A Conversation with Farnaz Fatemi on her book Sister Tongue زبان خواهر
A Conversation with
On her book, “Sister Tongue زبان خواهر”
“For me the obvious lesson I’ve learned from being a poet and from being someone who has made efforts to learn languages is that the world might, finally, be untranslatable.”
A Conversation with Farnaz Fatemi
On her book, “Sister Tongueزبان خواهر ”
Farnaz Fatemi’s Sister Tongue زبان خواهر named the winner of the 2021 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize by Tracy K. Smith is a multi-faceted exploration of identity and language that speaks to one woman’s diaspora experience, but will resonate for all readers who examine who they are in the world, and where they belong. Fatemi writes:
“I have come to understand that one could get a lifetime crush on Iran. After my first adult trip to Iran, I was embarrassed by this love. I was effusive, ignorant about the privilege of my smooth entry into and out of both my countries. I heard from people who couldn’t. Friends eager to see Iran report they’d been told not to try. Relatives were unable to get the paperwork to return to their original home. Or had left the States and, presenting their green cards or provisional cards on return, met the bureaucracy of non-belonging at the US border.”
What is it to be of a cultural heritage yet apart from its geography? What does it mean to belong to a people, a land, and ultimately to ourselves, with all of our singular experiences?
Let me start with the last lines of the book, which I think lead perfectly back to the beginning of the collection to come:
“Looking at myself putting on my headscarf, getting ready to go outside, get a taxi, visit some relatives, I recognize myself. And I recognize the voice I’m using, but it’s different. I have things to say in Farsi, things that won’t translate. Things I can’t say any other way.”
This is likely more philosophy than linguistics, but do you think there are always parts of our identity that are distant to us because we aren’t yet aware of them, because we don’t have the tools to “see” them?
FF Yes, I think it’s reflected in the way I think of myself and the way selves are conceived in this book. In a way, we can be many, many selves existing at the same time, although they might not always be apparent. It’s like the time travel being done in and by my poem, “Pleats.” The tools for “seeing,” as you put it, aren’t always language, but as a poet I have long found an exploration of language to be helpful in personal exploration, too.
I’m taken with the variety of forms you use to explore the subject of language and meaning, or more specifically, the inability of one single form to fully express such. Might we talk about prose poems versus more traditional stanzaic poetry, and what those containers allow and support? Did you always mean for this to be a mixed form collection?
FF I had no idea it would look the way it looks [in terms of the mixed forms] when I first started thinking more clearly about it as the collection it is now. But I did start to notice how, in order to talk about different ways of embodying the self and embodying what it means to be an Iranian-American woman or an Iranian woman, it seemed necessary to use a range of forms to reflect reality. I had been working on the longer prose poem that is “Sister Tongue” for a few years, and I thought of it as a very separate piece than the more traditional poetry when it occurred to me that I was using entirely different-looking forms to engage with related things or problems/concerns. It seems obvious now that what’s in the book needed to be together. The beauty of discovery that making poems can bring.
I appreciate how repetitions—phrases, themes, even titles—work in the collection. “Sister Tongue” isn’t just several individual pieces in that sense, it’s an ongoing poem that expresses nuance and perspective. Would you talk about how you considered that as you built the collection?
FF As I mentioned earlier, I was writing the long piece that is “Sister Tongue” parallel to writing other poems in this book. I used the form to think about, remember, and understand how moving through the world and across the world and into old places and into new places—how those experiences feel and what they mean. The vignette and short prose allow me to dwell in memory while noticing connection to other memories. There’s absolutely something about the form that allowed me to do that. I trusted it from the beginning—I knew it was helping me pay a different kind of attention than the other poems. I do think that has something to do with the way individual pieces resonate with each other over the course of time, and in shared space.
I’d be remiss not to bring up sisters in general. Sisterhood, literal and figurative, works powerfully in these poems, and dare I say, in your life.
FF It turns out being a sister—being a twin—trained me to notice and appreciate liminality! And what I didn’t know I’d learned, writing about other women taught me. That next-to-ness feels like a helpful way to think about speaking language in the diaspora—though I did not think about that when I first came up with the title, “Sister Tongue,” for the long prose section.
Would you talk about being Poet Laureate for Santa Cruz County, as well as how that intersects with your creation of The Hive Poetry Collective? How does Santa Cruz figure into your practice and life?
FF I’ve been in Santa Cruz for most of my adult life. The county has a rich poetry heritage—one which has fed me since before I thought of myself as a poet. Lucille Clifton, Gloria Anzaldua, Lorna Dee Cervantes all spent time here, and they have certainly all influenced me. It is a lucky thing to begin to engage in conversation with other poets—prior and present—in order to understand one’s own work. But I’m slow to everything, so it took me a while to see that that was happening for me! Helping create the Hive Poetry Collective was born out of a desire to continue reflecting/representing contemporary poets and poetics at a local level. Getting to serve as Poet Laureate for Santa Cruz County is personally a natural extension of wanting to amplify voices which aren’t always amplified, to the extent I can help do that, as an individual empowered by this role.
I really appreciate the lack of italics for romanticized Persian words; that bending, the less than, that bowing to the dominant language. There’s a power in suggesting that none of us can understand everything the poem, or the poet, is and says.
FF For me the obvious lesson I’ve learned from being a poet and from being someone who has made efforts to learn languages is that the world might, finally, be untranslatable. And yet the pursuit—an attempt to understand—can be a space and source of great beauty. I say it’s “obvious” because it is to me now and I’m grateful to wallow in these between spaces. But I wasn’t always confident about this vision; there’s a way in which not only was my specific experience with Farsi also associated with some feelings of shame (in not knowing it better, and in identifying as Iranian) but also because of the way the world defers to English as the dominant or supposedly more important language.
Many of these poems inhabit a space where language both can and can’t express all the speakers’ experiences, yet by investigating that duality, there’s a nuanced expression of the self. How does identity feel to you now? What kind of poems are you writing these days?
FF I do welcome the chance to wallow in the in-between spaces. I’m not sure that’s confined to the way I ponder identity, but in fact I want to embrace the liminal in a range of ways. As a poet, that means that my approach has loosened up a lot. I hope I’m cultivating space and a deeper way of listening to what comes during my writing process. I’m laughing, though, because one way I’ve been doing this (most recently) is giving myself formal rules to follow—right now rules are letting me loosen up!
Memory—your own and others’—plays a large part in many of your poems. And yet memory is often unreliable, especially from childhood. When you were finally in Iran, how did such memories imbue your own experiences? How different was reality to what was recalled, by you or by others?
FF I am only beginning to realize that the sounds of language are some of the most potent portals for me into memory. Reading Sister Tongue زبان خواهر, I see this now. When I went to Iran in 2001, after 20+ years away, I had very few visual or even visceral memories that came back, so I don’t think my adult experience really was that colored by my childhood. Thinking about language, however, or trying to understand family and strangers who spoke it to me, conjured memories of people and loved ones from way, way back—which includes Iran.
What do you think you’ve been able to put to rest with these poems? What do you feel you’ll never be done with?
FF I will always be obsessed with the way people (including myself) change inside or because of language—I’m sure that’s true for many poets; it’s certainly true in a certain cross-section of these poems. I bet that won’t ever go away. I can’t say my curiosity about any of the issues or themes in the book has been laid to rest, either.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Farnaz Fatemi, an Iranian-American poet and writer, and Santa Cruz County Poet Laureate for 2023 and 2024, is a founding member of The Hive Poetry Collective. Her book, Sister Tongue زبان خواهر, won the 2021 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize, selected by Tracy K. Smith, is a 2022 finalist for the Foreword Indies, and received a Starred Review from Publisher’s Weekly. Farnaz was formerly a writing instructor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Learn more at farnazfatemi.com. Follow her on Instagram @farnaz._.fatemi.
AUTHOR PHOTO by Alison Gamel. BOOK COVER courtesy of Janet Fine. Featured background image by Nik Shuliahin via Unsplash.