Farnaz Fatemi leads a double life. Born in Iran, but raised in California, she found herself engaged in poetry as a tool of archeology, sifting through memories, words and places to find the key to her sense of self. In his first collection of poems, sister language, winner of the 2021 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize selected by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith, she questions her identity as a Persian-American and as a twin. The book of sensitive poems and travel notes traces Fatemi’s odyssey on a return visit to Iran as an adult, weaving between Farsi and English with love and concern. Fatemi told me about the new collection.
If I had to locate the heart of this collection, it would be this line: ‘I want the stranger in me to meet the stranger in me. What does this mean to you?
FARNAZ FATEMI: Writing these lines was an attempt to name something that I knew was not just personal. It was an attempt to capture something from my childhood and adulthood that the book itself hopes to pay attention to. It’s not just Farnaz paying attention, it’s the speakers of these poems reflecting on what strangeness means and how it changes over the course of a lifetime. Take the question as a personal question: yes, as a child, I was incredibly alienated from myself. I didn’t understand what my own wishes and hopes were because I was so worried about other people’s. I felt different because of my Iranian family. I felt far from language, I felt different from the other girls and from my twin sister. You could say that a lot of how I learned to be in the world evolved out of a sense of weirdness.
You are a twin in two respects, biological and cultural, as Tara’s sister and as a Persian American. Did these two challenges (pun intended) fuel the creation of this book?
There is no doubt that they did! I also feel like I should have noticed much sooner than I did that so many of my relationship poems are intrinsically about how I am a twin in this world. I also feel like I should have noticed the tensions you raise and how they are, in a way, parallel to each other. The process of making this book certainly required me to explore them. And I demanded that I find a language that reflects the liminality of twinship and being bicultural, to express what that liminality feels like.
Has your sense of identity changed over time? Depending on whether the Persian or the American is ascendant, do you always aspire to be the other?
I long ago stopped wanting to be one or the other. I think that’s reflected in some of the reconciliation that happens in different poems by sister tongue. More importantly, however, I benefited from learning, in my twenties, the Farsi phrase rage, which literally means two-veined, and is used to reflect people like me – people raised here in the United States with strong Iranian ties or with a family that remains culturally connected to Iran. I know what made me me, and it really is a healthy waste to be the daughter of Iranian immigrants, exposed to a diversity of pop cultures, coming of age in Southern California in the 80s and beyond. What matters to me is the way the poems sister language want to make room for this possibility.
The Hive Poetry Collective presents Farnaz Fatemi’s new collection of poetry, “Sister Tongue”, featuring Danusha Lameris, Ingrid LaRiviere, Frances Hatfield and Lisa Allen Ortiz. Tuesday, September 6 at 7 p.m. Free. Santa Cruz Bookstore, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. bookstoresantacruz.com.