Conducted by Persis M. Karim
Nahid Rachlin came to the United States more than three decades ago as a wide-eyed young woman seeking a college education. Like many early Iranian immigrants, she came at a time when US-Iranian relations were positive and when the United States actively supported Mohammad Reza Shah and his policies. Iran and Iranian culture were virtually unknown to most Americans and what little connection they made with that nation was with Persian cats and carpets. Rachlin, who married an American man and later became a citizen, had always dreamed of becoming a writer. In 1978, she published her first novel, Foreigner, to critical acclaim. Foreigner explored the contours of alienation/outsiderness, in both the context of being an Iranian immigrant and in her own country. Since the publication of her first novel, Rachlin has been productive as a writer and teacher, and is arguably one of the pioneers of what was early on referred to in some circles as “Iranian immigrant literature.” Despite the fact that she arrived in this country before the Iranian revolution of 1979, she has continuously explored the internal and external fallout of her own immigrant experiences and that of others who came after her. She has written novels and short stories, and most recently a memoir, Persian Girls, which Christopher Merrill, director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, named as “one of the four best books of the year” because of its revealing details about what it was like for Rachlin to grow up as a female in Iran.
After writing a series of novels and short stories, Rachlin now joins a cadre of women writers who are defining the contours of an emerging body of Iranian diaspora writing. These writers include Tara Bahrampour, Gina Nahai, Azar Nafisi, Azadeh Moaveni and the France-based graphic memoirist, Marjane Satrapi—all of whom have written stories of their complex journeys between Iran and America as well as other nations. While Rachlin has consistently written fiction, this most recent burst of writing reflects an interest and comfort with the genre of memoir. It’s hard to explain just why memoir has such a resonance with Iranian and Iranian-American women writers. In part, it suggests a kind of self-authorizing that women in Iran have historically been denied both because of its male-dominated literary tradition that discouraged women’s voices and self-revelation in particular. This not only had the effect of creating a de-facto form of self-censorship by women writers in Iran, but also stunted the range of topics that women could comfortably write about. For American audiences and publishers, the popularity of the memoir could be linked to a kind of preoccupation on the part of publishers and readers with getting “under the veil” of Iranian women’s lives. While some have been critical of this plethora of Iranian women’s memoirs (a kind of tell-all) because it exposes what are already some problematic depictions of Iran and Iranian culture in the U.S. media, it also has given Iranian women a voice that heretofore was not available to them in Iran.
Rachlin, has also published (2006) a new novel, Jumping Over Fire, with a plot that centers around a complex brother-sister relationship that explores the taboo subject of incest and is set against the tumultuous events of the Iranian revolution. In a time when Iranians are facing yet again the painful depiction of their country and culture in the US media, and the inflamed rhetoric of war by both governments, literature offers a more humane and complex view. Rachlin tries in her own work to marry the worlds she feels she belongs to—and is alienated by—by giving her readers some sense of what her own life’s journey, as a woman, an immigrant and an Iranian, has been like. Rachlin began her writing as an immigrant and now comfortably belongs, as its kind of mother-elder, to a group of novelists and memoirists whose work we now name as “Iranian-American literature.” Her works include: Foreigner (1978), Veils: Short Stories (1992), Married to a Stranger (1993), The Heart’s Desire (1995), Jumping Over Fire (2006), and Persian Girls (2006).
PK: Can you discuss the impetus for your coming to the US nearly four decades ago?
NH: Growing up in Iran as a girl, even under the Shah’s regime, was very difficult. Restrictive traditional mores, with their limitations on women, outweighed any western influence. Even though my parents were “modernized” Muslims they still believed education was for their sons and their daughters should aim for marriage as soon as a suitable man came along. This attitude was widespread, the norm really. I was introspective as a teenager and didn’t accept such rules and wanted to pursue an education. It took a lot of arguing on my part to convince my parents to send me to the United States to study. They agreed, under the condition that I would go to an all-women’s college, near where one of my brothers was going to medical school, so that he would look after me.
PK: How did the experience of coming here shape you, change you, lead you to writing?
NR: I wanted to be a writer ever since high school. I used to sit in a room alone and write. I found that the process of writing, even if the subject wasn’t a happy one, made me happy. It was the process of shaping events and the destiny of the characters, coherence and creating meaning that mattered. If I had stayed in Iran, however, I may not been able to become a published writer, as censorship has always been heavy there.
PK: In what ways was becoming a writer more symptomatic of being an outsider, a foreigner, and a woman looking for her place?
NR:I always felt like a foreigner in my own country and then I felt that way in the small, provincial, all-women’s college I attended. That feeling of being an outsider led to my desire to write, the process that ultimately helped me.
PK: How has the experience of being a pioneer of “Iranian American” writing—a term which didn’t exist until very recently, both give you a niche as a writer and also perhaps pegged you in a certain way? Are there advantages/disadvantages you see in this term, in the idea of an ethnic writerly voice?
NR: The only advantage is that it makes it easier for others to reach to me for certain, specific reasons— finding out about Iran, or just another culture. The disadvantage is that people then come to expect certain things from my writing that may not be there. Having lived in the U.S. more than half of my life, many of my characters are Americans and my view of some of the Iranian characters is that they are viewed through the filter of my own experience as a kind of “outsider.”
PK: How did your early years here—in the U.S. prepare you for what would come later in the form of the events of the late 1970s—the hostage crisis, the tense relations between the two countries of Iran and the U.S.?
NR: They didn’t prepare me for it because for so long America and Iran had a cordial, friendly relationship and the average person here had a false picture of Iran: they saw Iran as much more modernized and close to America in values than it really was. In Iran, the segment of the population that was “Americanized” was far smaller than was perceived in the U.S.
PK: Have you been back to Iran? How has your work been received there? Do you feel you are an Iranian-American writer? Or do you maintain some of the exilic syndrome that seems to befall many Iranian intellectuals and educated people?
NR:I have been back to Iran many times, over the years, mainly to see my family. My work hasn’t been translated into Farsi. My first novel Foreigner, published in 1978, didn’t pass the Shah’s censorship apparatus. Even though by the end of the novel, its protagonist, caught between America and Iran, comes to be won over by Iran, the censors didn’t like the realistic details describing things. For instance they didn’t like the fact that in one scene there is a bug on a sheet in a hotel. That would mean that the Shah’s attempt at beautifying Iran had failed. They wanted a travelogue rather than a realistic novel. Under the new regime, the censors would be sensitive to other issues, such as male-female relationships as captured in my fiction. Knowing that, I haven’t even attempted to have any of my work published there.
I feel I am an Iranian-America writer in that most of my short stories and novels, include both Iranian and American characters, and also I feel I myself have absorbed some of both cultures in my own conduct and attitudes and outlook on things.
PK: In your latest book you deal with the fallout from the revolution —in both national and more intimate terms. Your earlier books are more immediately intimate, personal in nature, although they deal with the immigrant experience. What does the narrative of Jumping Over Fire address that you feel your earlier work missed?
NR: In Jumping Over Fire, I capture through Nora and Jahan’s incestuous interaction, the nature of Iran and America’s relationship with each other— at once fascinated and in some ways repelled by their mutual dependency. Also I wanted to show, through Nora’s character, her misplaced yearnings, all the limitations a young teenage girl in Iran faces.
PK: Who do you feel is your most important audience?
NR: I think it’s people who have an interest in other cultures, people who would like to know more about other places, other societies.
PK: You also have a memoir that came out this past fall called Persian Girls. Why are you, like so many other Iranians/Iranian-Americans gravitating towards the genre of memoir (especially after having written several novels and collections of short stories)? What value does this genre have particularly for you and perhaps for other Iranian and Iranian-American women? How do you explain some of the popularity of these memoirs by authors such as Marjane Satripi, Azar Nafisi and Firoozeh Dumas?
NR: For many years, heartache prevented me from turning my eyes inward: to tell the story of how my own life diverged from that of my closest confidante and beloved older sister. As adolescents, we both refused to accept traditional Iranian mores, and dreamed of careers in literature and on the stage; we devoured forbidden books and entertained secret romances. Our lives changed abruptly when my sister was coerced into marrying a wealthy, cruel suitor who kept her a virtual prisoner in her own home. I avoided becoming the bride of a man of my parents’ choosing, and instead negotiated with my father to pursue my studies in the U.S. As I began to achieve my goal of becoming a writer, my sister’s dreams dwindled: her husband (as a part of the patriarchal society) squashed her every hope and ambition. Finally, after many years of distance I have managed to write about my sister and my own life and the way that we were diverging and the distance and experiences that separated us.
I believe the success of memoirs by Iranian women has something to do with Americans’ curiosity about Iranian women, their “true” lives.
PK: By “true,” I guess you mean that Iranian women are often portrayed in very flat and reductionist way by the U.S. media and also by the government of Iran? Is that the only reason, that they’re saying something “true” about their experiences, something beyond the image of a woman in a veil?
NR: Yes, that’s right. They’re put in a box, looked at a certain way, and their lives are far more complex. And yes, I think this is certainly one of the most important factors explaining the success of Iranian women’s memoirs.
PK: What things about Iran and Iranian culture do you feel you are still nostalgic about? How do they enter your texts?
NR: I miss the availability and accessibility of people to each other, Iranians’ general curiosity about people, which allows intimacy and closeness. I miss certain sights and sounds, things that are reminiscent of my childhood— gurgling of water in joobs, the vendors standing on the streets, selling hot beets and corn, roasted on braziers in front of them; I miss the ancientness of the country with its historical sights, its magnificent gardens, palaces, mosques, etc.
One of my readers told me this about, Jumping Over Fire: “Even though it may not be your intention, you make Iran much more interesting than Long Island. I’d rather live in Iran, judging by your descriptions of it!” I think that statement reflects something about how Iran still lingers with me as an interesting culture.
PK: What is it that Iranians have to say to American readers that you think they haven’t been able to say just yet?
NR: This maybe said already but it could perhaps be reinforced or repeated: that in spite of cultural differences, reflected in values and mores, essential human emotions and experiences are universal.
PK: In what ways has your role as a teacher influenced your writing?
NR: Only in that it keeps certain issues alive in my mind–just by the fact of being in contact with others who are interested in writing and have questions about writing. Writers in general are thinking, introspective people and I like being surrounded by them.
PK: Thank you for your time.
Persis Karim is the editor and contributing author of LET ME TELL YOU WHERE I’VE BEEN: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora (University of Arkansas Press, 2006) and the co-editor of A WORLD BETWEEN: Poems, Short Stories and Essays by Iranian-Americans (George Braziller, 1999). She is a professor of literature and creative writing in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San Jose State University in San Jose, CA. She can be reached at http://www.persiskarim.com.