At my high school, we had Diversity Day, during which we were treated to (or subjected to, depending on who you ask) a series of lectures, debates and discussions about diversity. I was always a fan of Diversity Day, perhaps because I was acutely aware of the fact that I was among the students considered diverse, and not just because of my heritage. I was diverse because I listened to Madonna while everyone else listened to The Steve Miller Band, and because I wore platform shoes and polyester while everyone else wore Tevas and fleece.
Diverse is defined as “showing a great deal of variety; very different.” When I was ten years old, I was taping hundreds of old movies on VHS and organizing them alphabetically by star: Bacall, Crawford, Davis, Dietrich. Yeah, you could say I was very different. And also, I was Iranian.
So, it was rattling and surprising to be told some years ago that I am not, in fact, diverse at all. I had taken a series of meetings in consideration for a job on the writing staff of a network television show. They were going to offer me a job under the auspices of an industry-wide diversity initiative, which states that one writer on every network show should be a diverse hire.
But a few days after being told I would soon be offered the job, I received another call telling me that a mistake had been made. Middle Eastern people are, in fact, not diverse, at least not in the eyes of network television executives. This likely has something to do with the fact that we are considered white by the U.S. census, which led to over 47 Iranian non-profits coming together in 2010 to encourage Iranians to mark “Some Other Race” on the U.S. Census, and then write-in either “Iranian-American,” “Iranian,” or “Persian.” I was one among the 289,465 who did this.
What bothered me most about being told I wasn’t diverse was that Middle Eastern people are virtually invisible in the media, and when we are visible, we are usually terrorists, or we are portrayed by actors from other, more marketable ethnicities. This is further underlined by our own government’s recent efforts to pass travels bans targeting Iranians, and people from other Middle Eastern countries, as potential threats.
After being told I didn’t qualify for the diversity initiative, I was invited to lobby the network to change its internal policy. I decided to pass on that opportunity. I am a storyteller, not a lobbyist. This is why my new novel, THE AUTHENTICS, is so personal, and so important to me. It is the story of Daria, a proud Iranian-American teenager living in Los Angeles, who starts to question her sense of self when she discovers a secret about her past. Through Daria and her family (which includes an aunt who lives in Tehran, and a gay brother expecting a child via surrogate), I hope to show a complex view of modern Iranian lives. It was also important to me to show the relationship between Iranians from different religious backgrounds, and to show the relationship between different immigrant communities in the same city. In short, it was important for me to show that there is diversity within the culturally rich communities that are often portrayed in a narrow way.
And also, every day should be Diversity Day.