Kent State University Press
Reviewer: Vivian Wagner
Farnaz Fatemi’s Sister Tongue explores the experience of living between the cultures of Iran and the United States, and of trying to find a voice to describe that in-betweenness. The poems take root in various liminal spaces, tracking the poet’s journey through cross-cultural identity and expression.
The collection, which won the 2021 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize, is divided into four sections: “I Name the Eight Muscles of My Tongue,” “The Only Mistranslation,” “The Word for Heart,” and “Unveiling.” Each section tracks the exploration of language as a way to create and understand identity.
The poems in this collection examine the concept of the “tongue” as a physical entity and a stand-in for language and culture. Language, it turns out, helps the poet to construct identity and to understand the inevitable precariousness of that identity.
The first poem in the collection, “I Name the Eight Muscles of My Tongue,” lays the groundwork for Fatemi’s project. This is a poem about the power of naming, and the muscular names it offers are not so much scientific as poetic, evoking a dream-like state of almost-forgotten memories: “agnost,” “diatom,” “saltcells,” “allium,” “lipid,” “chalk,” “brine,” and “slack.” The poem begins with a statement that sets the stage for the linguistic and cultural explorations to come: “I was slow to understand / the phrase, ‘I speak for myself’.” This is, indeed, a poem about speaking for oneself, and about naming the parts of oneself—and about the power to be had in that naming.
Another poem in this first section, “Untranslated,” gives the reader a glimpse into the whirlwind of words heard by a child growing up between cultures and trying to find a place in which to be herself, whatever that self might turn out to be: “I listened for clues. / I spoke without saying a thing.” That notion of silence as a survival mechanism, and even a kind of language itself, finds its way into many of the poems in this collection. In silence, the poet listens, makes sense of the world, and ultimately starts to find a voice.
Iran itself, as an actual country that the poet visits and an almost mythological part of family lore, also plays a role in this quest to speak a new identity into being. In “Borders,” for instance, the country is introduced as follows:
I know its shape—
This “not-country” is a home, but it’s also far from home. The speaker navigates the tricky terrain of this place where she does and does not belong. In other poems, she visits Iran, sometimes alone and sometimes with family members, always seeking to understand what parts of herself originated there, and what parts might never belong there. All of these poems are engaged in a conversation with real and imagined aspects of Iran, as she seeks a vantage point from which to view Iran and her evolving sense of self in relation to Iranian and Iranian American culture.
Because of the poet’s sense of in-betweenness, questions about where she belongs repeatedly resurface. In “The Only Mistranslation,” the eponymous poem opening the second section, we hear that the only mistranslation “is belonging. / There is no word for it / in any of my tongues.” The poem offers several possible ways to conceive of belonging, including “I belong deep inside my own gut” and “I belong to my own hungry future.” Both conceptions of belonging locate it not externally, but rather within a sense of self emerging through the creation of these poems.
Sisterhood plays a major role in the collection. Sisterhood is there in the collection’s title and in a series of poems with the same name. A twin sister serves as counterpoint in many of the poems, and this sister sometimes becomes a kind of doppelgänger for the speaker, as in “Artifacts”: “In every childhood photo she and I / are dressed like one another.” Sometimes the poems highlight contrasting characteristics between the speaker and the sister, and sometimes they explore a dialectical conversation between sisters as a way of understanding cross-cultural communication.
Throughout the collection the speaker understands that she exists only in relation to her family and culture, even as she experiences a profound sense of aloneness on her journey. This aloneness begins in childhood, as we hear in “When I Am Eleven”:
When I am eleven I wonder why my parents came here, why they had their children in a foreign land, hostages of this place, though I understand it is supposed to be my place, and why did they leave us without a good map?
She’s bullied and mocked, and she must find her own way in a world that’s sometimes hostile and unknown. Eventually, she does just that, learning that she can let go of the traumas inflicted by difficult circumstances and in so doing begin to forge a new sense of self:
There, between the pages and the waves, I learn how to walk out and dive under. I let some take me, and I let some knock me down. And I see, sometimes, what it means to let go of who I think I am.
It’s not a linear trajectory she’s on, and her progress comes in waves. She does, though, gradually create a self and a language out of fragments old and new.
This process of self-creation requires a sense of humor and humility, as well as a postmodern sensibility of culture being not fixed but malleable. In “Advice for a Dictionary,” the speaker identifies the elements needed for survival on this journey into a tenuous future:
Take your pages, reforest our imaginations
with wide boggy meadows and families
that know how to laugh at themselves.
This is the speaker telling us that developing and expressing an in-between identity is not simply her individual experience but also a broader human reality—and one that benefits from compassion for others and the embattled self.
In the collection’s last “Sister Tongue” poem, the speaker ends on a hopeful note, showing that she’s grown into a sense of her present and future self:
Looking at myself putting on my headscarf, getting ready to go outside, get a taxi, visit some relatives, I recognize myself. And I recognize the voice I’m using, but it’s different. I have things to say in Farsi, things that won’t translate. Things I can’t say any other way.
The speaker seems to know that, in order to narrate her story and move forward, she may have to alternate between English and Farsi, between here and there, between present and past. The voice she’s been creating throughout the collection comes to fruition at this moment, in a hopeful recognition of a self that can find at least momentary joy in uncertainty and liminality.