The ProsenPeople

Soon, I'll Know All the Words They Know

Monday, August 17, 2015| Permalink

Parnaz Foroutan is the author of The Girl from the Garden, a novel of the Persian Jewish community in Los Angeles and its origins in Iran. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.

It was uncanny, her portrait in black and white on the cover of the book, and my own school picture. The same smile, the same cheekbones, the same nose. The same black, thick hair, cut just above the shoulders and held back by a barrette. And dark eyes, like mine. The book had small black words crowded together, page after page, bleeding through the pages, endless. I whispered the words of the title, tested their weight in my mouth, “Anne… Frank… Diary…”

On the playground, I listened silently to the conversations, the laughter, the sounds of names being called and words being screamed. An entire universe of exchange about matters of whose turn it was to hit the ball, about the pulling of hair and the sharing of cookies. An entire universe of interaction through words that flew by too quickly and only left a moment of confused pictures behind.

“Maman, I am going to learn to speak English very well. I am going to learn three new words every day. Soon, I’ll know all the words they know.”

The lady who read to us had hair the color of rain clouds when the sun shined through them. She sat in a chair while we sat on the floor. She held lovely books and read the words slowly, her voice like the sound of fat raindrops on the leaves of the oak tree outside my bedroom window. Wild Things. She read and I saw monsters that hid in dark basements and wailed like air raid sirens in the night. After she finished reading, she gave us a few minutes to walk around the large room and look at the shelves of books that ran from wall to wall. I opened their covers and looked into those pages, searching for beds that turned into boats and bedroom floors that became tumultuous waves.

“I got you a present.” I loved her, even though she pulled me out of class and the other children taunted me as I walked past them. “It’s a book. It’s about this girl named Madeline. She’s the one with red ribbons in her hair.” She read the words to me, slowly. She defined them, slowly. Then, when the story ended and I wanted to hear it again, she’d read it once more. Years later, I found that book at the bottom of a box filled with letters and old dolls.

The book with the photograph of the dark-eyed girl sat on my desk for weeks and each afternoon, when the fourth grade teacher announced reading time, I picked it up and struggled past words until they became sentences, past those until they became paragraphs.

“She looks just like you,” Steven Bookbinder said it loud enough so that everyone at the table heard and rushed to look at the book in his hand. No one looked like me, except this girl in an old photograph on the cover of a book that the librarian insisted was too hard for me to read. I pulled the book from his hand, angry and ashamed. He had touched something that was mine. Not the object—that dog-eared copy that had circulated in the library of Brookside Elementary School year after year—but an entire world in a lonely attic that I shared with a girl named Anne.

It happened one day, just like that. The words on the page disappeared and I found myself hearing her voice, looking through that little window beside her. The words opened into a story, and I was there. And when that book ended, I opened another, and another. I was a German soldier on the front, a redheaded boy in love with a pony the color of a sunset, a poor man, a murderer hounded by my conscious, a prostitute. And to this day, still, when I need to find some redemption, some grace that raises me from the loneliness and isolation of being, I open a book, and wait for the words to invite me in.

Parnaz Foroutan was born in Iran and spent her early childhood there. Her novel The Girl from the Garden, for which she received PEN USA's Emerging Voices award, was inspired by her family history.

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