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Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Holly Fathi and the Emerging Literature of British Iranians

By Roya Ahmadi, former summer intern

The Center for Iranian Diaspora studies is excited to feature Holly Fathi, an emerging scholar in the field of Iranian diaspora literature, in this posting. Fathi, a recent master’s student at the University of Oxford, was a panelist at our Forty Years & More Conference, March 28-20, 2019 at San Francisco State University. Her most recent project is to make a space for the poetry and prose of British Iranians. Fathi is at work on an anthology of British-Iranian writing that focuses on the beauty, nuance, and complexity of cultural hybridity and diaspora identity in the British context.

IMG_0751Fathi’s interest in collecting diaspora literature began after she entered university and was exposed to greater diversity than was presented to her in her childhood upbringing in rural Devon, England. “My father is Iranian, which was somewhat unusual in Devon. I only knew a few other Iranians, and always felt a sense of kinship with them, despite being in different grades and friend groups,” she says. With regard to her half-Iranian background, Fathi says her “Iranian part was somewhat in the background. But it was there for me in the food, the pictures on the walls, the carpets on our floors, the pomegranate tree in our greenhouse…” Fathi identifies her experience studying Caribbean literature during a study abroad program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, as instrumental in piquing her curiosity about her more complicated notions of home and hybridity. It was after this trip to the US that Fathi registered the desire to learn more about her own identity and that of other disaporic British Iranians.

The collection that Fathi is currently editing (as yet untitled) will be the first of its kind. British-Iranian literature, which is understudied, presented many challenges for Fathi when she was a graduate student. “While pursuing my master’s in literature at Oxford, I sort of made myself [into] a nomad,” says Fathi. “I situated myself in the Middle Eastern Studies department, the geography department, the American studies department, and so on. Each department was useful for learning about specific aspects of my interests, including questions of belonging, movement through space, and the politics that influence any diaspora.” This experience is somewhat poetic: in studying the Iranian diaspora, Fathi wasn’t able to feel completely at home in one specific academic field. She was constantly searching for greater meaning and influence — making the experience a “spiritually” diasporic one.

Because of the lack of existing research on British Iranians, Fathi looked elsewhere to find others in this emerging field. She regards Dr. Persis Karim, the director of the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies, as a mentor, and saw in her edited anthologies of literature by Iranian Americans a model for her own work. Fathi’s book project and her research as a whole, targets an important idea she’s been thinking about for a while: “a lot of work that is actually British literature gets overlooked and is being published in a “subcultural” or ethnic lens,” Fathi says. One example is British-Iranian poet Mimi Khalvati, who expressed to Fathi that she is “not a Persian poet,” because “her poems are written in English,” and spent a limited part of her childhood in Iran. Fathi sees Khalvati’s work as a British poet expressing global themes that are under-discussed or not fully understood in the diasporic context. Fathi says her goal is to bring the themes and experiences of the British Iranian diaspora into mainstream literature. “I’d like this project to be a book that an Iranian family would have on their shelf, and one that members of other diasporas have and can appreciate for representing the larger immigrant experience. This literature deserves its rightful place in ‘British Literature’ — reflecting the realities of Britain and its own history and demographic,” she says. “There’s this whole spectrum of Iranian identity. People who grew up in Iran but live in the UK, people who speak Farsi but have lived outside of Iran their entire lives, people who have one Iranian parent, and so on. I want this book to embrace that spectrum. I want it to feel like it belongs to a community and it has a home in the UK, in British letters.”

Fathi has extended the submission deadline to November 1, 2019, and hopes to collect literature from all over the United Kingdom. The Center applauds Fathi’s efforts and is looking forward to this inclusive collection and the many stories this forthcoming anthology will represent.

Holly Fathi Submissions



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