few things about essays in this decade, like the ones you must write will write themselves for you. Remind yourself that when the performance is honest two things happen: The essay will feel like it’s killing you and the ending will not be what you thought it might be. Learn to respect more than resent those parallel planes of living and the rendering of living.
Note that you’re not thinking about this when you read and then reread an email you receive late one night a few weeks after this first Persian New Year of the Trump administration, from an Iranian-American aspiring writer who tells you your work has saved her life, a woman twenty years your junior who asks if you have any words of advice. You thank her and feel embarrassed for your discomfort in reading her praise, and you try to channel her joy and enthusiasm and you fail, and you draft an email where you tell her to run but don’t say which way. One word: Run. Run with everything you got, dear reader.
Delete the email and start over, and watch weeks and weeks go by. One day open the draft and see the word love. Try to delete it but it won’t go away. Tell yourself your delete key is broken and get it fixed and still try. Love. Tell yourself it was sent to you for a reason—laugh at the audacity, the idiocy, the cliché—and one day, many years into a version of a future you might get, go as far as to grow into it again.
Thank you, the young woman writes. I think I know what to do.
You wait for more, but that’s it.