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Human Nature: New and Old in the New Year

This piece was originally published on Medium on 22 March 2019.

It was the first day of spring on the Gregorian calendar, and, this year, also Parsi New Year – Navroze – though wintery winds still held the trees in their grip and the sky remained grey, threatening not just rain, but the kind of storm that hovers over the region and only dissipates slowly. But nevertheless, it was the first day of the new season, and therefore of the new year, when we are meant to turn away from what has been, and towards all the potential that might yet be. While I was growing up, my mom worked really hard to make Navroze special. We were far from relatives, far from a larger sense of our community, and she did her best to instill in us that the day was special, even if other people around us weren’t celebrating it. As we got older, and our lives changed, there wasn’t the same emphasis put on it, but the joy of celebrating the new year with the return of the promise of spring remained. It remains for me even when I am not home – messages from family all over the world have become a reminder of how much stays the same even though the years cycle on. We are a global family; it is not the location that matters, but what we can share in spite of our locations.

Perhaps that is why the idea of leaving home for a degree on the other side of the ocean with no intention of coming home in between wasn’t that difficult of an idea for me when I originally planned on moving to England for three to four years. Far better to take advantage of being on the other side, closer to adventures and opportunities that are impractical or prohibitively expensive when on the Atlantic’s west coast, than to become a transatlantic commuter. It was only a handful of years and in an intense program, they were sure to go by quickly. But one thing led to another and in the face of many things I certainly hadn’t been looking for when I left, I found myself needing to go home – not just homesick but an overwhelming urge to be where I thought I knew myself best – in the middle of my second year. Without thinking of anything other than ticket prices and term start and end dates, I found myself back in the only home I can truly remember the day before the Parsi New Year.

The new year is a time for beginnings, for good wishes, blessings, and goodwill. It is a time to reconnect with a sense of purpose, and a sense of one’s faith. It can be a time to recommit to one’s beliefs, or simply, to reconnect with family on both large and small scales. We shed the winter’s cold, though grateful for the rest it brings in its turn, and we look to the light of the sun for the promise of new life, and the promise that life will simply continue to cycle. Of course it is not simple, ever. The cycle is ever-changing. Usually the change is so gradual that we cannot really mark it happening; suddenly what was new is instead normal. But normal changes too; this new year I find myself utterly confused by the idea of how we think of home, because somewhere in the months of craving to go back home, I made a home elsewhere, too.

While my sense of family and where I might have belonged in it was global, my own sense of myself has always been very localized. I know the trees and wood of Connecticut, the smell of the loam on a cold day. I know the sound of the wind, and how one day, suddenly, it will become just warm enough that what seems like firm ground will transmute itself into marsh, and the wind will be overrun with the chatter of birds, the swoop of red-tail hawks’ wings. I know the sounds of deer snacking on mom’s roses in the early morning, and where to look for foxes’ tail at the edge of the woods at dusk. I know sunrise over the lake during a summer swim with friends, and how storms crash upon the beach. I was formed by these things as much as the libraries and schools and other buildings my life was formed within. I know the height of the stairs and all the creaky floorboards, which light switches are where even in a pitch dark room, and how to navigate without ever using them. I know how rarely strangers will try the creepy gravel driveway into the woods, where we perch, almost secretly, at the top of the hill. I know where all the books are, and the best places to hide multiple flashlights as to not be thwarted the first, or fourth, time one is discovered reading under the covers after having been sent to bed. This is my home; this is where I became myself. But even as the wind circles the house and the tap of the keyboard echoes in the same room I worked on homework and undergraduate capstone projects, papers and graduate school applications, I know that this is not all that I know, all that I am, anymore.

I wanted to come home because I thought I was losing myself in a new place, a new environment, in a way I had never wanted to. Years ago when I was considering different choices, someone I trusted looked at a list of programs and told me to look overseas – that the programs I wanted at first were brutally difficult not because of the work but because of the communities, that I would do well in them but I might not like who I was anymore at the end of them. And yet, despite thinking that I had managed to not put myself in the position of losing myself, I felt chipped away at, redefined by labels and contexts that were alien to my understanding of myself, but also alien to my understandings of how communities should work. I built a space for myself that could become a fortress of sorts, a center core where I could protect my sense of self, and let down the guarded position that was becoming permanent – only possibly because it was, is, a fortress, and I can treat the front door like a drawbridge, and only let in those who wouldn’t chip away at the cracks any further. I know the sound of the songbirds all through the year, and the smell of the fens after rain. I know the river, and that the best flowers appear before spring arrives. I know the damp air that almost freezes in the wind as it races across the flat expanse, and how it never quite gets cold in the right way. I know my space, inside and out, and the rhythms of life I share with those I care about within it. What I didn’t expect, though, was that in so short a time I could learn those things like second nature – second only to the nature of the first place I ever called home.

We cannot move backwards; the sun only moves in one direction through the years. This is not to say though, that we cannot go home; however, there is a day we all leave home and cannot quite return in the same way, though we may not realize it until long after it happens. I have somehow planted myself on both sides of the Atlantic; unbalanced by time zones and climate and sifting through old and new habits for different spaces that are both now home, I should perhaps be grateful that I am not truly a tree, no matter how deeply I think I’ve sent my roots into the earth. Even as I was packing I was using both the phrases “going home” and “coming home” while making plans. Both were true, both are true – old self and new self both looking to go home to roost, without realizing they were about to collide. I am home, and yet I am homesick. Perhaps this is the truth of life, that in some way we are always looking to return to some sense of comfort when face with our own growth. Like bulbs pushing through the earth, it is unsettling, uncomfortable, sometimes violent, to stretch past one’s current form and reach for the potential of what might yet be. But we can still walk through our pasts to find bits of ourselves that were lost, and make them again a part of our presents, our futures. Somewhere in the past few years, I forgot so many things about myself: that I’m a writer and essayist, that I have been competent at many things, that I am strong enough, or perhaps, just enough of a person to walk the paths I choose for myself, every day. Two days in my home, surrounded by memories and different kinds of roots – favorite books, favorite blankets, written evidence of what I’ve already managed to do – I found a small part of what had been chipped away. And I can put the pieces back together; I can gild the breaks and make them stronger, so I don’t forget about them the next time I might fracture. Though, as I write this, the same rain is pinging off the same gutter that lulled me to sleep for years and the end of Navroze is approaching, the truth is that in the place I am now homesick for, New Years’ Day has passed, and we are firmly on our way into a new future. Perhaps, this Navroze, the thing most changed is me – no more than previous new years – but this year I learn to sit with the discomfort of being aware of growing.

CRCLC asks: 7 questions with Elizabeth Lim

This piece was originally published on 6 November 2018 at the CRCLC blog.


This week on the blog, second-year CRCLC PhD candidate Michelle Anya Anjirbag asks author Elizabeth Lim a few questions about her creative process, and how her array of academic interests and different experiences informed her writing and world-building. More information on the author and her works can be found on her website.

MAA: Before we dive into other questions, I want to just take a minute to highlight that you’re not only a skilled author, but you’re also a film and video game composer, and I believe you also have a doctorate in music composition. Both writing and music are very interesting but different methods of storytelling. Can you tell us a little about your connection to both mediums, and if you see a connection between the ways in which you approach constructing narratives?

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Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Lim.

EL: Yes, my backgrounds in music and creative writing have definitely informed the way I construct narratives. My formal background is in music — I completed a doctorate in music composition a few years ago. While I was working on my dissertation, I was employed at a video game company; I also started scoring films. My goal was always to move to Los Angeles once I’d finished my education and seek work as a film composer, particularly because I’ve always loved how music itself can describe and guide a narrative, and intensify a story’s emotional impact.

But while in graduate school, I revisited my childhood hobby of writing, and I began working on a novel. I was lucky enough to find representation for it and in the process of writing and editing it, discovered that I wanted to become an author more than I did a composer.

I definitely see a connection between music and writing. Structure, themes, and pacing are central things I pay attention to in both music and my novels. I try to outline as much as I can, and write down themes/motifs that I’d like to reappear and develop throughout the piece.

MAA: Your secondary degree is in East Asian studies. What drew you to this field, and has it had an impact on your writing?

EL: I was born and raised in California, but my family is Chinese and like many of my fellow Asian Americans, I probably spent less time thinking about Chinese culture when I was younger because I wanted to “fit in” as an American teenager. I came to regret this as an adult and became much more interested in my family’s history; I wanted to learn more about my ancestors — where they came from, what they did, what they were like. My family and I also lived in Japan for a few years, during which I became fascinated by Japanese history and mythology, so I naturally wanted to learn more.

While in college, I was not expecting to earn a secondary degree in East Asian studies, but I’d taken so many classes in the department (out of personal interest) that my advisors suggested I go ahead and complete the few requirements I needed to earn the qualification. It was a decision I came to value, for I’d already expressed interest in writing a thesis based on music along the Silk Road. Becoming more involved in the department also exposed me more to Chinese, Japanese, and Korean history and literature, which has in hindsight been incredibly valuable for me as a writer.

MAA: What, in your mind, makes for strong world-building? Where do you find inspiration, and how important do you think it is for readers to not only read a world as “authentic,” but for authors to craft “authentic” worlds?

EL: I find inspiration everywhere: in history, in daily life, and in other fictional worlds. I primarily write fantasy, so while I do think it’s important for readers to read a world as “authentic,” I do believe the author should have freedom to stretch their worlds as long as it is done in a respectful and thoughtful way.

MAA: On the note of authenticity, and because it is a loaded term in conversations about representation, what does “authentic” mean to you? Does it impact your creative processes?

EL: Oh, this is a tough question! “Authentic” will mean different things to every artist (and I say artist because I view music, art, writing — all as arts) you ask, and certainly to me when regarding representation, it is important that the artist have a background that reflects what they are creating. But what I care most about is intent. I think the sincerity of the work is what makes it authentic.

It certainly does impact my creative processes, and for many reasons. I occasionally worry that my work won’t be seen as “authentic” because I was born in America and not China, or that my work isn’t representative “enough” because I’m deviating from history. But at the end of the day, I think my having these concerns is a sign of a certain sort of progress in our society, insofar as we are paying more attention to questions of culture, ethnicity, and diversity. I also strongly believe that every individual’s story is different, so unless it’s blatant, I’m generally not a fan of going around calling out fellow authors, saying “yours is inauthentic.”

MAA: Your forthcoming novel reimagines the Silk Road, how have you tried to bring this to life aesthetically?

EL: In college, I was involved with a few organizations in bringing together musicians from different cultures to perform and create new works. While I was studying at Harvard, Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble was in residence, and hearing music from different parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe instilled in me a deep appreciation for the exchange of traditions between East and West during the time of the Silk Road.

Spin the Dawn loosely draws upon the Silk Road’s historical setting by incorporating a network of trade routes in its geography, one that relies heavily on the confluence of ideas and culture between East and West. Silk is a key commodity in Spin the Dawn, as it was historically, along with key spices and other trade goods — and since my character is a seamstress, she especially is sensitive to its availability and value. Furthermore, in my novel, as my main characters traverse realms along the road far from their own homes, their perceptions of the world change and widen, as I imagine must have occurred for travelers along the Silk Road.

MAA: Your work can also be considered as widening the aesthetic texture of YA fiction, how deliberate is this? What do you hope readers take from seeing stories or tropes they might already know in different cultural contexts?

EL: I’m not sure what it means to widen the aesthetic texture of a genre! When I first started writing Spin the Dawn I was just trying to write a story I would have wanted to read as a teenager. After Spin was accepted for publication, though, I became more aware of its place among other multicultural YA narratives, and I’m thrilled that more books are being published that take familiar stories and put them in different cultural contexts. Many have observed that folktales and fairytales from widely disparate cultures have deep structural and thematic commonalities — such as the European Cinderella and Chinese Cinderella (in the European version, she has a fairy godmother, and the Chinese tale she prays to goldfish bones). I hope readers will see, when they pick up Spin the Dawn and recognize certain ideas and archetypes recast, not just how diverse the world is, but also how much in common different cultures have with one another.

MAA: I heard you started writing through writing fanfiction when you were younger, why do you think we have this impetus to not just retell stories, but to retell them in different ways based on what the reader might have seen as missing or a more intriguing story?

EL: I think fan-fiction is a marvelous way for a writer (young or old) to exercise and stretch the imagination while honing the craft of writing. Personally, I was drawn to fan-fiction because 1) it gave me an opportunity to take characters and universes I desperately loved and make them my own, 2) it was a “risk-free” way of practicing my writing because the personalities worlds had already been developed and I was borrowing them to tell my own stories, and 3) it was fun to write!

Beyond Finding Roots, Glimpsing Who You Might Have Become

This piece was originally published on 21 September 2018 at WorldKitLit.


A reflection on the importance of a full range of world stories in beautiful, artistic translation:

By Michelle Anjirbag

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#Shelfie from the author.

I wasn’t supposed to be buying books, but somehow, I can’t resist at conferences — even those I’m not actually attending. I’d scooped up a highly recommended graphic novel depicting refugee journeys, and an illustrated book of stories tied to constellations across cultures. And then the burnt orange cover, arabesque textures, and a very particular shade of blue spine caught my eye. An illustrated, comprehensive retelling of Shahnameh, brought by a vendor to a Picturebooks Conference at the University of Cambridge, sat on the table. And somehow, both a little more lost and a little more found, I could breathe easier.

My last name, loosely, means “fig garden”. This was not something that I knew as a child growing up on the Connecticut shoreline with very loose connections to a larger sense of my culture. I was a child taught to describe myself as Parsi and let people know they could think of me of Persian if that made it easier to place me, a child who knew the fairy tales of Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, and Greek and Roman myths but didn’t know that her people, too, might have stories equally filled with wonder and power and daring deeds. It wasn’t that I knew nothing of my heritage and culture; there were some books brought by relatives, mainly the creation stories and ones about Zarathustra’s life, but truthfully, they were in limited supply. They were written in or translated into English, but it wasn’t the same language and syntax as what I had grown up reading as a voracious consumer of texts. It wasn’t what I had been conditioned to see as beautiful language and it didn’t follow the mode of storytelling I had been acculturated to. The translations and transliterations were clunky and the art was different. So, while they communicated their points and I had a sentimental attachment to them, I didn’t have the same sense of ownership over them as felt regarding other texts, such as stories about Robin Hood and Merlin, fairies under hills or fleet racing women who could outrun the wind and had to be tricked to be beaten.

It was a love of fantasy and fairy tale adaptations that led me to be able to learn about the textures and flavors I didn’t know I was missing, the things that could help me to bridge the gap between the things I was told were part of me and mine to remember and preserve, and the things that actually felt like a part of me as a typical New Englander. I was a hybrid child, to be sure — but that didn’t mean that a part of myself didn’t feel foreign when I had to explain it, even though I could do it by rote from a young age. Identity is hard to describe; it’s harder still when we ourselves have to embody the bridge between conceptualizations of languages and culture without knowing fully to what we are affixed. I’m still learning how to build that bridge for myself, which means, in many ways, I am still learning to see that all parts of myself, all the identities that I embody simultaneously, are normal. I never questioned my identity, or that I found myself in books as a child. But as the publishing landscape has changed, I’m finding more opportunities to see myself, my people, my family, in the stories I find. And that experience has been heartbreakingly profound, across three books in particular: Susan Fletcher’s Alphabet of Dreams (2006), Tanaz Bhathena’s A Girl Like That (2018), and a translation of Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings retold by Elizabeth Laird and illustrated by Shirin Adl (2012). One made me hate looking for myself in books, one made me see myself in a book for the first time in my life, and one gave me back a glimpse of a sense of wonder when I was least expecting it.

Prior to coming across Fletcher’s book, I was really, really used to dealing with questions like, ‘no, what are you, really?’ and some far more insulting things about vultures and fire worship and demon worship, which, to this day, I don’t have a good (read: polite) response to. And when I found Fletcher’s book, I wasn’t looking for something that would connect to my culture. I was more intrigued by the thought of the girl and her brother disguising themselves, and of a child that could dream what would come. Reading it, however, left a bittersweet taste in my mouth; even as a young adult, I recognized bits and pieces of the culture I grew up with twisted to fit someone else’s narrative. Something was taken, twisted, mutated, and written into a narrative that supported some other culture’s dominance. I think this was the point where I actively stopped exploring Middle Eastern or Persian folk lore and legend. I didn’t want that experience again. I embraced Norse mythology and the tapestry underpinning the British Isles and I really didn’t look back. Not seeing myself at all was better than seeing a misleading distortion, being mythologized to fit someone else’s story.

I forgot about that for a while, until asked to review a #ownvoices YA book about a half-Zoroastrian/Parsi girl living in Jeddah and having to navigate all of her multiplicities, all the things that come of being labeled “a girl like that.” What was meant to be a quick job turned into me sobbing on a train between Cambridge and London without being able to understand why, necessarily, it felt like a new door had been opened onto my life and all the inner conflicts I’ve had throughout when it came to naming myself. Because reading the names of your extended family, seeing their exclamations and phrasings on a page, having a book affirm that your life, your experience, is valid and real, well, it hurts. I don’t know if there is a better way to describe it. And perhaps, if I had lived elsewhere, perhaps, if I could take the time to learn other languages and open the doors to other literatures, these experiences wouldn’t be quite so jarring. But I was taught to assimilate to the local; it was supposed to be enough. And I am hardly the only person who receives that messaging. If we stop to think about all the different nuances of identity and experience confined by the language we think of them in, we see quickly how categorizing people, categorizing otherness, can become an erasure. If we can’t remember what we’re forgetting, if we’re not given the tools with which to educate a society to all the things they are yet to discover, how do we ever create new spaces? What does own voices, mean, in such a context, or even, translation? We need a broader language to talk about ourselves, and to build these bridges, so that we can build our local selves while not losing the ability to talk about who, else, we are — and so that it can be understood better by others. Otherwise we miss our pasts, we miss our parallel selves ­– the people we could have become — and when we do connect with that part of ourselves, we risk becoming too overwhelmed with dysphoria to truly understand where we might have fit in, where we too, were once normal.

Which brings me back to buying a book I wasn’t supposed to buy at a Picturebooks Conference. Somewhere in the great vast multiverse, there is a version of me that grew up being told different stories, that grew up speaking different words, that internalized the knowledge that at one point, the things which I was consistently confronted about being “not real,” were once widespread, and known. She would have grown up not just knowing vaguely that her family bears the names of kings and queens and heroes, but understanding how that heritage can build a stronger sense of herself. She would have dreamed about a horse named Rakhsh, as well as Bucephalus or Black Beauty or Misty of Chincoteague. She would have been inspired by Simurghs, as well as Phoenixes. She would have imagined in not different but more patterns and textures and flavors, considered more possibilities, had perspective to ask more questions and wonder from different angles. And don’t get me wrong, I like who I am, I like what I’ve achieved and I’m happy with the road I’m walking now. But still, tracing fingertips over Shirin Adl’s illustrations, I can’t help wonder: with more access to more translations as a child, who, else, might I have become?

Michelle Anya Anjirbag is a PhD student at Center for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge, studying children’s literature. She has been an experiential educator, a ballroom dancer, an audiobook editor, a running shoe expert, a local news reporter, a book reviewer, and a writer and editor. Talents include baking cookies, reading while speed-walking through cities, and managing to still be a better journalist than Rory Gilmore. Her bylines include Roar Feminist, Fourth and Sycamore, Byrdie, and One time she accidentally found herself on a radio panel. You can find her on Instagram: @michelle_anya and on Twitter: @anjirbaguette (she likes bread).

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