The Other Side of Paradise: Solmaz Sharif’s Customs

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The United States of America has been portrayed as the land of freedom and opportunity, a refuge for the oppressed and the poor. Immigrants from all over the world come to America and struggle to create a new life. Stories of individual success abound. Dr. Dennis Papazian’s journey is a classic example. In his recently published memoir, From My Life and Thought: Reflections on an Armenian-American Journey (Fresno State Press, 2022), Papazian chronicles his struggles of “trying to fit in and be accepted,” first in the provincial town of Augusta, Ga., where he was born less than two decades after the Armenian Genocide, and later in Detroit, Mich. The “poor immigrant boy” is well-aware of his lack of privilege in a culture where ethnic minorities are marginalized. Yet, with hard work and perseverance, he overcomes obstacles and rises to key leadership positions in the Armenian-American community.

The success stories of individuals do, nonetheless, raise questions about the many more who fail to realize their potential because of, in Papazian’s own words, “unofficial segregation” and legalized restrictions. The popular melting pot metaphor for a land where “all are created equal” is, in fact, perceived by many as being deceptive. Noted educational critic Jonathan Kozol writes of the “educational apartheid” of the “Still Separate, Still Unequal” school system in the United States. On a similar note, the late Mike Rose, professor in the School of Education at UCLA, writes of school administrators limiting educational opportunities to students in the vocational education track by instilling in them the “I just wanna be average” mentality.

The disparity between the promise and the reality of a land that advertises herself as the land of equality and harmony, has been exposed by Diaspora writers of all ethnic backgrounds. The Book of Khalid by Lebanese-American writer Ameen Rihani, the story of two immigrants from the village of Baalbek in Lebanon, who at the turn of the century sail “West — to the paradise of the World — to America . . . the land of equal rights and freedom,” depicts their disenchantment and the dehumanizing immigration process at the Bureau of Emigration in the “Juhannam of Ellis Island.” “Are you sure we are better off here?” Khalid asks his friend repeatedly.

Among the more recent voices desperately searching for the truth in “a counterfeit universe,” is the voice of poet/musician Alan Semerdjian. “Oh Truth where is your hide? Why must we seek you in the debris?” pleads Semerdjian. Solmaz Sharif, on the other hand, the 39-year-old, multiple-awards-winning Persian-American poet, makes us question the very premise of America as a land where all are welcome. “I am without the kingdom . . . even when inside the kingdom — /without . . . A without which/I have learned to be,” writes Sharif in “Without Which,” a poem in her newly released book of poems, Customs (Graywolf Press, 2022). Even immersion in English, believed by many to be the mark of success for a foreign-born, is seen by Sharif as capitulation to “A world polite/for their words,” to a world that thrives on control, language being an important part of that control: “To finally admit out loud then, I want to go home/ . . . To lament the fact of your lamentations in English, English being/your first defeat.”

Solmaz Sharif

For Sharif, being uprooted from one’s land and coming to America is not about being torn between two traditions. It is about leaving something behind for a culture where one is always alone, always excluded. The persona in the poems refuses to see “The Master’s House” as her source of support. At a time when it is fashionable to define identity as a process, in other words, as something that is continually changing and forming, and therefore as allowing the individual to always feel “included,” Sharif depicts the endless going from gate to gate at airports — “All my waiting at the railing”—as an experience that inevitably leaves one “without.” In “He, Too” she writes:

Upon my return to the US, he

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Asks my occupation. Teacher.

 

What do you teach?

Poetry.

 

I hate poetry, the officer says,

I only like writing

Where you can make an argument.

 

Anything he asks, I must answer.

This, too, he likes.

 

I don’t tell him

He will be in a poem

Where the argument will be

 

anti-American.

…….

…….

I am let in

 

I am let in until

Ending the poem with “until” must imply the threat of yet another uprooting. The gates at the customs area open and the speaker is “let in,” only to stand at the railing of yet another gate built inside. “Domestic terminals do not have this railing at the exit,” she recalls as she waits. Unlike the tramps, who may have no consciousness of the fact that they are condemned to a routine of endless waiting in Samuel Beckett’s celebrated play, “Waiting for Godot,” the speaker in Sharif’s poems is aware that she is doomed to stay with “This nowhere.” She also knows that if she doesn’t, she will “lose even the loss.“

Displacement is not a new phenomenon. Sharif’s poems do, however, make the dispossession palpable. The unfinished last line (for the reader to finish?) — “I pass through there so that” — of “An Otherwise,” the long fragmented poem that ends the slim volume of poems, touches the exile in all of us, and makes the feeling of exclusion, of having to exist “even when inside the kingdom—/without,” even more traumatic. The persona’s, “No crueler word than return./No greater lie,” evokes for us the destruction of our own homeland in Artsakh.

The poems provide an earthy “context” for Nothingness. The speaker “was dead before she died. . . . Homeland is where one’s wake was held,” writes Sharif. Nonetheless, I like to see the rhythmic repetition of, “To finally admit out loud then, I want to go home . . . though you’ve forgotten what it was,” as freeing. The speaker likes to be asked about her loss, about the things she left behind. Indeed,

 

We wanted

 

To be asked

Of these things.

 

To tell of them

Was to live

 

again,

 

tells us she is still alive, even as we wonder if living with a crushed soul is living.

 

The poems in the collection are not easy, yet their fragmented stanzas, broken lines, and shocking images compel us to share the speaker’s feeling of fragmentation and of “withoutness,” with not even a “something within” to fall back on to recover:

 

Would you have knocked for me?

I ask the neighbor.

 

I have been, he said.

 

Then I felt his knocking

 

Inside my chest.

 

Many writers from the Diaspora have written about the plight of the immigrant. Our own Hakob Karapents devotes his entire oeuvre to exploring the feelings of duality and alienation of the exiled. “an American to Mexicans/a Mexican to Americans,” writes American poet Pat Mora in “Legal Alien.” Solmaz Sharif explores the contradictions of the condition of exile and exposes the other side of “paradise,” with stunningly precise details.

 

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