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U.S.: Iranian-American Poet Puts Her Faith In Literature

Persis Karim at RFE/RL's studios in Washington, D.C. (RFE/RL) WASHINGTON, November 9, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Poet and academic Persis Karim was born in the San Francisco Bay area to an Iranian father and a French mother. She came of age during the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the holding of U.S hostages in Tehran for 444 days. She spoke recently to Radio Farda correspondent Fatemeh Aman about her experiences as an Iranian-American and the importance of literature in the lives of emigres.

Karim received her master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies and a PhD. in comparative literature from the University of Texas at Austin. She is now an associate professor of English and comparative literature at San Jose State University in San Jose California. Most recently, Karim edited and contributed to a new anthology entitled "Let Me Tell You Where I've Been: New Writing By Women Of The Iranian Diaspora" (University of Arkansas Press, 2006).

Radio Farda: I understand from your biography that you were born in the United States to an Iranian father and a French mother. How has that background influenced you intellectually, and when did your parents come to the United States?

Persis Karim: My parents -- my father in particular -- came here at a different time than most Iranians. He came here after the Second World War. He had been in Iran when Iran was occupied by the British and the Soviets. He worked on building the railroads in the war to transport munitions to the southern front of the Soviet Union. He was sent to the United States after the war to help with transforming the [Iranian] railroads from military, wartime use to civilian use. He came to the U.S. to study the railroads. He wrote a report, traveled on the railroad for a year in the United States, and then sent the report back to the shah and never heard back. And he said, "I'm going to stay here."

I think to some degree, literature can strike a middle ground and it can often speak to issues that get obscured by those tensions and media depictions. So, I see it as a really important time for literature to step into play and offer something different.

Of course, I think my father was very politically sophisticated about what was taking place in Iran, and he saw that Iran was going to go through a very difficult time after the war because of the influence of the British, the Soviets and the emergence of the Cold War. So, he decided to stay here. He was a very early immigrant to the U.S.

My mother also came here, after the war in France. Like many young women, she hadn't had the opportunity to get an education and she was unmarried and she was, during the war, working with American servicemen, teaching them French. So she had contact with Americans when she came here and my parents met in Chicago.

I grew up at a time when it wasn't very encouraged to learn a second language, so my parents ended up speaking English in the household. But I was always very curious about both cultures, and particularly about Iran, because it was so much more inaccessible to me. I remember during the 1970s, when there was the Suez crisis, the Six Day War, and all of those events in the Middle East, it kind of made me curious about Iran.

But, really what happened was in 1979. I was in high school and the hostage crisis erupted and, suddenly, Iran was in the headlines every day. And I began to sort of ask some questions about what it meant to be an Iranian living in the U.S. We had had relatives who immigrated later in the 1970s, so I had some exposure, but I didn't grow up in [an emigre] community. So, unlike some people who retreated from their Iranian background, I was actually more curious about what is Iran and who are these people? So that led me to kind of a journey to want to study more about Iran, and I was very interested in Iranian literature.

Radio Farda: Where does that come from? From your father?

Karim: My father was very interested in writing and literature. He loved poetry. He was part of that generation of Iranians that was kind of living in the aftermath of the constitutional revolution [of 1907]. Education was very much encouraged and my father was among the early graduates of the Tehran University. So he had a very big interest in philosophy and literature.

He was one of those people, I think, who saw the potential for the United States to be a positive influence in Iran and he came here thinking it's a great democracy and he was very disillusioned with what happened in 1953 with the coup and the overthrow [organized by the CIA] of [democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad] Mosadegh. Those are events that really left a mark on him, and his whole life he was studying, writing and reading about Iran's early 20th-century history. And that very much influenced me -- just seeing in him that desire to unravel his own part in that history too.

Radio Farda: How do you see the second generation of Iranian-Americans distinguishing themselves from the first generation, from their parents? How has the experience of Iran’s recent history shaped them, their families, and perhaps their sensibilities about Iran and Iranian culture?

Karim: Well, I think for many young people, the scars of the revolution, the disillusionment, the [1980-88] Iran-Iraq war, the absolutely tumultuous events that transformed Iran from its pre-revolutionary status under the shah, to an Islamic republic was very difficult for many young people at the beginning. For kids, for example, growing up in the United States. It was something that people didn't necessarily talk about. I see now something different among younger people -- that they don't seem as plagued by the negative feelings about those events.

Many of those early immigrants thought they were going to return to Iran. But now, people are settled here; they have children they've raised here. I see in this younger generation, people who are a generation removed from me, a lot of confidence about who they are, both as Americans and as Iranian-Americans. They have much more positive feelings and they're not burdened by some of that nostalgia for the way Iran used to be. I've noticed among some of this younger generation a real sophistication, politically, about understanding their position in the United States and having that curiosity about Iran. They don't seem as burdened by the events of the past.

Radio Farda: Some of them actually go to Iran….

Karim: Yes, they travel to Iran. They speak Persian. They are bilingual. They're interested in international policy and politics. I find them very impressive. Many of them, I think, are much more sophisticated than their parents and don't seem to harbor this fantasy of returning Iran to its pre-1979 origins, but are in fact more pragmatic and also have a much more sophisticated understanding of how to utilize their citizenship in the United States. So you see a bunch of organizations emerging that I think are doing very important work, particularly at this time.

Radio Farda: "Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been: New Writing By Women Of The Iranian Diaspora" is the second anthology you’ve compiled and edited. Do you see any noticeable differences between writing of this earlier period -- 10 years ago and today?

Karim: Yes, the first anthology was called "A World Between: Poems, Short Stories, And Essays By Iranian-Americans" [April 1999]. I started compiling that when I was in graduate school. I was working on a dissertation about exile writing, and I was including Iranians.

I began to notice that, in fact, there were lots of people who were writing about their experiences either as first-generation immigrants or second-generation American-born or American-raised Iranian-Americans. I was interested in capturing that beginning of talking about what it means to live through these historical events.

So the first collection, I think, was grounded in a kind of sorrow and loss about leaving Iran or struggling through the events of the 1970s and 1980s and recognizing how much shame and sorrow there was surrounding the Iranian community here. Also the sophistication of the writing was not quite as evolved as it is now. What I notice in the second collection is this real confidence with the English language -- writing in English, feeling as though it is our space to write from, in English.

Radio Farda: How do you explain the explosion in women’s writing outside Iran -- as well as inside Iran?

Karim: I think to a great extent women, in particular, have this sense in which there's a kind of urgency to write their narratives because their stories have been so prescribed by both the image of Iran in the Western media -- a very singular image of it as religious, intolerant, women are veiled. I mean, the veil is a singularized image of the woman's experience in Iran. And similarly, the Islamic Republic is dictating a notion of Iranian women that's very much in the same vein.

So, I see women outside of Iran really saying: "You know what. I'm going to tell my own story, and I'm going to tell it my own way." I feel like there's a lot of confidence in that narrative that hasn't been there before. Also because women outside of Iran are not burdened by the issue of censorship, which exists in Iran today. They're writing about issues that historically are very taboo -- sexuality, marriage, and all kinds of issues. There's a kind of liberty I think that women are taking in their writing, which is kind of interesting both in its form and in its content.

Radio Farda: How do you see this literature playing a critical role at a time when tensions between Iran and the United States are growing?

Karim: Well, I think that literature and art generally are one of the ways you can paint a human face on a nation or a people that has been vilified in the media. Certainly, because of the issue of [the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States], terrorist actions around the world, the situation in Iraq, and growing tensions between Iran and the U.S. because of Iran's nuclear capabilities, there's been an attempt in the Western media to portray Iran as a growing boogeyman. I feel that literature is one of the ways in which people, Americans, readers, recognize the common humanity of those people who are often depicted as outsiders and foreigners.

Much of the literature, I think, really is suggestive of how much Iranians themselves are struggling to stay connected with Iran at a time when they feel a certain amount of alienation from the government and also they're critical in the same way of the United States' policies. I think to some degree, literature can strike a middle ground and it can often speak to issues that get obscured by those tensions and media depictions. So, I see it as a really important time for literature to step into play and offer something different.

'Axis Of Evil'

'Axis Of Evil'

Iraqis strike a statue of deposed leader Saddam Hussein with their shoes following Friday Prayers in Baghdad on Decemer 26, 2003 (epa)


Listen to Persis Karim read and discuss her poem "Axis Of Evil" (about four minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media

By Persis Karim

Soheila puts the samovar back on the crowded shelf,
sips the last of her dark, red tea.
Her hands sweep across the sofreh
on the floor -- gathering empty plates
littered with pistachio shells and sprigs of mint.
Tonight they have declared war on Baghdad.
She worries about her young son,
her mother suffering from rheumatism.
Upstairs her husband listens to the radio,
sometimes the BBC, sometimes Voice of America.
But lately it's the government station.
When he hears the sound of the plaintive ney
he turns the volume up,
down when the mullahs address the nation.

In a quiet city in the Midwest
a woman opens her umbrella
at the first sight of a last spring rain.
Lately, she's been thinking about her safety.
What will it take to drive back
the forces of evil in our midst?
She's thought more about the places
and people on earth that live
like she does. Checking their watches,
feeding their kids, dutifully
paying their taxes.

All night Muhammad hears the wail of sirens.
In the morning, he watches angry men
hoist long ropes and topple
statues of the Great One.
Let them erase this history --
so long as he can go to school again,
so long as the rain of bullets

Soheila awakens to a glorious sunrise
How can she have turned in her bed
so much and still feel so rested?
Tehran is a lonely city, she thinks,
gazing out her second-story window
at the sad dirtiness enveloping her city.
She thinks too of her deceased father's
voice. His reminders to look always
for goodness.

(reprinted with permission)