Finding Language for the Depression of Finding Language by Niki Afsar

“I feel I have wasted my life…and know far too little for a woman of twenty-seven years…I feel a dizzying pressure under my skin…” –Forugh Farrokhzad

I – Finding Language for the Depression

When it comes to writing about depression, very few do it better than Forugh Farrokhzad. Born in 1934 in Tehran, her poetry is a voice piercing the dark, calling out to the rest of us here, asking: how do we live in a world that does not want us to be free. It is too simple to say she was a sad woman living in a patriarchal world. She was a soul who knew what she wanted, be it love, sex, movement, time and space for creative exploration– who could not ignore her pain when the binds of society kept her from expressing her truest self. One of her most famous poems, “Captive,” uses the simple yet precise depiction of her married life as a cage, she the bird inside. She experienced depressive episodes throughout her short life, and was committed once to a psychiatric hospital.

“My heart aches,

My heart aches…

Commit the flight to memory.

The bird will die.”

As I entered my mid twenties, I realized I was coming to a point that I had lived half of my life with depression. I had flipped through a number of metaphors to describe this state of being. A weight on your shoulders, a cloud, a fog, a parasite whispering in your ear–my favorite ones are related to stone: a sinking stone feeling, in which I imagine myself a smooth rock descending through dark, heavy water towards black depths. A lot of times I think to myself, “my head feels full of rocks”– pounding headaches and a heaviness that makes the simplest decisions feel impossible, no space for thought, only mute weight.

my head is full of rocks

my mouth, ears, nose, full of sand

the worst part of this is all the time stolen from me

Farrokhzad loves birds, imagining freedom as flight, captivity a cage, and so I too came to love birds with their connotations of song and flight. The classic poets of Iran loved them too, nightingales especially. When I learned that the idiom for fluency in Farsi is “mesl bolbol,” to speak “like a nightingale,” my heart fluttered at the idea that learning my heritage language could be my transformation, give me wings, so to speak, enough to lift myself from this ever-present sadness and leave it far behind.

And perhaps my images of depression as stone came from this, as the opposite of flight and air: earth and weight.

From the latest iteration of “mesl bolbol/like a nightingale,” a performance piece in which the artist grapples with their estrangement and return to their heritage language and land.

II – The Depression of Finding Language

In Iran, there are mountains everywhere.

What is a mountain? A scar, plates of earth colliding into one another.

At the end of 2017, a few months after I had arrived in Tehran and in the midst of my elementary Farsi classes at the international school, I began to sink once more into a deep depressive episode. I should’ve been more prepared–at this point I had lived with this condition for ten years, I knew I struggled with transitions, I knew the process of learning a language would mean failing over and over again before slowly acquiring enough vocabulary to string together a simple sentence.

It felt like an effacement on many levels. I was a failure as an Iranian: people could pick me out as a foreigner even before I spoke, and I could do nothing to prove them wrong. I felt like a failure to my family: unable to express gratitude or affection properly, unable to connect, unable to make them feel proud, undoing the expected trajectory of immigration. I felt like a failure to myself. I was not lifted. Rather, everything seemed to prove that the heaviness I lived with was in fact an immovable boulder. I felt I had wasted my life, and knew far too little for a person of twenty-something years.

Scholars David L. Eng and Shinhee Han theorize the concept of Racial Melancholia by considering Freud’s definition of melancholia “as a type of pathological mourning without end, in which the significance of the lost object remains unconscious and opaque” (3). Rather than limiting melancholia to pathological sources, they address the high rates of depression and suicides among Asian American college students by “connect[ing] their interminable sadness with difficulties arising from immigration, assimilation, and the racialization they face on a daily basis” (3). If melancholia is “a mourning without end,” we who are born into diaspora inherit infinite losses of language, family, cultural knowledge and customs. And we who cannot successfully assimilate into a white, heteronormative, cisgender, patriarchal, eurocentric, capitalist culture that relies on our subjugation, are forever mourning a lost future with the realization that we live in a place that does not want us.

Depression is strongest when it eliminates possibility: the possibility of alternatives, other realities, the possibility of this current painful reality eventually ceasing. It swallows you into the finite singularity of despair. It shuts the lights off so you may forget that there are other ways of being, that multiple truths can exist at once, that new worlds can be built. In the dark, you cannot see the end, and you can forget that things will change, that nothing stays the same.

I was mourning both my american childhood and the nonexistent imagined childhood I never had in Iran, idealizing this place to such a degree that every small detail around me held a tragic beauty, at every turn reminders of what I had lost and could never have. I was mourning all the years I had been unable to speak Farsi, all the years I had not even tried. I was mourning my life in Brooklyn, as if I already knew there was no going back. I was mourning my self in English, the version who believed in language as power, who believed I could wield it skillfully enough to work my way through anything. My sister reminded me that I had prided myself as someone who had a mastery over language, someone who could write or talk their way out of any situation, who could outsmart, or at least outtalk, in an argument. I had in fact based my identity on this. And now I had given it away for a language I couldn’t claim. I did not know who I was without words, and I felt that I was both the betrayed and the traitor.

Depression can turn you into a monstrous ouroboros feeding upon yourself–both victim and perpetrator of a bound self-hate. Eng and Han explain that, “the melancholic assumes the emptiness of the lost object or ideal, identifies with this emptiness, and thus participates in his or her own self-denigration and reuination of self-esteem” (37-38).

Farsi, Tehran, Iran, all became the lover that would never have me. I went mad waiting for them to turn to me and want me back. I sank deeper knowing it would be the greatest unrequited love of my life.

In Iran there are mountains everywhere, scars of earth colliding into itself. Can we describe the pull of tectonic plates as a pretty metaphor for the violent strength of desire?

There were many reasons I felt I needed to learn Farsi. Guilt is never far behind those of us who live away, or who have lost our heritage language. Grandparents we could barely speak to pass on with untold stories, uprisings flare and die out before we can begin to translate the slogans chanted in the streets. I was embarrassed that I felt so seriously about this need to learn when it seemed that other first and second generation friends were managing their loss in more productive ways. Maybe it was the betrayal of my body that collided into puberty at a young age, sprouting hair and acne all over my skin and giving me away, confounding my naive assumption of assimilation, insisting I could never feel safe in this country while I was in this body, that I would never feel safe in this body. It shouldn’t have made sense for me to imagine feeling any safer in the country my parents’ were born in, a place they longer found recognizable.

i spent years trying to forget my body

i spent years ignoring my parents’ language

and now i am trying to turn my body into a bell 

and my voice into a bird’s.

Maybe inside a language I could feel safe. Maybe within a language I could feel at peace.

While visiting a Zoroastrian shrine called chak chak outside of Yazd, I became captivated by the mythology of the place, built around a stone within a cave within a mountain that dripped water from no known source. The story was that a Sassanid princess, Nik Banoo, had climbed the mountain fleeing invaders, separated from her family and, weeping, begged the mountain to save her. So the mountain swallowed her, and she disappeared. Later, the water dripping from the stone was said to be her tears, nourishing lost travelers.

A woman taken by a mountain, a woman who becomes a mountain. How often had I sought a dark, confined space in the worst moments of my depression? Curled into bed with the lights off, curtains drawn, covers pulled over my face, shutting out the world. How different was this from begging a mountain to save you? Another way to describe living with depression: forcing yourself up a mountain with so much pain in your heart for what you’ve lost and what you believe you will lose; tears streaming down your face; begging to disappear.

Images from visiting a chak chak in Iran

III – How to Live With It (Poetically, if Not Medically)

How do we continue to live once the mountain has taken us?

In her debut book of poetry Object Permanence, Filipino poet Nica Bengzon grapples expertly with the question of hope and healing in the face of grief and physical and mental illness. Her poem “In Statu Viatoris” is split across three “theses” on hope:

Thesis 1: Hope is when the soul is in darkness and turns toward a light that it cannot yet perceive.” (33)

The poem considers French philosopher Marcel’s definition of hope as being only present in the face of despair.

“…in this sense, hope is a returning home, a means of finding one’s way, of coming back to the meaning and value of one’s life.” (33)

A soul in darkness turning towards a light that it cannot yet perceive is another way to describe a seed.

Keep reading Forugh Farrokhzad and you will find it is not just birds she aspires toward, but also seeds. In one of her final poems, published posthumously, she calls out to us as if from beyond this plane:

Let us believe,

Let us believe in the beginning of the cold season.

Let us believe in the ruin of imaginary gardens,

In abandoned, inverted scythes,

In confined seeds.”

The seed is that which is confined to darkness and turns towards a light it cannot yet perceive. Farrokhzad calls on us to believe in seeds at the beginning of the cold season when they are still imprisoned in darkness, to believe in the beginning of the end. Writer Victoria Petersen Amargos reminds us that the key ingredients for “cracking” a seed are “Darkness, moisture, and to be covered in dead matter.” Octavia Butler knew this when she imagined meeting the beginning of the end of the world with an ethos of seeds.

And in her poem “Another Birth,” Farrokhzad is herself the seed.

“I plant my hands in the garden soil–

I will sprout,

I know, I know, I know.”

This hope that language could be a home–perhaps it is not a foolish thing to want, except that language, like the diasporic body, is ever in flux, always adapting to its time and place, always shapeshifting with each new mouth it enters, always being added to, always losing bits of itself to antiquity. If you want to make it a secure house with walls, you must delude yourself and limit any capacity for interpretation, experimentation, translation. To do so is to engage in the violence of fixed nomination. Curator and author Legacy Russell reminds us of language’s inherent potential for violence when “people assume if they can find a word to describe something, that this is the beginning of controlling it.” (74)

In The Colonization of Psychic Space, Kelly Oliver resists the illusion of fixity in language: “Acknowledging that we don’t understand or know, and moreover that we can never fully understand or know, provides the impulse for interpretation. Because we cannot know, we interpret. Because we cannot know, we mean. Because we cannot know, we are beings who mean. And through endless interpretation, our lives become meaning full.”

Imagine a ceiling covered in tiny mirrors, each split miniature reflection its own interpretation of the world below.

Bengzon’s “In Statu Viatoris” does not end with Marcel’s definition of hope. The title gives away her defiance of conclusion or certainty: in statu viatoris, still in motion. The final part of the poem begins with: “Today I have to focus on piecing all these things together” (33). It ends in failure:

“I am aware of the paradox that is dead white men coming back to tell me what I should hope for, and in whom, but not why. I know what the rhetoric of hope is worth. I am prepared to fail this test.” (33)

In Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, Russell invokes a reclamation of failure in order to reject binary and embrace multiplicity, reminding us that “Multiplicity is liberty.” She quotes Édouard Glissant’s definition of diaspora as “the passage from unity to multiplicity,” where “one consents not to be a single being and attempts to be many things.” Through the assertion that “glitch is error,” she calls on us to “embody error by finding new ways to self-define, reclaiming the act of naming for ourselves. We bend the act of naming, fitting new forms through the process of naming and renaming, the embrace of a poetic elasticity that refuses the name as static or definitive…” (77).

When I learned the Farsi word for depression, “afsordegi” I laughed to myself because I realized that the letters in the first part of the word are the same letters I use to write our family name: Afsar, shortened by my father when he received his American citizenship. I flirt with the idea that this sadness had been encoded into our name through some ancient power of letters.

With this logic, I would also have to take my given name into consideration: Niki, the noun for nik, nik meaning good, niki meaning goodness.

Nik Banoo climbing the mountain.

pendar-e nik, goftar-e nik, raftar-e nik

The core Zoroastrian tenets of good thoughts, good words, good deeds, depicted around the walls of the shrine chak chak in the mountain, beside the weeping stone.

What if I could believe in my name as encoded into the history and evolution of this place, embedded into the rock and mountain, giving water and life?

I dreamed of mirror mosaics after visiting shrines and old mansions in Iran covered in exquisite mirror mosaics. Every time I saw them I looked for myself, saw myself broken apart and yet within a glittering kaleidoscope of reflections and light. When I began breaking mirrors, I forgot about associations of bad luck or the risks of broken glass. What I wanted was the catharsis of breaking an image of myself that could never hold all I was, all I could be, the thrill of rearranging the pieces to create a useless object that felt truer to my self and my capacity for multiplicity. If I could not free myself from my body, forget my body, perceive my body, then I could split its image and make something new. I imagined that the domed ceilings of Shia shrines were coated in mirrors not simply to evoke the twinkling stars of the heavens, but rather the vastness of our universe and its infinite interpretations. The more I rearranged the broken mirrors, the more they seemed to resemble moving water.

mirror work in Esfahan, Iran

Russell’s manifesto also prepares us for the inherent mourning that comes from transformation: “We recognize that, within this process of letting go, we may mourn: this mourning is a part of our growing. We celebrate the courage it takes to change form, the joy and pain that can come with exploring different selves, and the power that comes from finding new selves…” (146)

“We recognize that in this breaking, there is a beginning.” (148)

In Iran there are mountains everywhere, and if depression’s power lies in its ability to erase possibility, this power falters when we remember that stone and earth are not permanent, that they move at the pace of eons, that if we were to speed up the track we’d see how earth collides into itself to swell and fall just as our ribs swell and fall, that over spans of time unfathomable in their vastness, stone gives way to water, allows itself to be carved and shaped into canyon, ravine, sand. We may allow ourselves to consider this an act of love: the water shaping stone, the stone allowing itself to be shaped. The sinking stone is not disappeared, but transformed.

The epitaph at the top of this essay begins with, “I feel I have wasted my life…” but the quote continues on to say:

“I feel a dizzying pressure under my skin…I want to make a hole in everything and penetrate it deep. I want to reach the heart of the earth. My love lies in there, a place where seedlings turn green and roots meet one another and creation continues even in disintegration. I think it has always been this way–in birth and then in death. I think my body is a temporary form. I want to reach its essence. I want to hang my heart like a ripe fruit on every branch of every tree.”

My love lies in there, in the dark, where seeds are both confined and then freed, where paradox flourishes with creation and disintegration, forever shapeshifting–so long as we keep moving; so long as we remember all the possibility and multiplicity within and without us; that “the only lasting truth is change;” so long as we are willing to break and then hold up our broken mirrors to catch the light we cannot yet perceive.

Niki Afsar is a nonbinary/femme, iranian-american writer and interdisclipinary artist. Since 2015, they have lived and worked in New York City, Tehran, the Washington DC area, and Western Massachusetts. With a background in literature and independent theater, their work explores expressions of fluidity and longing within language, hybrid/myriad identities, and mental health. They experiment with a number of mediums including devised movement and performance; poetry and text; live singing and sound making; and mirror work.

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