by Somayeh Shams
I am at a friend’s Thanksgiving party. Or Passover dinner. I am in a house like many others in the suburbs. Or in a penthouse looking down at the buzzing city lights. The air is jovial. I talk to the families. People I do not know. Normal people, average people with real jobs like librarians or shop-owners. They live in California or New York or Illinois. We converse. It is pleasant. My friends look relieved that the guests are getting along. We all have that fear of showing our family to our friends, so I understand. I feel I am good at this, at connecting with people. I have moved around a lot so I have mastered initial connection. It’s the more long-term thing I have trouble with. Then somebody asks me where I am from. My accent. My dark hair. It confuses them. Where do my parents live? And I answer: Iran.
The most difficult thing about writing, for me, at least, is not the process. It is not the hours spent trying to find the right word or the right rhythm for my sentences. It is those few moments when I have felt so distant from writing, so completely removed from it that I began thinking if I never returned to that desk, never picked up that pen, it would not matter. And let’s be honest: It probably would not.
I have recently gone through one of these moments after making a large move across the country, while receiving a shit-ton of rejections on the first story of my novel-in-stories. This is my first novel. As you can imagine, I took it to mean the book as a whole is to be trashed. It became hard to keep motivated. And I began to question my choices.
I am used to moving (though that doesn’t make it any easier), so I pull out the techniques I have acquired: I reach out to writer friends. Talk to my partner. Read every article about how to survive a slump, a block. . . . I cry a little. Get angry a little. Go through bouts of insomnia when at 3 a.m. I try to decipher the exact moment or action or decision that made everything go haywire. Or, worse, how from the beginning, from the moment I was born I was destined for failure. Remember everything else I have done has failed—why not my career also?
My partner reminds me of the things I have published, of the grants I was awarded. It makes me feel better, but it’s fleeting. At 3 a.m. the fears come back. Because I have forgotten about my motivation. The thing that made me give up my other career for this one. I need to find the thing that pushed me to finally make writing a reality and not something that only happened in my mind while daydreaming under the shower.
And it is in those perfectly wonderful people’s faces that I find my reason. That face people make when I say I am from Iran. Or that my parents live there. Or that my dad prefers living there over anywhere else, even though he has a choice. The way their eyes become large and a slightly amused smile spreads across their lips. I realize they know little of my country, of Iran. What they imagine and the reality that is my country are not the same. They are shocked to hear that members of my family have green cards and yet refuse to live in the US. What do they do there? And I tell them, the same thing they’d do here. They are engineers. And shop-owners. They love to picnic and dance.
You see, post-revolution Iranian writers and artists had to reconfigure their writing inside and outside their country. Both inside and outside there was a “preference” for a narrative that would support the political and social views those places had of the country and, consequently, its people. But that did not mean that writing stopped or art stopped. Recently, at a talk about her work, artist Shirine Neshat said that despite everything, or maybe because of everything, art in Iran was growing and Iranian artists had become masters of metaphor. I realize Iranian art is still happening, but little of it is reaching the public.
That night, I left her talk filled to the brim with inspiration and motivation. It is not an everyday experience for me to see an Iranian artist up on a podium in a room filled with over a thousand artists and art lovers so intently listening and obviously enjoying themselves. Actually, that was my first time. And so I realize what motivates me, what it is I am seeking with my art, why I get so excited when literature teachers add Persepolis to their curriculum or writers discuss how astutely Farhadi manages to tell a story about the slipperiness of the truth in his movie A Separation or that I see plays like White Rabbit, Red Rabbit by Soleimanpoor playing at the playhouse near me. It is that feeling of being seen that I am seeking.
There is nothing more maddening than for writers or artists not to find themselves represented in the field they love; to be unable to read work that represents them; to have to explain again and again to unbelievers that their country is more than ayatollahs. So, I want to share myself with whoever would like to read my work. I want to free myself from this claustrophobia. I want me, us, to be part of the conversation.
Somayeh Shams is an Iranian-born writer and a graduate of the Warren Wilson M.F.A. program. She has been a fellow for the Hedgebrook Writers in Residence and a merit scholar at the New York State Summer Writers Institute. She serves on the editorial board of Nimrod.