The dichotomy of exile and return

Shortlisted entry in the Non-Fiction section of the Honi Soit Writing Competition 2022.

At the beginning of this year, I was accepted into a playwrighting development program co-facilitated by the National Theatre of Parramatta (NToP) and Australian Plays Transform (APT). At first, I had no idea what I would write about but knew that I wanted to write. It is for that very same reason that I am writing at the moment, entering this piece into a competition. And my author/playwright biography articulates it the most clearly:

I write in my spare time or, more importantly, when I am struck by an overwhelming feeling or sensation that I can only express to others through the written word.

The written word, and the written world alone has been my avenue of expression for quite some time now. In moments where I have struggled, in those where I have prospered, in many where I have played the part of the flaneur who chooses to walk through the streets of his family’s history and inherit its weight worth of gold. 

I may sound very flouncy here, abstract and ethereal like writers often do when describing themselves and their practice. But I don’t mean to do this. I don’t mean to sound pretentious and radiate a ‘writing-is-my-escape-and-only-vice’ style of impression. Rather, I speak truthfully and as a twenty year old, Australian-born Iranian-backgrounded individual who went to preschool not speaking a word of English. As the young boy who would call himself Italian or Mexican to avoid the label of the Middle Easterner. The high school student who decided to write a play about his generation’s grapple with biculturalism. And now, the university student and aspiring multi-disciplinary writer who angrily comes to the defence of his people and to the sharpness of his keyboard when he is overwhelmed by a feeling or sensation he can only express through the written word. 

At the time of my application and subsequent acceptance, there was a heated topic of conversation dividing my family. This same conversation had gained traction multiple times in the past, in the time that they had spent in Australia. For close to thirty years, my family had not returned to their homeland, never having visited since their forced exile. Over those years, the idea of returning had frequented their minds and had been thrown around out loud here and there, but it was not until the Summer of 2021/2022 when it became serious. In short, and without listing their reasons in excruciating detail, my mother and her sisters wanted to go, my grandparents were completely against it, my uncles were on the fence and my brother and I- well my brother and I hadn’t charted these waters yet. It was the first time we were being asked this question as adults, as well as being treated as senior members of the family. For it is only my brother and I – and more recently our younger cousins – that were born in Australia. The rest of my family come from foreign soil. I, however, was connected to this foreign soil, its foreignness both doubled for me – as I have never set foot on it – while synonymously reducing – since I continue to be proud of my roots and discuss it with intuition in my work. 

Now, this conversation that was happening, taking its twists and turns, causing temporary rifts between family members and finding a way to seep into every sordid sentence, eventually came to a halt. And no one knows exactly why. I haven’t dared ask anyone, and to the best of my understanding, I could see that this notion of exile and return and the dichotomous relationship they share were remnants of a past too raw to grieve and a future too fragile to aspire to. 

At the time of all this hustle and bustle, when applying for the playwrighting development program, I was asked to pitch a concept I wanted to turn into a play. It’s quite obvious what this led to. I was feeling distant from my family, torn by opinions and perspectives, the fors and againsts of returning ‘home’. I was left in this liminal space where my Iranian-ness was brought into question. My values and understanding of betrayal, particularly betraying Australia who had embraced my stranded family many years ago, were conflicted with the life-long desire of seeing the terrain charted in the course of my family history. For ultimately, as I mentioned, writing became the only way I could process such a monumental decision. For over 25 years my family had been proud of the fact that they had refused to return to a place that had cast them out and changed their lives entirely. Simultaneously, the bitterness of exile had weighed them down for a quarter of a century, looming in their conscience and shaping the course of family milestones. 

My play, Exile and Return, hoped to explore just this. 6 distressing characters of different ages and experiences, with varying proximity to their cultural identities, each with a story to tell. This story, fundamentally shaped by the dichotomy of exile and return and the questions it triggers, would be told through a Rashomon-esque effect, highlighting the subjectivity of truth and variances in individual vs. collective mentalities. 

I know, overly ambitious, underdeveloped, and yet to see the light of a theatre spotlight. Nevertheless, over the course of 9 months, most of which have passed now, I began to work on this idea, revitalising it into a project that would not only refine my practice but help stimulate my relationship to the omnipresent dichotomy. 

It is a mark of survival to want to return to the land from which your roots have sprung, but it is also a defence mechanism to resist return and stay grounded in the present and future versions of yourself. 

For this reason, and this reason alone, my attempt in surviving the tempest that is cultural safeguarding and connectedness, my attempt in resisting the dichotomy that emerges over us and divides families, became the subject of a play I write. Not only for personal preservation, but so that families like mine can survive in a foreign land in which their very foreignness can perhaps be a coping mechanism for their survival.

This piece was an entry in the 2022 Honi Soit Writing Competition.