HOME IS A STRANGER is a poignant, new memoir exploring identity, belonging and desire by PEN America Emerging Voices alumna Parnaz Foroutan. An excerpt plus Q&A between the author and AFLW’s Creative Nonfiction Editor Marnie Goodfriend on writing memoir, underrepresented voices, finding home and more.
HOME IS A STRANGER
Since the place seemed empty, and the heat felt unbearable, I left my boots by the temple door, removed my hijab and veil, stuffed them in my backpack beside my boots, and walked away unencumbered and barefoot on those smooth, cool stones, my shoulders naked and my hair revealed, with the breeze on my skin.
I crossed through terraces, jumped across rooftops, climbed down a number of stairs until I turned a corner and suddenly found myself standing among a crowd of thirty or so young women, all dressed in full Islamic hijab, some with the more conservative chadors, gathered and talking quietly. A handful of those girls stood beside a giant cauldron and peeled in potatoes and carrots. An old man stirred the pot. Another girl fed the flame beneath it. Another sprinkled in salt. And there I stood among them, barefoot, bare shoulders and arms, hair flowing in the breeze. They all stopped what they were doing and stared at me. I tried to calculate the speed I needed in order to run and jump from that rooftop courtyard to another terrace, find the stairs leading back to the temple and plead for sanctuary, when the old man stirring the cauldron said, “Ah, our honored guest, you have arrived just in time for the feast.”
The girls circled around me, dressed in their modest Islamic hijab, looked me up and down. Concluding accurately that I wasn’t a local, they asked me where I was from, who I was, why I had come here, of all places.
“Say it again,” they begged me.
“Los Angeles,” they repeated, imitating me by anglicizing the words with an almost Texan drawl. In Iran, they pronounce Los Angeles in its true Latin form, the way someone from Mexico might say it. When I named that place, said it the way we say it in LA, it seemed to these girls even more fantastic and foreign. They laid down a linen tablecloth on the stone floor and produced porcelain bowls and silver spoons.
“Our honored guest from America, you must sit at the head of our sofreh,” the old man instructed me. These girls were volunteers for an organization much like the Red Cross. They fed the hungry, clothed the poor, helped those in need. The old man was their driver and chaperone, and they had come to this temple on a day trip. They invited me to sit at the head of their makeshift feast, and one of the girls brought me a bowl of lentil stew. Another one of the more conservatively dressed girls sat down beside me. She reached under the folds of her black chador, into her breast pocket and took out a little porcelain strawberry. She unscrewed the top, winked at me and sprinkled a red powder first in her bowl, then mine. “The old man makes the stews too bland,” she whispered, as she quickly tucked the porcelain strawberry back into its secret place beside her heart, “and I like a little spice.”
The girls asked me about this other world, this America, which they had only seen in movies, and heard about in stories and read about in the news. “Tell us,” they demanded, “tell us how you live there.”
I told them about the loneliness of my childhood as a refugee. I told them about my father, who worked hard to make us a home in that new place until he became ill, then withered and died, still a young man. I told them about studying at the university, and then the debts, the work, the futility. Then, I told them that I wrote poetry.
“Oh!” they cried, and they rushed to their backpacks and returned with journals and notebooks. “Write something, write something dedicated to me!”
So I did. Thirty personalized verses, at breakneck speed, while each girl whose notebook I held told me her story as I wrote her a poem.
“My father wants me to marry a man I barely know,” one said.
“My parents won’t allow me to attend university,” another said.
“My older sister attempted suicide. She is married to a man who beats her, and no one will allow her to leave.”
“I don’t know what the future holds for me.”
I sat among them, flooded by their stories, humbled, writing frantically, listening. I wanted so badly to give them something in return. For their hospitality, yes, but for more than that. For their beauty, for their trusting and open hearts. I wanted to give them something, some piece of me. I have a picture, a single photograph, the film long lost now. Sarab came upon us, followed by Pouya. The two of them found me sitting among the girls, scantily clad, in the shade of a tree, writing and writing. Before they wandered off, Sarab took out his 35mm camera, and took a picture. In that black and white photograph, I sit among those girls with my shoulders and arms revealed, and my hair showing. I’m looking down at a notebook. They sit around me, angelic, in all their innocent and beautiful glory.
After I wrote the last verse in the last notebook, their chaperone approached me, holding out three pomegranates. “The pomegranate that grows in the arid climate of Yazd is very different from any other in the world,” he said. “It is said to be a barakat, a blessing. Take these as a gift from us.” Then the girls embraced me, one by one, and kissed my cheek. And then they were gone, all thirty of them, the cauldron, the old man, the porcelain bowls, their voices. They had struck me, struck my heart with the lightning bolt of holy, and disappeared just as suddenly.
Excerpted from HOME IS A STRANGER with permission from the author
There’s No Place Like Home: Q&A Between Parnaz Foroutan and Marnie Goodfriend
Marnie Goodfriend: Your debut book of fiction, The Girl from a Garden, was also inspired by your family history. What made you decide to revisit your personal story as a memoir?
Parnaz Foroutan: My first book was a story based on the women in my family from 1917, around the issue of fertility and the cloistered, oppressive lives of women during that era. It was based on the stories I heard from the elders in my family growing up, a narrative constructed from the bones of family oral history. This book began as a series of essays about Iran during the time immediately before September 11th and immediately after. It evolved into a memoir over time, weaving my personal narrative and the larger global narrative.
MG: Given our current situation, your book tour for HOME IS A STRANGER was canceled. What are some ways that you’ve been able to get the word out about your memoir? Have there been any silver linings?
PF: I’m the kind of author who depends on readings, universities, interviews and festivals to connect with readers. I don’t really engage in social media platforms, it’s not my medium. So it’s been a bit of a disaster, once all the independent book stores shut their doors and the festivals canceled, to connect with anybody. The silver lining is that there are some really kind people and publications out there, like AFLW and PEN, and a handful of other podcasts and literary magazines that have invited me to share my work with them, in hope of reaching a wider audience.
MG: In your PEN podcast interview with Amanda Fletcher, you mentioned the first book you checked out of the library was The Diary of Anne Frank. What were your first thoughts about writing personal stories for survival and how has that grown in you as an adult and a writer?
PF: Well, I was 9 years old when I checked that book out from the library, and I had just learned to read English. I didn’t have much thought about being a writer, that was something way too fantastic to even cross my mind, I would have thought it more likely to be a unicorn than an author. What I did learn from that book was the magic of the written word. One minute, Mrs. Stromquest was telling us it was “quiet reading time,” and the next minute, I was in an attic during WWII, cautiously peering out of a window. I was utterly spellbound by the sheer magic of writing, that someone could have the power to create an entire world, invite you into it and keep you entranced, leave you weeping or terrified, or elated, with just words. I consumed literature for most of my early life, than studied it formally, but when I finally found the courage to begin writing myself, I had no formal training. So I turned to reading, again, but this time as a student of craft.
MG: As an underrepresented voice in the literary community, what is your vision for more inclusiveness in the publishing world? Do you think that this global pandemic will give birth and create space for us to recognize and publish more of these stories?
PF: A month before the world turned upside down, the publishing industry was wringing its hands about American Dirt. There was a whole “woe is me, how have we failed” song and dance by the gatekeepers, the publishing houses and the press. There was a whole lot of anger from a whole lot of immigrants, saying that they had told their real stories, and either been completely ignored by the publishing world, or if they had been published, certainly not with a seven figure advance and border wall floral arrangements at fancy launch parties. There were meetings, and photo-ops and reviews written about reviews and apologies and promises that things would change. Have they? I’ll tell you, the one thing this global pandemic has done is make us realize how precisely tiny this globe is, and how, regardless of how hard we try to forget people and marginalize them, their stories impact our lives.
MG: In the publishing world, there is a fear that writing about heavy subject matter (real life) is not salable or is too heavy for the world. Does every memoir need to be balanced with levity as in order for it to be palatable? Did you experience any pushback?
PF: The publishing world might need a reboot. People are hungry to know about the world, and that entails the heaviness. I think we’ve been entertained long enough, and entertainment certainly has its place, but don’t we stand, right now, in the crux of a monumental spiritual awakening, globally? And once our eyes have been opened, we’ll have questions that those stories can answer. I have a bunch of questions right now. Like why the hell was there a ship full of Rohingya women and children drifting at sea for two months?And why is there an island prison with refugees languishing off the coast of Australia? And what about Yemen, and Syria? And what the hell is going on in the concentration camps of China? And how about our own concentration camps here, in America? Tell me those stories. I can take it It is my moral obligation to know about them. Not so that I can wring my hands and lament, then forget, but because those stories will shape the actions I take, they will inform what I will do with this life I’ve been given, how I will use it to make positive change in the world. Hopefully.
MG: What is your advice to other writers who are writing memories that explore difficult subject matter?
PF: You have to meet your demons. You have to let them take the pen. That’s the only time it counts, when you speak from your naked soul. The rest is fluff.
MG: Los Angeles is a main character in HOME IS A STRANGER. For a time, your younger self needed to escape it. Does the city feel like home to you now?
PF: I don’t think a more beautiful place exists on this planet. Not it’s physical reality, the sprawl, the smog, the traffic, the wildfires and droughts and billboards, the abyss that is San Fernando Valley. Or Mid-Wilshire. That’s all just unpleasant. It’s the complete pandemonium of humanity, people from all corners of the world, all here, all trying to create some variation of a dream they’ve had. It’s magnificent. I don’t know of anywhere else on this planet where so many different cultures co-exist, for the most part, harmoniously. Does it feel like home? I would have a real hard time leaving it, it would break my heart to do so. But I think experiencing immigration, you realize that home is not so concrete. It’s not really a place, in fact. Memories and ghosts and the scent of place, the topography of it, it’s seasons, those bind you to a location and you name it home. But home is something different, maybe … a sense of belonging, and that, perhaps, has to do more with human connection than geographic location.
MG: I read your beautiful essay, “A Single Suitcase,” published in The Sun. It seems like leaving home and returning to it is a recurring theme in your writing. If you were to fill a suitcase with things that belonged to the “you” in HOME IS A STRANGER, what would be in it?
PF: I was 2 then, in the time I write about in HOME IS A STRANGER. And I imagined myself a revolutionary and a poet. I didn’t need anything. I was returning to Iran for the first time since my family escaped, and in my “homecoming,” I wanted to shed all the things I thought I needed. Life in America had become so cumbersome. I had student debt and other debts and a corporate job 9 to 5 and my spirit was dying, and the outlook was grim. So I packed my suitcase with CDs and books I was smuggling into Iran for my cousins, since the Islamic Theocracy doesn’t allow Bob Dylan or Walt Whitman, and I showed up at my uncle’s house in Tehran. From there, I trekked the mountains of Iran, from village to village with just a pack on my back. And I found a band in Tehran I used to jam with, I’d holler poetry and they’d improvise. I needed nothing. I was so fulfilled with life as it was presented to me.
MG: What do you want readers to take away from your memoir?
PF: It’s hard to find any books about Iran that are not steeped with stories about oppression and suffering and oh the darkness of the Islamic Theocracy. Certainly, those stories are real, but they ignore everything else. I used to be an English teacher in high schools here in the U.S. and one of the courses I taught was about stereotypes of the Middle East and modern Middle Eastern Literature. In the beginning of that class, I asked my students to write about what they thought life in Iran would be like, then I’d show them images of young people dancing at raves and playing volleyball and jet skiing and eating pizza, and those images shocked my students. It’s no surprise that it did, since the only image they’ve seen in Western media is of the hijab-clad, flag-burning, raging masses. There is a carefully curated image of Iran that we are fed, by both our own media in the U.S. and the Islamic Theocracy, both of them choose the same frame for the depiction of an entire people, the only variation is their take on it. What they leave out is the full humanity of the people who live in Iran, their joys, their desires. And since joy and desire is something you have to hide from an Islamic State dictated by sharia, people outside of Iran don’t really see this side of the Iranian people. It’s not a public image, it has to be hidden, but it exists. I want readers to see that, the joys, the desires, the full humanity of a people who’ve been forced to hide that about themselves, in order to survive.
Parnaz Foroutan is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Girl from the Garden (Ecco 2015), which received the PEN Emerging Voices Award and was named one of Booklist’s “Top 10 First Novels” of 2015. Her memoir, HOME IS A STRANGER (Chicago Review Press 2020), is about her journey back to Iran as a young woman, two decades after her family fled the rise of the Islamic Theocracy. Her essays have appeared on NBC Think, The Sun and other literary journals. The essay that made her mother proudest, titled “America” and addressing the refugee crisis, appears in the anthology Radical Hope (Vintage 2017).