Katherine Whitney and Leila Emery (eds.), My Shadow is My Skin: Voices from the Iranian Diaspora (University of Texas Press, 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?
Katherine Whitney and Leila Emery (KW & LE): The book, My Shadow Is My Skin: Voices from the Iranian Diaspora, was born out of a writing workshop on Iranian identity taught by Persis Karim and Anita Amirrezvani in 2015 in Berkeley, CA. We both came to the workshop with deeply personal desires to connect more fully with Iranian culture. Katherine’s Iranian husband had not been very forthcoming about his heritage, which left her to excavate that culture, through research and writing, on behalf of her Iranian American son and daughter. Leila, a half-Iranian poet, had not had the chance to meet many Iranians outside her mother’s family and was eager to delve more deeply into her cultural identity through writing.
In the workshop, we met other members of the diaspora—including each other!—all of whom had distinct, compelling stories to tell. Ultimately, we saw that it would be valuable to collect these diverse narratives into a single volume—stories about issues that in large part have not been shared before by Iranian American writers.
We also wanted this book to push back against the continuous vilification of Iran and Iranians by both political forces and the media. As Persis Karim asserts in her foreword to the book, “Americans need human stories to counter the escalating rhetoric and hostility…that threaten to separate families and choke the Iranian people through such overtly hostile acts as the Muslim ban, the re-imposition of sanctions, the abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal.”
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
KW & LE: This book presents the diversity and human face of the Iranian diaspora—beyond what is typically depicted in the media, and beyond the wave of immigration from Iran around the time of the 1979 revolution. The book reflects contemporary issues of sexuality, gender identity, generational differences, and recent immigration. Recurring themes include longing, belonging, exile, duality, and hyphenated identity, among others.
My Shadow Is My Skin rests on the shoulders of several anthologies from the Iranian diaspora—collections of poetry, fiction, and women’s writing—as the first such anthology dedicated to nonfiction. Given our politically charged climate and because these personal accounts deserve to be documented and preserved, we feel that first-person narratives are especially important in this moment.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
KW & LE: For Katherine, this book is connected to a long practice of writing aimed at excavating her husband’s Iranian culture. Her first published piece, an essay titled “Iranian Revelation,” was published in Because I Said So: 33 Mothers Write About Children, Sex, Men, Aging, Faith, Race & Themselves (HarperCollins 2005).
Leila is a poet whose prior work has largely centered on Iranian identity and the concept of generational trauma.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
KW & LE: This book has the capacity to build community within the diverse Iranian diaspora. Already, this collection of authors, who live all over the country, have come together in the spirit of community. Established writers in this collection are becoming aware of emerging writers. Through readings and other public programming, we hope that the book brings new groups of people together who will go on to form lasting community.
In addition to members of the Iranian diaspora, we hope that this book also finds a wider audience of readers who are unfamiliar with Iran and Iranian Americans. We would like readers to get a sense of the rich, nuanced humanity of the Iranian diaspora and an understanding of how the diaspora itself has changed over time and through generations.
The book is also an ideal candidate for both high school and university classrooms. It would be relevant in a variety of subject areas: creative writing, Middle Eastern studies, cultural anthropology, diaspora studies, sociology, and Iranian studies, among others.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
KW & LE: Katherine is researching how the impact of immigrating under duress—leaving a country because of extenuating circumstances like revolution or war—transmits to successive generations. There is a lot being written about the effects of trauma on one’s offspring—epigenetics. Her next project explores this topic, possibly through the medium of fiction.
Leila is writing a memoir in poem form, drawing heavily upon her Iranian identity and bi-cultural upbringing in New England.
J: Tell us about the process of pulling together this anthology.
KW & LE: We started by placing a call for submissions for a new anthology of nonfiction writing from Iranian diasporic writers. We received a high volume of responses, including several from our fellow workshop participants, which thrilled us. Some of the essays had familiar themes, such as immigrating to the United States in 1979 or describing trips back to Iran after ten, twenty, thirty years of absence (lots of airport scenes, etc.). However, many of the essays told radically different and modern stories about themes like sexuality and mental illness—subjects that are not widely discussed by Iranians, and certainly not often written about or published. We decided that we wanted to have more of this kind of writing, to more broadly showcase a new generation of writers who might be divulging parts of themselves for the first time. So, we began researching intensively and exploring new (to us) Iranian authors through social media platforms like Twitter, which led to several direct requests to authors. In some cases, these authors wrote something original for the anthology, and in some cases. we chose to reprint a previously published piece that we felt conveyed a story that needed to be told. It was very exciting do a deep read of all the pieces we had amassed and to think about how to organize them meaningfully.
Excerpt from the book
We need these writers to represent themselves and their own stories and the stories of their families, whose lives have been marked by forty years of turbulent history. We need so much more than the drumbeat of war, we need more than the rhetoric of powerful men bent on drowning out stories of real people’s beauty, conviction, suffering, and loss, and we need to tell so much more than a national or nationalistic narrative. We need these stories and these authors more than ever. We need them like we need oxygen.
– Persis Karim in the Foreword
In the four decades since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Iranian-Americans have made sense of their lives and reconciled their sense of belonging and not belonging through writing, first though poetry and memoir in the immediacy of migration and exile, and later in a developing and rich explosion of fiction. In the past decade, we have seen a blossoming of nonfiction writing that reflects complex voices and modern sensibilities and that reveals a broader range of stories and remembrances than ever before.
Literature traveled with those who left Iran after the revolution, in their suitcases, in their memories, and in the lifeblood that they passed on to their American-born children. So it is no surprise that Iranians in the diaspora have consistently gravitated toward the arts—and toward writing in particular—as a way to grapple with their experiences of immigration and alienation. Those who left—and in some cases fled—Iran have existed in the shadow of political and historical events that have loomed large over the past forty years. They hold inside them memories of growing up and living in Iran, traumatic recollections of war and political upheaval, and experiences of confronting discrimination and alienation in a new land. Those born in the United States also carry some of those traumas and memories as they carve out their own distinctive Iranian identities. But alongside these challenges, Iranian-Americans also carry stories of starting successful lives in a new country, learning different ways to express their Iranianness, and developing meaningful new connections to their heritage. The literary expressions that have emerged from these experiences are both unexpected and nuanced.
This collection before you, My Shadow Is My Skin, was prompted by our meeting in the spring of 2015 at a writing workshop titled “Exploring Iranian Identity” in Berkeley, California. The workshop, directed by the novelist Anita Amirrezvani and the poet Persis Karim, offered participants—all of whom had some connection to Iran—an opportunity to work on intimate, identity-focused material. The participants wrote powerful narratives that they had not shared or even explored previously: stories about religion, sexuality, family secrets, war, racism, and episodes of deep pain and oppression by society and even by their own families. As participants ourselves, we were struck by the poignancy and immediacy of the narratives shared by our fellow writers. Our own workshop experiences compelled us to believe that even more personal and familial stories lay hidden, unexplored and in need of excavation. In that spirit, we embarked on a journey to bring together these types of nonfiction narratives.
Although the two of us—Leila, the daughter of an Iranian mother and an American father, and Katherine, the wife of an Iranian immigrant and mother of two half-Iranian children—might not seem like obvious candidates to edit a collection of writing from the Iranian diaspora, we came to realize that we were in fact ideal representatives of the diaspora’s most recent iterations and thus well equipped for this endeavor. We represent facets of the larger, modern Iranian diaspora, beyond the first wave of immigration to the United States. We are both part of the diaspora and outsiders within it. Each of us experiences the Iranian diaspora and its accompanying “practices” in different ways and in ways that are distinct from those of our parents, our significant others, and our extended families.
Over the last four decades, assimilation, intermarriage, and new waves of migration have diversified the Iranian diaspora in the United States. Diaspora communities now include not just adults who immigrated from Iran after the 1979 revolution but also Iranians who immigrated as children and grew up in the United States, as well as younger generations born here. These diverse experiences have prompted more heterogeneous perspectives on what it means to be Iranian or Iranian-American—and even what constitutes an “Iranian diaspora”—in the twenty-first century. The narratives in this collection, and indeed many of the authors themselves, feel both Iranian and American. Others feel not quite either. As contributor Roger Sedarat describes it, “The hyphen between East and West has led me toward some illusive unity, even while keeping me separated, as a kind of minus sign.”
This collection takes its name from a phrase in contributor Cyrus Copeland’s essay “Shadow Nation.” My Shadow Is My Skin reflects the notion that many of the authors in this anthology find themselves living in the shadow of their past histories or under the shadow of their families’ expectations. Some of the authors describe living in the shadows, not wanting to reveal their Iranian heritage, or coming out of the shadows to live a more authentic life. For others, this shadow is fully integrated into who they are—it is part of their physical body. They wear the shadow of Iranianness like a skin. Many of these authors also write about the color of their skin being what keeps them in the shadows, their otherness excluding them from being fully accepted by other Americans and sometimes even by fellow Iranians. As Neda Maghbouleh writes in her essential work The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race, “Iranians have been pitched across a white/non-white American color line for over a century.” Indeed, particularly for the younger, American-born writers in this collection, their identities have been shaped—and continue to be shaped—by the complex social entanglements of racialization in the United States.
These nuanced personal stories are acts of witnessing, typically overlooked or obscured by the steady stream of negative headlines about Iranians and Iran. Particularly at this time in history, we need people to emerge from the shadows and reveal their truth. Thus, in curating this literary collection, we aim to move the canon of Iranian-diaspora writing to another level, beyond the kinds of antagonistic, superficial portrayals perpetuated by the news media, to feature real people, real stories, and real experiences of Iranians and the greater Iranian diaspora in the twenty-first century.
In My Shadow Is My Skin, we turn to the tradition of nonfiction to claim and craft personal narratives that haven’t yet been shared. This collection also embraces contemporary voices that are bravely expressing themselves in new ways. To that end, we have sought to elevate feminist and queer voices and to include writers whose experiences reflect intersectional perspectives.
As we assembled and edited My Shadow Is My Skin, we were aware of the looming fortieth anniversary of the Iranian Revolution and the significance it holds for so many in the Iranian diaspora. However, we wanted the writing in this collection to move beyond that singular historical event and its immediate fallout to show how the diaspora has evolved, modernized, and operated in a variety of contexts and moments. Today, Iranians in the diaspora are living under the shadow of President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, heightened bellicosity toward Iran, increased sanctions, and the looming prospect of military conflict between Iran and the United States. This atmosphere amplifies the need for Iranian-Americans to share more nuanced, three-dimensional perspectives on their heritage. My Shadow Is My Skin is emerging at an essential moment for Iranian Americans, giving them agency in representing themselves in all their complexity.
This collection brings together thirty-two authors, both established and emerging, whose writing captures diverse perspectives and complex attitudes toward Iran and America. The authors include recent immigrants alongside those who came to the United States immediately after 1979. Their narratives span the period from the 1979 revolution to the current era of Trump. Roughly half of the authors were born in Iran and emigrated to the United States. The other half were born here to Iranian or Iranian and American parents, or married into Iranian families. A third of the contributors are bicultural, having one Iranian parent and one parent from another culture.
In bringing these diverse stories together, we ask where have we of the Iranian diaspora been, where are we now, and where are we headed? We hope to broaden the discussion around these questions at a time when such conversations are critically needed. We hope that the readers of My Shadow Is My Skin discover, in this tapestry of stories, the intricate ways in which the Iranian diaspora has evolved over time and, indeed, continues to evolve. And we hope that through these deeply personal narratives, readers of all backgrounds may see pieces of themselves reflected back at them.