Haleh Agar

On Writ­ing Eth­nic Sto­ries

The London Magazine - - NEWS -

I was told to use my maiden name – Has­san-Yari, a name that usu­ally meant ex­tra questions at the cus­toms queue but now would mean a fast-pass to the front of the line in the world of pub­lish­ing. The mid­dle-aged het­ero­sex­ual white man’s hold on con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture had loos­ened. Ap­par­ently. They wanted my sto­ries. All I had to do was to squeeze my eth­nic­ity out onto the page be­cause it was hot right now, hot­ter than vam­pires and time travel and bondage sex put to­gether.

My as­pir­ing writer friend who had de­liv­ered this joy­ous news be­tween third and fourth pe­riod wished me well in this brave new world and went off to teach Gatsby, a sad­ness hov­er­ing over him, feel­ing that his white het­ero­sex­ual mid­dle-class male­ness meant the end of his dreams of mak­ing it as a suc­cess­ful au­thor. He would be stuck teach­ing in over­crowded class­rooms till re­tire­ment or mad­ness or what­ever came first. But at least he had re­tained con­trol over the syl­labus, win­ning a long-fought bat­tle in the English depart­ment over re­plac­ing Gatsby with Amer­i­canah.

I was scep­ti­cal about his the­ory, a fre­quenter of book­shops, the names and pic­tures of au­thors who were sell­ing, still the same as I had re­mem­bered them – mostly white An­glo-Saxon names, granted a few vis­i­ble mi­nori­ties in the mix. I was not con­vinced that the white mid­dle-class man’s reign over any­thing had ended. And yet, there were more plat­forms emerg­ing on Twit­ter, giv­ing writ­ers from BAME back­grounds op­por­tu­ni­ties for pub­li­ca­tion.

And so I thought – this is peachy. I rolled up my sleeves, started edit­ing re­cent short-sto­ries I had writ­ten and the open­ing of my novel-in-progress. And then the thought touched my mind that my sto­ries did not seem at all like ‘eth­nic sto­ries’, in that they did not fo­cus on is­sues of iden­tity, race, in­equal­ity or cul­ture. A lot of them were set in Canada or in Eng­land and

the names of my pro­tag­o­nists were Agnes and Kevin. There were Le­banese and Ira­nian char­ac­ters in my work, but they were sec­ondary, sup­port­ing white pro­tag­o­nists. What did this mean about me as a writer, as a sec­ond gen­er­a­tion Cana­dian-Ira­nian? Had I been ‘white-washed’ from a life­time of ex­po­sure to TV sit­coms and films and lit­er­a­ture that mainly had to do with white mid­dle-class norms, set­tings in­spired by pe­riod dra­mas of beau­ti­ful old Vic­to­rian houses with sash win­dows?

Prob­a­bly. But there was more to it than that. Many years ago, af­ter read­ing Mar­jan Sa­trapi’s graphic novel Perse­po­lis, I had writ­ten a se­ries of short sto­ries set in Iran. I had vis­ited the coun­try with my par­ents when I was in my early teens and could re­late to some of what Sa­trapi had de­scribed about post-Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Iran with its se­cret house par­ties and black mar­ket booze and cor­rupt­ible po­lice who could be en­cour­aged to look the other way for a few thou­sand tomans. I had seen all this first hand, my great-un­cle sud­denly shout­ing, ‘Turn the mu­sic down,’ watch­ing ner­vously through the win­dows for the moral pa­trol out­side.

And still, I found this ex­pe­ri­ence of writ­ing sto­ries about Iran to be an un­com­fort­able one. The nar­ra­tive of my ‘Ira­nian sto­ries’ were push­ing an agenda for­ward, some­thing in the vein of ‘look at all the op­pres­sion un­der this Is­lamic Regime’, my western ideals of sec­u­lar­ity and democ­racy front and cen­tre. The heart of the story seemed lost and the char­ac­ters were flat.

I could not au­then­ti­cally write about Iran and I felt like a fail­ure. As a writer, your chal­lenge and duty is to write about peo­ple and places that are both fa­mil­iar and new. It takes re­search and imag­i­na­tion and the same prin­ci­ples of good sto­ry­telling ap­ply. But the is­sue is more nu­anced than it might ap­pear. With my Ira­nian her­itage, I felt a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity, writ­ing sto­ries about Iran and Ira­ni­ans. I was afraid that my work might be seen as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of ‘my peo­ple’. But I was not even sure what it meant to be Ira­nian and who ‘my peo­ple’ re­ally were.

My par­ents raised us in a sec­u­lar house­hold in Mon­treal. There was no men­tion of God so as to con­sol­i­date a sense of iden­tity through re­li­gion.

They rarely spoke to us about Iran and what their lives had been like be­fore the Rev­o­lu­tion. Most of what my mother had said about Iran had to do with the coun­try be­ing ‘so dif­fer­ent now from be­fore’, ex­press­ing her own sense of alien­ation when she thought of the place she had once called home. I imag­ine this to be the rea­son why my par­ents spoke so lit­tle of Iran – the mem­ory of what had been lost too painful to re­visit.

What I do know about Ira­nian cul­ture could be summed up by a rather sparse and su­per­fi­cial list which in­cludes rice stewed dishes, dance mu­sic recorded in Los An­ge­les, and tra­di­tions of jump­ing over fire and set­ting out a ta­ble with ob­jects sym­bol­is­ing re­newal for the New Year. My par­ents had taken my sis­ters and me to watch a few Ira­nian films in small in­de­pen­dent theatres in Mon­treal. I was young, found most of th­ese films dull, could not re­late to their for­eign­ness. In the car jour­neys home from such out­ings to the cin­ema, my par­ents were silent and so we could not con­tex­tu­alise what we had seen. Grow­ing up, they had in­sisted that we spoke Farsi at all times, un­like some of my cousins whose par­ents had im­mi­grated to Canada and had al­lowed English in the house. Lan­guage has the abil­ity to con­nect generations. But when I spoke Farsi, I felt dis­con­nected from my­self. Some na­tive speak­ers have de­scribed my ac­cent as be­ing like that of a vil­lager or a sim­ple­ton. Speak­ing Farsi meant not be­ing able to fully ex­press my­self – my vo­cab­u­lary al­ways fall­ing short.

And so, when peo­ple say ‘write about your cul­ture’, it al­ways brings up a feel­ing of frus­tra­tion and sad­ness. There is this sense of not quite be­long­ing to the Ira­nian com­mu­nity while re­main­ing an out­sider in western so­ci­ety, al­beit this feel­ing was stronger when we had moved from Mon­treal to a ru­ral part of Canada where my fam­ily was one the few vis­i­ble eth­nic mi­nori­ties.

I must men­tion here that there are plenty of sec­ond gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grants who have writ­ten pow­er­ful di­as­poric nar­ra­tives with great au­then­tic­ity. Au­thors such as David Char­iandy, Madeleine Thien and Zadie Smith amongst oth­ers have writ­ten about the ex­pe­ri­ences of first gen­er­a­tion and sec­ond gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grants liv­ing in western coun­tries, cap­tur­ing

the unique dif­fi­cul­ties faced by each gen­er­a­tion, in­clud­ing what it is like to be an out­sider and that sense of in-be­twee­ness which chil­dren of im­mi­grants of­ten feel. I hope that as we see BAME ini­tia­tives emerg­ing; there will be even more sto­ries told from such per­spec­tives so that those from marginalised back­grounds can recog­nise them­selves within western lit­er­a­ture.

It is im­por­tant that we do not aban­don dis­courses on rep­re­sen­ta­tion of marginalised voices in the Arts. The cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cli­mate has thrown up many questions re­lat­ing to di­ver­sity, im­mi­gra­tion and equal­ity. Di­ver­sity can­not be a pass­ing ‘fad’ as my for­mer col­league had once sug­gested, some­thing the gate­keep­ers have al­lowed to be­come fash­ion­able. Th­ese dis­courses should sig­nal a shift in the way we think about the Arts and their re­spon­si­bil­ity to re­flect dif­fer­ent mem­bers of so­ci­ety.

Nev­er­the­less, there re­mains the risk of plac­ing writ­ers from BAME back­grounds into a box wherein they are ex­pected to write sto­ries that ex­clu­sively tell about their iden­tity or the coun­try from where they or their par­ents were ‘orig­i­nally’ from. Such re­stric­tions make eth­nic mi­nori­ties val­ued for their oth­er­ness, not their cre­ativ­ity. If we are to truly give all voices equal op­por­tu­ni­ties, then we must em­brace the range of sto­ries they tell, even if such sto­ries have to do with time travel, or a child’s kid­nap­ping or an imag­ined king­dom’s rise and fall. One day, I may write a story about an Ira­nian-Cana­dian who feels she does not fit, no place to call home. That very well may hap­pen. But in the mean­time, I am fol­low­ing my cu­riosi­ties, let­ting them lead me to my next cre­ative project. Es­say Prize Com­pe­ti­tion 2017 Win­ner

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