Photo by Ryan Bradford
For poet Jahleh Ghanbari, the first time she called her father “daddy” was a small act of defiance.
“When I was in first grade, I came home one day and was really angry,” she says. “‘Baba’ is [the word for] father in Farsi, and no one knew what I was talking about when I said ‘my baba.’ So I came home and was like, ‘I’m going to call you daddy!”
This defiance is not surprising, considering Ghanbari’s surroundings growing up. Her father, an Iranian-born Muslim who came to the U.S. in the mid-’70s, ended up in Merrimack, New Hampshire, which Ghanbari describes as “very white, very Christian” and “very conservative.” That is, not really a hotbed for diversity. It was this overbearingly hegemonic environment that fueled Ghanbari’s desire to fit in.
But it didn’t last long. Ghanbari says she was going back to calling her father “baba” within two weeks.
It’s a story that highlights the conflict of assimilating into U.S. culture vs. retaining her father’s Iranian culture, a conflict that has given Ghanbari anxiety throughout her lifetime. Racism and cultural dysphoria have also exacerbated the anxiety, and Ghanbari says she often doesn’t feel “Iranian enough.”
“On one hand, I think [my Iranian identity] tremendously affected my life. I heard a lot of hateful things. When I was a kid, there was a person in my neighborhood I wasn’t allowed to play with because of it.
“I don’t want it to be the only thing that defines me as well,” she continues. “That’s important for me as an artist.”
After graduating from Keene State College, where she studied writing and poetry, Ghanbari moved to Los Angeles in 2014—a dramatic change of scenery after a life spent in New Hampshire. At the suggestion from one of her Keene State professors, she applied to SDSU’s MFA Creative Writing program. She was accepted and now spends her time balancing a full-time student schedule with her job at South Park’s The Station, where she works as a server and food runner. Additionally, she’s a grad assistant at SDSU’s esteemed poetry journal, Poetry International. When asked if she has sought out a Muslim community in San Diego as a way to retain some of her cultural identity, she laughs.
“Not really. I’m very moderate, and I have an affinity for vices.”
In fact, she says her father’s love for Persian poetry had more of a profound cultural impact than anything else. She fondly recalls her father reading Omar Khayyam, Rumi and Hafez when she was younger. And although these poets taught her to love the written word, she’s determined to create a poetic identity that’s separate from her cultural one.
“‘Oh, how does your culture influence your writing?’” she says, mimicking other writers’ reactions to her work. “I almost never want to answer that question again. I want to be like ‘It doesn’t! It doesn’t at all!’ But of course it does. Everything that’s a part of you does.”
She laughs and adds, “I almost prefer that people didn’t know, so they just ask me, like, white people artist questions.”