Rooja Mohassessy is an Iranian-born poet and educator. She is a MacDowell Fellow and an MFA graduate of Pacific University Oregon. Her debut collection When Your Sky Runs Into Mine (Feb 2023) was the winner of the 22nd Annual Elixir Poetry Award. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Narrative Magazine, Poet Lore, RHINO Poetry, Southern Humanities Review, CALYX Journal, Ninth Letter, Cream City Review, The Adroit Journal, New Letters, The Florida Review, Poetry Northwest, The Pinch, The Rumpus, The Journal, and elsewhere.
On August 31, 2022, two weeks before the onset of the Iranian protests that began in response to the arrest and murder of Mahsa Amini, I contacted Rooja Mohassessy, Iranian author of the remarkable collection, When Your Sky Runs Into Mine, winner of the Elixir Press 22nd Annual Poetry Award. At the time, I did not reach out to Rooja to talk about her collection. Instead, I was searching for a poem of hers, a poem that had made an impression on me. I wanted to read it again, but I couldn’t find it. I had said, “I am hoping you can point me to a poem…about modesty and removing clothes on a beach.” Rooja responded quickly, pointing me to “Straniera,” published in Potomac Review. We hadn’t conversed much before this encounter, but since then, we’ve spoken a number of times, through emails and Facebook, sharing bits of our writing and our lives, our ideas and our work. “Straniera” resonated with me because it speaks to the experience of a woman removing of an article of clothing in public; in this case, a bikini top on a beach where this is normal, where no one cares or notices, yet for the woman it is a large gesture, having previously worn modest clothing, as the poem beautifully alludes when speaking of clouds overhead: “A low one casts a modest shade, / festooned over her like a washed chador / fetched from a line.” This experience spoke to me because for a number of years, I was a woman in the US who wore a headcovering at church, who was modest in order to serve a god. I do not do these things anymore, and in fact I have much to say against these things as a feminist atheist. My experience gives me not just empathy for the women bound to patriarchal rule and religions, but also an understanding as to why a woman would want to wear a headcovering and why a woman would want to burn a headcovering. The key difference in my experience is that I had complete freedom of choice to wear one or to not wear one.
I contacted Rooja to ask her about her experiences as an Iranian girl and woman, as well as her poetry in her winning collection.
Thea Swanson: Hi, Rooja! I am excited to have the opportunity to ask you questions in this format. It is my privilege and duty to share the important words of an Iranian woman who has the ability to speak her mind without fear—and here I pause and ask that question: Do you currently speak, or at least write, without fear? Was there a time when you were too afraid to write (or speak)?
Rooja Mohassessy: Thea, it feels right to begin our interview with a question on fear. Fear is such an immobilizing force, crippling to the creative and artistic spirit, and sadly, fear is also what authoritarian regimes sow in order to stay in power. A degree of stability, peace, and tranquility is a prerequisite to artmaking. I grew up during the Iran-Iraq war when the Islamic Republic was in the initial stages of laying the groundwork for its particular brand of authoritarian rule. Not only did the arts begin to be heavily censored but freedom of expression of all kinds was suddenly under threat. I mention all of this because fear has played a large part in my growth as an artist and a person. In those early days we lived with fear on a daily basis.
TS: Yes, fear is a subtle undercurrent running through the first and second sections of the collection. Can you give us a little context to those sections?
RM: The first section of the collection deals with the aftermath of the toppling of the Pahlavi dynasty. I would describe the fear present in those poems as the instinctual, appropriate response to situations when one’s own life and that of one’s family is under threat. It is a fear that Iranians have been living under for the past forty-three years—fear of brutality. In the second section a different kind of fear appears, no less paralyzing than fear of physical harm, and that is a more psychological fear, which I find more difficult to speak about or find language for, and that is where I have turned to poetry. It would be trivializing to call it “immigrant fear.” Not all immigrant experience is the same, but the initial disadvantaged position of a displaced person trying to find their bearing in a foreign environment is always going to involve a certain degree of trepidation. It is a state of being I fully comprehend and empathize with.
TS: Did you leave Iran as a child?
RM: I emigrated to Europe at twelve, without my parents, during what came to be known as the “War of the Cities,” when Iran and Iraq were taking turns bombarding populated areas of major cities. At the time, I was fully aware while parting at the airport—a moment I have tried to paint in the poem “Rose d’Ispahan”—that it was possibly the scene of a final goodbye. I knew it was plausible that my parents could die in an air attack. That was certainly traumatic, but the fears I faced later as an immigrant trying to survive and assimilate into my new, completely alien environment were, for my psychology, just as traumatic. It was the beginning of self-erasure.
TS: In the poem “All About Me” we feel the child withdrawing her engagement from her physical environment.
RM: Yes, “All About Me,” describes how that fear of being seen in my new environment manifested. In the poem, which is based on an actual experience, I am asked to tell “all about myself” in a piece of writing, and the immigrant child in me suddenly cannot find language for all that she has experienced and considered thus far to be her identity. She suddenly feels irrelevant and out of place; even worse, her heritage is something to be ashamed of. This is at a time when holding an Iranian passport and nationality felt like something of a scourge. I think I have arrived at this book of poems at this juncture in my life through freeing my creative voice from fear. I realize that my book could possibly put me at risk of being blacklisted with the Islamic Republic of Iran, but frankly, at this point, that is the least of my fears.
TS: I do not assume that you are the main character in every poem; in fact, it appears that you sometimes give voice to others (mothers with sons in wars, for example). In your poem, “Before and After the Revolution,” we learn that “By late eighties, the definition of Dirty Dancing grows / broad as to embrace lashes, lips, / and other indecencies…” Did the oppressive laws and mindset that came about because of the 1979 Revolution cause you to feel shame about yourself? Your body? About being a woman?
RM: As I mentioned earlier, I was a child at the time the Pahlavi monarchy was replaced with the Islamic Republic, which is still in place after forty-three years. At the time, the immediate effect of it for school children was the new uniform, which consisted of a headscarf and a long, loose manteau worn over long loose trousers. The poem, “Hijab in Third Grade” is based on my experience of shopping for this new uniform with my mother and trying it on for size in the shop. I use metaphors of darkness and nature imagery to convey the mood, the feeling of doom I felt in that shop, and the silent, unspoken understanding, so palpable between the adults. The poem ends with the lines “Schoolgirl looks up to give thanks / but the [shop] lady has forgotten every shape there is / to a smile.” In that brief exchange I was instantaneously certain of the shop lady’s political leaning. There was a silent mutual understanding between the adults—my deaf-and-mute mother and the shop lady—that what was occurring was deeply wrong and troubling. These were the early signs of a dictatorial regime curtailing women’s rights and freedom of choice, and the silencing and suppression that authoritarian regimes are known for. Looking back, I feel like I was in a surreal scene out of Orwell’s 1984 but I don’t recall feeling any shame.
TS: I assume religious indoctrination was slowly introduced into the school curricula?
RM: Yes, the hijab was only a symbol of the ideology and religious indoctrination that teachers were asked to disseminate in their classes. Most teachers did it under compulsion and their aversion was not lost on us children. Prior to the revolution of 1978, Iranian women had enjoyed relative freedom in a country that was very hastily modernized and westernized by Reza Shah Pahlavi. We are experiencing the backlash of that colonialist intervention still today, but with the current uprisings in Iran, which many are beginning to call a revolution, it is clear that the regime has failed to make Iranian women feel ashamed of their bodies. The day after the mandatory hijab law was passed in Iran, Iranian women were on the streets protesting, and they are still there today. I imagine that for some witnessing the uprisings in Iran right now there may be an assumption that there is an anti-Islamic sentiment in the country. This is very far from the truth. The Iranians are asking for separation of church and state. They are asking for freedom of choice. Iranian women are extremely progressive and hold degrees in higher education in a society where unemployment is at an all-time high. They have not bought into the rhetoric of the Islamic Republic after years of “Sarkoob” or suppression, a word that literally translates into “beating of the head.” Yet this main tool of the Islamic Republic has now become unbearable in the current dire economic situation brought about by Western sanctions and the mismanagement of the regime. I am not a politically savvy person, but it is not hard to recognize when a dictatorship is beginning to fail. To answer your question, though I did not feel ashamed of my body, I was not encouraged to develop an awareness of myself as a girl/woman; I was not encouraged to take pride in being female. A lack of education or support in matters concerning the female body is a subtle form of disempowerment. For all its progressiveness, the Iranian society is still a very patriarchal one.
TS: What or where is home for you today?
RM: This is a question I grapple with. It’s the immigrant’s original wound. The sense of belonging has always eluded me since I left my family and country. Since then, I have been a nomad. The longest I have stayed in the same place was a thirteen-year-long sojourn in Shanghai, China. The positive side of not having strong ties or allegiance to a particular land or culture is that I can make my home anywhere; I can empathize with all people. I am quick to learn a new language and engage with the best of what another culture has to offer. I have always refused the expat lifestyle, and I have been lucky to teach in international settings where children of different races and cultures learned respect for each other from an early age. Yet, I will not deny the loneliness present in my life. I have a poem titled “Loneliness” that addresses this deep wound. I look for home in people now, in community, not in a physical place.
TS: Your uncle’s art is your muse for this collection, at least partly. It appears he gave you much artistic nurturing as a child. When did you realize you were a poet?
RM: The collection is dedicated to my uncle, Bahman Mohassess (1931-2010), my maternal grandmother, and to the brave women of Iran. My uncle was the prominent Iranian painter and sculptor often referred to as the “Persian Picasso.” He was among the many artists forced into exile after the Islamic Republic gained power and control in Iran. He was bisexual, and the nudity and the subject matter in his work made it impossible for him to continue what at the time was a burgeoning career in Iran. My uncle was a larger-than-life figure, extremely particular, yet hugely magnanimous. He would often tell my sister and me that he had not taken us under his wing because we were his nieces, but because no child who showed promise and an interest in education should grow up under the indoctrination of the Islamic Republic. Even before the revolution, he was dividing his time between Rome and Tehran. When he arrived from Rome with gifts, I would recite for him a poem from memory. He was instrumental in my developing a love of the arts, but I think poetry and the love of literature must run in my blood. One of my favorite activities as a ten-year-old was using the Divan of Hafez for divination. I would make a wish or ask a question, and if the language of the poem I fell on proved too difficult for me to decipher, I would try again. It was a popular belief that one should not try Hafez’ patience. I have distinct memories of feeling like I had outstayed my welcome with the great poet. On those occasions, I would carefully return the “Persian Bible” to the shelf, ask Hafez for forgiveness and give it a day or two before returning to it for answers. For all his love of the arts, my uncle tried very hard to dissuade me when I expressed to him that I wished to study literature in college. He felt that as an immigrant I was not in a position to afford such a luxury. He wished for me to financially secure a future for myself in the sciences. The idea of studying anything but literature was an impossibility I felt very viscerally in my body, to the extent that I secretly refused to apply for college. By the time my uncle was made aware, I had missed most deadlines. I grudgingly applied to one university and after freshman year changed my major to literature without telling a soul. Yet for all this proclivity toward literature, the thought that I could be a writer never occurred to me, not to mention a poet. I had placed the role of an “écrivain” on such a high pedestal, and my sense of self-worth had been so eroded by the events of my life, that the luxury of using my imagination, using my own words to say something of my own would not come to me until this late in life.
TS: Your poems are rich, feeling velvety in my mind’s mouth. They are nourishing, too. They make me think. They are important. Years are often painted, carefully, in one poem. Lifetimes. There is so much in “Rose D’Ispahan,” for instance. I feel the tearful choking of the little prince who must leave her mother when she says, Who now will hear the phone ring? I understand that your poems are ekphrastic, written in response to your uncle’s art. I am wondering about “Rose D’Ispahan” and the artwork that inspired this poem. Can you talk a bit about the unfolding of that poem in reaction to the art?
RM: I came to this ekphrastic project from several angles: my uncle had passed under difficult circumstances, after destroying all his art, and I was becoming increasingly aware of the role the Iranian politics had played in the life of a brilliant world-class artist. He was a very proud man and never let on or spoke about the way his career had been interrupted at the height of success. After his passing, I was overcome by an overwhelming sense of grief and injustice. With prescient vision he had foreseen that after his passing the Iranian government would claim him as their national artist.
TS: Is it true that he destroyed much of his own art?
RM: Yes, about a decade before his death, in a furious act of defiance. He was not one to forgive easily and he was not going to permit the Iranian government to profit from his art. He also could no longer afford to ship his work out of Iran where he had returned briefly in 2001 to give life there a second chance. My spending time with his collages, small works cut out of magazine paper that he had created mostly in the final years of life, was my way of grieving his death, of honoring his legacy and prolonging my time with him. I felt the truth of the biblical saying that the burden of the father falls onto the son. I felt my story was inextricably tied to his, and that his burden was mine to carry, and the weight of the grief and depression that I felt was not only my own but my family’s, including my deaf-and-mute father’s. I leaned on my uncle’s art to retrieve my own memories, to find my voice, to come into being, to heal. I had large gaps in memory, with very little recollection of my pre-exile life. I would study the collages daily and enter a state of mind that allowed me to embrace the pain and grief. If one evoked a memory or a few lines I would then take off with the poem. I guess I can now see that he has been my muse, as you say. I had never looked at it that way. Thank you for pointing it out.
TS: Describe your writing processes. How long does it take you to write one poem? How do you revise? Where do you write? What do you need to write?
RM: I write daily, and I always start by reading a poem. Right now I am reading from Solmaz Sharif’s new collection, Customs. Usually, the first draft of a poem comes quickly, but by quickly I do not mean in an hour. It’s usually over three to four days. What I really enjoy is the revision process. I love the satisfaction of identifying a weak spot in the poem. The endless potential that presents is somehow very exciting for me. Sometimes I will sit with the awkward language for a while until something better presents itself. And yes, I do love a thesaurus.
TS: Who are your favorite poets? Are there any who made a profound impact on how you approach poetry? On your writing?
RM: The Persian poets I read as a child, such as Sohrab Sepehri, must be my greatest influences even though now I come to them with a dictionary and great difficulty. I can hear and feel the Persian sensibility in my cadence and emotional register even though I write in English. Unfortunately, my command of Farsi is poor at the moment. It is ironic and sad for me that after having mastered several languages I am now a foreigner returning to my own language. Poets I return to are not many, mainly because I am a slow reader. I can spend many days with one poem. I tend to go for depth rather than breadth. Sylvia Plath is another of my muses. My mentor Kwame Dawes is another whose language and aesthetic are always an inspiration.
TS: Do you have poetry projects you are working on? Singular disconnected poems? Other writings?
RM: At the moment I write in response to the current uprisings in Iran. The reaction of the regime to the protests is very disturbing. I write in solidarity with the women. Any of them could be my sisters and cousins. Zan, Zendegi, Azadi is a beautiful movement. The slogans are full of rhyme, rhythm, and imagery. Women and art. With the hope that women and art will topple the darkness of this repressive patriarchal rule.