The Speech by Siamak Vossoughi
by Siamak Vossoughi
“It was good to have a place whose people we wondered about. The wondering was our home. The wondering had been my father's home when we had first arrived, and it was still his home many years later.”
by Siamak Vossoughi
Growing up as part of an Iranian family in a suburb of Seattle, I knew that we were physically a part of the place, that we felt the change of seasons and admired the varieties of light in the sky, but none of us knew whether to call it home. Home? Isn’t something supposed to radiate out from you to touch all the parts of a place to call it home? Isn’t the language of the place supposed to get inside you?
I’ll show you how it’s done, I said to my family. I was twelve years old and I walked to the baseball fields in the evening, down 84th Street behind our house, when there would be three or four games going and I’d soak it in. Out there we had a shot. All we had to do was come out here together and there were places for the children to play and for the parents to sit and watch, and there were even places for the little children to hang around and dream of playing themselves. It all seemed so easy and obvious. But I’d walk back home and I’d always feel like I was trying to squeeze something very big into something very small to have my family come to the fields and call our town home.
What was it? What was it that could seem so beautiful out at the fields, the whole town understanding with such perfect assurance that this was what a Tuesday night in April was, and yet could seem so distant when I got home? I didn’t understand it. I looked at my family and thought that if there was some other place that their home-thoughts extended out to, that would be one thing. That would be okay too. It didn’t have to be baseball. I was only looking for the place where families went together. We were a family, so we could go too.
Well, there was a place like that, and it was inside us. It took me a while to learn it, but that was where it was. What it was was a different world. My father had started calling a different world home in Iran, and he had kept right on doing it in America. It was the same place wherever we were. It was the place where people were decent to each other, all the way through. Beginning, middle, and end. He didn’t see it in Iran and he didn’t see it in America. But its geographic nonexistence had nothing to do with its position as our true home.
My father’s home was a world with no poverty, no war, nobody caring about anything except what might benefit everybody, nobody needing to control anyone else to feel big, nobody taking more than they needed. I’d walk back from the baseball fields in the evening thinking I’d found the key to making this American town of Mercer Island our home, and then I’d see my father and remember that he had a home already. He had one and he was trying to make it a home for all of us. That was the home he could offer us. I didn’t stand a chance against it. I knew it as soon as I walked in. I even liked the home that didn’t exist more than the one at the fields. It was more like us. It was beautiful over there with the grass and the warm evening air. But we would be joining something that was already built to call the fields home. With the other home, we would just be being who we were.
It was funny. To be an Iranian family in a mostly white American town ought to be lonely. And sometimes it was. But we also wondered if they weren’t lonely too. Wasn’t it lonely to not have a decent world in mind as your true home? Wasn’t it very lonely to know that you had a roof over your head, clothes to wear, and food to eat, but not everybody did? We looked around at our town and thought, if we could all be lonely like that, maybe we could have a chance. Maybe we could have a chance of calling this place home.
We waited patiently for them to join us. We waited for them to assimilate. We kept our home ready for the time when they would. When I went to the baseball fields or any of the other places our town called home, there was a sadness to it. I saw how far apart their home and our home were. Theirs seemed to be something hopelessly stationary.
What was that distance? And was it always going to be so vast? I looked for the thing that could bridge that distance and I thought I found it, in the natural environment of our town. These trees, these clouds, this lake that surrounded us. They were all the one home we shared. I gave myself over to the natural world. When I went outside and read under the tree whose branches spread shade over our whole yard in the summer, nobody could say I wasn’t home. Nobody could say an Iranian boy didn’t have a home in America.
When my sister Elham got old enough to start wondering if our town was home, when she was eight or nine years old, she began from the notion that we could have both. She was the first to articulate how we could have our own sense of home, intangible as it was, and the town’s too. None of us knew what to think. We were unable to imagine it because we had gotten used to the distance between the two. She was unconcerned about that distance. She figured she was a part of both places, and so we all could be too.
One day she came home from school and announced that she wanted to join a group called the Indian Princesses. We didn’t understand it. Apparently it was a group for fathers and daughters to participate in together. She and my father went to the community center one night and the first thing they had to do at the meeting was to say the Pledge of Allegiance. When they came home, my father said they weren’t going back. My sister didn’t cry, but she didn’t understand either.
This is part of our being here, I told her. There are parts of this place that are not ours. The flag and the Pledge of Allegiance are not ours. That stuff is for when you have to prove you belong. They’re not ours, but there are other things that are.
Like what? she said.
Like the tree in our yard, I said. And all the shade it gives in the summer.
What about the people?
When they do things like call themselves Indian Princesses, they’re not ours.
I know it’s a stupid name, Elham said. And I don’t like saying the Pledge of Allegiance either. I just want us to be a part of this place. With something more than trees.
It was exciting to watch her. It was like when I had tried to bring the baseball fields home, only she dreamed bigger.
When she was eleven, a presidential candidate came to speak in Seattle. He spoke about no poverty and no war, about all the things that she had learned by then made up my father’s true home.
Let’s go see him, she said. Let’s go and hear him speak, because the way he is talking sounds like the home we are trying to have here.
My sister and my father went, and they listened to him speak to a big crowd, and the man was elected president, and five or six years later, he did what American presidents do, which was that he started a war.
When he did, my father said to my sister, I never should have listened to you.
We all laughed to hear that, me and my sister and my mother. We laughed sorrowfully because the war was starting and we all hated to see it. But it was wonderful to see that my father still had his true home, that he had kept it with him all this time. It was wonderful to see that he didn’t have to know the first thing about the people in the country that the war was being waged against to know that their sorrow was a part of his true home.
When we stopped laughing, my sister said, I was only eleven years old when I said that we should go to hear him speak.
So what? my father yelled. What the hell does that have to do with anything?
My sister blushed because she saw how much respect my father had had for her at eleven. I had never seen her look so proud.
Okay, she said. I’m sorry.
The next time you ask me to do something like that, I’m not going to do it.
I should have stayed home that day, he said.
My sister didn’t have any bitterness toward him. She was thinking of the same thing we were—how full and wonderful his true home must be if he could feel with such precision a regret for one day of having abandoned it. He looked as though the people in the country that was being bombed knew that years ago he had gone with his daughter to hear the president speak. He looked as though he was saying to them in a private language—I’m sorry, she is my daughter, I didn’t know what else to do. You have daughters too, you know how they can be when they want you to take them somewhere.
For just a moment, I thought that the people in the country that was being bombed were more a part of his true home than we were. Not because my sister had made him go to the speech. But because that was where the misery was. He had been staying ready for them. He had been staying ready all this time that we were living in our town to make a home expansive enough to reach across the world if that was where the injustice was.
And I saw what Mercer Island was better than I ever had before. It was a space for our physical presence while our hearts went wandering all over the world looking for home together. It was good to have a place whose trees and clouds and lake we knew. It was good to have a place whose people we wondered about. The wondering was our home. The wondering had been my father’s home when we had first arrived, and it was still his home many years later. He wondered so furiously and desperately that it looked like he was not a part of any place at all. We would look at him and think that he must be very lonely. But then something would happen to make us remember he was more a part of the living earth than anybody.
That felt very good when he yelled at me like that, my sister said later.
That was some fine yelling, I said.
I’m glad I made him go to the speech. I hate that the President started a war, but I’m glad we went to the speech, just to have him yell at me like that. I was happy he still remembered.
After that, we felt lucky to know our way of reaching for home directly. How awful to think that you were home just because where you were born matched where you lived. How sad and lonely it would be. We were lucky that where we were born didn’t match where we lived because the reaching was normal and natural. We were reaching almost all the time, but that helped us to get good at it. We became very good at it. What we didn’t know what to do with were the moments when we did feel sure about home.
Years later, there was a poet who came from Iran and stayed at our house. He was a famous poet, and one night we all drove out to the university, where he read his work aloud. He had a very famous poem called “Roots in the Earth”. Before he read it, he explained that he had written this poem for my father. They had been good friends in Iran and when my father had been planning to leave the country, he had told the poet that he should come too. The poet had gone home and written the poem as his response, saying that he was rooted in the earth of Iran.
He cried as he read it and my father cried and everybody in the room cried. Well, that was home. Our lostness was home. One man leaving and one man staying was home. Everything that they had each seen and couldn’t tell each other was home. The reaching for home was home, the endless reaching, one man reaching in Iran and one man reaching in America, the moment when they could look at each other and see that they had both been reaching was home. It was the best kind of home, and we felt sorry for the people who thought that home was supposed to sit still, nice and quiet and polite, and that it wasn’t supposed to have any kind of never-ending yearning.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Siamak Vossoughi is an Iranian-American writer living in Seattle. He has had stories published in Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, Bennington Review, Columbia Journal, Gulf Coast, and West Branch. He is the author of two short story collections, Better Than War and A Sense of the Whole. Find him on Twitter @siamakvossoughi. More at siamakvossoughi.com.
FEATURED IMAGE BY Jan Tinneberg via UNSPLASH