By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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Parnaz Foroutan’s essay “A Single Suitcase” appears in our July 2019 issue. We asked her about living with the threat of wildfires, emigrating from Iran, and writing her forthcoming memoir, Home Is a Stranger.
Your essay is personal, but you also empathize with the wave of people from Central America trying to find asylum here. What was your experience when you first arrived in America? What was the assimilation process like in the community to which you immigrated?
When my family arrived in the early eighties, we settled in a suburb of Los Angeles, a small town that was predominantly white, upper middle class, and conservative. We were Iranian refugees arriving soon after the Iranian hostage crisis, so there wasn’t a welcome committee or neighbors bringing pies to the door. I was seven years old. I looked different, I talked different, I ate different food, and different doesn’t bode well on any elementary-school playground. I was taunted, a whole lot, and excluded, a whole lot. The children were unforgiving, but even some of my teachers were less than compassionate at times.
There was a lot that was out of my control, but I quickly learned that English was key to my survival, so I was driven to master it. I learned to read English around the fourth grade, and since I didn’t have many friends, I was usually on the playground with a book. That became my community, in a way, Steinbeck and Hemingway and Faulkner and many other lovely, dead white American men. They spoke to me in those early years. The language, the literature — that’s where I felt at home.
Afterward I spent years trying to assimilate, to be American. Then, in my early twenties, a few years after I lost my father to ALS, I went back to Iran for the first time since my family’s escape, thinking that perhaps I was returning “home.”
What did you expect to find?
I grew up with the same assumptions about Iran as everyone else in the U.S., because my sources were the same: the nightly news, the bold headlines, the Hollywood movies with the bearded fanatics. Iran seemed hostile and dangerous. And the Iran my family spoke of was full of sadness and nostalgia. When I actually set foot there, however, what I saw contradicted both versions, and I completely fell in love with Iran. It’s such a beautiful place full of beautiful people
It took me a while to realize I didn’t fit in there, either, no matter how hard I tried to assimilate, to be Iranian. I have come to think assimilation anywhere is perhaps not a good thing, but an act of violence against the self. A betrayal.
How often have you returned to Iran?
I haven’t gone back since 2002. Not because I am afraid the U.S. won’t let me back in — I’m an American citizen, and this is my home, and ain’t nobody keeping me out — but because the Iranian authorities can choose not to allow me to leave, and that’s something I’m not willing to risk. Not a day goes by without me wanting to see it again, but Iran is currently in the hands of some evil, ruthless, greedy sons of bitches. I don’t feel safe returning.
Your house in California was spared, but the threat of fire in the area where you live remains. What’s the feeling among the community there about the future?
The day the fire broke out, there was a mass shooting in a neighboring town. Thirteen people were killed by a gunman. The town was in a state of bewilderment when, a few hours later, the fire started. We went from shock and grief to terror in the span of a single day. It felt as if the world were ending.
Now, six months later, it is surreal here. After the fires there was a deluge of rain, which was followed by so many poppies and lupines and mustard weed you could see the colors from space. It’s so green and calm. We don’t talk about the shooting anymore, just as we don’t talk about the tunnel of flames, and how it rained embers, and how we became something like animals, fleeing in fear.
But November is coming. The dry, harsh Santa Ana winds will return with it. There are a few homes for sale, but no more than usual. I drive by these houses and think maybe we should sell our home and leave while there’s still time. But we all continue in this seeming state of amnesia, hoping none of it really happened. Or that it happened once, but won’t happen again.
What are you working on now?
I just finished a book, Home Is a Stranger, which will come out in March 2020. It’s about my return to Iran when I was younger and more naive, in a time when the world was also younger and more naive, immediately before September 11, 2001. After that, the world took a turn, and it wasn’t a place to be naive any longer. The book links my personal narrative to the larger, global one. I believe that what happens for us collectively is reflected in our own lives.
Now I’m working on a book of historical fiction about a bright-eyed American named Morgan Shuster, who went to Iran in 1911 during Iran’s democratic uprising, the Constitutional Revolution. That movement was ruthlessly quashed by Russia with the help of Great Britain, since neither country would profit from a democratic Iran. Shuster arrived in Tehran to help the fledgling democracy become financially sound, and his presence led to a cataclysm of events. I’m reading a lot of history books and primary sources, particularly travel writing from the turn of the century by Westerners who went to Iran. Once you get past the blatant racism, they provide an interesting portrait that historians can’t offer. I’m writing from the perspective of the Iranian women who played a crucial role in the attempted revolution, and whose voices have never really been heard in the historical narratives of that time.