The Shadow of Whiteness

The characters in Athena Farrokhzad’s poems emigrate from Iran to Sweden, and find a home nowhere. 

Athena Farrokhzad illo.

Jordan Crane

Athena Farrokhzad’s White Blight opens in disdain—an unforgiving assault on her immigrant mother’s assimilationist ambitions. “My family arrived here in a Marxist tradition/ My mother immediately filled the house with Santa knick-knacks … My mother let bleach run through her syntax.” By the end of the book’s first page, her unforgiving has become unforgivably harsh: “To think that I sucked at those breasts/ To think that she put her barbarism in my mouth.” The revulsion has a terrible intimacy to it, the speaker gesturing at her mother’s aging body (“those breasts”) in terms (“barbarism”) that verge on ethnic slur—all while she accuses her mother of pretending to whiteness.

It seems, at that point, that this is a certain kind of book, one driven by a single speaker who will control the narrative and seek to explain herself by explaining how others have let her down. It’s only after reading a few more pages that I realized the obvious-in-retrospect: The first page is actually the opening monologue in something that is both one-woman show and family drama—and that the woman speaking onstage, with calculating lyric power, alone under the imaginary lights, is both announcing her intention to control the story and establishing a position the story won’t support.

After that first page, every statement in the book, save one, begins with a three-word phrase: “My mother said:” “My father said:” “My brother said:” Eventually, five characters emerge, adding a grandmother and finally an uncle. The only one who doesn’t speak (with one possible exception) is the narrator, who seems to be a version of Athena Farrokhzad herself. The mother’s first statement, an apparent response to the opening monologue, chides, “It seems it has never occurred to you that is from your name that civilization descends.” Both mother and father later say that she was born from her father’s head.

The characters speak with different perspectives but in a similar style, and in fact I tend to hear all the voices filtered through one voice, the one that insists on introducing them in relationship to herself. Though Farrokhzad—who was born in Iran and raised in Sweden (she wrote the book in Swedish; it’s been translated into English by Jennifer Hayashida)—is a playwright as well as a poet, translator, editor, and critic, and though White Blight (Vitsvit in Swedish) has been performed as a play in Sweden, it reads as a poem. All the family members talk brilliantly, but none show evidence of listening much, and only a few speeches seem to have been spoken consecutively. The statements feel didactic and aspire to aphorism, everyone competing for the right to define the world. The mother says “All families have their stories/ but for them to emerge requires someone/ with the will to disfigure.” The uncle, who, like the father, seems to have been tortured for his political work before leaving Iran, says in his first line, as the book begins to enlarge its focus from the internals of the family drama,

You will forget everything
except memory, which you will always remember
I remember that before the war the soldier chewed with my teeth
The agitator screamed with my throat

It’s severely beautiful writing, but with a formality that doesn’t invite response. It’s also, I should probably mention, a misquote of sorts, as are all the quotations here. The page I’ve taken it from actually looks like this: 

There are a lot of potential explanations for those boxes. The inversion of black and white is an obvious possibility in a book whose title foregrounds whiteness. (The Swedish title, Vitsvit, actually repeats the word for “white,” “vit,” inside a play on words that could be read as something along the line “jokewhite” or “whitesuite” or “whiteaftermath,” the last one being the likely source of White Blight in English.) And the boxes clearly recall redacted texts, which have profound significance for both the repressive system that seems to have tortured members of Farrokhzad’s family in Iran and the Western governments that have frequently tortured Muslims in the name of national security, as well as installing the corrupt government that the current Iranian regime deposed.

But neither of these symbolic meanings feel especially resonant here. The strain of reading white text on a black background doesn’t really upend my assumptions about my own whiteness. Nor does it help me experience the kind of strain an Iranian immigrant would feel in Sweden or the U.S. When I compare these boxes to the similar black bars in Philip Metres’ Sand Opera, where I can feel and hear, as I read, the voices cutting off abruptly at the sharp edge of their erasure, the symbolism of those bars in White Blight seems more two dimensional, something not so much to be experienced as interpreted.

Which is not to say that they don’t alter the poem in valuable ways. As an experiment, I typed out a few pages with the same spacing but using black text on an all-white background, and then recreated the same text with the white text on black bars alongside it. Standardized, the poem sounds surprisingly different, more fluid and less brittle. It moves too fast to register White Blight’s remarkable orchestration, its pacing, all those voices so hungry to be heard and so apparently unable to listen, except to revise what the other has said. Too fast to fully register Farrokhzad’s presence at the book’s blank center, orchestrating the voices, often against her own interests—or, at least, the interests that drive the character of her in that one page where she speaks.

The narrative details of White Blight are often elusive, and yet its dramatic power never wanes. Those voices, in their isolating intellect and beauty, their veering from lyrical figuration to academic formality, feel like they’re trying to fill something harrowingly vast and empty—the gap, for instance, between a brutal life in Iran and an alienating one in Sweden. One page begins, “My father said: “Your brother shaved before his beard started to grow/ Your brother saw the terrorist’s face in the mirror/ and wanted a flat iron for Christmas.” That’s followed with the brother, possibly older, saying: “Some day I want to die in a country/ where people can pronounce my name.”

Athena Farrokhzad.
Athena Farrokhzad.

Khashayar Naderehvandi

The only unattributed line after the first page sits alone at the bottom of a page: “The past is an assault never to be completed.” It’s likely spoken by the character of Farrokhzad, though because it too aspires to aphorism it also feels more encompassing than that. “The past” gets way more attention from all the characters in the book than the white world outside their home in Sweden does. The characters seem to be competing in part for a claim on the authority the past confers, even as it remains brutally inscribed on them:

My father said: How much resistance can human fat bear
before the lashes of the whip become permanent
My father said: If you forget the alphabet
you will find it on my back

Early on, the mother says “For a lifetime I envied your father’s traumas/ until I realized that my own were far more remarkable” Especially in the first half of the book, there’s an implication that she is the most threatened by the power of the past, which denies her authority and which seems, at least in her mind, to have distracted the rest of the family from the work of the surviving in the present, which she had to shoulder alone, along with the family’s disdain.

“Your father lived for the day of judgment,” she complains. “So did your mother, but she was forced to other ambitions.” You can hear the distancing, the way she too is making a character of herself, the way the work of justification keeps pressing the characters deeper into their confining, conflicting, roles. A little later, the father is quoted as having said, “If it were possible to compete in martyrdom/ your mother would do everything to lose.” On top of everything else that line does, it uses “martyr” in the more careless, figurative sense of someone long-suffering and overly dramatic, free for a moment from thoughts of the violent identity they fear their white neighbors will confer on them. On the very next page, the father’s line about the brother appears: he “saw the terrorist’s face in the mirror.” It’s one of hundreds of small reminders of the ways the family members slip between insider and outsider in Sweden, decades after their arrival there.

About halfway through White Blight, shortly after the unattributed comment about the past’s ongoing assault, the family members begin turning outward. They speak to Farrokhzad only in arguments with her attempt to tell their stories:

My mother said: You go through everything in search of something to disfigure
My mother said: Only the line that provokes my tears
do you consider worthy of notation

My mother said: You build the poem from my shortcomings
Then you say the poem is not mine to mourn

As they try for authority over their own stories and words, the characters become more complex, finding space to move. In that movement they also grow harmonious, entering into choral arrangements wherein they pick up threads and themes and patterns from each other’s speech:

My father said: Speak the language that pays for your bread

My grandmother said: Speak the language that keeps its distance
from what has taken place in words

My brother said: Speak the language that gives life to the machine

My mother said: Speak the language worth the price of betraying me 

Another page offers the father and mother’s voices syncing up with unusual ease. It reads, in its entirety:

My father said: There were those who were executed at dawn before sleep had cleared
My mother said: There were those who had to pay for the bullets
to bury their daughters

My mother said: Into what victor’s night did this victory throw us 

In all this enlarging, the mother in particular becomes more complex, less fully confined to her relationship with her daughter. At one point she advises, seemingly speaking to an audience larger than just Farrokhzad, “If you do not speak to someone for whom you can abandon language/ there is no point in speaking.”

Eventually, the father gives his sanction—and his self—to the book:

My father said: Turn me into a stone for your sling
turn my mouth into lips for your lament
my knees to the crumbled pillars of your humiliation

It’s a crushing submission, the parents’ sacrifice for the future of their children becoming literal. In that light, it seems especially significant that Farrokhzad gives the book’s last words to her brother, and that he turns his attention in those words to those with no opportunity to speak. Among a few other terms that recur throughout White Blight—milk, dawn, dreams, burial, names—language is both the most contested and the most pronounced. At one point, her brother instructs her in a problem that runs back through the post-Holocaust poetry of Paul Celan to, presumably, the earliest conquests among people with different words for the world:

My brother said: The only language you have to condemn the crime
is the language of the criminal
and the language of the criminal
is a language invented to justify the crime

Poetry, Mallarmé once claimed, must “purify the language of the tribe.” And yet the best poetry never seems interested in purity, which is at best a pretense and at worst a worrying retreat into a smaller tribe. The characters in White Blight certainly hunger for something pure, some final word to heal them of their humiliations, but the book as a whole has no such illusions. It’s a mess, phenomenally orchestrated, making of the broken past, both recent and remote, a record, fully embodied in language its characters distrust, of how much in our not-altogether-post-colonial moment still needs to be said and heard.

White Blight by Athena Farrokhzad. Argos. To purchase, go to the Argos Books website.

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.