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On Living & Writing Identity in Another Impossible Moment
I'm back with a lot of old thoughts from this past year, for the New Year
[photo by Zach Gross, 2014, Harlem]
It began with arts and pop culture as a young entertainment journalist, then to Iranian American issues as a novelist of Iranian American stories, then chronic illness and disability as a memoirist who wrote about Lyme Disease and addiction, then back again to and again Iranian-America with my latestthis collection of essays. Identity as an identity, I used to joke. A lot of writers of color who belong to two or more marginalized identifiers have to do a delicate dance with their calling—who are they and who do they speak for and how can you know them? Their identities can’t be a rambling cursive paragraph, but it needs to be a sign in Helvetica for the most to access sadly. Mystery is not something an identity writer can gamble with. Presumably you are reading them for that alone anyway, the story of their identity, what they are weighed againstwith when advances are being calculated and column inches are being apportioned for coverage. Who they are is the product, whether they like it or not—and, well, we often do not.
It’s odd to even have the luxury to contemplate self-image. When I began this essay in spring, the soundtrack was an endless chorus of clashing sirens outside my window, 11 stories up in a highrise in the heart of Queens. At some point I was unsure if they are sirens of ambulances for COVID-19 patients or police sirens for the Black Lives Matters protests around town. For months, our community has been beyond burdened. Illness and fear of illness, for one thing: Our building is equipped with hand sanitizer dispenser on the lobby floor, our doormen are in masks, the landlord updates us every few days, and there are signs everywhere reminding people to wear masks. A few thousand people live in my complex and only a couple have reported having COVID-19, although everyone is sure there are more. An old man on my floor has not been seen for some time—I’ve been watching notes gather on his mat and eventually pin on his door, all caps red ink URGENT. Small talk has become a thing of the past. At our building’s dog run, everyone is tense and silent. Plus, several tenants work at Elmhurst Hospital, the hospital that got much coverage for serving the pandemic’s Ground Zero here in Queens—the one associated with freezer trucks and piles of body bags. We are deeply immersed in this nightmare.
In mid-March, I returned from two weeks away in Europe to a New York I barely recognized. Whereas I used to ride the subway several times a day, I have now have used the subway five times since late February. Whereas I used to take several plane rides a month for speaking gigs, but that last stop at JFK’s international terminal where they took our temperatures and released us, has been it. I get groceries delivered from Instacart, supplies via Amazon Prime, I wear masks to do the laundry and take my dog on a walk.
We are in the new normal phase—things have improved, then they were bad again, then better, then so bad we were in a covid cluster this autumn, and now we are trending optimistically though every day the US map reddens and the news reports spikes in places with no rhyme or reason; we watch with dread as Asia and Europe grow through waves of shutting down and opening up. I think of what is gone now, the early days of the pandemic when we followed Italy’s lead and at 7pm every day I would look out my balcony and hear the neighbors banging on pots and pans and cheerin. The novelty wore faster than any of us wanted to admit: soon it became somewhat maddening—I would groan, my dog would growl, and we would wonder who this is really for anymore, who is even hearing us?
For a while, people start putting messages of hope on their windows and balconies. Someone puts Biblical verses. In June this transformed to “Black Lives Matters.” My roommate made a giant “BLM” sign out of the countless cardboard boxes of grocery delivery we now rely on to survive. Our landlord eventually told us they have to go down—it’s against code—but agreed to let us have them up through the month. In the end we had it up for three extra months until a storm ruined them.
Then instead of protests here, we watched unrest on the streets of Portland, clips of a Walmart looted in Philadelphia. But for the most part that activism was replaced by election coverage: the most American sport of all. A Lakers victory, a Dodgers victory—the native Angeleno in me so unused to California glory—but no sport can compete with the nonstop roller coaster of the American presidential election. I mail in my ballot, too worried with virus risks to do it person, and pray the mail—suddenly something we can no longer count on—delivers it from Queens Boulevard to the tally, An odd feeling to be of the coasts where the will of millions weighs far less than the few in middle of the country. Coastal elite, I try to reclaim, but jokes don’t land anymore.
And here I am, with a book out in the midst of this and there is no reason on earth anyone needs it right now, I keep thinking. Some events are cancelled, most go on, and I begin to shift the conversation from my essays to health care crises and racial injustice in America. It feels only natural. My book deals with racism and xenophobia extensively but only gets into anti-blackness in its final essay, which doesn’t feel enough to me. It also deals with illness like my third book, an entire memoir of illness called Sick, but I can’t pretend to have any words for a pandemic still in motion. Is an author even the right person to speak to these things? Who do we need? Better public officials? More scientists, more doctors? Religious leaders? The right President? Sages, prophets, God?
Over and over, I keep poking and prodding at through my identities as these crises carry on.
I think of what my time in an unwell body taught me all these years: that I am seen as dead weight, a burden on society. We are a reason you must take precautions, because even if you are strong enough, I might not be, and you have to care. I am the kid next to you on that plane demo and you have to put on your mask to get air first in order to help me. I am the end of your equation.
I think of how being from the “wrong” country of origin has affected me. As an Iranian immigrant, I am from one of the countries that was worst hit. I still remember the deep anxiety I felt when it was revealed that one of Manhattan’s first cases was from a woman who had been to Iran. I am already of a suspect people, now once again more suspect in a way I could never have imagined.
I think of how the feared continent of origin lends an answer to some of these woes.
And as an Asian person, I also have to contend with anti-Asian racism all around me. Granted it is mostly East Asian, as the President continues to insist it is the “Chinese Virus,” but it has impacted my current community as well as my former. All around me here in a very East Asian-populated part of Queens, Chinese and Korean businesses have shuttered. In my hometown my East Asian friends report all sorts of microaggressions, from neighbors to coworkers to even friends who have tried to make jokes about bat-eating and wet markets, etc. I am hoping to move to East Asia in the next year for many reasons—part of it being that it is the land that puts me closest to my home in West Asia, another part being my connection to those communities here in the U.S.—but I am already getting worried America’s anti-Asian xenophobia will translate to East Asians rightfully wanting nothing to do with us. Why welcome citizens of a country that keep trying to paint you as an adversary?
But I keep coming back to shedding a nationality I can no longer stand behind, no matter what the issues of the season. Leaving America is all I have left. And it seems the logical conclusion for a writer whose life has been devoted to issues of identity when right now the whole of the world is in crisis. I think a lot of James Baldwin who spent much of his formative writing years in a self-imposed exile from New York in Paris. “I had to leave; I needed to be in a place where I could breathe and not feel someone’s hand on my throat. A lot of young Americans white or black, rich or poor, have wanted to get away, as a means of getting closer to themselves.”
Escape fills me with the only hope I can imagine these days. I think about the possibilities of beginning again at middle age, exploring a whole new definition of myself. And again Baldwin’s words show me a way: “The place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it.” I hope to one day exist in an America I can live through, a home I created for myself, a home I even helped shape, the home my words found their way into books.