Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Farsi Disclaimer

Lately I’ve been wondering if my novel might set off a few cultural landmines in terms of criticism. I guess if Bone Worship inspires any kind of controversy, that’s a good thing. Publicity being publicity. But it still makes me nervous. Am I going to face several irate Iranian-American readers at book signings, poised to point out what I got wrong about Iran? Will I be excoriated for not being Iranian enough? What is Iranian enough, anyway?

In writing Bone Worship, I wasn’t trying to write a book about race. I wanted to explore ideas of love, familial and romantic, of growing up, finding your voice, and ultimately using that voice to ask the necessary questions a young person has to ask: about who your loved ones are (as real people) and about your own identity. In doing so -- and by writing about an Iranian-American protagonist in the midst of an arranged marriage -- I have managed to, er, accidentally write about race, along with a lot of other things. Ultimately though, I just wanted to write about a Georgia girl who goes to the University of Chicago, falls in love with science (and with one of her teachers), flunks out, and returns home to her mysterious, confounding parents. And the possibility of an arranged marriage. Indeed there are a whole lot of landmines to be triggered there: feminism, racism, May-December romances, North vs. South.

Of course, I have to navigate those mines in other ways too. Is it okay for me to join a group of Iranian-American writers when I wasn’t born in Iran, when I don’t speak Farsi? Am I allowed to write a book with several scenes in Tehran when I’ve never been there? Is there some kind of test I have to pass to be a legitimate Iranian-American writer? What about the simple fact that I look so darn white, that I have traces of a Southern accent, that I hardly seem – to those who know me – “ethnic” at all? Expatriate writers, exiled poets and playwrights – these people we should listen to about matters of race. But there is also something to be said for our own experiences. Those experiences are valuable whether you are native-born of a country, second generation, bi-racial, or whatever cultural mix you happen to be. All have a story to tell.

Perhaps, in the end, what matters is the writing. To have written a good first novel. To be in a group of writers-of-a-certain-ethnicity first because you’re a writer, and second because you have a cultural heritage. We’re all just a jumbled mess of voices after all, right? (For that matter, I’m a soon-to-be member of the Willamette Writers of Oregon, even though I’ll always be a Montanan in my heart.) I might be criticized for a lot of things when this book comes out, for the notion of a modern girl even considering an arranged marriage in the first place, for failing to capture Iran’s complex beauty. But I hope I won’t be found guilty of not having an authentic voice, an authentic experience. Because finally, including race and going beyond it, what it comes down to is telling stories. All worth telling.

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