Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Pardon me, but is that my identity you're wearing?.

Lipstick Jihad is an interesting work to consider for a number of reasons. For one, it's popular. Unlike some of the other books we've read, the more obscure harder to get from types, this work can be found at Borders. It is popular in America. It has a sexy title and a cute cover. It sells. I find this work to be valuable, but, before I get into its merits as a piece of literature, I do want make a few observations from the craft perspective. Currently, I am participating a non-fiction workshop, so I've been intimately engaged in the process of memoir-making this semester. I have been reading a lot of lovely nonfiction by women including The Liars' Club and Cherry by Mary Carr, I Could Tell You Stories by Patricia Hampl, A Little More About Me by Pam Houston, and a number of short pieces by others such as Virginia Woolf and Annie Dillard. Unfortunately, as a piece of literary nonfiction, Maoveni's work is not quite reaching the bar.

The book reads like a two hundred and some page magazine article. Moaveni does not hesitate to lapse into long, dry descriptions of political situations and Iranian history. There is no light hand, no feathering in of the necessary context and detail. I find this technique to be clunky and difficult to get through. On the other hand, perhaps this is precisely what people like about this memoir. It tells the actual truth, sans generalization. The sections that fill us in on historical matters are researched and reported, not reckoned and remembered. In my opinion, this tactic renders the narrative lifeless and impersonal. There are tender moments between characters that fall flat because the book has been more about politics and journalism than relationships. The characters, even Moaveni herself, seem conspicuous and out of place when granted center stage, like poorly sewn hand puppets thrust onto a million dollar movie set.

However, there are moments in the text that shed light upon the condition that we have been so interested in these past few weeks -- Middle Eastern womanhood. Moaveni is bright and honest despite her melancholy neuroticism, and achieves moments in this narrative that illuminate the human condition regardless of gender, race, or geography. She deals quite elegantly with the issue of hybridity that is central to the immigrant condition. Is she American or Iranian? Both? How is identity constructed? Who is in charge? Can we be the keepers of our own personhood or is it a community project? Moaveni inquires,

"I thought of my family in California and superimposed the question on them. What if they woke up one day, and decided they were really American? Even if they felt it with all the force of their being, did that mean Americans would suddenly stop considering them foreigners? Maybe identity, to an extent, was an interior condition. But wasn't it also in the eye of the beholder?" (Moaveni 115)

Until reading this passage, I had not considered the exteriority of identity to be so tantamount. No matter how an individual feels in realtion to himself, his identity, to a certain point, is dependant upon the perceptions of others. I feel like this question is at the center of our project this semester. In the process of trying to learn and form insights about the Middle East through its art, we are helping to construct a particular identity. We struggle, but are delighted when we come upon something that we did not expect about this area of the world and its people. No matter how the Middle East exists as an entity, our study of it will always be a mere projection. When we, through literature and film, try to understand the experience of another human being, we strive for sympathy. We wish that we could empathize, but we cannot. The experience is too foreign. Through our quest for understanding, we examine the characters' identity as insight into the human experience. We listen to the characters and authors as they speak about themselves, then attempt to make a judgment or form an opinion. Can a character or author truly know himself and can we trust what he tells us? Writers are just as capable of lying as any other human being on this earth, and we should keep this in mind when reading, especially if the work in question is memoir. If the text seems disengenous, then it may very well be. The problem when sorting this out in postcolonial lit or any other imported work is to discern between instances in which the author is lying and when we just fail to understand.


  1. I had a similar reaction when thinking about the idea of identity. It seems like we are constantly trying to understand how one can define themselves or ground themselves. It seems as though this relates back to the idea of hybridity that was brought up when we discussed Persepolis.

  2. I think you make an excellent point when you describe that an author might be "lying." They may also be exaggerating. They also choose to tell some things, but leave out others, depending on the point they're trying to make. In Persepolis, for example, Satrapi chooses to focus more on positive male characters than on those that are negative. She also associates the negative male characters more with politics, rather than their gender, since she portrays negative female characters in the political realm as well.

  3. In class you developed more fully your distinction between memoir and news reporting. That really helped me think about the text.

    On the theme of identity it would be very interesting to see which and how we would trace themes through the course this semester.

  4. This is why I want us all to integrate our bodies with robotics. How could identity be marked upon one's body if one could simply put on a "white male" suit, or a "female" suit, depending on how one felt on a certain day?

    As it stands, identity will always be external, as it is a normalizing force within society. Would her family be considered Iranian by a native Iranian? Or would they then be considered American? It's same hybridity experience by light-skinned African Americans: they are black to their white friends, and white to their black friends.