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Rhea Dhanbhoora on Writing about Identity in the Parsi Zoroastrian Diaspora

Rhea Dhanbhoora worked for close to a decade as an editor and writer in print and digital content for a variety of clients before quitting her job, moving to New York to get her master’s degree, and finally writing the stories everyone told her no one would ever read. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as The Hindu, The Quint, Apeiron Review, sPARKLE & bLINK, Five on the Fifth, Capsule Stories, Fly on the Wall Press, HerStry, Artsy, Broccoli, and JMWW. She’s currently working on a linked collection about women based in the underrepresented Parsi Zoroastrian diaspora.

Her poems “Collective Shame,” “In Diaspora,” and “Itemizing My Identity” are published in Capsule Stories Autumn 2020 Edition. The poems explore identity in the Parsi Zoroastrian diaspora.

Capsule Stories: In “Collective Shame,” you examine the societal burden that’s placed on members of your community to be a “model minority.” You write: “The failure of the one our failure too.” How does this expectation affect how you write about your community and diaspora? How do you allow yourself to create space to write about these topics without censoring yourself or worrying about what others will think of it?

Rhea Dhanbhoora: So many issues (like societal burdens) work their way into literature even when we think we’re reading (or writing) apolitical work, so while I don’t think I was thinking consciously about any of this when I wrote “Collective Shame,” I was, of course, drawing from somewhere to have it come out like that.

And I’d like to think I’m never worried about what others will think, but I probably did, somewhere subconsciously, think about it, because it took a long time for me to really start letting myself do any honest writing. I wrote an essay about it recently for JMWW and I think writing the essay, more than writing the work itself, was what made me realize how much I had held myself back because I didn’t give myself permission to write about certain things that felt too close to me. I’m still worried sometimes that I’ll end up in some sort of box, but I think it’s just leftover anxiety from being made to believe things need to fit into a series of boxes at all.

The model minority part came from experiences within the community but also from a lifetime of reading—about imperialism, colonialism, history and historical accounts. I read lots of nonfiction, a lot of studies and academic papers, and I’m interested in the truth about economies, oppression and capitalism, the manipulation of history—some of that probably slips into my work even when I try to keep it out. When I first read about model minorities I wasn’t reading about India, or the United States . . . and definitely not about my diaspora. But then certain lived experiences began to creep in as I read these different accounts from such different places—I realized how much of a “model minority” we were (and are) treated as, and we don’t even know. That idea of being “the good other,” the shock and shame when a member “fails” in some way that becomes public . . . all the things most minorities across the world can identify with and majorities never really have to even consider. It’s interesting that for some you can have both experiences, being the model minority and the massive majority, depending on where you’re based. It was pretty eye-opening because it felt like I suddenly understood more about myself too.

I don’t self-censor at all when I write, but that means it sometimes takes me a really, really long time to have the guts to actually share and submit work—it’s easier with fiction, but even that can take months or years. Capsule Stories was actually one of the first places I submitted anything from this particular batch of what I’d call “truthful fictions,” because of course it’s not all autobiographical; I love the “making it up” part of writing too much to focus on just my own experiences—creating stories out of nothing and weaving in all the fabrications is so freeing.

Capsule Stories: You write about how it is to be living in a Western world as a person from the East, and you capture that feeling of “the world was not made for me” really well. You explore the way your actions are perceived because of how the world perceives your people and the barriers that are created. How do you navigate these barriers through your writing, and what do you hope to communicate to your audience?

Rhea Dhanbhoora: Writing about my identity/diaspora is relatively new for me, so I can’t say I have a method to navigate anything yet. But often in these particular pieces, I’m not really writing about an East-West gap as much (although that obviously does factor in too, because it exists) as I am writing about an “otherness” felt across the globe. Specifically within the world that I’m centering in a lot of my recent work, the community is a minority everywhere, it’s in diaspora all over the world—so that peculiar, sometimes unfamiliar and often latent or undetected feeling of not really fitting in anywhere even with all the “successful assimilation,” that’s more interesting to explore than the usual barriers. I’m interested in how the world perceives minorities in different spaces—a minority here so often a majority somewhere else and so on. Experiences can be so different depending on the setting/space/country.

For Parsi Zoroastrians, there is no real majority anywhere, and so it’s more about how they are perceived depending on where they are: where they are “known” there’s a lot of ignorance or misinformation (even within the community itself, because there are so few “accurate” sources, research; so many of the stories and histories lost to time).

And then in other places—here in the United States, for example—we’re often not perceived any way at all because we’re more or less invisible, or put into a box denoting whatever country we came from. The fact that we’re a declining minority on the precipice of extinction definitely influences the work too.

I write because I love to write, not always about identity, and I don’t believe all writing has to have a purpose—but unconsciously I do find myself writing a lot of these particular stories (perhaps because I spent so many years not writing them) to represent, for visibility and perhaps even as preservation? So, I suppose all of that factors into whatever I’m trying to communicate?

Capsule Stories: Some publications want non-English words to always be in italics, but we let the writer choose. You decided to not use italics and said that you’re so used to being told to put the words in italics you submit them like that now. You address this idea within “In Diaspora” too: “There are words people like me will hear that you don’t know: markers of our minority, snaking the slow growth of invisible identity.” Talk a little about your experience with incorporating non-English words into your writing. How do stylistic choices or grammar “rules” like italicizing or not italicizing non-English words affect your writing?

Rhea Dhanbhoora: I have so many feelings about this.

When I worked as a reporter and editor for an English-language Features paper, we were required to italicize all words that weren’t in English, and that was fine, it didn’t bother me at all. But in fiction, poetry, and literary work, it’s always really annoyed me. Maybe because I grew up reading books with Russian and other foreign words that weren’t italicized, so when I did encounter non-English italicization it was pretty strange.

To be honest, I have cycles. Sometimes I’m fighting hard against submitting things like that and then other times I’m resigned to whatever rules people seem to prefer—I’m trying to do less of the latter for myself and for the sake of my work.

I usually love when writing breaks the rules (but I also think understanding form, style, origins, the why and how etcetera of all these “rules” is useful, especially when you’re breaking them), either to serve a purpose stylistically or within the narrative. And I love literary theory, critical study . . . if I had the time (money) and energy I’d devote all my time to studying all sorts of things. But I try to forget everything when I’m writing. Everything I read probably influences me in some way, but if I think about it, I feel frozen, and I can no longer write.

For the italicizing in particular, there’s a bit more to it than grammar rules. When I read, I find that italicized “foreign” words signal white authorship, send a pretty clear message about the target audience, or put heavy emphasis on this other word sneaking into the text that doesn’t belong. It doesn’t matter what language it’s in; it feels insulting to the story or poem, and personally, it pulls me out of the piece. I mean, there are lots of English words one might have to look up unless you’ve swallowed a dictionary. And a lot of words you don’t know eventually reveal themselves through context . . . it just doesn’t seem necessary to point them out unless that’s your intent, or you’re doing it to serve your story. I read a book recently that had so many italicized words on one page that it was hard to get through it. The eye pauses, which is what I like about italics used as emphasis. When you let me choose not to italicize the non-English words, the italics that I did use for emphasis/not to denote foreign words had a chance to do what they were meant to!

Capsule Stories: You play with white space and layout on the page in your poetry. Each of your poems is formatted differently to suit the poem. How do you land on the layout and form for a particular poem?

Rhea Dhanbhoora: I’ve never really thought about this. I do write from images more than ideas, whether it’s prose or poetry, and I suspect that influences a lot of it. I’m intrigued by visual patterns in literature, and I like playing around with form and style, but I don’t think of any of that when I’m writing. Maybe I do sometimes when I edit, but not enough to change form completely. I don’t think too hard at all—in the sense that I don’t plan what I’m going to write or how I’m going to write it when I sit down to do so. I get a sort of performance anxiety if I go “Okay, I’m going to write now” or think about what I’m going to write—I don’t work with plots or anything for my fiction either, just an image or a vague idea! It’s all very messy, and I write when I feel compelled to. It works for me, but it may not be the most ideal way to go about things. My process is so chaotic; I think the pieces fall into the layout and form according to what best suits the story more than anything else.

Capsule Stories: What other writers have influenced you and your writing?

Rhea Dhanbhoora: That’s such a tough question to answer; I don’t really have favorites (or I have hundreds of favorites). I love so many different genres, styles, and forms that I’m sure there are writers that have influenced me that I can’t even remember reading. I had a phase where I was reading by century too so it’s hard to pinpoint any overall influences or inspiration. So, maybe I’ll stick to what’s influenced me most recently.

From older work, I recently reread Anna Kavan (who I may be writing about soon—I’m very excited because she’s one of my favorites). I think she influenced me more now than when I first read her several years ago—at the time I was reading a lot more Blake, Plath, Keats, Chekhov . . . she got lost in all of it, but she’s brilliant. I also revisited Toni Morrison; I love her work, and then it led me back to Zadie Smith—actually my obsession with her is the reason I moved to New York. I didn’t really know anything about MFAs and then I read an interview where she was talking about being a professor. I actually went to her office building when I was on holiday here, stared at her plaque on the door, and then almost immediately decided I would not be going there—she’s too much of a known personality, and I’m too anxious! I needed something a lot smaller; more intimate.

I’ve also recently been absorbed by and loved Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, Yashica Dutt’s Coming Out as Dalit, Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, and a lot of Svetlana Alexievich. There are probably so many I’m forgetting.

I’m currently reading Anthropica by David Hollander, and this book is really speaking to me. I haven’t had that very specific “this book was written for me” feeling in a long time, and I’m reading almost too slowly because I want to savor every line—I don’t want it to end.

Capsule Stories: What are you working on next?

Rhea Dhanbhoora: So many things, and nothing at all at the same time. I’ve had trouble writing anything over the last few months for a variety of reasons, but I have so much work in progress. I’m tentatively querying (or was for a while . . .) a linked collection of micro/flash/shorts that follows unnamed women in a small, forgotten Parsi Zoroastrian colony in a sort of pre-apocalyptic environment hostile to women and minorities. I have a couple of chapbooks (poetry/prose), a novel about a boy obsessed with Freddie Mercury (that I finished and lost on an airplane and I’m trying to sort of, rewrite, maybe), and I always have half-written stories and poems scattered through my notes, in email drafts, on little scraps of paper—I’m a mess, but I also sort of love it that way.

Capsule Stories: Where can readers follow you and find your work?

Rhea Dhanbhoora: I’m on Instagram and Twitter, though I’m just getting back on after taking a year or two off. I’m a sporadic poster with my own work, but I retweet (too much). I have a lot of social media (and social) anxiety, but I’ve also found a lot of great writers and work that I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t on Twitter especially, and that’s mostly what’s keeping me there. Most of my work and pleas to hire me are on my website though.

You can read Rhea Dhanbhoora’s poetry in Capsule Stories Autumn 2020 Edition. Buy your copy today!