When I was a child, my father liked to tell me stories about his childhood in Iran. Because of severe learning disabilities, he never really learned how to read or write. He told me that his teachers would line up the children on certain mornings and call the “dumb” students out; they would take a long belt and whip my father’s back with it, in front of his peers. I still hear his subtle, quiet voice as he shared his memories. It was his burden and my challenge. Even then, I realized what reaction my father was trying to trigger, and it worked. He reminded me I had a chance to do well in life. I had to take it.
My father likes to tell people that I’m his idol. He admires me more than I deserve. As a nine-year old, I remember him staring at me while I read a chapter book or a newspaper. I would ignore his look until he passed, kept my head down buried inside the pages, my nose brushing against the ink, so I wouldn’t have to look back at him. I was embarrassed by the fact that he struggled to read, despite the fact that he was an immigrant to a new country and had never finished school. At age 9, it hurt to pity my own father.
But experience taught me not to be ashamed of whom my father was. My father looks like he has outlived a battle field. He is old; his flesh looks like it’s about to turn to ash. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I have to help my father read the backs of grocery packages, because my father is actually the best survivor I know. A survivor who can’t write his own story.
My face is a map of the Middle East. I have Iran stuck in the smoky scent of my long black hair and in my thick eyelashes; my olive skin is tinged with Iran. I don’t know where the roads on the map take; there are many, and I have only crossed them with my father. The country has many more, which I look forward to crossing on my own. My face is a map of a place I’ve never lived in, of a culture that I admire in many ways but can’t relate to. When I look at my father – despite our different cultures, schooling, and languages – I see myself reflected back.
For most of my life I knew I wanted to be a writer but I didn’t know why. By 10, I had fallen under the spell of Dostoyevski and Lewis Carroll. I was fascinated by language, by cadences and rhythms and voices. It was inbred rather than nurtured. So natural that I didn’t think I had chosen it. Does someone choose to breathe?
My dad wants me to be successful and make a lot of money. I want success, but it doesn’t have to be financial. If I could write for people who cannot; if I could tell the story of my uncle who was drugged with opium during the gulf war; my aunt who was forced into an abusive marriage; of my grandmother who died because of a mistake a doctor made during a surgical procedure, then I would be more than successful. I don’t want to just write words for a living; I want to record a vision. I’ve learned that when politics falls short, sometimes art takes over. Literature is a dialogue, and an attempt to satisfy a social need.
My family serves as a constant reminder of why I need to succeed, and how fortunate I am to have the chance to. My father’s illiteracy and disempowerment make me work harder. I will make him proud that I am his daughter. I am already writing our book, and it is dedicated to him.