Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Siamak Vossoughi’s fiction piece, The Death Of Love Or The Life Of It
John: I hesitate to use this word, but there is often a sweetness in your work that is difficult to find elsewhere in literary fiction. I think writers often feel that if they’re not wrestling with huge tragedies, they are not doing serious work, but you manage profundity in these small moments of kindness and connection. How do you do that? And have you ever been tempted to throw in a zombie attack or an impalement, just to mix things up?
Siamak: Thank you for this question. I owe a lot to two writers who modeled a willingness to risk being seen as sentimental, J.D. Salinger and William Saroyan. Saroyan in particular was often dismissed as overly-sentimental to the point of being distant from the hard realities of life, when in truth, I think the exact opposite is true. I think that if a writer is sure of their relationship with life, that risk becomes much easier, and can even feel like hardly a risk at all. For myself, my relationship with life is such that I think life is the greatest thing ever. Inside of that relationship, there is all kinds of foolishness, absurdity, tragedy, and pain. I think that on some level, most people feel the same way. I like to create characters who wrestle with that paradox overtly. Usually, if I’m creating them well, there’s enough of an internal battle that a zombie attack might seem excessive. 🙂
In this story, Azadeh’s family does have a point. As a writer, I am painfully aware of the inexactitude of words, and the ability of something great, once named, to be reduced to the quotidian and the banal. How concerned should we, as writers, be about this? And is there any way to avoid these dangers?
I hear what you’re saying on this one, and I think there’s somewhat of a paradoxical answer to this one as well. ‘I love you’ spoken many times a day can have a flattening effect on the emotion, but what about the rhythm it creates over time? I grew up in a household where we didn’t say ‘I love you,’ and there isn’t exactly a precise translation that rolls of the tongue as easily as in American English, but on the other hand, there is an expression in Farsi that is often used in parting that translates to ‘I sacrifice myself for you.’ What does it mean to use that as part of one’s everyday speech? My parents would say that it isn’t meant to be taken literally, that it is a custom, and of course customs bind people together as well. In terms of writers, I think certainly we should be wary of cliché, but at the same time, a fear of sounding cliché is still fear, and I know that for me personally, I don’t do my best writing from fear.
You were born in Iran but grew up in the west. I’m always interested in how this sort of international background informs writers’ work. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of working from your position?
There’s a lot to say about this one. For one thing, I grew up reading (and therefore emulating) the work of writers who didn’t look like me. Who not only didn’t look like me, but whose stories sometimes felt very far from my home life. It took some years to figure out what I wanted to keep from that ‘apprenticeship’ and what I wanted to discard. In some ways, a lot of possibilities opened up as well, as I was able to see myself reflected in the work of other writers of color and immigrant writers whose work portrayed a struggle to live and breathe in an America that was not always eager to let them do so. At this point, in all honesty, the advantages greatly outweigh any disadvantages. Growing up in a place different from where you’re born teaches you to look, and it’s a good habit for a writer to cultivate.
If, as Pema Chodron says, death is inevitable but the time of death is unknown, what is the most important thing? What would Azadeh say?
Well, I think Azadeh would say love is the most important thing (hard for me to disagree). But when I think of her, I think she might also say that she is never going to die, which might be the real wisdom of childhood.