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Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Sanaz Fotouhi on Connecting through Stories, Film, Literature, and Her Own Storytelling

By Ava Zandi, Center Summer Intern, University of Melbourne, Australia

For the award-winning writer, filmmaker, and scholar Sanaz Fotouhi, a passion for creativity started from a very young age. “When I was really young, maybe eight years old, there was a little magazine called Keyhan Bacheha; I don’t think they print it in Iran anymore. They would often print children’s stories in the center of the magazine,” recalls Fotouhi.

“One day at school the teachers encouraged us to write a little story and to send it for possible publication in the magazine. And so, I wrote a little story. A tiny little story. Back then I hand-wrote it with my child’s handwriting, took my mum by the hand, and we went to the post office in Tehran, and posted the letter,” she says. Eventually, after several months, Fotouhi received a letter from Shaparak, (the nickname for the editor of that section) that said how much the editor liked her story and that it would be published. Fotouhi says she was thrilled by the acceptance of her work, and the additional note by the editor to, “keep writing” and that if she continued, she might one day “become a world-famous writer.”

Now living in Melbourne, Australia, Fotouhi reflects on the strains and struggles that living away from Iran has put both on her identity and her sense of belonging. “Not being able to go back for a couple of years, well, it just feels that the connection grows more faint, and that, in itself, is very interesting for me, it is indeed a huge dilemma.”

Fotouhi, who has lived outside Iran for a long time expresses how “longing for home builds up overtime”— something that other first-generation immigrants in the diaspora also express. “The problem with people who live away from a country and life that seems so solid in their memory, is that they are holding onto that image of a particular time. There is though a sense of disappointment when you go back and you realise they [family, friends] have moved on, and you’re living in your memory several decades before. What you hold dear and what was close to your heart means little to anyone anymore. People have moved on.”

Fotouhi was born in Tehran at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war and spent her teenage years living outside of Iran in different countries due to her father’s work. Maintaining a connection to Iran remains an important part of Fotouhi’s life. “I feel like that connection is a lifeline in some way… especially for someone like me who has lived in so many places, and has felt that need for belonging and, it always goes back to Iran, you know?” Fotouhi, who spent eight years in Hong Kong says she also feels a connection to that Asian country. “But my connection to Iran is obviously much more you know, blood and body and culture and everything is so much deeper there. So, no matter where in the world I am, I try to always maintain as much as I can, that connection to Iran and its culture.”

It was when Fotouhi was studying in Hong Kong that she felt literature might become the focus of her graduate work. “I was studying postcolonial literature, and what I was reading was really resonating with me, but I always longed for books and authors who could express my, or the Iranian diaspora, experience,” she said. While perusing a bookshop in Hong Kong, Fotouhi encountered the novel by Iranian-American novelist, Susanne Pari, The Fortune Catcher (Pari is a Bay Area Iranian-American novelist and volunteer editor at the Center). “This novel really touched me,” says Fotouhi. “It was the first time I had seen myself and my experiences as someone who has been displaced, or had moved away from their country of origin, so well-represented in the literary context,” she adds.

Through her interest in postcolonial literature, Fotouhi decided to pursue a deeper connection to Iran and its diasporic literature. “I felt really connected and represented, and this led me to believe that this emerging body of literature should be acknowledged for what it represented, offered and suggested about Iranians outside of Iran. This literary oeuvre plays a very significant part in how we are represented and is an access point. We give voice to our own experience,” she says. This kernel of thought propelled her to explore what other literature was published and became the cornerstone for her studies and her PhD dissertation and eventually the book, The Literature of the Iranian Diaspora (2015). This project would indeed become a significant part of her life, and propel her further into both writing and filmmaking.

The first film directed by Amin Palangi, “Hidden Generation,” (2007) was set in Afghanistan, and became an important lesson for Fotouhi on how to approach storytelling. The short film explored the reasons behind the prevalent issue of women’s self-immolation. “When we made this film, it was really raw. People couldn’t be with it because it was so full on, so painful,” she says. A second and more recent film on which Fotouhi and Palangi collaborated tells a different story about Afghanistan. “We decided to approach ‘Love Marriage in Kabul’ in a much gentler way— through an intimate human story,” she adds.

“Love Marriage in Kabul” (2014) captivated audiences and went on to receive multiple awards. The documentary’s success, Fotouhi says, “lies in the beautiful, universal, human love story that everyone can then identify with; everybody gets a love story, but it was also the vehicle by which we could convey the other complexities and hardships of the background,” she adds.

Since this film, Fotouhi has published her most recent book, Love Marriage in Kabul: A Memoir (2020), which recounts her experience collaborating with Palangi on the film. Fotouhi reflects on how her membership in the Iranian diaspora compels her to consider the experiences of the Afghan community living in Iran. Fotouhi recalls “hearing stories from people in Kabul who had been to Iran and faced mistreatment. When I was growing up in Iran, there was, and there still is, blatant discrimination against the Afghan community… so, actually being in Kabul gave me more perspective on what was going on for those people I interacted with in Iran.”

Fotouhi explains how living away from Iran has enhanced her awareness and perspective, and her acute awareness of ways that people can include and exclude others. As an Iranian-Australian, Fotouhi identifies some of the prejudices she has encountered in Australia. When learning of her Iranian heritage, she notes, “some people would make comments like, ‘oh we know what’s going on over there, aren’t you lucky to be living here?’ You know I live here, but I don’t know if I’m lucky or unlucky.”

Fotouhi says although she enjoyed working on films, she is most committed to her writing projects at the present. “Now I have a little family, I can’t be spreading myself too thin at this stage,” she says. As a new mother, she says she is excited for her son to be connected to her Iranian culture as he grows up. “I would love for him to be connected to our culture and the language and the literature. Because it’s such a big part of my life you know? His dad is from Cyprus and is of Turkish origin, so I would love for him to have that multicultural identity, and to be immersed in the arts, culture, film, literature in all spaces, both Turkish culture and Iranian culture,” she adds. Briefly hinting that her next project is a novel about a love story, Fotouhi is careful to not reveal too much. Nonetheless, we look forward to seeing what this accomplished diasporic “Down-Under” creative produces next.

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