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Is it essential that a poet know what it’s like to be an outsider?
Poetry is, after all, fundamentally about perspective, interpreting the world from a unique individual’s point of view. And that’s exactly where the outsider stands.
If a poet must indeed be familiar with the experience of feeling “othered,” then at least Farnaz Fatemi can check that box.
Fatemi is Santa Cruz County’s recently named poet laureate, and the author of the 2022 book of poetry “Sister Tongue” (Kent State University Press). She grew up in Southern California as the child of immigrants during a time especially perilous for immigrants from a specific homeland — her parents’ homeland.
Fatemi’s mother and father were natives of Iran, and came to the United States before Farnaz and her twin sister, Tara, were born. The girls were just approaching adolescence when the 1979 Iranian Revolution resulted in the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the seizure of 52 American hostages in Tehran. That seizure doomed the presidency of Jimmy Carter and led in part to a political realignment in the U.S., which has grown over time. Anyone who was alive at that time can remember not only the tensions between Iran and the U.S., but the environment of fear and resentment that swept across the country. Iranian Americans remember it more vividly than most.
“I didn’t even know a target was on my back,” said Fatemi, 54, reflecting on those times. “My sister and I were both teased, bullied and physically harassed by friends — or so-called friends.”
She was pushed down at school, called names, laughed at, ignored, ostracized — as was her sister. But neither sister knew what the other was experiencing. They were in different classes, and were both too scared and ashamed to talk about what was happening with each other or their parents. It wasn’t until years later, when both Fatemi sisters ended up at UC Santa Cruz, that they learned of their common experience.
“My sister was actually writing poetry before I was,” said Farnaz Fatemi, “and she wrote a poem for Bettina Aptheker’s class, which she read at the end of class one day. And it was about being bullied and abused. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, that happened to me too.’”
Before the revolution, the Fatemi sisters had traveled to Iran as children with their parents, and though the girls were fundamentally Americans and spoke primarily English, they were connected to Iran through cultural and familial ties. And it was through that searing outsider experience that the poet was born.
“My personal journey has been all about my own relationship to what it means to be Iranian,” she said. “But I didn’t even feel I had access to that as a kid and as a teenager, partly because I was so ashamed.”
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As a young person, she unconsciously began referring to her heritage as Persian, which culturally is more deeply embedded and resonant than Iranian. “In college, I had a couple of really good friends who said, ‘Why do you call yourself Persian and not Iranian?’ And I thought, well, why do I? Even though Persian might actually be more true, I now consciously use Iranian all the time, because I came to it, as anyone with a blended inheritance has to, thinking what do I want, what am I embracing, what am I taking back for myself?”
Fatemi’s book of poetry, “Sister Tongue,” her first published collection, is, she said, specifically about the liminal spaces between, for example, being American and being Iranian. As the book’s title implies, part of that tension is between English and Farsi. “My parents were divorced when I was [a toddler], so basically I lived with my mother as a kid,” Fatemi said. “And she consciously did not speak Farsi to us. They were both of the generation that believed that you would confuse kids if you spoke both.”
Later, her mother had a change of heart and tried to teach her daughters part of her native language. But the kids were old enough to rebel. Since then, though, Fatemi has worked hard to learn Farsi beyond what she heard from relatives as a child. She took classes and hired a tutor. She traveled to Iran for the first time post-revolution in 2001, with her grandmother. She stayed a month. “At one point, I noticed how quiet I had been the whole trip,” she said. “But I could understand [Farsi] a lot better.”
If “Sister Tongue” is Fatemi’s declaration of identity to the literary world, her post as the most recent poet laureate of Santa Cruz County is her springboard to spread the power of poetry to the community. As laureate (her term lasts for two years, 2023-24), she has already launched a newsletter she calls “For Better or Verse,” designed to keep readers informed on events, news, and opportunities in the local poetry ecosphere. Working with the Santa Cruz County Public Libraries, she’ll also work to establish a young poet-laureate program for aspiring poets and writers 18 and under.
The county’s poet laureate program began more than a decade ago, as a honorary position to promote poetry in the community, and establish literary programs and opportunities for poets and would-be poets. Past laureates include many of the most prominent names in the county’s literary community including Gary Young, Ellen Bass, Robert Sward, Danusha Lameris and David Sullivan.
As laureate, Fatemi is also busy pursuing means of funding for programs involving poetry. “There’s at least some money out there for poetry right now,” she said. “It’s tough to get, but my thinking is, Why not? Why shouldn’t we ask for something for Santa Cruz?”
She’s a co-founder of the popular “The Hive” poetry show on KSQD 90.7-FM, and she taught writing at UCSC for several years, so she’s no outsider when it comes to the Santa Cruz literary scene. While she works to bring self-expression to her community in California, she is also mindful of what so many women in Iran are experiencing now, as they push back against religious fundamentalism more than 40 years after the revolution. Many of those women Fatemi has met in her many trips to Iran over the years.
“It’s more than just protests here and there. I think there’s something huge happening,” she said. “Yes, we’ve seen it before in that country, but not quite at this level. And it’s all coming from women, because they have the most at stake.
“They are amazing. They’re so brave. They are hilarious, brazen, emotional, expressive, really physical in ways that I never learned how to be. It’s hard not to look at women there and be totally impressed by how much they are risking when they speak what they believe.”