Academic journal article MELUS

The Perils and Seductions of Home: Return Narratives of the Iranian Diaspora

Academic journal article MELUS

The Perils and Seductions of Home: Return Narratives of the Iranian Diaspora

Article excerpt

Largely ignored throughout the 1980s and 1990s, in the last few years Iranian American women writers have become suddenly visible to a growing American readership. To an increasing number of critics, meanwhile, the popularity of books by Iranian women in America, particularly memoirs, constitutes a pernicious outcome of contemporary military campaigns in the Middle East: a restaging of Orientalist and imperialist ideologies by a cadre of "native informers." (1) In a way, there is nothing at all new about the claim. As John Carlos Rowe wrote in a recent essay for American Quarterly, ethnographies of foreign peoples have long been recognized as integral to US cultural imperialism (253). It is, in other words, a well-known story in the history of American literature. What is interesting is that in this version of the story an all-out campaign has been launched against Iranian immigrant writers; moreover, leading the campaign are US-based Iranian academics who decry these writers' authority to speak about the experience of "real" Iranians.

The present crisis over Iranian American literature surely expresses the fundamental quandary of how and where to situate any new immigrant literature. It also recalls debates about authenticity and authority in other US ethnic literatures, for example the debates that arose in the late 1970s and 1980s following the publication of Aiiieeeee! (1974), the first anthology of Asian American literature. And yet the question of where and how to situate Iranian immigrant writing in the post-9/11 period poses challenges that are quite new and different. In an essay on the state of scholarship about Arab American literature since 9/11, Steven Salaita writes of the fundamental inadequacies of a critical framework born of political crisis (147). I would argue that Iranian American literature suffers from a shakier and more embattled critical framework than even Arab American literature. And I use the phrase "embattled" quite purposefully. Instead of textual analysis, we have accusations and insinuations, all served up in the very language of war.

In an effort to bring a much-needed critical geography to bear on Iranian American literature, this essay considers one of the most recurrent forms to have emerged in the Iranian diaspora, memoirs that I will call "return narratives." I approach here three such memoirs--Gelareh Asayesh's Saffron Sky (1999), Tara Bahrampour's To See and See Again (1999), and Azadeh Moaveni's Lipstick Jihad (2005)--in terms of Cherrie Moraga's idea of "patria" (or homeland) as a "distorting mirror" for the returning immigrant. (2) The authors of these return narratives are frequently caught between two extremes: a native culture which has traditionally sanctioned neither women's freedom to travel nor women's autobiographical writing, and an adopted culture with an insatiable curiosity for both the intimate details of their lives and descriptions of forbidden and alien landscape? This essay considers how the traffic between Iran and America distorts the immigrant's ideas about gender, culture, and ethnicity, and how the act of recounting such traffic, in turn, distorts principal conventions of western travel literature. By examining three return narratives, I examine the development of the genre with an eye toward its relevance to the still-evolving field of Iranian American literature.

At once acts of political witness and intimate self-revelation, return narratives demonstrate a persistent feature of Iranian immigrant literature: the dominance of Iran--its history as well as its contemporary culture and politics--in the exploration and articulation of Iranian American identity. This is a striking departure from many other US ethnic literatures, where issues of homeland and heritage have tended to give way to representations of the everyday lives of immigrants in America? In the case of the Iranian diaspora, the ongoing political crisis between the governments of Iran and America has created a literature whose gaze remains steadfastly fixed on Iran. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.