Tremors: New Fiction by Iranian American Writers. Edited by Anita Amirrezvani and Persis Karim. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2013.
Iranian American literature has been caught in a representational bind, one that is overdetermined by the fraught relationship between Iran and the United States. Is it the writer’s job to challenge stereotypes about Iran and Iranians, to educate American readers about Iran as an act of literary diplomacy? Or are we to write unconstrained by the geopolitical context, making representational choices regardless of how they align with dominant messages about Iran, Islam, and Muslim women and men? And what to do about the tastes of the US publishing industry, which seems partial to women’s memoirs about misogyny in Iran, followed by a flight to freedom in the US? Under these difficult conditions, some very good writing has nonetheless been produced and published, but the industry’s narrow, profit-driven definition of what is marketable (for example, jacket blurbs promising some version of the proverbial peek behind the veil) has also been stifling.
The latest anthology of Iranian American literature shakes off the burden of expectations—those of trade presses and readers—much as its title suggests. Tremors: New Fiction by Iranian American Writers, published by an academic press, was not intended to be a profit-making endeavor. It is neither saddled with a mandate to create positive images of Iranians for the West nor does it rehash familiar narratives of repression and escape. Instead, we find an array of aesthetic styles, storytelling strategies, and memorable characters, a collection concerned as much with the craft of writing as with the desire to say something, many things in fact, about Iran. According to editors Anita Amirrezvani and Persis Karim, in their introduction to the collection, the publication of Tremors marks a “seismic moment of change,” or rather, “the moment before a larger-scale happening.” The title is taken from a story by Erika Abrahamian about the impact of the 2009 “green” movement on different generations of Iranians in the US. Tremors, the editors tell us, refers to something “quivering, slight but noticeable, yet not fully emerged” that is palpable throughout the twenty-six stories and one graphic novel included here. Is this the tremor before the next big uprising in Iran, or before a new moment of recognition of the diversity of Iranian American experience and subjectivity? Or is it a quivering that accompanies the crescendo of voices unleashed from the pages of this book?
The diasporic tenor of this literature is reflected in the way the anthology is structured, with a first section devoted to stories set in the US, a middle section set in Iran, and a third section that is not necessarily about Iran or Iranians at all. The organization of the book makes the bold proclamation that Iranian American writers have a lot to say about a wide range of people and places, and many different kinds of stories to tell. In the first section, “American Homeland,” the experience of diaspora is rendered with the pain and dark humor that accompanies disorientation. The selections reckon with what Karim has called “historic disappointments,” as well as with those emanating from the strange and, at times, treacherous, immigrant experience. Highlights from this section include “Other Mothers, Other Sons” by Mehdi Tavana Okasi, which offers a young boy’s perspective on poverty and exile, confronting not only the hostility of US society but also betrayal from within the Iranian community. The quiet anxiety of “Other Mothers, Other Sons,” is ruptured by the ironic wit of Salar Abdoh’s “Fixer Karim,” a tale that traces the repeated reinvention of one young Iranian man, and the slow decline of another. Here the motion of diaspora doubles back on itself; the characters are perpetually displaced, one embracing the opportunistic uses of his Iranian identity and the seemingly endless possibilities of assimilation, and the other precariously teetering towards destitution. For anyone who knows what it is like to find oneself caught in between two countries, both of which feel unlivable in different ways, this story offers the delightful chance to revel in an extended, at times hilarious, inside joke about the world as we know it.
Shifting moods again, Persis Karim’s “Something to Pray For” is the only fictionalized account I’ve come across of Iranians who were swept up in the domestic front of the war on terror. Working against Iranian nationalist tendencies to stay separate from other racialized populations in the US, this story follows an elderly man as he goes through the terrifying process of “special registrations” and detention. Punctured by flashbacks of his son’s imprisonment in Iran, “Something to Pray For” juxtaposes different forms of state repression in the US and Iran, allowing for a comparative reading of these two contexts. Inside the California holding cell full of Muslim men from all over the world, a space of solidarity comes into being that is rooted not in national identity, but rather in a shared sense of loss and a desperate grasping for hope.
If the first section of the collection interrupts simplistic assumptions about immigrant success and the American Dream, section two, “Iran, Land of Resilience,” brilliantly resists one-dimensional representations of Iran. Instead, there are so many different “Irans” depicted in this section that the reader must be willing to journey across a span of several hundred years to take them all in. At one end of the timeline, an excerpt from Anita Amirrezvani’s novel, Equal of the Sun, renders the palace intrigue of the sixteenth-century Savafi court through the eyes of a eunuch, the loyal servant to the powerful Princess Pari. At the other end, an excerpt from Amir and Khalil’s graphic novel Zahra’s Paradise ushers the reader into the immediacy of the 2009 protests and their aftermath, as families gather in front of Evin prison demanding to know what happened to their loved ones. In between these temporal bookends, Ari Siletz’s transcendent story of black magic in the desert and Shideh Etaat’s irreverent telling of a Jewish-Muslim love affair both present us with characters that defy the expectations of those around them and move the reader through a series of dynamic and changing social worlds.
Among the benefits of the anthology format are the cross-readings it makes possible, as we encounter the work of individual authors in relation to one another rather than in isolation. How fascinating it is to read the excerpts from two novels, Zohreh Gharehmani’s Sky of Red and Maryam Mortaz’s Balcony of Desire, as an accidental conversation between women from two different generations. Sky of Red Poppies, set at the height of SAVAK’s campaign of terror under the Shah, looks at the politicization of teenagers at a girls’ school in Mashad. When the main character discovers her school principal cooperating with SAVAK to turn in a radical student, her terror and curiosity lead her to seek out the banned books that could endanger her as well. Balcony of Desire, set during the Islamic cultural revolution of the early 1980s, also takes place in a girls’ high school, in the midst of a new round of book banning and official efforts to control the minds and behaviors of young women. While each story stands out for the vivid writing and seamless weaving of historical events with the characters’ thoughts and emotions, taken together they offer something more. A reader unfamiliar with Iranian history and society may be surprised to see that perhaps there is not such a sharp distinction between the dictatorship of the Shah (a staunch US ally) and the current regime after all. Rather than teaching us that censorship is somehow endemic to Iranian society, however, these stories reveal it to be a project that is always incomplete and in danger of failure. Ghahremani and Mortaz create characters compelled to resist in ways that may be hidden or open, direct or indirect, but that are beyond the scope of any historical record and thus only available to us through literature.
The final section of Tremors, “OtherLand,” showcases writing about geographical, social, and political worlds not defined by the US-Iran standoff. Moving out beyond the borders of a narrowly constructed Iranian ethnic or national identity, the scope and potential of this subset of Iranian American fiction is truly boundless. Some of these writers may deliberately choose to write about non-Iranian subjects, while others simply write about the places and people they have come to know as they have traveled other routes besides that between the US and Iran. For example, Elizabeth Eslami’s “Everything Gets Mixed Together at the Pueblo” focuses on settler colonialism in the US by portraying an encounter between indigenous tour guides and non-indigenous tourists in the southwest. Eslami enters a different representational morass than that which ordinarily concerns Iranians: the presumptions about native peoples that work to justify a history of genocide and ongoing forms of cultural and material dispossession.
Sharon May’s “The Wizard of Khao-I-Dang” takes us farthest afield, into a landscape and culture that may not be familiar to many readers. Set in a camp for Cambodian refugees on the Thai border, the story follows a Cambodian translator’s subtle efforts to help his compatriots navigate the Western legal regimes that will decide their fate, while nursing his own memories of war and a desire to return home. May’s fiction is riveting because of the deftness of her prose, her years spent living in Cambodia, and her knowledge of the Khmer language. Her portrayal of the translator, the only character who can function fluently in two worlds—that of western officials and of refugees—has deep resonances with the themes present in the anthology as a whole. She invites us to contemplate the feeling of diaspora, the violent demands of assimilation, and the psychic state of living in between.
It may be that the “seismic shift” underway in Iranian American literature is only possible now, after two decades of publishing and after 2009, when the whole world recognized that Iranian society is far from static or homogeneous. Viewed as part of the broader field of ethnic American literature, the stories in Tremors appear to take the burdens of representation as given, as part of the creative challenge itself. Rather than a choice between self-censorship and total disregard for the political implications of familiar narratives, these authors—and editors—engage openly with the difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves. Tremors may announce a new moment in the development of Iranian American fiction, but it is deeply bound up with a past that continually intrudes into the present, with the many ways Iranians—and others—inherit, carry, and interpret our losses.