Scheherazade$S Daughters: Iranian American Women Writers
This three-year project proposes to explore Iranian American women’s life writing and fiction within the framework of Near Eastern studies, diaspora studies and Asian American studies. The history of Iranian immigrants in the United States is considerably shorter than those of other ethnic communities in North America. The members of the Iranian American diaspora mostly come from the top stratum of Iranian society before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. They choose or are forced to relocate to North America because of political and religious reasons and many of them have gone through the humiliation of spiraling down the social ladder. Because of the knotty relations between Iran and the United States—the pro-American regime of Reza Pahlavi, the anti-American sentiment after the Islamic Revolution, the strategic position of Iran in the Middle East—the study of Iranian American literature is constantly complicated by historical, religious, political and military factors. Moreover, Iranian American literature is a latecomer on the American literary scene and is just starting to gain critical attention. The inclusion of Iranian American literature as part of Asian American literary studies is still subject to debate as well. This project intends to engage in an in-depth research on Iranian American literature through the study of the works by women writers, who can be regarded as the literary descendents of Scheherazade, the quintessential storyteller of Arabian Nights, and focuses on the tension between Iranian American immigrant writing and the suspicion and accusation of self-orientalization against this body of work, the challenges faced by the second-generation Iranian American women in their nostalgic attempts to “return” to an imagined “homeland” of the pre-revolutionary Iran and the diasporic experiences of Iranian Jewish American writers. The three main topics to be researched are: “More than Lolita: Iranian American Immigrant Women’s Memoirs”; “Exile Fantasies: Expatriate Nostalgia, ‘Realistic Love’ and Second-Generation Iranian American Women’s Life Writing”; and “‘Education in grief’: The Engendering of Iranian Jewish Diaspora and The Septembers of Shiraz.” First year: More than Lolita: Iranian American Immigrant Women’s Memoirs The first year of the project will investigate the controversy over the market success of Iranian immigrant women’s memoirs and the accusation of self-orientalization against these women writers. The enormous popularity of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (2003)—it has stayed on the bestseller list of New York Times for one hundred and seventeen weeks and has been translated into more than thirty languages—has created an Iranian American “memoir phenomenon” in North America. These memoirs, most of them written by immigrant women who have left Iran to escape the fundamentalist rule of the Islamic Republic of Iran, have been enthusiastically embraced by American book club readers on the one hand and, on the other hand, have been severely criticized for conspiring with the Bush administration and for practicing a kind of “Orientalist feminism” to demonize the Islamic Republic. In order to cut through the Gordian knot of the controversies over self-orientalisation and to explore culturally and historically specific feminist issues—among them the changing status of Iranian women in the twentieth century and the practices of veiling and chador-wearing—the project will explore variegated representations of Iran by different generations of Iranian American immigrant women, such as Nahid Rachlin’s Persian Girls (2006), Fatemeh Keshavarz’s Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran (2007), and Nafisi’s second memoir Things I’ve Been Silent About (2008). Second year: Exile Fantasies: Expatriate Nostalgia, “Realistic Love” and Second-Generation Iranian American Women’s Life Writing This project intends to examine nostalgic imagination and “return” journeys of the second-generation Iranian American women. The intense desire of the Iranian expatriate community to recreate a Farsi homeland in the United States has created a problematic state of in-betweenness for second-generation Iranian Americans, who, in turn, attempt to resolve their problems of identification by “going back” to the “land of origin.” In Azadeh Moaveni’s memoir Lipstick Jihad (2005), the young journalist records how, once she has landed in the old country, she has learned that as a “returnee” she needs to make a distinction between “nostalgic and realistic love” for Iran (45). Caught within the web of exile fantasies created by the Iranian diaspora community that she has grew up with, the Palo Alto-born Moaveni has to unmoor herself from the expatiate nostalgia created by her uprooted families and compatriots and to reexamine her identity as both an American and an Iranian woman. Spending two years in Tehran as a reporter for Time magazine provides Moaveni the opportunity to come face to face with the new Iranian society that is completely different from her childhood imagination and memory. This project will explore the challenges for the second-generation Iranian American women to (re)locate their home by studying their life writing as exemplified by Lipstick Jihad and its sequel, Honeymoon in Tehran (2009). Third year: “Education in grief”: The Engendering of Iranian Jewish Diaspora and The Septembers of Shiraz The final phrase of the project aims to explore the experiences of the Jewish community within the Iranian diaspora. At the end of Dalia Sofer’s The Septembers of Shiraz (2008), the Iranian Jewish protagonist Isaac Amin reflects on how he and his wife have “shared an education in grief” because of his prison experience (338). The rare-gem dealer is arrested and tortured by the Revolutionary Guard on the grounds that he is a Zionist spy and is not set free until he has donated his entire estate to the Islamic regime. The dispersal of the Amin families across Europe and North America in Sofer’s novel literally embodies the formation of an Iranian Jewish diaspora at the end of twentieth century. Sofer, who has a first-hand experience of the dangerous escape out of the post-revolutionary Iran with her family after her father’s prison ordeal, attempts to imaginatively represent in this lyric novel her father’s traumatic experience in prison and the shock value of this “education in grief” for her whole family. Related texts of life writing, such as Prisoner of Tehran: One Woman’s Story of Survival inside an Iranian Prison (2007) by Marina Nemat, Camelia: Save Yourself by Telling the Truth-a Memoir of Iran (2008) by Camelia Entekhabifard and Wedding Song: Memoirs of an Iranian Jewish Woman (2003) by Farideh Goldin, herself a native of Shiraz, will be read along with the novel to investigate the traumas of prison life in Iran after the Islamic Revolution and the lived experiences of the Iranian Jewish diasporic communities.