“A Fever That Escalates With Every Blow”: Athena Farrokhzad’s White Blight

Kaveh Akbar

Translated by Jennifer Hayashida. Brooklyn, NY: Argos Books, 2015. 72 pages. $20.00.

It’s a unique sort of despair to be Middle Eastern and living in a Western nation in 2017. Amid the European migrant crisis and the rampant xenophobia it’s engendered, amid the hate-mongering of the Trump presidency and its normalization of Islamophobic rhetoric, amid the new immigrant bans and the ramifications of such unchecked bigotry, it really does seem like a particularly horrifying moment in history—horrifying, as in Kurtz-on-the-boat “the horror, the horror”-ifying. Many days, it can be difficult to muster the essential stamina to move through it. “There is a fever that escalates with every blow,” says a character in Athena Farrokhzad’s White Blight, and it truly feels that way—each new external occasion for dread mirrors itself internally in the psychic life of every person of Middle Eastern descent. This is the project of Farrokhzad’s book: charting the gulf between the meanings of “home” and home when the two places are at war, literally and/or culturally.

Farrokhzad is an Iranian-born poet and playwright who grew up in Gothenburg, Sweden. Originally published in Swedish (under the title Vitsvit, literally “jokewhite”), White Blight was translated into English by Jennifer Hayashida and published by Argos Books. It’s told entirely through the voices of five characters (a mother, a father, a brother, an uncle, and a grandmother), moving between them in sections of recalled speech: “My father said: There is a war that takes place in the guts”; “My grandmother said: Pistachios for the toothless.” The effect can at times seem like a verse drama (Vitsvit has been performed on the stage in Sweden), but the quick pivots between perspectives feel more like the leaps between sections of a long poem than gaps in spoken dialogue—characters almost never explicitly address what the others have said.

There are no poem titles, no table of contents or dedications or author’s notes. The physical book is a minimal affair, its silvery reflective cover casting the distorted visage of its reader over the embossed White Blight title text (roughly 80% of Swedes are Caucasian, as are 63% of Americans). Further contributing to the experience of disorientation is the text of the poems themselves, which appears as white letters laid over black rectangles, calling to mind the redacted bars in classified political documents, situating the reader in an environment where the language of the poems is a negative space, an erasure of its own context.

Much of the book is concerned with this erasure, with the way one language can erase another. Like Solmaz Sharif, whose work has appeared and been celebrated in these pages, Farrokhzad is a Persian immigrant writing in the language of a culture that seeks to privilege itself over her own. She scorns her mother’s assimilationist ambitions (upon arriving in Sweden, her mother “immediately filled the house with Santa knickknacks” and “let bleach run through her syntax”) while acknowledging the futility of indicting a culture in its own tongue: “My brother said: The only language you have to condemn the crime / is the language of the criminal / and the language of the criminal / is a language invented to justify the crime.”

One of the countless humiliations levied upon the immigrant is the knowledge that often you must use the language of your oppressor to articulate your trauma. Perhaps this is why Farrokhzad chooses Paul Celan as her central muse. Celan, a Romanian Jew who translated Shakespeare in a Nazi ghetto, whose parents were executed in Nazi labor camps, who survived a labor camp himself, wrote his poems in German, saying once, “There is nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German.” His poem “Todesfugue” (“Death Fugue”) is referenced throughout the book: “My brother said: Black milk of dawn, we drink you at night”; “My mother said: Take some milk before it turns . . . My father said: One spoonful for the executioners / one spoonful for the emancipators / one spoonful for the hungry masses / And one spoonful for me.” It’s a spectacular effect—somehow, these poems feel both unimaginably strange and brutally familiar, mirroring the way contemporary far-right discourse leans on the tried-and-true proto-fascistic political algorithms of the past.

In Celan’s poem, the Jews in the camp are commanded to “play on for the dance” (itself likely a reference to Heinrich Heine’s poem “The Slave Ship,” where the slaves are forced to dance to their master’s music), while in Farrokhzad, “My father said: Write that this language kills you, write in this language / My brother said: You are credible if they recognize you.” Again and again, Farrokhzad makes palpable the conflict between the expectations of the oppressor and the realities of the oppressed. Each page of White Blight shocks us with its clarity and its conscience. Each page is an inherently doomed attempt to record, in Farrokhzad’s words, “a muteness that cannot be translated.”

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