I stepped out of my authorial comfort zone recently: I wrote an interracial romance novella. “His Beloved Infidel” Is the story of Farukh, an Iranian man, and Catherine, an American woman, finding love in Paris against the backdrop of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
I was inspired to write this story of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events after reading Sattareh Farman Farmaian’s memoir, “Daughter of Persia,” in which she talks about her life under three very different Iranian government regimes (Farmaian narrowly escaped execution during the Islamic revolution).
But I was also inspired by my own failure to take advantage of the opportunity to learn more, right in my own back yard.
I was in high school when the Islamic Revolution occurred. We had an Iranian exchange student, Hamid (nicknamed Ramin, which is Farsi for “one who brings joy”), who could not go home because of it. It never occurred to me to ask him what that felt like … what it meant from a personal perspective to have to live another year amongst the people against whom his new government railed. Like all teenagers, I was too self-absorbed to give it a second thought.
I thought of Ramin often while I did the research for my novella. There are a lot of challenges when it comes to writing about a culture not your own, and it was always in the back of my mind that I needed to be both truthful and sensitive.
I read a lot of memoirs: first-person accounts are vital to understanding time and place, I think. Getting
I looked at Islamic art on the internet as well, and read a lot of poetry (I can’t recommend Rumi highly enough). Next time I’m in Paris, the Louvre’s Islamic art collection is high on my list of things to see. There is a scene in my book wherein Farukh takes Catherine to see the collection and talks to her about each of the Persian pieces as a way of sharing his culture with her.
There was only so much I could get from books and the internet, though. So, I turned to … my hairdresser.
Yes, my hairdresser. She and her husband escaped Iran during the Islamic Revolution. I was a little nervous about asking, and said I would understand if she didn’t want to talk about it.
From my delightful friend, I learned things about Islamic law, life in Iran, and even how to pronounce some things in Farsi that I never gleaned from my studies. Things that could only be learned by talking with someone who knows first-hand.
And that, for me, was of the utmost importance: the need to be culturally sensitive, because there were real people affected by the events in my tale.
And then there was the “interracial” aspect. I personally prefer to call it inter-ethnic, as I believe there is only one human race and ethnicity also includes culture. Over the course of my life, I have dated men from England, Spain, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, Korea, so I’m no stranger to cultural and ethnic differences. So, I had some insight into how Catherine might feel as the American woman pursued by the Iranian man.
At some point, I realized I had to deal with familial prejudice. That’s not a pretty thing. When I was eight years old, my dad gave away the bride when her own parents refused to attend her wedding to an African-American man. Loving v. Virginia had been decided only five years earlier. I absorbed that lesson on the price of prejudice early on, obviously. As much as I wanted to leave it out of my tale, I knew it would be intellectually dishonest to do so. We are, as in the late 1970s, once again living in an Islamophobic culture … one in which the most radical are considered as representing the whole.
Honestly? Whenever I remember Ramin’s smile and warm laughter during our drama classes, I don’t see anything to fear. I see a handsome teenaged boy who was probably experiencing more inner turmoil than I’ll see in a lifetime.
I’ve also discovered that my decision to write this story has a personal price: I lost some fans because I chose to write a story that not only casts a Muslim man in a positive light, but that also makes him its hero. I can live with that, even as it makes me a little sad. As I read through the various categories of interracial romance, I couldn’t find any, other than mine, with a Middle Eastern male hero. Some people are just not ready for that.
So, there are a lot of challenges involved in writing about another culture. You have to do your homework. You have to be sensitive. And, you have to accept that some people might not like it. In my opinion, those people are not your audience anyway.
Here’s my philosophy: tell your story. Be proud of it. The world is waiting!
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Books by internationally published author Sharon E. Cathcart provide discerning readers of essays,
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To learn more about Sharon’s work, visit her website at http://sharonecathcart.weebly.com, or find her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sharon.e.cathcart .