The Hyphen of Exile

A World Between: Poems, Short Stories, and Essays by Iranian-Americans

Roots, routes, roots, or routes? is one question posed by A World Between, a collection of poems, essays and short stories by Iranian-Americans, edited by Mohammed Mehdi Khorrami and Persis Karim, who received her Ph.D. in comparative literature from U.T.—Austin in 1998. In one vignette (written by Nika Khanjani, a former U.T.—Austin undergrad), a girl resigns her eyebrows (and her girlhood) to her mother’s fierce, loving plucking; “Aaah! Ooww! STOP! Mom, it hurts!” she yells, though when she sees her new face in the mirror, she recognizes it: “My sign of womanhood. Not bad.” Solmaz Sharif contributes a free-metered eulogy for a father’s immigrant shoes, as well as a Whitmanesque patriotic ejaculation: “I came with hate / but now / I love you / America,” and for sheer kicks, a newspaper reporter visits Persia, Iowa (writes Jahanshah Javid) and chats with weird Raymond Carver-like locals; the short sketch trips over the question (which Carver’s writing never did), Who’s the exotic? Another piece explores eyebrows again: marks of ancestry and ethnicity, in this poem they’re plucked to look American.

Of its many goals, the collection offers a simple correctif. As the editors write, “Many Iranian-Americans have often felt concerned, ambivalent, and at times even ashamed about revealing their heritage in an atmosphere steeped with media images portraying Iranians as hostile, as fanatical, and above all as terrorists during the period of the revolution, the Iran-Iraq War, and as recently as the 1991 conflict known as the Persian Gulf War.” The collection answers the stereotypes with a variety of genres, styles, approaches, voices, and experiences. In one essay, a young man returns to Iran for military service and finds the bureaucratic machine unprepared for his zeal; Karim writes about attempting to get her Iranian cousin an American visa in Paris though refused again and again, an experience which leads her to conclude that “all I knew was that by the time I left my cousin in Paris the following day, nations and their documents were senseless pieces of paper.”

And yet it is not only to the senseless nation called the U.S. that the collection is directed. For many of the authors, Texas taught them (some of) what they knew about white America: Zjaleh Hajibashi, who contributes a poem and a short story, was born in Lubbock and attended Rice and U.T.; Nika Khanjani also grew up in Houston; poets Tara Fatemi and Reza Shirazi (who has published in the Observer) work in Austin after graduate school; creative writer Farnoosh Moshiri lives and teaches in Houston.

Much of the work addresses the experience of being an exile, an immigrant, even a dissident, and some of it spans the distance between here and there, home and away, familiarity and the uncanny, and routes and roots with provocative, robust language. Laleh Khalili underscores the bourgeois underpinnings of American dissent in “Why the hell American Revolutionaries bother the hell out of me”:

I didn’t have the luxury of not being exotic and I didn’t look for danger because in my blood fear flowed.

Other writers use humor. Mariam Salari tells how her father, desperate to assure his children in 1979 that some “real Americans” are Iranian, “pointed to the fat man on the screen. ‘Heem, Ed Mac MA Hohn is Eraniyan.'” Salari adds that she thought Ed McMahon was Iranian for years, and “every time one of those sweepstakes letters came in the mail, I thought Ed had sent it to us because he knew we were Iranians, too.” From the hohum to the poignant, A World Between gets you there.

At the same time, the anthology actually provokes a deeper set of questions about belonging, exile, and home which are relevant to writers of any regional or ethnic literature, including Texas writing. That’s not to say that as a group, Iranian-Americans don’t have compelling reasons for feeling dislocated. In fact, the collection is strongest when it narrates human experiences of dislocation, and sketches the landscape of the heart that has no landscape to call its own. It also reminds you that it’s one thing to romanticize the idealized lover of routes, the transnational nomad, the postmodern flexible citizen, and yet another to watch refugees and their tents on CNN, those unfortunates who have lost their roots. After you read the exile’s poetry and stories, you realize that every day you stand in the supermarket checkout line with people whose experiences with routes and roots are more complex, even confused. To the degree that A World Between does this, it succeeds.

However, the book and its writers seem suspended in other ways, and in the end, they are unable to secure their places “outside.” Start with the writers, who seem trapped “between” – not as Iranian-Americans, however, but both as individuals who write and as members of a group. The tension which inevitably seems to mark (and mask) minority literatures is the one which asks a writer to represent his or her own experience and still belong to that group, even if the writing has none of the usual signs of that belonging. (For example, it has taken us forty years to appreciate the fact that Richard Wright wrote haiku.) Yet the very act of anthologizing, instead of diversifying, actually shuts its writers (and its readers) inside a stereotype of exile and hyphenation, which the introductory essay is not afraid of romanticizing. Obviously, it’s better to take on the stereotype of the confused cultural hybrid than to sit still while the stereotype of the religious radical is thrust upon you (as often happened to Iranian-Americans). But by staking its claim to the zone of the hyphen – and thereby to the canon of hyphenated literatures – A World Between makes a bid for the outside by making a play at the center of the literary market. It’s a familiar move, it endangers the claims to outsideness, and this makes the book far more interesting to think about than even its table of contents suggests.

We might also consider the question of who’s an exile. Or, another way to put it, who really belongs? In the West, two of our most significant cultural themes are departure and belonging; we all identify as exiles at some level. (Americans have gone even further, raising escape to the status of a theology.) Many major Western intellectual traditions depend on two premises: first, that we’re exiled, and second, that comprehending our status as exiles is essential to salvation. According to these traditions, our salvation must begin by recognizing the distance we’ve traveled from Eden, our mothers, our labor, the Promised Land, our fellow humans, history, the center of the universe, our polymorphic sexual selves, and/or progress qua human potential. In this sense, the collection doesn’t represent anything “between” at all, since it falls so firmly within the West’s sense of itself – and in a strange way, by recognizing their distance from Iran, the writers mark their arrival in Western literature, American literature, and the late twentieth-century canon of hyphenated literatures. For obvious reasons, however, the collection cannot admit this arrival. To do so would endanger the book’s claim to an exceptional status.

Austin writer Michael Erard teaches literature and writing at Southwestern University. A sequel to A World Between is planned.

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