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Iranian, Palestinian Authors Reflect On Migration And Identity In Literature

Laleh Khadivi reading from her work during the 2013 Neustadt Festival - October 30, 2013.
Jen Rickard Blair
World Literature Today

Novelist Laleh Khadivi grew up with a Kurdish father, and was raised in a “household full of stories” about that experience, even though she identifies more with her Iranian heritage.

She’s in the process of completing a trilogy of novels exploring Kurdish migration. Khadivi’s research examines the challenges the modern state system places on diaspora communities.

“Forty million people without a country, in constant flight, is really interesting, and it is a statement to our modern world and our obsession with statehood that I wanted to explore,” Khadivi says. “How does someone like a Kurd, who has no flag, and no Olympic team, and no president, how do they move about the world?”

Khadivi says she writes to internalize her experience and understanding of migration and displacement in her novels in “a way that any human being even one who has lived in the same house their whole life, can understand.”  

Fady Joudah in the University of Oklahoma's Western History Collection's reading room.
Credit Laura Hernandez / World Literature Today
World Literature Today
Fady Joudah in the University of Oklahoma's Western History Collection's reading room.

She says she hopes to open people’s minds to the myriad interpretations of self- and community-identity that are available with advances in technology and the internet. Khadivi envisions a construct of self-identity that is a “mix of commerce and class and race and political ideas” from “multiple, niche-oriented identities” that rise above national boundaries.

Palestinian physician and poet Fady Joudah identifies with Khadivi’s search for meaning amid displacement. He draws parallels between the Palestinian and Kurdish experience, arguing that this search for belonging corresponds with a universal human search for belonging.

“I realize that we are constantly migrating… within the body that we are born with or given,” Joudah says. “As we age in life, we are displaced and migrate within that body… also on the psychological level.”

The hope, he says, is that these universal human experiences of displacement are not “used as pretexts to efface harder conversations about other forms of displacement” throughout the world.

Laleh Khadivi is an Iranian-American novelist.  The Age of Orphans: A Novel and The Walking: A Novelare the first two books in her trilogy tracing the migration experiences of three generations of Kurdish men.

"The Kurd Has Only the Wind," the Mahmoud Darwish poem referenced by Fady Joudah during the interview, can be found translated by Joudah in The Butterfly's Burden.


World Views is a partnership between KGOU and the University of Oklahoma’s College of International Studies to bring internationally-focused reporting and interviews to listeners in Oklahoma and beyond. Help support these efforts with a donation online.


SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: LalehKhadivi and FadyJoudah, welcome to World Views.

LALEH KHADIVI AND FADY JOUDAH: Thank you, thank you for having us. 

GRILLOT:  Laleh, I'm going to start with you. You're of Iranian background, Iranian-American, and you're in the process of writing a trilogy about Kurdish immigrants. What drew you to that subject?

KHADIVI: Well, my father is Kurdish, so I grew up in a household full of stories about what it is to be a Kurd and, having recognized myself as an Iranian, I was wondering what is this other layer that holds so much tension and beauty for my father and his siblings? So I did a little bit of investigation into the Kurds that wasn't folkloric, and was not just stories my family was telling, and I was realizing that forty million people without a country in constant flight is really interesting and it is a statement to our modern world and our obsession with statehood that I wanted to explore. And I wanted to figure out how, in this time of hyper-identification, does someone like a Kurd, who has no flag, and no Olympic team, and no president, how do they move about the world? There are many Kurdish immigrant communities in Germany, and in London, and, you can go to Karachi and find Kurds, and in the United States. But they have no country from which they are from. What does this do to their sense of self?  So the trilogy follows three generations of men. It follows a grandfather, a father, and a son. And the grandfather is a tribe member in the western part of Iran when Iran becomes a state for the first time rather than a collection of tribes. And what happens to him once he goes from being a tribe member to becoming a citizen and a member of the Shah's army. And then I follow his son, who flees the Kurdish region of Iran because he commits a crime, but also because he's obsessed with the United States and with cinema.  So he wants to come to Los Angeles. And then I write about the grandson, who is not identified with his Kurdish background at all, who considers himself completely American even though none of his blood is. And he's one hundred percent Kurdish, and yet has no sense of what that might mean and deals with the ghosts of his ancestry. 

GRILLOT: So part of the process here is to demonstrate how immigration really does separate one eventually from your identity, your ethnic identity, your joint identity?

KHADIVI: It does and doesn't. I think that in many ways identity is a construct and you are constantly imbued from the moment you are born to the moment you die with the stories and the scent and the atmosphere of everybody who came before you. If your parents speak, that's inevitable. So, migration - which I think of it more rather than immigration, that's a political idea, or migration, which is what people do, like birds, or whales, is this result of tensions in where they were from and so they have to flee the tensions and what happens to the life of the heart and the life of the mind when the earth beneath you is different and how that changes your perception of who you are and who you can be. 

GRILLOT: Very interesting. So, Fady, related to that, I mean you're a Palestinian-American. I just wanted to pick up on something Laleh was saying about forty million people without a country. Palestinians experience a similar situation, not maybe as numerous. They have their territories but they don't really have a country in the same way as the Kurds do and there is a significant diaspora of the Palestinian peoples.  But tell us about your work. You're largely a poet and, interestingly, also a physician. And how these things come together and what you're writing about in terms of reflecting that particular identity and expressing thought about these issues. 

JOUDAH: Yeah, I feel very touched by what Laleh said. The idea of the goal, perhaps, of not belonging anywhere in the world is an endeavor of literature because identity is always a construct and I think if you look at the writings and the lives of many mystics in the world, whether they be Eastern, Western, whatever compass you want to subject them to, they have always sought the idea of belonging by not belonging anywhere in the world. So, as a Palestinian and as a physician, or as a poet and as a physician, I think I have come to think of displacement or not belonging through the word-body and the world-body where I realize that we are constantly migrating, to use Laleh's words, within the body that we are born with or given, so to speak. As we age in life we are displaced and migrate within that body and that body also itself has its own self sometimes separate from us and wants something else for itself, so to speak. And how do we deal with it? And subjugating it to science, to methodology doesn't always work.  And, as a Palestinian, and a poet and bilingual and what have you, it's also those levels of displacements come at a larger scale and ask us different questions than the daily difficulties of being displaced within your own body as your knees give out, or your hair falls out, or your skin wrinkles. 

GRILLOT: Well, that's an interesting way to put it, because as I'm hearing the both of you talk about displacement and movement and separation from your home, if you will, or your original culture, your way of life, a lot of people may not identify with that if they don't, if they aren't necessarily migrants or people who have moved from one place to another like animals as you were saying. But, Fady, what you're referring to is that we actually do experience that. This is a very universal, human thing we experience regardless of your background, regardless of your movement. Within your own existence, displacement and movement or seeking-of-belonging is something inherent in what we all experience in life. 

JOUDAH: Well, I think it goes back again to what Laleh said in that we live in an age that is obsessed by the nation-state construct and that is only a construct.  And it is part of literature's endeavor to ask the population en masse 'Why do we go on fully convinced that this is an unchangeable inevitability, this idea of the nation-state construct?' And so, yes, we are displaced, not only in the body but also on the psychologic level. You know, you have a heartbreak, or a loss on a small level, and these things affect you and you are constantly walking around displaced. But I think we have come within an American frame to almost use these as pretexts to efface wider, harder conversations about other forms of displacement. And somehow we tend to think of them, as Americans, as those problems that affect other kinds of people and never us. And there is, it's a deeper problem. And I would like to say, MahmudDarwish has a beautiful poem called "The Kurd Has Only the Wind..."

KHADIVI: ...I know that poem... 

JOUDAH: ...and it's for a Syrian Kurd poet, who...

GRILLOT: ...That's the one thing they share together no matter where they are?...

JOUDAH: Well, yeah, some people may disagree with the title because everybody, you know the Palestinians want a state and then many Kurds want a state but then here come two poets that come in and say, at least on the page there is something about belonging to a higher space if you will, or dimension. 

GRILLOT: That we can still belong to one another or belong to a particular idea regardless of where you are and your experiences?

KHADIVI: Or to nature, in that sense. 

JOUDAH: Or to nature, right.

KHADIVI: Like the wind. The Kurds and the wind are very often referred together. But there is something you were saying in terms of, well, first I think it's literature's job to take these external things such as migration and displacement and to internalize them in a way that any human being on the planet, even one who has lived in the same house their whole life can understand. That is the work of art, in many ways. But something that I find really interesting is as a writer who's working on a trilogy, some of which takes place in the future, to kind of open people's eyes to the idea that the nation-state is no more than two hundred years old at its best, and before that everything was a collection of tribes that made empires. And, after this, we are approaching a post-national world. The internet and the availability of access to multiple, private, niche-oriented identities that are online are going to have us affiliated to one another in ways that were previously impossible and our national identities might just be relegated to football teams or soccer teams, you know? That will be as much as we can tie ourselves to a place. Because even know if you think about the American identity, Texans don't think they have anything in common with Californians. There is not a cohesion in the way that one might imagine in an Eisenhower-era, or something like that.  And so there is this movement away from the national self into this, not necessarily global self, but it's going to be a self that's, to my mind, a mix of commerce and class and race and political ideas that you can tie yourself to and bind with in a way that you might have when you said the pledge of allegiance as a five-year old in class, or were forced to, that might not be necessary be of us anymore.  

GRILLOT: Well, there certainly are nested identities that we each have, right? Some of which are salient at some times rather than others. My Oklahoman identity is perhaps salient when I'm speaking with a Texan, but my US identity or American identity that might be salient when I'm speaking to somebody from overseas. But I wanted to get back to this notion of the job of literature. You said that it's the job of literature to express these ideas, to share these kinds of feelings and emotions, if you will.  But, you know we do this of course by translating literature from one language to another and I imagine there might be some things that are difficult to translate. But I'm wondering if the electronic, I mean you mentioned how easy it is with the internet today to share these things, that with today's technological capability that we actually are able to share these things in a much more efficient and effective way and that people that may not have had access to a particular work of literature or poem or what have you, that is something that is becoming much more ubiquitous today, and that, I mean, can you tell that that's had an impact on the work that you do in terms of who can access it? Who reads it? Your audience if you will? I mean, what do you think about that concept?

KHADIVI: I'm a Luddite, so I chose to become a writer and accepted the sort of work of it insofar as I knew it would tie me to the age-old tradition of storytelling. And as a novelist you can't, unless you're really, really good, fit it into a hundred and sixty characters. So you have to actually get a person to sit down for a sustained amount of time and enter a world. 

GRILLOT: Right, but they have access to digital books now, right? You can download something on Kindle around the world, for example.

KHADIVI: But the writing still has to seduce.

GRILLOT: The writing is still the same, exactly, exactly. 

KHADIVI: It still has to get the person into the story.

GRILLOT: So you've got that old traditional method that's now....

KHADIVI: The medium is irrelevant on some, I mean eventually they will just stream it directly into our brains and then we won't have to sit at all and we can just hear the echoes of it.

GRILLOT: They would drop audio books, I guess.

KHADIVI: Which I love, actually!

GRILLOT: I'm like, someone is going to tell me a story for four days.

KHADIVI: But I think that the medium is constantly changing and if I think about that too much it will be frustrating because it's too much information and I'd rather not, but I have heard studies that people are reading more because of technology, that their time with words in front of their face is more than it was twenty-five years ago.

JOUDAH: The question is what they're reading, and what quality?

KHADIVI: Don't ask that question.

GRILLOT: I mean, that is the question. Without a doubt I think that we are reading more because we're so much more available for us to read, but the question is the quality of that? And are we reading the right things? What are we having access to? 

JOUDAH: And I think, on that note, it becomes also part of literature's endeavor to question the problematic of information as surveillance. And I think the excess of writing and reading, while a good thing always, it's always better to be literate than less literate, but I also think it becomes a pre-text for surveillance, and how does literature write or re-write itself in this day and age where it counters that also. 

GRILLOT: Well, that's an interesting topic and perhaps we'll hold that for another show. Well, Laleh and Fady, thank you so much for being with us today. Very interesting conversation about the importance of this topic. 

KHADIVI AND JOUDAH: Thank you for having us.

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