A Conversation with Neda Toloui-Semnani on her memoir, “They Said They Wanted Revolution: A Memoir of My Parents”
A Conversation with
On her memoir, “They Said They Wanted Revolution: A Memoir of My Parents”
“I believe we can trace ourselves back through time, through history. The practice of tracing myself this way, helped me feel connected to my ancestors and with a great many others outside of my immediate sphere. I suddenly felt that I was part of a larger tapestry, one that’s being woven in real time but goes back eons. There’s a comfort to that feeling of connection for me.”
A Conversation with Neda Toloui-Semnani
On her memoir, “They Said They Wanted Revolution: A Memoir of My Parents”
From a daughter of Iranian revolutionaries, activists, immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers comes a gripping and emotional memoir of family and the tumultuous history of two nations.
In 1979, Neda Toloui-Semnani’s parents left the United States for Iran to join the revolution. But the promise of those early heady days in Tehran was warped by the rise of the Islamic Republic. With the new regime came international isolation, cultural devastation, and profound personal loss for Neda. Her father was arrested and her mother was forced to make a desperate escape, pregnant and with Neda in tow.
Conflicted about her parents’ choices for years, Neda realized that to move forward, she had to face the past head-on. Through extensive reporting, journals, and detailed interviews, Neda untangles decades of history in a search for answers.
Both an epic family drama and a timely true-life political thriller, They Said They Wanted Revolution illuminates the costs of righteous activism across generations.
Most imagine emigration as a one-way journey, but one thing I noticed in this memoir is the multi-directional nature of immigrancy. You, your family, have gone back and forth, sometimes to devastating results. Now, how do you feel about the freedom—and comfort—of existing in multiple geographies?
NTS There was a different sort of freedom available in the 20th century. From the obvious—people could walk to the airport gate without a ticket—to the less obvious, passport technology and surveillance isn’t like it is today. My family’s initial migration story fell into the middle of the last century: when travel was becoming easier, U.S. visas more available, and prejudice against people from Iran wasn’t so virulent. In other words, we were “exotic,” but not terrorists.
Our second migration story was about fleeing for safety. It was moving across borders to find refuge and asylum. It’s a story we’re seeing over and over again, ad nauseum, now. This week we’re witnessing the latest chapter in an overwhelming global refugee crisis. I feel incredibly distraught, and worried for the Ukrainians and for the many thousands of Middle Easterners, North Africans, Haitians, Latin and South Americans, and other brown and Black people, who’ve been stuck in limbo, refused entry, and vilified and shunned by the West.
There’s also a broader story here of what it’s like to be the children of activists. How have your parents’ stories bled into your own: how has it influenced the work you do and what you want for your own life?
NTS I spent a great deal of time growing up trying to be the kind of person I thought my father would want me to be. I volunteered, got involved in politics, studied history and human rights. Looking back, I think I felt that if I could continue being the type of person my father was—someone who agitated for justice—I was continuing his legacy. I would stay connected to him. And, it obviously has shaped who I am now. It’s given me a very clear sense of my own values.
In that way, even though my father died when I was young, he still encouraged me to live a life in-service of something larger than myself. My mother did, as well, though she was the parent who had to raise us, my brother and me. She tempered my idealism with practicality. So, their twin legacies are alive in my life. I believe journalism is a public service. I also believe I have a responsibility to make the world a more just place, not just at work, but as I live my life.
There’s so much in this memoir about home: what is home for you? What do you carry with you wherever you go, literally or figuratively?
NTS I carry my grandfather’s compass wherever I go. I pick up rocks and shells when I am on trips and put them in my wallet. I carry a journal with me, and a handkerchief embroidered with the acronym D.M.S.U. or Don’t Make Shit Up. These are essentially talisman—objects that ground me. Thinking about it now, I am aware that I need to be able to take home with me, which is something anyone who is a refugee or raised as part of a diaspora is knows. We know that home, be it ancient or new, will be temporary.
What was your life when you were the same age as your parents at the beginning of the story? In reading this memoir, I think about how much your parents—my own parents—were accomplishing at ages far younger than I. How did their actions influence your own decisions and desires?
NTS Interestingly, I wasn’t too much older than my mother was when she returned to Iran after living in the U.S. for 10 years. She was 20 and I was 23. Our returns to Iran shaped how we respectively approached the rest of our twenties, and has subsequently shaped our choices, families, and careers.
My mother’s twenties were, essentially, dedicated to working toward the Iranian revolution, the aftermath of which derailed her life for a time. Most of my twenties, on the other hand, were shaped by my mother’s terminal illness. Her raison d’etre was the great ambitious mission to uproot institutions and governmental structures, while mine was much smaller though, I believe, equally profound.
How has your experience of journalism changed—if at all—with writing this book, which is nonfiction as you tell us at the outset, but still shaded and shifted by recollection, individual memories and the like.
NTS I think the process of researching and reporting this book has made me a much more confident reporter and editor. If you can report on your family, uncover stories about those you love most in this world, and if you can learn to navigate the personal and political minefields, every other story is much less scary.
Being a journalist is simply this: ask questions, put information in context, and wrap it all in a narrative structure. I knew that of course, before writing this book, but writing this book gave me the space to play with different forms within the nonfiction genre. There is lyrical essay, poetry, straight journalism, etc., but it’s all underpinned by basic reportage.
In your journalistic career, you interview many from different countries who’ve emigrated—or forced to—different countries; do you feel a different sense of understanding about their situations, especially now?
NTS Oh, God. Yes. Absolutely. The process of reporting this book required that I sit with people who had harrowing stories of escape, migration, and exile. It also required I dig deep into my own experience to excavate how this affected me, my family, and our community. The book gave me the opportunity to tell the totality of the story: why did we have to escape Iran? How did we do it? And, how did we survive the aftermath?
This means, I’m interested in the whole of people’s migration stories—Why? How? And, what happened next?
Over the past year alone, I’ve reported on ICE detention centers, helped cover the end of the war in Afghanistan, and now, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. My personal experience and professional expertise have shaped the questions I ask and, ultimately, the stories I help tell.
What is the line between nonfiction and journalism? How does the personal aspect alter your ability to “report” it? Did each recollection about your family from others—the details that you could never have witnessed—shift your foundation of who you felt you are?
NTS Nonfiction is an incredibly elastic genre—but it’s only nonfiction if it’s true. And for it to be true, it must be researched and reported. Research and reportage will elevate the work from a realm of personal musing to a piece of intellectual heft, to be reckoned with.
But it’s also true that research and reporting will change the story you think you know. Reporting on this book changed how I saw my parents, my extended family, and myself. It’s scary sometimes. When you’re reporting on your family, you might find yourself essentially questioning the foundation of it and of yourself.
But letting a story take shape through asking questions is the great fun of journalism: you think you understand a something, then you ask a question, and it changes the contours of a tale you think you know into something you couldn’t have imagined. That’s true with every single story—it’s the reality of this profession that should keep all us journalists humble.
There are many lyric, and cinematic, aspects to this memoir. One area that touched me deeply was the provenance of your family name, how “(w)hen my grandfather chose it, we began to be what we would become: a clan of wanderers and seekers, determined dreamers moving through a too-real world.” How important is it that we get to name ourselves? And have the freedom to take it, or change it, as we move through the world?
NTS It’s so funny. I think grappling with our names is such a huge part of being an immigrant. It’s a conversation that’s happened repeatedly throughout my life. For example, do we Iranian Americans choose names Americans can pronounce? Do we change our names so others feel more comfortable, and then we feel comfortable, too?
Or do we embrace having “hard” names? Is claiming our names and their pronunciation suddenly a political act? I know someone who change his name for work, because he felt having an obviously Iranian name made it difficult to get clients.
But I’ve grown from being rather cavalier with my name to being loudly, fiercely proud of it—a huge part of that pride stemmed from learning that my grandfather chose it. It feels like he gave us a gift.
Identity is such an important part of this story, of all diaspora stories, indeed, of the entire human story. I’m taken with your ideas of saar nevesht, which seem to go backward and forward; how before they even met, your parents were your parents, by virtue of the fact that you are here, now.
NTS : I don’t really believe in destiny, per se. As in, I don’t think the future is written, but I do believe one action begets another. So, I suppose, I believe we can trace ourselves back through time, through history. The practice of tracing myself this way, helped me feel connected to my ancestors and with a great many others outside of my immediate sphere. I suddenly felt that I was part of a larger tapestry, one that’s being woven in real time but goes back eons. There’s a comfort to that feeling of connection for me.
Did the questions you had, the reason you started this memoir, get answered? Indeed, did the reason for the memoir change as you kept writing it? How does it appear to you now? I’m taken with the fact that as you were creating this memoir, near the end you were on the verge of being a parent (or perhaps to use your own words, you were already a parent, but your son just hadn’t yet materialized). That duality is fascinating and meaningful. Does the book appear different to you now?
NTS To answer your question broadly, yes, I do think all my questions were answered—I feel like I know my father now in a substantive way. He’s not just an absence of space or a mythic hero or synonym for grief. I see him as he was, human and extraordinary. I love him more now. I love him with a completeness that was missing before.
I understand him now in a way I didn’t before my son was born. There’s an unhelpful myth around childbirth, I think. We tell each other that you’ll give birth and hold your child and you’ll love them wildly. My experience of parental love is that, actually, the love grows deeper over time and as you get to know your child and yourself in this new role.
Writing this book was in many ways, my way of saying goodbye to the time in my life I got to be someone’s child. Now, my son was born and the book is released into the world. I feel I’m moving into the next half of my life—where love for my son, our family and friends, and my work is guiding and shaping me and my choices.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Neda Toloui-Semnani a senior writer on the television news magazine, VICE News Tonight. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Washington Post, Kinfolk, New York, LA Review of Books, The Baffler, and Longreads among others. She’s been featured in The Rumpus and This American Life. She holds a masters of science in gender and social policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a masters in fine arts in nonfiction from Goucher College. She was named a 2018 fellow with the Logan Nonfiction Program and a 2017 NYSCA/NYFA fellow in Nonfiction. She grew up in Washington, D.C., and is based in Brooklyn.
AUTHOR PHOTO by Nilo Tabrizy • BOOK EXCERPT and INFORMATION courtesy of the author