On Nov. 27, nationally acclaimed Iranian-American writer Roya Hakakian held a craft lecture and discussion at the WCU Poetry House. Located on the furthest edge of east campus, the poetry center was packed with students and teachers excited to hear the illustrious author speak of her works.
Hakakian was born and raised in Tehran, Iran. She lived through the Iranian Revolution in 1979 as an active supporter for the liberals. During the Iran-Iraq war she unwillingly immigrated to the United States in 1985. Her entire family has left Iran since the revolution, and are scattered around the world. The writer settled in New York, studied psychology at Brooklyn College and received a Masters in Social Work at Hunter College.
Hakakian is credited with two collections of poetry written in Persian. She is a former producer for 60 Minutes, and collaborated with other journalists for hours of other broadcasts such as ABC specials with Peter Jennings, Discovery, and The Learning Channel. Most important to the content of her discussion, she is the author of two non-fiction books. Journey from the Land of No is her memoir of living as a Jewish teenager in revolutionary Iran. Also she published Assassins of the Turquoise Palace, an account of the 1992 shooting of four Kurdish and Iranian activists in a Berlin restaurant.
The journalist held two separate one-hour presentations Tuesday, one at 4:30 p.m. and another at 7:00 p.m. She focused on different literature in each session but thoroughly explained how to craft characters when constructing a book. To aid in creating characters for her non-fiction books she utilizes very extensive tactics to ensure she lives through that person. She emphasized the importance of exhaustive research in order to prevent writer’s block or the blank page.
“With the two books mentioned, I have taken at least one year each to organize my research, to get a handle on the massive amount of material that I possess… At the end of both of these projects I could also start a museum on my subjects. I have enough documentation, photos and other material that I can probably take a space like this [poetry house], or probably larger than this, and turn it into a museum on each of the subjects that I wrote about. So what becomes really beautiful, and in a way inevitable, is that once you have this much material and once you own in your mind that much material, is that there’s nothing that is blank. Because there’s so much that you can grasp at. There’s so much material that’s at your fingertips at any moment. And you can simply decide, rather than having the question be what you’re going to write about, the question becomes how it is that you can insert this material… The question becomes of all this material that you have, how is it that you want to piece it together. So it becomes more of a question of engineering than of creating. It becomes almost a mechanical decision,” Hakakian said.
The writer specifically referenced her memoir, Journey from the Land of No. The story is a decade of Hakakian’s life, halfway through the Iranian Revolution. She wrote of her struggles as a Jewish girl in Iran. Iran was an Islamic state and after the revolution, things changed for the worse. In particular, racial and gender issues pervaded the country.
As result of this, she did not simply take an account of what she saw. Rather, Hakakian took the advance on the book and went all around the world to interview the characters of her memoir that experienced it with her.
“I’m interested in the truth. I’m genuinely curious as to what it is that other people experienced even as I was there. I’m interested in the notion of writing being something much bigger than myself,” she said.
When asked what it was like to grow up as a Jewish girl in ’70s and ’80s Iran, Hakakian said, “Being Jewish was a disadvantage…Being a woman was a disadvantage…It was an intolerant bureaucracy. Being Jewish we had less access to better education, higher education, business opportunities… We were encouraged to jump ship and become the norm… There were more rewards for being Muslim. It’s based on apartheid: a general apartheid, a division between male and female. There is no freedom of speech. There are no civil liberties and no diversity to political parties. I’m hoping for democracy to take root in Iran. And for women to be granted equal rights.”
In all of this talk about liberty, civil rights, and proper allowance of political diversity, it would be difficult not to wonder what the writer’s goal was with her other mentioned novel, Assassins of the Turquoise Palace, which vividly created the scene for the assassinations in a Berlin restaurant and showed the story of solving who was responsible for these killings.
“I wanted to talk about how terrorism is terrorism. Iranians themselves have been a target same as the U.S. Victims are not targeted by nationality. Victims are targeted by the values we share; like the U.S. for being a democracy, it’s the same for those Iranian men who were killed,” she explained.
Through her discussion of her writing during the two presentations, and education of the craft of character creation laden throughout the evening, Hakakian’s audience was bestowed with a gift that evening. Hakakian prepared a fully seated poetry house with how to truly avoid blank page or writer’s block. In particular she took the time to talk about technique in book writing. It was very generous for such an esteemed journalist, novelist, and poet to visit West Chester’s campus and share her methods for success. The education in book writing she offered was more than anyone could have asked for. Additionally, the information she presented about life abroad in Iran and what needs to change gave true perspective on current events.
Nicholas Devoe is a fifth-year student majoring in English with a minor in journalism. He can be reached at ND626335@wcupa.edu.