On Writing Ethnic Stories | Haleh Agar

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I was told to use my maiden name – Hassan-Yari, a name that usually meant extra questions at the customs queue but now would mean a fast-pass to the front of the line in the world of publishing. The middle-aged heterosexual white man’s hold on contemporary literature had loosened. Apparently. They wanted my stories. All I had to do was to squeeze my ethnicity out onto the page because it was hot right now, hotter than vampires and time travel and bondage sex put together.

My aspiring writer friend who had delivered this joyous news between third and fourth period wished me well in this brave new world and went off to teach Gatsby, a sadness hovering over him, feeling that his white heterosexual middle-class maleness meant the end of his dreams of making it as a successful author. He would be stuck teaching in overcrowded classrooms till retirement or madness or whatever came first. But at least he had retained control over the syllabus, winning a long-fought battle in the English department over replacing Gatsby with Americanah.

I was sceptical about his theory, a frequenter of bookshops, the names and pictures of authors who were selling, still the same as I had remembered them – mostly white Anglo-Saxon names, granted a few visible minorities in the mix. I was not convinced that the white middle-class man’s reign over anything had ended. And yet, there were more platforms emerging on Twitter, giving writers from BAME backgrounds opportunities for publication.

And so I thought – this is peachy. I rolled up my sleeves, started editing recent short-stories I had written and the opening of my novel-in-progress. And then the thought touched my mind that my stories did not seem at all like ‘ethnic stories’, in that they did not focus on issues of identity, race, inequality or culture. A lot of them were set in Canada or in England and the names of my protagonists were Agnes and Kevin. There were Lebanese and Iranian characters in my work, but they were secondary, supporting white protagonists. What did this mean about me as a writer, as a second generation Canadian-Iranian? Had I been ‘white-washed’ from a lifetime of exposure to TV sitcoms and films and literature that mainly had to do with white middle-class norms, settings inspired by period dramas of beautiful old Victorian houses with sash windows?

Probably. But there was more to it than that. Many years ago, after reading Marjan Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis, I had written a series of short stories set in Iran. I had visited the country with my parents when I was in my early teens and could relate to some of what Satrapi had described about post-Revolutionary Iran with its secret house parties and black market booze and corruptible police who could be encouraged to look the other way for a few thousand tomans. I had seen all this first hand, my great-uncle suddenly shouting, ‘Turn the music down,’ watching nervously through the windows for the moral patrol outside.

And still, I found this experience of writing stories about Iran to be an  uncomfortable one. The narrative of my ‘Iranian stories’ were pushing an agenda forward, something in the vein of ‘look at all the oppression under this Islamic Regime’, my western ideals of secularity and democracy front and centre. The heart of the story seemed lost and the characters were flat. I could not authentically write about Iran and I felt like a failure. As a writer, your challenge and duty is to write about people and places that are both familiar and new. It takes research and imagination and the same principles of good storytelling apply. But the issue is more nuanced than it might appear. With my Iranian heritage, I felt a sense of responsibility, writing stories about Iran and Iranians. I was afraid that my work might be seen as representative of ‘my people’. But I was not even sure what it
meant to be Iranian and who ‘my people’ really were.

My parents raised us in a secular household in Montreal. There was no mention of God so as to consolidate a sense of identity through religion. They rarely spoke to us about Iran and what their lives had been like before the Revolution. Most of what my mother had said about Iran had to do with the country being ‘so different now from before’, expressing her own sense of alienation when she thought of the place she had once called home. I imagine this to be the reason why my parents spoke so little of Iran – the memory of what had been lost too painful to revisit.

What I do know about Iranian culture could be summed up by a rather sparse and superficial list which includes rice stewed dishes, dance music recorded in Los Angeles, and traditions of jumping over fire and setting out a table with objects symbolising renewal for the New Year. My parents had taken my sisters and me to watch a few Iranian films in small independent theatres in Montreal. I was young, found most of these films dull, could not relate to their foreignness. In the car journeys home from such outings to the cinema, my parents were silent and so we could not contextualise what we had seen. Growing up, they had insisted that we spoke Farsi at all times, unlike some of my cousins whose parents had immigrated to Canada and had allowed English in the house. Language has the ability to connect generations. But when I spoke Farsi, I felt disconnected from myself. Some
native speakers have described my accent as being like that of a villager or a simpleton. Speaking Farsi meant not being able to fully express myself – my vocabulary always falling short.

And so, when people say ‘write about your culture’, it always brings up a feeling of frustration and sadness. There is this sense of not quite belonging to the Iranian community while remaining an outsider in western society, albeit this feeling was stronger when we had moved from Montreal to a rural part of Canada where my family was one the few visible ethnic minorities.

I must mention here that there are plenty of second generation immigrants who have written powerful diasporic narratives with great authenticity. Authors such as David Chariandy, Madeleine Thien and Zadie Smith amongst others have written about the experiences of first generation and second generation immigrants living in western countries, capturing the unique difficulties faced by each generation, including what it is
like to be an outsider and that sense of in-betweeness which children of immigrants often feel. I hope that as we see BAME initiatives emerging; there will be even more stories told from such perspectives so that those from marginalised backgrounds can recognise themselves within western literature.

It is important that we do not abandon discourses on representation of marginalised voices in the Arts. The current political climate has thrown up many questions relating to diversity, immigration and equality. Diversity cannot be a passing ‘fad’ as my former colleague had once suggested, something the gatekeepers have allowed to become fashionable. These
discourses should signal a shift in the way we think about the Arts and their responsibility to reflect different members of society.

Nevertheless, there remains the risk of placing writers from BAME backgrounds into a box wherein they are expected to write stories that exclusively tell about their identity or the country from where they or their parents were ‘originally’ from. Such restrictions make ethnic minorities valued for their otherness, not their creativity. If we are to truly give all
voices equal opportunities, then we must embrace the range of stories they tell, even if such stories have to do with time travel, or a child’s kidnapping or an imagined kingdom’s rise and fall. One day, I may write a story about an Iranian-Canadian who feels she does not fit, no place to call home. That very well may happen. But in the meantime, I am following my curiosities, letting them lead me to my next creative project.

 

Essay Prize Competition 2017 Winner