A native of Iran, Roya Hakakian arrived in the U.S. in 1985. The author, poet and journalist who has written for The New York Times and Wall Street Journal ultimately settled in Woodbridge, where she lives with her husband and twin boys. An outspoken critic of the Iranian regime and advocate for democracy, her latest book, A Beginner’s Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious, comes out March 16. It has received advance praise from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. We spoke to Hakakian in January, a week after the U.S. Capitol riot in the waning days of the Trump administration.
How did this book come about?
It’s a book that I really have been writing in my head ever since I arrived in the U.S. From the moment I got here, I was actively, of course, living here, but also observing. I only became aware that I had been taking notes for 30-odd years when, in 2016, Donald Trump started talking about immigrants, and so much of his platform was about the wall. And immigrants who come here, and I remember very distinctly one day, he said, our country is full, and why can’t we have more people from Norway? My initial reaction was to write a couple of articles. I wrote a couple of op-eds; I wrote one longer article for The Guardian. But then I realized that all of us, readers and writers too, were kind of locked in this confrontational situation where we were all preaching to the choir, our own choirs whether they were pro-immigration or anti-immigration, and I wanted to write something different.
What stood out when you first got to the U.S.?
Well, I remember stepping out of the airport, and the first thing I saw, it was as if the world had stretched, everything was several times bigger than I had ever seen, whether they were people or cars or even the landscape. In retrospect, part of what I tried to do in the book was to let all these little observations that native-born Americans take for granted, whether it is the landscape, whether it’s the amount of natural beauty and other gifts that exist here, that may not appear to the eyes of the native-born person. My purpose was to try to gather all these things and show that they are, in fact, exceptional.
“It’s really not a guide for immigrants. I thought, how can you speak to native-born Americans without preaching to them?”
So in addition to serving as a guide for immigrants, it helps people born here to see the country with fresh eyes?
Exactly. It’s really not a guide for immigrants. I thought, how can you speak to native-born Americans without preaching to them? And this was the best formula I could come up with. Because there is a lot that people don’t see, that are such incredible gifts and miracles. And the events of the past week keep reminding me that you should not take for granted that you can actually go to the polls and vote and have your vote counted. You should not take for granted that you have a choice and that you are part of the process of choosing who your candidates are, because none of these things in so many parts of the world are necessarily accessible to ordinary people.
What do you hope people take away from the book in light of these divisive recent events?
I wrote the book because I thought people were not cherishing, and celebrating, or protecting all those democratic rights and values that this country had been built upon. I keep thinking that immigrants generally contribute to this country in so many ways. Some of us work the farms, some of us take care of the elderly, some of us are doctors, and staff the hospitals, some of us are inventors, and we end up in Silicon Valley and create things. And over the past year or two, I keep thinking that my value as an immigrant is to try to remind native-born Americans of all the values and the significance of the original ideas upon which America has been built. And yes, they were never perfect, when they were first thought of 300 years ago, but they were an exceptionally great beginning to build upon and to improve on. And I thought that so many of those original ideas were being either hijacked or forgotten or taken for granted because of their imperfection. Therefore I feel like it’s important to try to look at America, through the perspective of someone who had not grown up here or experienced all these gifts, and comes here and sees it and then provides that perspective to others who may need to see this grass fresh, perhaps for the first time.