The title of this post is a question I get a lot from Iranian friends and relatives when I tell them I’m writing a novel set in Persian culture. It’s a reasonable question when you consider that writers frequently write what they know, and what I know about Persian culture I’ve learned mainly from these same Iranian friends and relatives.
I’m never sure how to answer this question because the only honest response is yes and no. In a way, every person I have ever known, every situation experienced, and every idea pondered has ended up in my stories. But by the time these elements have passed through the filters of my mind, story premise, and plot, they are utterly unrecognizable.
My stories themselves usually end up as something quite different from the idea I started out with. And that’s how I like it. For me, the whole point of writing a novel is to explore the world and discover something I had never realized before.
Take my Persian P.I. series. The idea came about in response to my annoyance at the negative way in which Iranians were portrayed in American popular culture. Always the villain—the terrorist, the assassin, or the abusive, overbearing husband. I recognized nothing of the friendly, generous, and fun-loving Iranians I knew. Nothing of their rich and complex culture, art, and history. I wanted to write a story that showed them as they really are.
Fortunately, the idea didn’t stop there. If I’d written a book as an emotional reaction to negative press, the story would have been insufferable to read, shouting righteous indignation from every page. It would have been propaganda, not fiction.
When I created my protagonist, an Iranian-American P.I. named Leila Shirazi, I soon realized that what interested me the most about her was not her Iranian identity—or her American one. But her dual cultures. She was a person who appeared to move back and forth between two nationalities with ease, thoroughly familiar with the modes of behavior acceptable in each culture.
But how does she really feel? Is anyone equally at home in two worlds? I had a linguistics professor once who claimed that true bilingualism was a misconception. Even bilingual people are most at ease with the language they use the most, the one of the dominant culture in which they live. And that comfort can shift to the other language in a different environment.
Maybe biculturalism follows the same pattern, I thought. So with Leila, I created a woman who was born in Tehran and raised in Northern California from the age of twelve, yet feels somewhere in between these two places. She embraces the personal independence valued by Americans, while her Iranian culture demands that everyone, especially women, put family first. But her olive complexion, Middle Eastern features, and foreign name set her apart from the mainstream. When people ask the question “where are you from?” they don’t expect the name of a city, but that of a country.
When she visits Tehran, the city of her birth, as she does in Bad Hejab, the opposite happens. Everyone treats her like she belongs, based on her appearance, familiar name, and local accent. And on the surface she fits in; Leila can speak the language and haggle prices like a native. But when it comes to sorting out the complexities of Tehran society, where nothing is ever precisely what it seems, she feels as though she’s visiting her native city for the first time.
Moving the story lines back and forth between two countries and cultures gives me the chance to explore how Leila learns to bring her two identities closer together and become a more integrated person. Will she achieve this goal in the end? Beats me. I’ll have to continue writing the books to find out.