Exploring My Disparate Cultures in Fiction Helped Me Better Understand Them Both
Gian Sardar on the Distance Between Kurdistan and Rural Minnesota
On one side: my Minnesota-born cousins, all of Belgian ancestry, with light hair and skin and eyes, used to harsh winters and church and a land that stretched open and forever. On the other side: my Kurdish cousins, with dark hair and olive skin, used to harsh summers and mosques and a land jagged with mountains. And me, a proud yet often confused mix of the two, raised in Southern California like a sort of third state in the equation of my family. From the start, my existence straddled both cultures, never fully a part of either.
My mother is from Minnesota, and my father from Kurdistan of Iraq. Addi and Zuhdi. Opposites also in name, as even within the alphabet oceans exist between them. Of course my brother and I are a mix of the two, a mesh of culture and genetics, and yet when we were with either side of the family it was never what was shared that stood out, but rather what was not. When visiting Minnesota, my dark features and skin that never burned proved I had a heavy dose of genes not often seen at that time in the southwestern part of the state, but the differences didn’t stop there, as I was afraid to even walk near the bull’s pen, and tentatively entered barns. I was the one who got lost in church and didn’t know to look for the party in the basement. And I was constantly envious of my cousins, who could enter a room and not be stared at, who were at home in a landscape that was as beautiful and foreign to me as a different country.
On the flipside, my Kurdish family actually was from a different country, and though I was close with my uncle in California and grew up with the Kurdish community, I was never taught the language and was adrift with every conversation, listening to words that became only beautiful, familiar sounds. To not understand a language is no small thing, and whereas at times it felt as if I were hovering outside the door of a secret club, when my non-English speaking grandparents and aunt visited the States that deficiency cut deeper. To be in the same room as your own family and be unable to talk is heartbreaking. Even then, it felt as if something essential had broken, something I wished to fix.
Here’s what can happen when someone stands just outside a circle: they either tune out, or they lean in, trying to get closer. I leaned in. I took notes of everything—clothing, speech, traditions, landscapes, even inflections of words. When I was afraid I’d say or do the wrong thing, I observed and followed others’ leads. I cherished each story I was told, etching accompanying illustrations in my mind. With every dip into my family’s worlds, I soaked in as much as I could. Elements of life that my cousins found mundane went gold in my mind, and simple settings loomed large with importance. After all, to know a place is to know its sidewalks and trees, to be familiar with the glasses in which tea is served and the smell of a market. Though natives may not even mark these basic, every day elements consciously, visitors do. Ultimately, I’m a non-native to my own ancestral worlds, and for me, no detail was too small.
That drive to learn, it’s at the core of both my novels, with one set in Minnesota and the other in Kurdistan. These choices were not made because I already had an understanding of the locations and life, but because in some ways I didn’t have enough of that understanding. The way I saw it, each project was an opportunity for further study, and with all my research I was able to color in details of lives I’d only joined midway. At its core, crafting a novel involves asking questions, making suppositions, and imagining outcomes, and as I did this my family was never far from mind. I remembered the stories I’d been told, stories of torturous pride or anguished close calls, stories of a tractor tipping and ending a life, or a man hung from one arm until he confessed to things he did not do, and I knew I wanted to incorporate them in some form or another. Soon, writing became not only an excuse to revisit the tales but a way to reinvent them, twisting them into fiction, thus allowing me to right certain wrongs.
With my latest novel, Take What You Can Carry, I jumped oceans and set the book mostly in Kurdistan, a land with mudbrick houses, blood red poppies, and fields with chunks of white marble. As I was writing, I saw my father as a boy in those fields and imagined the houses he lived in, conjuring the sounds that filtered through his walls, the planes that brought destruction or the call to prayer early in the morning. Even if the book never saw the light of day, I knew that not one second of my work would be wasted because with each detail I was closer to him. I conducted interviews, and studied photographs, and when I went to Kurdistan for research and to visit family, I went with the eye of someone not only verifying facts and details, but as someone who was honored to get an up close, real life glimpse of my family’s past. I walked the streets they walked, and that, though seemingly so small, was nothing short of magnificent.
With my first novel, You Were Here, I saw the time and place of my mother’s early life in Minnesota: the plains, the farms, a post-war small town life. My mother lost her father at a very young age, and her family was forced to move from their farm to town, and so in turn my character, Eva, had a similar background. And as was the case for my mother, Eva lived across from the graveyard where her father was buried. I wondered, did my mother speak to the father she’d never really known? Was it a comfort, to know he was close? What was it like to be the only branch of the family in town, and the smallest branch at that, cut off from growth by early death? And the train tracks I’d always played on behind my grandmother’s house, what would they have meant to a person tempted to leave? Imagining the effect of these details let me wander in a territory that could’ve looked similar to my mother’s.Ultimately, I’m a non-native to my own ancestral worlds, and for me, no detail was too small.
Of course, both my parents were outsiders in each other’s worlds as well. That difference, in particular what my mother felt, was something I drew upon when writing Take What You Can Carry, as my character, Olivia, is an American who accompanies her boyfriend to Kurdistan, just as my mother had accompanied my father on a trip my family took to the region in 1979. My mother stood out, didn’t speak more than a small bit of the language, and on top of this was meeting his family for the first time. Was she worried they’d not like her? Guilty for having “taken” their son? Though she loved him, wouldn’t there have been a time she wondered if he’d have been better off with someone who understood the culture and language? It was when writing scenes with Olivia, in similar situations, that I truly began to wonder what my mother had gone through.
On our trip, the Iraqi secret police came to take my father in for questioning—something that did not often end well for Kurds. My mother struggled to understand what was going on, fighting against both a language barrier and shock, and though I’d heard this story since I was young, it wasn’t until writing something similar for Olivia that I fully felt, for the first time, the magnitude of horror my mother endured. To be uncomprehending of the worried, hushed conversations around you, to not know what’s normal, to be thousands of miles from home and scared. To be the outsider.
Writers can sit for hours, trying to feel the emotions of their characters, to anticipate their next moves, and to feel their heartbreak. But how often do we do that with the people in our lives? To sit in silence, and try and become them. To swim in their situations. To try and imagine the sounds they heard in the night, or what they feared in the dark. Writing these books helped me do just that, and strengthened my appreciation and understanding for my family.
What I realize now is that both my novels also spend time in Los Angeles. Even without intending to, I’d interjected myself and my world, my family’s third state, into my stories. And though my books are different than each other, I’m present in both; the common denominator, the author intent on learning.
Gian Sardar’s Take What You Can Carry is available now via Lake Union Publishing.