The Reader Within Me

In the triangle of author, text, and reader, the reader has a divine power. If one does not pick up the text, nothing comes alive and the author remains trapped in the lifeless letters of the text. Moreover, the reader’s role does not begin when a text is finished. As soon as authors pick up pens, they have their readers in mind, and the image of the reader never vanishes during the writing process. Every author has a reader within who not only knows the art of listening, but also speaks and, like a child’s imaginary playmate, sometimes even has a name.

When I fled my country, Iran, in 1983, I brought my reader along with me. As a political refugee, I started to experience new things in Turkey, France, and then America. But for half a decade, when I picked up my pen, as a writer and as a poet, I was driven to write for that reader.. Although he travelled abroad with me, he still lived in Tehran, spoke only in Persian, preferred Iranian food, and thought within the framework of an Iranian culture.

A good example of this can be found in my second collection of poems After the Silence, consisting of one hundred and three poems which I wrote over the course of a four month artistic explosion from December 22, 1985 to April 23 of the next year in Los Angeles. Except for fewer than ten poems which I will discuss later, all of the poems in this collection were written about the Iranian situation in the past and present. The poet is still haunted by the phantom of the lost revolution, which was crushed by a new regime of religious hypocrisy and coercion. He tries to portray his comrades, who were killed on the streets or like his wife executed in Evin prison. Moreover, as a thinker he attempts to break out of his orthodox Marxist thought, diluting it with humanism and exploring the meaning of every single philosophical and social concept such as “state”, “labor”, “organization”, “progress”, and “sexuality”. My body lived in L.A., but my soul was still rummaging through the ruins of a lost revolution in Iran.

Among those few poems in this collection which are related to my new situation as an émigré, we cannot find a single one which is not written for that Tehrani reader within me. In fact, I subconsciously wrote in such a way that I would not be perceived as an émigré. I sought this goal by either erasing the specific features of life in L.A. or by making comparisons with life back in Iran. For example, in the first poem of the book called “To the Sea”, there is no specific trace of the Pacific Ocean shore where I was then living. It could just as easily have been written on the sandy shores of the Caspian Sea.

In another poem entitled “In Anatomy Class”, dedicated to Dr. Karl Marx where I have tried to dissect his idea of fetishism of commodity, the reader encounters the familiar features of an American supermarket, like Lucky and Ralph’s, but the imaginary dialogue with the producers of the commodities is spoken with a heavy Persian accent because the farmers who have produced the cabbages, cantaloupes, and grapes live in the outskirts of Tehran.

In two poems, “What People Might Say” and “Satisfying a Need”, which respectively portray an unhappy marriage and a utilitarian relationship between two tenants sharing the same house, the reader finds hardly any reference to the specific situations in L.A. on which these poems were based. In the poems “A Letter from Iran to America” and “House and Street”, the author for the first time uses the words “Los Angeles” and compares the way of life in the two countries.

Nevertheless, he cannot speak freely about his new experiences and forces himself to compare them with similar situations in Iran. In another poem, “Person and Non-Person”, the poet talks about the conditions of the homeless, but again the reader finds no distinctive trace of L.A. life, only a philosophical reference to the homeless as a reserve army of labor in a Marxist sense. In a long narrative poem called “Exile Fever”, I see myself as a refugee and describe to my reader in Tehran the story of my flight to Turkey, France, and the United States. In the last stanza of this poem I subconsciously warn myself against denying my new identity as an émigré and guard myself against becoming a prisoner of my own nostalgia:

In these three years
My lungs became filled with fresh air
But my exile fever still remains
Woe unto me, if like a wandering gypsy
I become captive to the cart of my memories.

It seems to me that, after this collection of poems which I published abroad, the reader in me gradually comes to terms with his new situation and sees himself as a person living in America. He seeks to cherish both his cultural heritage and his new identity. In the collection of poems called Sorrow of the Border, published in 1989, the proportion of poems reflecting the new situation has increased drastically. In a very long poem dedicated to my newborn son, Azad, not only do I depict my bilingual world by including quotations in English into the body of the Persian text, but I also see my son as my own new roots growing in the second homeland.

In the next collection, published in 1991, called Poems of Venice, the reader finds different aspects of life at Venice Beach, where I lived for seven years. A turning-point in this long journey from the realm of self-denial to acceptance and adjustment is when I wrote a long poem on January 12, 1994 called “Ah, Los Angeles” which was published in Daftarhâ-ye shanbeh, a Persian-language literary magazine, of which I am a co-editor. It starts with these lines:

Ah, Los Angeles!
I accept you as my own city,
And after ten years
I am at peace with you.

The reader which I brought with me as I fled on horseback over Kurdish lands on the border of Iran and Turkey has changed. He does not want to live in the past, and looks forward to finding a new identity here. Nevertheless, today I do not regret having written those poems about the lost revolution. I see in them not only myself but thousands of people from my generation who were executed or imprisoned as well as those who are still living in fear in Iran, or have fled abroad in search of a new life in freedom. PERSIAN text
Presented to a conference entitled “Writing in Exile” sponsored by the Institute for European-American Relations at University of Southern California in Los Angeles, June 1995.

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