Must I forget my first language to move beyond my past?

I recently moderated a panel on the challenges immigrant writers, whose first language is not English, face in writing and getting published in America. I shared the tale of being told my English was not “native” enough to graduate from my MFA program. I saw looks of disgust and empathy on the faces of the audience and wondered how many had been told something similar or the same. In the end, a Russian woman asked what she could do to cope with “the agonizing process” of first thinking and writing in Russian and then translating it into English. The time was running out, and the panelists’ answers were quick. “If this is what it takes, you have to be patient,” I said in a rush. I was disappointed I didn’t get to instruct her on how to force her brain to think in English—as I had done. 

In 2003, I came to America after graduating high school in Iran. Anyone I met here, from relatives, new friends, and strangers to my ESL classmates and teachers, reacted with a raised eyebrow or an awkward silence when I said I wanted to become a writer. Other Iranians laughed. To them, immigrants better their lives by earning promising degrees in engineering or medicine. I wanted to write in my second language; even worse, I expected to make a living with it. Unlike most of my countrymen and women, I was never a star student in math and sciences. Since the popular belief is that art and humanities are the routes for the lazy and untalented, they weren’t surprised that I was saying I’d come to America to become a writer. When I shared a poem I had attempted in English with a friend, he “aww” ed in pity and told me “it’s heartbreaking one can never write poetry in their second language.” 

When I confess my insecurities about writing in a second language, some people tell me Vladimir Nabokov was an immigrant, too, and he wrote Lolita in English. He was raised by English-speaking nannies and read in English before even learning his native tongue. What would I have given to learn English as a child instead of an adult who still, to this day, messes up her grammar and forgets words when nervous? 

But I was willing to be poor and pitied if it meant that I could write an essay or a poem in English. So, I gave up my mother tongue. I literally gave up Persian. I refused to read, write and speak Persian. I worked—sometimes up to three jobs—while attending community college and asked every co-worker and teacher to immediately correct me if I pronounced a word incorrectly or used the wrong grammar. I gained a reputation in community college as “the bitch who replies in English when you talk to her in Farsi.” I stopped speaking to Iranian friends and relatives and only befriended Americans. I replaced my Persian-English dictionary with a thesaurus and kept the NPR station on 24/7. When my classmates were going to parties and concerts and enjoying the liberties of American life, I was in the library hand-copying To the Lighthouse, which I had gotten with a coupon for a free Virginia Woolf book. I wanted to write only in English. 

In 2007, four years after I came to America, I began writing Op-Eds for my college newspaper. Other blogs, columns, and translations followed. Of course, I cringe at the simple word choices now, but it happened. I was no longer thinking in Persian. I dreamt in English. Even more fascinating, I recalled the memories and conversations of my childhood in English. My brain had switched. 

Yet, I was puzzled why it was so difficult for others to believe that an immigrant could think in her second language. Everyone assumes I think and write in my mother tongue first. When I began my MFA program in 2012, two different faculty approached me—one taking pity on me and one being impressed by me—to say it must be so time-consuming to think in a foreign language and translate the thoughts on paper. 

A few days after returning from the writing conference, I watched a program about the Iranian writer Mahshid Amirshahi, who has written most of her books in exile because her work is banned in our home country. After moving to a boarding school in England as a young girl, she realized that she “never wanted learning a foreign language to cause me to lose my mother tongue.” What would I have given to be sent to England as a teen to learn English effortlessly like Amirshahi? Everything.

I couldn’t relate to Amirshahi. The love for Persian she described felt so strange to me. I didn’t mind losing my mother tongue. It doesn’t bother me that my brother shakes his head and says Shame, shame when I stumble upon words and repeatedly ask him, Farsish chi mishe? 

It’s about love! I tell myself. If the great Persian poets are to be believed, only love makes one do crazy things. I went through that strict regimen because I loved the English language. That’s settled. I’m no different from Amirshahi. We both love languages. It just happens to be two different languages. I never had any desire to preserve Persian in my heart, let alone in my head. 

That’s settled. Except it isn’t. 

I am invariably frustrated that English is too limited when translating Persian poetry. I get frustrated and click Ctrl + A and Delete when the translation of a line about a spool’s longing for the kite turns out comical and childish. If I’m honest, English doesn’t even come second. Urdu and Hindi flutter my heart every time I discover a new grammatical complexity as I am learning them side by side.

Now, I barely have five Iranian friends, and the ones I speak to regularly do not live conventional Iranian lives. They don’t remind me of Iran. Being a woman in Iran is living in a constant state of war where—besides bullets and batons—the weapons are theocracy, misogyny, patriarchy, the constitution, the legal system, the education system, and the propaganda billboards telling women what to do. Except for a small group whose ideologies and lifestyle align with the theocratic regime, everyone else struggles to preserve a piece of themselves, to think for themselves, to choose for themselves. 

This is where I question my conclusion. What if I think and write in English because I’m too ashamed of being Iranian? What if I hate to relive the abuses? Is thinking in English, reading in English, writing in English, translating into English, and living in English help me turn my back on all the pain and memories?

For the past two decades of living in the United States, I have been battling the traumas of growing up in Iran. From a psychologically abusive father who constantly said I was no good, to a society that, from early on, teaches you to lie and pretend to thrive. The recent “Women, Life, Freedom” movement, ignited by the murder of a young woman called Mahsa Amini in the custody of the so-called morality police who didn’t approve of her clothing, is a painful reminder of my childhood. School days when the principals warned us about being hanged by our hair in hell if we didn’t cover our heads properly. Being fondled by men on the bus going to and from school. Being told by my mother from an early age that I must grow up and flee to the West because there is no future for a woman in this misogynist culture. These are just the beginning of the long list of grievances I have about my short life in Iran.

Writing in my second language gives me distance. It gives me closure.

No language, however, functions in a vacuum. I had written my MFA thesis about growing up in Iran in English, never translating it from Farsi. Then, I was told my English was not “native” enough to graduate. The program made me hire a copyeditor to “fix” my manuscript. Tears ran down my cheeks as I held the phone, listening to my mentor: “The good news is you will graduate. The bad news is your manuscript has been flattened and no longer has your voice.” It hit me hard. My greatest fear, my greatest insecurity that I will never be considered a “writer,” had come true. I burned every version in a small fire pit in the backyard. 

I graduated but didn’t write for years. I settled for literary translation as a career path. Since I can’t write, the least I can do is to hide behind someone else’s writing, I thought. Looking back, I wonder if I had somehow internalized the notion that literature is reserved for native speakers long before I was told to write like a native English speaker. I wonder if even though I began learning English at age nineteen, thinking in English can make me close to a native speaker. I wonder if it’s really my voice when someone edits my writing to be more “native.” I wonder if giving up Farsi will help relieve me from my past traumas.

I don’t know which of my theories is correct, and I suppose I will forever wrestle with the questions—or at least for as long as I’m asked which language I think in. 

Parisa Saranj is an Iranian-American writer, translator, and editor at Consequence Forum. Her writings on contemporary Iranian politics and translations from Persian have been published in several publications, including Ms. Magazine, Defunct, Two Lines, and Your Impossible Voice. She has also translated two documentaries, Nasrin (2020) and Sansur (2023), on women’s rights in Iran.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *