Parnaz Foroutan

Photo by Debbie Formoso

In this episode of The PEN Pod, we talked with author and 2009 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow Parnaz Foroutan. Her new memoir, Home is a Stranger, follows her family’s immigration from Iran to Los Angeles and explores her personal confrontations with loss and grief. Today, we discussed how the current public health crisis has affected her book’s publication, the importance of supporting literary communities, and why stories produced by marginalized communities are particularly relevant right now.

You can listen to the full-length interview with Parnaz on the Emerging Voices Podcast.

How is the coronavirus and the ensuing shutdown affecting your work and the book’s publication?
All my readings and other festivals I was slated to attend have been canceled. So now, it’s a question of how do you reach an audience when that sort of human contact is no longer available? Obviously, there’s social media, but some of us are fans of the sort of face-to-face, the book readings, and the old school way of connecting to folks. And that’s null and void at this point.

What are some ways that you think we can at least try to recreate a little bit of our literary community, online or digitally?
I’m actually exploring the idea of virtual book readings right now and looking for bookstores who are interested in going that route. I know some bookstores are trying beta versions of that and trying to see how it works. We’re a community of human-to-human contact, so the whole notion of going virtual sort of rubs us the wrong way. But this is the world, and we do need the ideas and the art right now. I mean, there’s only so much Netflix we can watch, right?

“I think our stories can show that human beings have courage and they are resilient and that hope is a key factor in surviving this period. And the stories should be shared.”

Why do you think stories told by marginalized people, people of color, immigrants, and women are particularly relevant right now?
When I was six years old, my family had to escape Iran because there was a war, and there were bombings. Some of my earliest memories are hiding in the basement during the air raids. My husband lived through the genocide in Kosovo. As immigrants, we come from a point when all of a sudden our homes, the societies we live in, are turned upside down. So we’ve experienced something similar to what’s happening right now when the world is suddenly turned upside down. There’s a sort of resilience and hope that we carry because we’ve survived that, and I think we can share that with the world. I think our stories can show that human beings have courage and they are resilient and that hope is a key factor in surviving this period. And the stories should be shared. It’s time to hear those stories. I think this situation with the virus is really shaking people awake, to believe that we’ve closed our eyes for some time now. It’s a moment of reckoning, and it’s time to hear what marginalized people, what immigrants and refugees, have experienced.

Is this a terrible time to be a writer? Is this a great time to be a writer? Or somewhere in between?
This is a magnificent time to be a writer. That shaking awake—that’s sort of the world suddenly entering this stage of grand and epic proportions. I mean, what more could a writer ask for? You know, we are seeing something that is a story in its nature. It’s tragic, and it’s magnificent. And as writers, we have a responsibility to tell those stories. And there’s isolation; there’s a lot of great work that’s come out of isolation. You know, we should all be writing our Don Quixote right now. This is the time to write.

“The independent bookstores are really the bloodline of the literary community, and they need our support right now.”

You mentioned the digital ways that we can connect. What are other ways that we can support each other right now as readers and writers?
I’m really worried about the brick-and-mortar bookstores. I think if we just redirected our shopping habits, rather than opting for the easy method—the “Prime” way—we can find out what bookstores are close to us in our neighborhoods and order from them. I mean, they all can send out books. You might not get it the next day or in two days, but it will arrive, and it’ll help them survive this period. I think that’s crucial. Those brick-and-mortar stores, the independent bookstores, are really the bloodline of the literary community, and they need our support right now.

What are you reading right now?
I’m reading this book called Pandemic by Sonia Shah. It’s really a great read right now. It’s a nonfiction book; she follows the cholera pandemic, where it started and how people reacted to it, and the whole notion of scapegoating during a pandemic and the need for really strong leadership. It’s a great read. I’m also reading No Friend But the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani, which is heavy. He was imprisoned on Manus Island off of Australia because he was escaping the conditions in his homeland. He couldn’t live there anymore. So I think it’s time for us to, like I said, open our eyes and be compassionate to other people’s plights when they’re running away from situations that are beyond their control, because now we’re in situations that are beyond our control. And his book is difficult to read, but it’s a really important read.

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