Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: ‘The Savage Muse’ — Building Community Across the Artful Dinner Table

By Niloufar Ketabi, Center Summer Intern 

Parisa Parnian is a visual artist, designer, storyteller, and cook who uses her creative ingenuity to bring marginalized and Othered people together for conversation and personal expression. “All I’ve ever wanted to do was to find other people who feel like they’re not cute, who feel like their voice doesn’t matter, who feel like they’re invisible, and tell them you’re beautiful”.

Parisa was born in Iran to two progressive architect/designer parents who met in graduate school at the University of Tehran. Parisa was four in 1977 when her parents migrated to Arizona, a conservative state with few Iranian immigrants. When the Islamic Revolution occurred, Parisa’s parents made the difficult choice to let go of Iran and remain in the US, but the 1979 American Embassy Hostage Crisis in Tehran turned Parisa’s life at school, where she was the sole Iranian student, into a harsh reality. She remembers one day entering the cafeteria to see the words “Iranian, Go to Hell” written in black marker on the wall. The graffiti was not removed by the school’s administration. 

In response to this cruel shift in attitudes by her peers, Parisa decided to focus exclusively on her studies, hoping for respect and love from her teachers. She developed an indefatigable diligence and passion for learning, earning straight As and dreaming of going to Stanford. “I was in full survival mode,” she says. 

Stanford was not to be, but UCLA accepted her. When she and her parents toured the campus, a group of Iranian guys cruising the boulevard in a convertible cat-called her, “Joon!” Parisa was shocked because she had no sense of her physical attractiveness. “Nobody at my school made me feel hot,” she says. “I was an ugly terrorist.” At a time in adolescence when everyone around her was just becoming sexually curious and girls were being asked to Prom, she was focused entirely on her studies. “After the age of 12, I shut down all my sexual curiosity. I was looked at as a nun.” 

Parisa’s father, fearing for her safety, refused to allow her to enroll at UCLA, so Parisa decided to remain in Scottsdale and attend Arizona State University. It was there she began to get in touch with her sexuality and her inner self. She developed romantic feelings for a girl in her accounting class and experienced her first kiss in a cafe garden. Her conservative upbringing and religious background prompted a lot of guilt and fear. For a long time, she had nightmares of vengeful clergy chasing her up a minaret’s stairs to punish her. “In 1992,” Parisa asserts. “I came out to myself.” Parisa now identifies as a Persian queer, but her journey to reach this point took years of self-examination and perseverance, not to mention a zest for life and community.

At University, she reconnected with her love of color, composition, and design in relation to food. As a child, she loved setting her mother’s table, paying attention to color, positioning, and the presentation of varying dishes. She often asked her mom for permission to create menus for family meals. Eventually, she created a design portfolio and was accepted with a partial scholarship to the Parson’s School of Design in New York. This was where her culinary journey began. She was “hungry both symbolically and literally for Iranian food and culture”.  She joined the Middle Eastern queer community, which had only two female members, but through these two women, Parisa met other queer women from different backgrounds as well as an underground group of queer Iranians from San Francisco. They began gathering for Sunday potluck dinners in their tiny New York apartments, each bringing a favorite dish they cooked themselves, with Parisa always contributing large pots of Persian rice. Many of the women in this potluck community had been disowned by their families, and though Parisa’s parents were fully supportive of her choices, she realized that the gatherings helped the others to feel as if they had a family again.

The 9/11 attacks in New York further changed how Iranians, Muslims, and immigrants were perceived and treated by American society, making Parisa feel more marginalized than ever. In response, she started a gender-free clothing line that became very popular in the queer community, but sadly, it could not sustain her financially. She moved to San Francisco to teach design at the California College of the Arts where she developed a curriculum for the Diversity Studies Department. Finally, and in the interest of financial stability, she became a senior designer for Guess in Los Angeles.

But Parisa’s devotion to the marginalized, her sense of artistic and social activism, and her talent for creative entrepreneurship lured her away from corporate fashion. She eventually launched the Suppers + Salons Project, inspired by the potluck dinners she’d so loved in New York. She taught herself Persian cooking with the help of Najmieh Batmanglij’s Food of Life and transformed her apartment’s parking space into an artistically-innovative dining space for twelve. Invitations went out to the public and people who were interested in meeting other like-minded people reserved tickets. 

Parisa’s favorite dishes to cook for the dinners were khoresh [stews]. She loves how the aroma of blended spices builds and sets over many hours. “One can never go wrong with khoresh,” she says. She would listen to Spanish and Latin music while in the kitchen, explaining that Iranian pop music brings up sad emotions of a lost-lost home. She would rather enjoy the magical process of “powerful conversation, strongly built connections, friendly alliances, and romantic relationships” for which the Suppers + Salons Project became known.

When the pandemic hit, Parisa’s pop-up dinners were no longer possible. She spent a lot of time walking through the Mexican neighborhoods of Eastern California, noting how Lebanese and Arab cuisines have influenced Mexican food and that Iranian cuisine shares many aesthetic similarities with Mexican cuisine. She took to her kitchen and began blending spices, exploring the possibilities for creating Persian versions of Mexican dishes and vice versa, then sharing these recipes with local restaurants. She has now created an exclusive line of seasonings, called Perxican Spices, that artfully meld varying layers of Iranian and Mexican flavors. Once again, Parisa Parnian has used her creative entrepreneurship to offer a tool for bringing people of different backgrounds together to build new supportive communities.

Curious to know what Parisa listens to in the kitchen? Here is a playlist she shared with us.

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