By Annabel Dobbyns, Center Summer Intern, Oberlin College
Olivia Abtahi wants you to know that if you are a marginalized person in a predominantly white space, you are cool.
Abtahi knows this first-hand, and in the fictional world she’s tried to invent, she also wants to make this apparent to young readers. Abtahi’s debut YA novel, Perfectly Parvin was published this past spring and features a character not too far from her own background. Parvin, the protagonist, is a half-Iranian, 14-year-old girl living in the unsettling years of the Trump administration and has just been dumped by her first boyfriend for being “too much.” She is too loud, too rambunctious, and too Persian. She decides to get a boyfriend and undertakes a change. She begins to act like women in rom coms; she waxes her hair, stops eating hot Cheetos, and smiles more, and talks less. Perfectly Parvin tackles a variety of issues, but the most prevalent ones in this novel are portrayed in Abtahi’s efforts to address anti-Iranian sentiment and the pressures of “whitewashing” oneself to fit in.
Abtahi sees herself in Parvin. “Parvin and I are a lot alike, but I think Parvin is so much cooler than I ever was. She puts herself on the right path at age 14, but it took me until I was 30 to figure a lot of things out. She is a mirror for me when I was in high school,” Abtahi says. Abtahi began her freshman year of high school just days after the 9/11 attacks and felt the intensity of that time in her young life. “I wanted to write through Parvin what it would be like to be an Iranian-American youth growing up under the Trump administration—during the Muslim ban and those years of intense anti-Iranian sentiment,” she says. She makes an important distinction between 9/11 and the Trump years saying that “after 9/11 all Middle Eastern people were considered terrorist/bad, but after Trump’s election, it was specific. It included people in the Iranian diaspora, and being Iranian-American got collapsed into attitudes toward Iran and the Iranian government.” Abtahi says that many Iranian Americans of her generation felt shame at being Iranian-American. “I wanted to explore that in the present moment,” she says.
Abtahi reflects an earlier experience in the political history of Iran and the world and she draws on it to explore the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment of the Trump years in her novel. She is half-Iranian and half-(white) Argentinian. Her mother left Argentina during the “Dirty War,” a dark period in which military forces overthrew the Argentinian government and engaged in tactics that led to more than 10,000 activists, leftists, and opponents of the military junta being kidnapped, disappeared and killed. Her mother went to Spain to work with the United Nations assisting other immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers. At nearly the exact moment, Abtahi’s father was fleeing Iran during the tumult of the 1979 revolution. He and his siblings were eventually deported from both Italy and Switzerland and arrived in Spain as asylum-seekers. That’s where he met Abtahi’s mother, who was his asylum officer.
Abtahi grew up in the DC area, and she credits DC for giving her the freedom to explore both her cultures. “Growing up in the DC area was really wonderful because in the same shopping center where my family would buy lavash (Iranian flatbread) we would also be able to visit the Argentinian carniceria (butcher). I don’t think there’s any other place in the United States where that might occur,” she adds. Abtahi has lived in New York, San Francisco, and abroad, but says that no place is to her as culturally diverse as DC or as “desegregated— where I could walk through all these different worlds in my normal day.” Abtahi credits the city for never making her feel that she did not belong or that she was neglecting one of her cultures.
Despite the rich surroundings of her DC home, and her multiple identities as the daughter of two immigrants, Abtahi says she didn’t have many fictional Iranian- American authors to inspire her. The first book she read at age 30 where there was a protagonist to whom she could relate was Adib Khorram’s Darius the Great is Not Okay. Abtahi says that she wished she could have read Iranian or Iranian-American authors as a child, but she is grateful that she can fill the role that was missing in her young life for other readers.
Abtahi is not only an author but she is also a director and her documentaries primarily focused on BIPOC environmental justice and equity. Her most recent project titled This Land has been selected as Vimeo staff pick of the year and centers on public lands and people of color moving through those spaces. Abtahi reflects on her work by saying “It’s very humbling to get to work with these communities and have them open up to you. I feel so grateful to provide the safe space for these people to talk about their issues.” Abtahi’s chosen path in this life is to bring attention to BIPOC communities in both her filmmaking and writing and she emphasizes the need for organizations like Green Peace and 350.org to hire directors who look like the people and communities that they are working to defend and protect.
Abtahi believes that the most powerful message she can provide is to convey to “marginalized” kids growing up feeling “different” that they are “so much cooler than they think.” She adds that she wants them “to have faith that they will find “your people” but can also revel in their uniqueness and specialness.” She adds that she hopes that young people know that “the world is not your mirror currently, but you can still shine. And, it’s not your job to educate those who oppress you and don’t understand your culture. You are not there to explain why you are the way you are. Don’t move through the world the way that others ask of you.”
As a young mother who recently gave birth to her first child, she is acutely aware of the importance of these sorts of messages both in and outside a person’s family and home. She sees no distinction between the fictional and the real world that young people inhabit. They need to be seen, and they need to know “they are cool.”