Guest Post: Paria Kooklan on Iran Overload

by Patrick on October 28, 2009

Paria Kooklan writes the incredibly hilarious blog Stuck in the Safety Net.  As you will soon learn, she’s at work on a novel.  She was good enough to tend the shop while I was away:

I recently started working on a novel about an Iranian-American family living in Southern California. Come to think of it, they have a lot in common with my own family: middle class, suburban, struggling with issues of identity and assimilation. But, you know – with a few laughs thrown in.

It’s a bit of a pipe dream, of course – with little formal training and few signs that I have enough talent to pull it off, the chances of my authoring the Next Great American Novel are slim to none. But, rather than worry about the poor odds any writer has of getting published, or even about my specific weaknesses as a writer (and, believe me, I have many), I’ve spent most of my time lately worrying about market saturation.

In other words, what I’m worried about more than anything is this: does anyone really want to read yet another book about Iranians?

I blame Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, the book that started the whole Iranian memoir-and-novel trend. Thanks to Nafisi, every book club-attending soccer mom in America woke up one morning in 2003 and decided that my peeps were absolutely fascinating.

There must have been Iranian-American authors before Reading Lolita, but I’d certainly never heard of any. Publishers clearly weren’t hip to the sales potential of these books – or perhaps the market just wasn’t ready for them in those pre-Axis of Evil days. I do  remember one really lovely memoir called To See and See Again by a young writer named Tara Bahrampour. It pre-dated Nafisi’s book by a few years – and got no attention whatsoever. I only heard about it myself because my great-aunt happened to know one of the author’s distant relatives.

Nowadays, however, you can hardly walk into a bookstore without seeing at least one memoir or novel by an Iranian-American. And I’ve noticed that these books have a few things in common, namely:

1. They’re mostly set during the late 70s and early 80s, around the time of the Islamic Revolution;

2. They often have words like saffron or pomegranate in the title;

3. They have jacket copy that describes them as being “heart-breaking” stories of “survival,” or else “moving” tales about the “endurance” of the “human spirit”; and

4. They are extremely likely to be Recommended for Book Clubs.

I’ve read a lot of these books, and many of them were good. The Septembers of Shiraz, for instance, was just lovely. But, despite this – or perhaps because of this – I am reluctant to give the world yet another story about Iranians. I mean, the American public has a short attention span – Iranians are hot right now, but I can’t help wondering when the trend is going to die out. Next year, there may well be another trendy nationality: Iraqis, maybe. Or Tibetans. Or…I don’t know – the Bhutanese? Anything is possible.

This is why, while being “brown” seems like a big boon for a writer at this particular juncture, I think it’s probably a double-edged sword. I mean, I can’t help but notice that white authors don’t have to think about this. I mean, I don’t see Marilynne Robinson worrying that no one will want to read yet another book about Midwestern WASPs. But, despite our best intentions, I think most of us have a unconscious assumption that one ethnic/immigrant experience is basically the same as another. I mean, imagine if a new novel were published about the Dominican-American experience. Everyone would immediately compare it to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. What if there were three or four such novels? Or ten? Or twelve? At some point, publishers, and perhaps readers, would start to feel that there were too many books about being Dominican. But could you imagine that kind of thinking ever being applied to books written by white guys? Of course not.

Depressed by thoughts like these, I spent a few months earlier this year toying with the idea of writing something completely different – something that had nothing to do with Iran or Iranians. Sadly, though, I found that I don’t have much to say about anything else. The only other kind of novel I could see myself writing would be a work of “chick lit” about a twenty-something in the throes of an existential crisis – and I think most of you will agree that the world needs another work of “chick lit” even less than it needs another novel about Iranians.

So I’m going ahead with my original idea. Besides, on the bright side, there is this: a year or two from now, when I’ve finished the manuscript and have started racking up rejections from agents and editors, I can be like one of those underachieving white kids who blames affirmative action (rather than their bad grades or low SAT scores) for the fact that they didn’t get into an Ivy League school.

“It’s not that I can’t write,” I’ll say to my mother when she asks why my novel isn’t being published. “I’m a victim of discrimination.”

In other words, I’ll be able to tell myself that it’s not really my fault – it’s Azar Nafisi’s.