Making Something of It

BY RUTH JOYNTON, Nonfiction Editor

SycamoreVery little was known about Iranian immigrant experiences to America before Nahid Rachlin’s Foreignerhit bookstores in 1978.  Considering this, it’s strange that Foreigner is not a story of coming to America, but going back to Iran. Sometimes the best way to see something clearly is to know what it is not: in this book, Feri, who has been in America for fourteen years, goes home and is finally able to explore the reasons for her leaving and staying away so long, while discovering from that distance what America lacks and her birthplace still offers.

It’s a small and quiet book, but rich.  I once heard that novelists rely too much on the sense of sight, and not enough on other senses.  Nahid Rachlin is an expert in all five: wrapping her readers in the aromas, sights, tastes, feel and noise of 1970s Tehran and Kashan.  After spending so much time away from Iran, Feri finds herself a foreigner to both countries.  Her acclimation to American culture was never complete, but she returns to Iran refusing at first to wear a chador, much to the chagrin of her family.

This is an excellent book to take along on a short trip, to read in three day’s time.  I’m looking forward to reading more of Rachlin’s work.  In about a month, on Oct. 22, she’ll be traveling to Purdue to give a reading, and I’ll have the opportunity to interview her during that visit.

She’s been called a pioneer of Iranian immigrant literature, but part of me wonders how she feels about that label: pioneer, so closely tied in this country with the American West, expansion, covered wagons, long treks ahead.

But then again, hasn’t she made a long trek herself?  Isn’t she someone who settled in the unknown and made something of it?