Last week, Roya Hakakian was chosen as a DeWitt/Wallace
Reader's Digest Fellow. Last January, when she was a
fellow at the
MacDowell Colony for
artists, she made this presentation at the Peterborough
The sound of words
In words, in literature, we wrapped ourselves and waited
By Roya Hakakiann
August 24, 2003
I don't know if readings can be dedicated to towns, but if such
a thing is possible, I'd like to dedicate tonight's reading to
your town, to Peterborough. For nearly four weeks, I've been
prancing around my studio, calling home every few hours, to say
with a surprise that has yet to abate:
"Mom, they deliver my lunch in a basket!"
It's of course not just about the lunch -- though supremely sumptuous.
It's about a dream that has been delivered to me or to which you
have delivered me. It's about having finally arrived at writing,
at a dream identity.
Ladies and gentleman,
I am a writer. I am
an Iranian, a Jew, an American too. But into these identities I
was born or upon them I reluctantly arrived. But not this one.
Even as a little girl, I didn't entertain wedding fantasies but
only those of my grown up self, toiling over pages. I had watched
my father spend an entire afternoon fine-tuning a poem and decided
that I could spend a lifetime doing just the same.
I adored Persian
as a language and kicked around words in my head all day, the way
my friends kicked around a ball. My mind was made up by the time
I turned twelve and I didn't equivocate when I was asked what I
wanted to do when I grew up.
But the country beat me to growing up. In February of 1979, Ayatollah
Khomeini returned to Iran from a fifteen-year exile and within
two weeks, 2,500 years of monarchy ended. Just like that, in two
monosyllabic words: Shah gone! And within a year, so did two-thirds
of Iran's Jewish population, a community whose history in Iran
preceded that of the Moslems by several hundred years. Within five
years, my family was contemplating political asylum.
I kept on
writing through those years. Not because I wanted to. But because
everything else was slipping away. Bad writers were
appointed editor-in-chiefs of literary magazines. Good writers
were banned from publishing. Great writers were executed. It was
no longer safe to write. It never had been in Iran.
secret service, SAVAK, had harassed artists for many years. But
whereas the old SAVAK agents were mere bureaucrats just doing their
jobs, the new religious zealots were performing God's will. It
was the worst of times. But I resigned myself to my bad habit,
like a hopeless drunk. This is merely a metaphor, ladies and gentlemen,
as all alcoholic beverages had by then been banned in addition
to music, dance, most sports, even chess.
Under those circumstances,
literature was no longer a hobby or even a vocation. It was a panacea.
The panacea. Women could no
longer appear in public without full Islamic uniforms. Images of
all things we had once enjoyed had been defaced, covered or transformed
into things we no longer recognized -- with their details fast
fading from our memory-- until one day nothing but a faint outline
remained. And each time those outlines were conjured, they faded
even more. I suppose it's why taking photographs, exposing precious
images to light, is prohibited in museums.
Until at last, the only thing still intact was sound. Only sound.
The sound of words. In words we could remember the past and we
could project into the future. In words, memory and hope joined.
In words, in literature, we wrapped ourselves and waited.
The piece that I’ll read to you is a moment
of my life on the Alley of the Distinguished, that's what the Alley
called believe it or not, in 1978, just before the rule of the
Pahlavi dynasty ended and Ayatollah Khomeini returned. It's a rough
draft, from the middle of my book, with which I've been toying
at the MacDowell. So rough that when you see its final polished
version in the book, feel free to say, "oh yeah, we showed
her how to fix it."
This reading is dedicated to you because this is the very fist
time in my life that I have been acknowledged as a writer without
being subsequently harmed. On the contrary, I've been having a
blast. You have officially inaugurated me and for that I'm indebted
to your town, even to your state, its woeful politics notwithstanding.
So, without further ado, I will read to you from a chapter called "The
Rooftops"... (The book will be published in early 2004 by
this page to your friends