From the Granular to the Sweeping: Reflecting on the Evolution of a Diaspora

by Susanne Pari, Center Volunteer Editor/Writer and Author of The Fortune Catcher

When I wrote my first novel, it was a labor born out of the traumatic aftermath of the 1979 Revolution. I was desperate to understand how and why it happened. Novels have always helped me make sense of the real world through the cinematic telling of an invented one. Writing stories is how I figure things out.

Recently, I went to a post-vaccination family get-together in New York. I have twenty-four Iranian first cousins, all of whom are in the diaspora. Since the Revolution, we have multiplied. This gathering was a small contingent, about forty of us ranging in age from fourteen to ninety-seven and spanning four generations. We are a very diverse bunch now. Not just American-born, but ethnically, racially, and religiously mixed. These young people, I realized, were growing up almost exactly as I had.

When I was born in this country to an Iranian father and an American mother, Iran was a meaningless word to most Americans, and the term Iranian-American hadn’t yet been coined. In 1957, probably less than fifty babies were born to Iranian immigrants in the US. Sometimes I imagine us all in one maternity ward, swaddled in our bassinets, each one labeled with a last name nobody in the hospital can pronounce. In just a few years, those birth numbers would begin to climb, and then explode. Now, these new generations are out of diapers, out of school, and in the world. I waited a long time, but it feels exhilarating to no longer feel like an ethnic oddity.

I write from the perspective of an American-born person. My views have and will always be bifurcated. I can have an equal amount of disdain and an equal amount of pride for both of my countries, for each of the three religions in which I was raised. As a transnational person, I accept that no culture is clear and simple, no nation or peoples are one thing or another, and that it’s possible to be strongly bound to an ethnicity without painting its people or its government in a perfect light. It has taken me decades to understand and accept that identity is layered and belonging is like an endless jigsaw puzzle.

Back when my novel was first published, Iranian Americans sometimes challenged or judged my depictions of events, people, and politics—as if no one else might write a novel about the Iran of the seventies and early-eighties, as if I meant to tell the quintessential story. I knew they silently questioned whether I was Iranian enough to write such a book. I questioned that myself. I wondered why I felt such a need to write about an unpopular subject and why I so lovingly clung to my Persian ethnicity.

I see these answers reflected now in the faces of new generations. Even those who have never visited Iran or are either married or born to other immigrants; here in the midst of a smorgasbord of polo and khoresh, pasta and pizza, burritos and beans, dumplings and noodles; beneath the cacophony of English, Farsi, Spanish, Dutch, French, and Turkish (some of these spoken very badly)—there is a keen desire to preserve centuries-old Persian traditions. Iranians are good at this; by virtue of Iran’s location on the Silk Road, we’ve had to compromise and cross-assimilate for centuries, both within and outside of Iran. Traditions in the diaspora are a palimpsest; we build on top of what came before, but never erase the original. As ethnic Persians, we share the granular as well as the sweeping identifiers that live in us like an ethnic organ, no matter how much (or how little) Iranian blood we carry.

Over the years, some of my younger compatriots have dusted off their parents’ copies of my first novel; they like it because it takes them to a place and time where they’ve never lived but that is a never-fading echo in their lives. And they talk with one another about a subject I never dared talk about. How Iranian are you? Who decides? Everyone has a different answer. I look at them and I see myself; I see the United States: mixed, in mid-invention, wide open. 

All photos courtesy of Susanne Pari. 

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