Aria Curtis is an Iranian-American writer from Atlanta. She holds an MFA from Arizona State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Southeast Review, The Offing, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Yemassee, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on her first novel.
This interview was conducted by a student in the Florida State University English Department and not a member of The Southeast Review masthead. These questions do not reflect the viewpoints of the SER masthead. Out of respect for the author's wishes, we have published this interview in its original form.
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Aria! First off, thanks so much for the great story. I enjoyed spending time with this complex, lyrical piece. There’s a lot going on here, but I want to begin by asking you about the sense of liminality in your work—it’s something we see the narrator dealing with on a number of levels. She is torn between cultures, between sexual interests, between her own sense of self. Can you talk about this idea a bit? Was this something you set out to accomplish, or did it develop organically out of the story you wanted to tell? (Or, like many things, a combination of both?)
Yeah, absolutely. A little bit of both. And not just the narrator. A few of these characters are caught between places or things or states of mind. She’s caught between flights, countries, stages of self-awareness. She’s ambivalent. She’s an adult but her family often infantilizes her. Her grief puts her in liminal space, too. Memory, or the act of remembering, I think, could also be considered a liminal space. The layers gradually developed organically, in a way that I hope conveyed that they are circular rather than linear, if that makes any sense.
I enjoy hearing how other authors write—I loved a quote I found from another interview with you where you say—about writing in the morning: “Ideally, my subconscious is preserved in some way, and my self-consciousness is muted.” How does your subconscious enter the writing process for you? And how do you benefit from that muted self-consciousness as a writer?
I think maybe I should rephrase some thoughts on the subconscious. Because I don’t think it’s something you preserve. The subconscious is always there. I guess now I would say that access or some entry point to the subconscious is important to the writing process. It is when I am able to tap into something intuitive and imagistic. It’s when I have the most fun with language, hence also the attempt to hush the self-criticism. Writing very early in the morning is an easy way for me to get into a rhythm of instinctive and associative language. Before dawn, I’m half sleeping still. The world is still quiet and not calling for my attention. I can still remember my dreams. I think it’s much more than not being self-conscious, though. I think there is something about how the world is framed, how deeply embedded memories or dreams or images emerge that wouldn’t otherwise have an invitation to be seen. It’s a great place to write from.
Blue isn’t exactly a color I associate with Iran, but it’s a central to this story. Why blue? And what’s more, the color appears as a very static blue—we’re not getting lavish descriptions of varying shades. This is a vague blue, and I wonder if that vagueness is saying something about the narrator’s perceptions, how she sees the world?
I wanted it all to be the same “blue,” but I don’t think that makes it static. The blue of her veins is the same as the blue of the place marker of graves and the same blue as her heaven. The descriptions of blue would have taken away from what is at the core of it, which is the conceptual, unyielding, recurring blue, the tone of the experience. The repetition itself and the things it describes is what I wanted to define it, to make it prismatic.
I recently read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, years after writing this story. I kept coming back to this passage: "Is to be in love with blue, then, to be in love with a disturbance? Or is the love itself the disturbance? And what kind of madness is it anyway, to be in love with something unconstitutionally capable of loving you back?" I was, and still am, so floored by how emotionally resonant it was with what I was trying to accomplish with this story.
And on the topic of poetic choices—the story is written in a very poetic style. Your language is meandering and repetitive and there’s a lovely dreaminess to it all. Can you talk about this choice and how this might influence a narrative dealing heavily with memory and history?
I was exploring hybridity in style and form. I don’t think I tipped over the edge into prose-poem territory, but I definitely wanted to lean into it. One of my classmates once told me that my stories feel like fever dreams, which I thought was sometimes very appropriate. At the same time, I want to strive for balance between the poetics that I have so much fun with and the footing or grounding framework of the story. Fragmentation felt natural, because memory is fragmented. Grief is, too.
It would be a shame to ignore what is perhaps at the core of this story—especially since near the end you quote Farrokhzad. How is this piece in conversation with Farrokhzad and how, as a modern writer, are you still tackling some of the same issues as her?
The poem “The Wind Will Carry Us,” or some variation depending on the translation, by Forough Farrokhzad, was actually first referenced earlier in the story. She imagines her deceased father remembering, among other things, this line of the poem. The poem itself is one of despair, and that line is one that has haunted me since I read it. It’s a phrase the narrator returns to at the end, becoming something of a chorus in that last scene. Farrokhzad is a prominent figure in Iranian literature, a modernist and feminist icon. Her work is electric. To say that she has had an influence on me would be a profound understatement. I think I am asking some similar questions, or at the very least questions inspired by her poetry; what is the arc of obsession? How many ways can one break open their desire for another and be in it? How do we sacrifice ourselves for love of another? What happens when we are consumed by it? What happens when we are consumed by grief?
I wasn’t really thinking about it at the time, but in retrospect there are some interesting connections between this story and a film by the same name, The Wind Will Carry Us, by Abbas Kiarostami, whose work I have also admired. The film is also about mourning and grief, albeit in a very different way. Iranian films were the first contact I had with a version of Iran outside the context of family myth or a narrative of exile. It’s not surprising that my subconscious was talking to them when writing this story.
This story, in some ways, feels daring in how you approach sexuality and female subjectivity. Was this an intentional move or does that say more about us as readers?
That’s interesting. I would say that I was not daring with my approach to sexuality or subjectivity, but rather uninhibited. I didn’t set out to scandalize. I wanted to write openly. It is insane to me how unfiltered female or female-identifying subjectivity, sexuality, and desire is often considered in discourse. I don’t know how my work is received when people read it at home, but I found it really interesting to see how gendered the reactions to my characters were in the past. Some have called my female characters “too crazy” or argue the fact that she’s unlikable or unreliable as being a nonstarter for a successful story. Not to say that’s what you are implying. I don’t want to necessarily conflate this with the conversation that emerged around “Cat Person,” or the broader public reckoning we are having as a society with harassment, assault, and consent, but I don’t think that they are unrelated.
I don’t want to press you to give a “meaning,” but I am curious if you could say anything about what you wanted to capture as far as this female/male dynamic that’s going on in our narrator’s search—for a picture, for a certain man, for validation, for her own martyrdom, for what, sometimes we aren’t exactly sure.
It would not be a stretch to say she’s looking for all of these things, and I think at moments she doesn’t know, either. You could say to a certain extent that she’s looking for her father, though that might be too much of a Freudian leap. The narrator is so full of grief, and not just for her father. She’s fixated on a man who has been dead for more than twenty years. She mourns memories she thinks she’ll lose before she’s even forgotten them. What a strange kind of grief that is. And it’s out of that sorrow that she fixates- it is her one point of focus amid chaos. For her, martyrdom is inextricable from her concept of love. Martyrdom and grief are cyclical in the story. She has created an illusion, this myth of someone who would die for her, and then it just completely collapses.
I’m also curious, since it seems like a common theme in your work, how you feel your own experience/life has influenced your attraction to writing about cross-cultural characters. I read you recently went to Tehran for the first time? (Maybe a year or two ago?) Have you been back since? How did that trip influence this story, or your writing in general?
What draws me to writing these characters isn’t that they are just cross-cultural, but that they are enduring and resilient offspring of generational trauma, violence, and displacement. These experiences are not limited to cross-cultural characters, nor have all cross-cultural characters had these experiences. I write Iranian-American characters because being Iranian-American is an experience that I live, that I know, that I want to rigorously examine. But it’s also fiction. I feel like it’s important to say that this is not, nor any of my fiction, autobiographical. I am not this character. Her story is not my experience. I read an essay last year about how there is this cultural propensity to look at the lives of women writers of literary fiction and say, “oh she must be writing about her life” as a way of reducing any skill or capacity for imagination in their work. I don’t know if that’s necessarily what you meant, but I felt it important to state nonetheless. I did go to Iran. It was an intensely emotional and beautiful trip. I haven’t been back for a few years, though, I’m sad to say.
Definitely. As a fiction writer, I understand there can be some amount of conflation between what's on the page and the writer's life. It’s an interesting dynamic—our imaginations are our own, yet our lives also certainly influence our work. I don’t approach fiction looking for shared truths between the author and the story; for me it’s inconsequential. But, talking writer to writer, I do enjoy hearing how your travels and experiences may or may not work their way into how you write, approach writing, or the subjects you write. Care to share anything about travel and writing, or writing and your trip to Iran?
I think there is something to be said about travel as part of the creative process. I think disruption in general can be inspiring, and travel is a part of that, at least for me. I do a lot of processing of memory and emotion while I’m traveling. I’ve also used travel as a plot device in my fiction many times, and it’s also come up in my poetry more than twice. I am interested in more nuanced narratives of travel. Travel and immigration narratives often fall into two categories: we go there, or they come here. Often the “us” and “they” are differentiated based on race and/or language. But what if the lines between “us” and “they” are blurred? What if the “us” and the “they” are the same person, the same narrator? What happens when the narrator’s understanding of “us” or “they” is completely fragmented? I am interested in how that challenges the typical travel narrative, and what can be revealed then about the traveler as opposed to the place of travel.
Food seems heavily tied to desire, to consumption, to feeling “full" or complete. It's also deeply cultural. It comes up a few times in the story, and towards the end there’s this lovely reflection that mixes sex and the image of eating with family. Any thoughts on using food in fiction?
Yeah, food is so personal. To cook for someone is such a gift, I think. I’m interested in our relationship with food, how it’s tied to memory, ritual, identity. I think there was a point in my life that I thought that people could not hate each other if they were nourished by the other. It’s a beautiful thought, though I don’t agree with that anymore. I think that food is steeped in systems of power and privilege, in addition to culture and identity and gender. Food is incredibly political. I wonder if sometimes Western readers get wrapped up in the sensuality of food from other countries and miss the point of a piece of work at large. As an Iranian-American writer, I do wonder sometimes how internalized Orientalism might impact images of food in particular. Like, am I including this image of a pomegranate because it’s right for the sentence, moment, the story at large, or because it is one that I know will be easily consumed by a Western audience as part of how they have formed the Middle East in their imagination? The mental gymnastics I do around this is exhausting. I go in circles about it all the time, which is in part what this story was about. I was thinking a lot about Orientalism and specifically self-Orientalism in writing this story, how the narrator is participating in this system of thought, this Western projection of Iran. Food and goods have a history of being a vehicle for exploitation and fetishization, and I think that’s very true with food from Iran. I have no control over how my work is received in general, and less so with how my work impacts or does not impact the Western imagination. A reader may love a passage I wrote about rosewater, but reduce the entire story or cultural identity of the character to that. I risk that with my audience. But I am not interested in that. I am not interested in representing a homogenized “Iranian-American Experience,” much less through food.
I’m always sad that I can’t find good Persian restaurants. I fell in love with baghali polo years ago when an old girlfriend’s Iranian mother would make food for us in college. Any favorite Persian dishes?
Yeah, so this question illustrates exactly what I’m talking about. Food is a tool for “othering” the Other, and has been this subject of western projection. It would be ridiculous for me to say in any context, much less in an interview about a published story, “I used to have a white boyfriend and his mom would make us grilled cheese. Do you have a favorite American food?” In addition, I cannot imagine this question being asked of a male writer, of any ethnicity. I don’t say this to call you out or shame you, because it’s bigger than your question or this interview. This isn’t about you. But I want to hold a space for this conversation without answering the question, despite what I’m sure were best of intentions. But I have line breaks in my story. Actual line breaks with indentation and parenthetical clauses and I refused to italicize the Farsi. And you want to know what’s my favorite Persian dish? Being asked this question—the experience of being asked this question is embarrassing. It is condescending. It’s also not the end of the world. These attitudes are internalized. But I hope you and those reading this interview will re-examine them.
I would rather use this space to talk about formal elements of the story that I mentioned. I chose not to italicize the Farsi because it’s political. That choice was political. I am not trying to make it more palatable to English-speaking readers. To me, italicizing those words just renders the language exotic. And exotic to whom exactly? Certainly not the narrator. I want to complicate that assumption that foreign languages are “exotic." I want to continue to disrupt it.
I was interested in how I could manipulate the sentences and the spaces between them in order to layer images, her thoughts, and actions. I wanted to show how they were connected or disconnected without being explicit. I wanted to delve into the way that I could adapt formal poetic attributes by stacking them on top of each other. I wanted to make it architecturally sound, this stacking. It builds with her grief and obsession. They swirl around each other the entire story. I wanted to formally reflect that sense of emotional reeling in the narrator.
I saw the parenthetical clauses as an expansive dive into her consciousness. I kept thinking of “folding in” each time I used one, as if these are thoughts that were in the back of her mind, or events that were in the back of her mind. Personally, I think that grief and memory are simultaneously ever-present and compartmentalized in ways that we have grown accustomed to, which is why I created these emotional layers within sentences.
What or who are you reading right now?
I’m reading a lot of nonfiction and poetry as of late. I recently read The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, on the body and trauma, and I cannot recommend it enough. White Blight by Athena Farrokhzad is another recent favorite. The last day or two I’ve just been staring at the PDF of Fire and Fury sitting in my inbox trying to decide if it’s something I can stomach.
Thanks so much for doing this interview and thanks for sharing your thoughts!