Seeds in the palm of a hand

Interview With Author, Persis Karim

Writing and the Importance of Community

Living to Make Every Day Count

This May, I interviewed Persis Karim, Ph.D., over Zoom. While our conversation meandered through coffee and the struggles of living through COVID-19, somehow, we came back to her life as a poet and author.

Karim is a professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at San Francisco State University (SFSU). She is also the director of the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at SFSU. Prior to these posts, she was at San Jose State University (SJSU) in the English & Comparative Literature Department where she taught for 18 years and was the founding director of Persian Studies. Her credentials are indeed impressive, but so is her gracious manner.

Karim is an extremely pleasant and approachable person. She enjoys sharing beauty, whether it’s through her writing or nature photography. She described her state of being with a poem by Pablo Neruda. It’s called, “Keeping Quiet,” and it reflects the current moment.

“The quiet affords an opportunity for us to still ourselves. I don’t know about you,” she says, “but I hear a lot more birds because there is less human hum.”

Writing to Commemorate and Connect

Karim has utilized the shelter-in-place to evaluate some of her goals, write poetry, and go on long walks. She shares with me how important it is to seek gratitude, saying that she recently, at the suggestion of her friend, Beau Beausoleil, the founder of the Al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition, wrote a poem for a commemorative project called Shadow and Light.

Al-Mutanabbi is a street in Baghdad’s historic literary district where a car bomb exploded, March 5, 2007. More than 30 people were killed and 100 were wounded. The bomb took precious lives and destroyed the literary and academic heart of the city. The Al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition, by commemorating this tragedy, seeks to teach future generations that the threat to intellectual thought and expression still exists.

“Professors have a role to offer opportunities for people to educate themselves, to learn to speak up, to challenge authority, to basically question everything.”

Karim wrote about a female professor who was killed for challenging the 2003, U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. “Her name was Leila [or Lyla] Abdu Allah al-Saad, Ph.D. law, dean of the College of Law, Mosul University. I feel a connection to this woman,” says Karim. “I know nothing except her name, her title, and the date that she died.”

She also wrote a poem for Abdu Allah al-Saad’s husband, Muneer al-Khiero, who was assassinated after her the following year. Like his wife, he was a Ph.D. and law professor at Mosul University, but no exact date was given his death.

“It just gutted me…” She pauses while processing the layered meaning of these deaths. This was an attack on learned individuals, all of us who value and share knowledge (students, parents, and educators), and on the platforms through which we disseminate knowledge (universities, bookstores, and libraries).

Karim is now contextualizing the information she was given regarding this project and trying to capture the immeasurable courage that people who question policy must exercise, especially those who question the role of war and occupation. Karim says that her muse inspires us to see writing as a way to connect and share solidarity with people we don’t even know.

“I want my poetry to honor professor Abdu Allah al-Saad and connect readers with a woman who was rendered voiceless.”

Connecting to Old Acquaintances

Persis Karim 2020
photo credit: Persis Karim

Karim met the poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, through Aziz Shihab, the late journalist. Nye encouraged Shihab to submit his memoir to a university press publication and Karim coincidentally reviewed it. She recalls the family name, Shihab, and the biography stating he was Palestinian-American. “I suspected Naomi was his daughter,” says Karim.

Karim describes first meeting Nye. “You know, it’s just that way in which something that starts in the kernel of a task becomes the impetus for a human connection.”

They saw each other at a reading in Berkeley—a fundraiser for the Middle East Children’s Alliance. Karim recalls how Nye’s poetry deeply resonated with her. She felt an emotional connection to Nye that came from their shared experiences as children of immigrants. Their connection was tied to inner trauma they had to sort out as part of those larger historical traumas, dispersals, diasporas.

Karim was thrilled when SJSU invited her, a few months ago, to be on stage in conversation with Nye. She said she decided to write Nye a letter apropos to the ways in which this pandemic has slowed us down and made us rethink the ways in which we connect.

Letter-writing has always been important to Karim; she talks about her French mother who, born in the 1920s, wrote letters. “She never adjusted to the telephone or the computer.”

Few are the people who write these days, laments Karim, who drawn by nostalgia has taken pen to paper. “I wrote to Naomi in February,” she says. “I was like, Hey Naomi, I’m gonna write you a letter because I want to see if we can start a little correspondence before you come out here.” Nye enthusiastically wrote back, and Karim replied with a list of things they could potentially discuss with one another on stage.

Then Covid-19 cancelled everything.

All conferences, gatherings, and interviews were cancelled. Shelter-in-place orders were announced state by state. Karim says Nye’s most recent letter echoed much of what is happening in our country and across the world—a loss of revenue for her city and for people and communities with whom she feels a deep connection.

Karim says she appreciates writers like Nye who struggle to give voice to stories that reflect immigrant experiences: both first generation and the children of immigrants. “Writers like Nye render a more positive, human, beautiful, and complete picture of a country, while media headlines deny the real and human story of people.”

Karim says, “Nye’s poetry speaks to the common human experience: her grandmother, for instance, who lived in East Jerusalem, or the broom maker, or the man selling oranges.”

Inspiring Poetry and Poets

Poetry has always been a big source of inspiration for Karim. She told me a platform was in place to support her work as a student. Professors were there to mentor her. Al Young, former California poet laureate, was such a professor. She says, “He inspired some of my confidence.”

“Sometimes the platform is not a thing; sometimes it is the possibility that somebody imbues enough confidence in you to be able to make you look and seek out opportunities to share your work.”

She tells me that she now reads from an eclectic group of poets, specifically world poets, and classic poets of Iran. “Rumi, and Forugh Farrokhzad [whose name she thankfully spelled for me], Pablo Neruda, W.S. Merwin, Czesław Miłosz, and Wisława Szymborska.”

“I am drawn to poems that articulate the value of love, human struggle, and how we show resilience.” Karim’s mother and father exemplify this. They both lived through large-scale historical events: World War II and the occupation of their respective countries, France and Iran. They became immigrants because of these events.

“I identify with people who have had to cross borders, people who have been marginalized and are sometimes voiceless,” says Karim.

She says she looks for stories and novels that enlarge our understanding of the human capacity for growth and love. She teaches a class at SFSU to this end. It’s called Literary Crossings and it delves into the different ways we cross boundaries. Boundaries can be physical, psychological, cultural, and/or gender related, and there is a distinction between the two—boundary and border crossing—the former speaks to the dangers that accompany the latter.

Karim uses books written by authors from everywhere in the world: Sudan, Palestine, and Mexico, for example, to inspire thoughtful literary analysis and lively discussions among her students. I make a note to ask her for the reading list (linked here).

Working to Create Literary Spaces

I can’t help but smile as Karim juxtaposes her work as a writer and scholar of diaspora with her beloved pastime: collecting and planting seeds. She tells me she collects seeds from different patches of flora on her morning walks, scatters them in her yard and then waits to see what comes up. This is her way of drawing a metaphor that likens diaspora to the scattering of seeds. “Sometimes where we end up is completely arbitrary, but what we do with where we end up, and how we experience our lives, is important.”

Karim acknowledges she inhabits a unique intersection where she is both the subject of diaspora and writer of diaspora. Establishing her voice in this space was again much like the scattering of seeds. She says, “There is an intentional unintentionality of how we grow.”

Karim’s journey as a diasporic writer began when she was researching other writers. Things she wanted to say had not yet been said by anyone she had researched. “I was writing about Iranian exiles and immigrants because I wanted to read something about my own experience as a second-generation Iranian American.”

She grappled with her identity. (Her mother was from France, her father, from Iran.) She didn’t feel fully Iranian but was perhaps more product of the story she intended to write than she expected: a story of Iran and Iranian expats in the U.S. and the Iranian Americans who are their children. This framing helped her conceive an anthology of the literature of Iranian Americans. It was that “seed,” her initial dissertation, that grew into a collection of essays, poems, and short stories that made up the first anthology of Iranian diasporic literature: A World Between: Poems, Short Stories, and Essays by Iranian Americans (1999).

Karim co-edited this book of poems. She explains it set her on a path to discover and document the literature of diaspora. She says she then explored a more inclusive literary sweep of large diasporas, specifically the Iranian diaspora.

“I wanted to include stories by the children of immigrants, the spouses of immigrants, children like me, who are half-Iranian. In that way, we are not talking about a static event, but how diaspora becomes another way for people to express through literature how culture evolves, changes, and adapts.”

Nurturing Literary Artists in the Diaspora

Karim believes the writer and reader share an experience whether it be poetry or prose: “We don’t just want it to be our words the way we intend them. We also want to evoke their [the reader’s] experience as they read it.”

Readers and writers, especially those who are her students, have a responsibility to share an experience. Karim sees her students and the help, support, and mentoring she provides them, as essential to meeting bigger struggles. It can be viewed as pedagogy aimed at disrupting the dynamic of racial injustice, prejudice, and silencing.

“Cultivate, support, and empower new voices,” says Karim. “Build a community that’s loving and kind, where you recognize there is space for everybody.” And whether you call it a platform, mentorship, or support, she says, “It’s about showing up for one another.”

Link to view Persis Karim’s site:

Link to a list of Persis Karim’s books on Goodreads:

photo credit: Persis Karim – seeds in the palm of a hand
photo credit: Persis Karim – outdoors
photo credit: Persis Karim – collage of local flora

Alicia Clinton

This article was written by Alicia Clinton
Clinton is currently attending Oregon State University part-time and is hoping to enroll in a Creative Writing MFA program in the Fall. She is also a blogger who writes to share her experiences and provoke thoughtful discussion on issues of social justice. She believes in the power of writing communities to provide support and motivate emerging writers. When she isn’t writing she enjoys working in the garden and hiking with her family.