Loving By Knowing Less

Performer Sharon Mashihi discusses using autofiction to arrive at the truth of the first-generation experience in her new audio series, Appearances.

Sandra Fox
February 11, 2021
Sharon Mashihi. Photo: Sam Massey

Sharon Mashihi’s new audio series, Appearances, is decidedly not a documentary. Mashihi, an Iranian Jewish artist and podcast producer best known for her work on The Heart, places it at “six and a half out of ten on the truth spectrum.” The protagonist of the series, which was produced by Mermaid Palace and Radiotopia, is a lightly fictionalized version of Mashihi named Melanie, and wrestles with questions drawn from her creator’s own life: whether to have a baby as a single mother or with her non-Jewish, non-Iranian, much older boyfriend; and how to build a family that both reflects and departs from the struggles she witnessed growing up in an immigrant household. 

Mashihi has made art from complicated family dynamics before; her 2017 audio documentary Man Choubam (I Am Good) followed her efforts to bridge a painful divide between herself and her mother. But fictionalizing aspects of Appearances—in which she performs the voice acting for most of the characters, including Melanie’s mother, father, and brother—allowed her to write freely about the hurt that comes with seeking to know and be known by immigrant parents who occupy a very different cultural milieu. Through the intimacy of the medium, Mashihi remakes the genre of first-generation narrative, delivering an exquisitely particular portrait of an Iranian American woman who must reconcile the life her family wishes her to live with the one she wants to build for herself. Mashihi and I spoke recently about immigrant communities, Jewish and Iranian identity, and the ethical quandary of making art from your life without hurting the ones you love. (You can also listen to the full-length interview on my podcast, Vaybertaytsh: A Feminist Podcast in Yiddish.)

Sandra Fox: You’ve positioned Appearances as, essentially, autofiction. Can you talk about how you sought a balance between telling the truth and protecting your family’s privacy?  

Sharon Mashihi: Originally, when I started making this, I wanted it to be completely fiction. I question the ethics of memoir in general without the complete consent of all the people in your life. But again and again, the content that was closest to the truth was the strongest content—and more than I wanted this to be fiction, I wanted this to be good.

Some of the things are true. My parents did fight a lot when I was growing up, but it was complicated. They also stayed together, and there seems to be a lot of love there. That’s always been a mystery to me, and I talk about the mystery. But the wedding night that I wrote [for the parents in Appearances] is completely fabricated. I have no idea what my parents’ wedding night was like. 

I made a conscious decision not to expose any secrets that didn’t feel like they were mine to share. I think most families are probably troubled, and particularly first-generation families. But I don’t want my parents to walk into a room and for anyone to think that about them.

SF: Appearances takes place in the town where you grew up, Great Neck, New York, and it begins with a history of how Great Neck became a Persian Jewish immigrant enclave. Why did you choose to start there?

SM: Great Neck became a pretty Jewish town in the 1930s and ’40s, when it was hard for Jews and all marginalized people to buy houses. I no longer consider Jews to be marginalized people in the United States, but in that time, they were. There were lots of empty mansions in Great Neck; it was sort of in ruins, and people were willing to sell to Jews.

After the Iranian Revolution, in 1979, a large percentage of the Iranian Jewish population fled the country. Many of the people who came to the US ended up in Great Neck. In Iran, a lot of the Jewish community lived in clusters. They felt safe in clusters. Knowing that Great Neck was a Jewish town was a draw.

When I was growing up, I thought of myself as not having a history. I certainly didn’t consider myself to be part of an American story. But Great Neck happens to be the town where F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby takes place; F. Scott Fitzgerald lived in Great Neck around the time when he was writing the book. It felt special to me to draw a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald all the way to myself, or the character who is based on me. It gives me a bit of a wholeness, so I don’t feel like I’m an out-of-nowhere person, which is what I have mostly felt and understood myself to be.

SF: It’s apparent from your radio work that your relationship with your family is fraught. Is it difficult to find a Jewishness that feels like your own when that aspect of your identity is entangled with your family?

SM: I am so Jewish. When we think of this stereotype of a neurotic questioner who’s obsessed with New York, I have that in me to the core of my soul. When I was growing up, I went to Hebrew school, and I had a relationship to God in my heart, and I spoke to God every night in my bed. I was very frustrated with my family, [who I] considered to be Jews only on the surface. There were many years when I secretly observed Shabbat—my family had Shabbat dinner, but I secretly didn’t use electricity, and I wouldn’t even cut toilet paper. 

But around the time that I was 15, I started to be really upset about Zionism, and I also started to become really upset about the ways I could tell that some Jews in my community thought Jewish people were better than other people. I started to think of Judaism as the thing that some Jews use to avoid being compassionate to human beings as a whole. Maybe in a stubborn way, maybe in a childish way, I’m mad about being Jewish. I don’t feel very mature when I say that, but that’s the truth of where I’m at. I have found that I prefer to align myself with my Iranianness rather than my Jewishness, which separates me from the rest of my family, who prefer—even though my parents are so freaking Iranian, especially my mom—to name themselves as Jews first. I wished to have more solidarity with brown people and Muslim people: I wanted to say, my heart is with you, my heart is on that end. 

SF: In Appearances, one of your most complicated relationships is with your mother. The character based on her plays a central role, and the way you act out her voice is beautiful. What did you learn about your family from playing the role of your mother, or rather a version of your mother? 

SM: I do try to be careful to say that Vida, the character, is not my mom. Every time I’d be working on the show and my mom would call me, I would be reminded again of just how much Vida is not my mom. But I did work some stuff out about my mom by writing and working with the Vida character.

The learning process really began when I made Man Choubam, because I had all of this audio evidence of what our dynamic is like. When my friend Shira Nayman, who consulted on the project and has a background as a psychologist, first heard Man Choubam, she wrote to me about how, for some people, knowing the entire truth of another person, feeling like that person knows everything about you—all of that is a channel toward love and closeness. I’m that kind of person. But for another kind of person, love is only possible by knowing less. My mom is that kind of person. And so there’s this fundamental impasse between us, where I know very little about my mom’s inner life. I spent, and still spend, so much time with her, but I don’t really know her heart, because she’s not comfortable sharing in that way, and, to some degree, she doesn’t want to know my heart. There’s a line I recorded in Man Choubam where she says, “With you, I learned to keep my distance.” And it’s a bit heartbreaking to me. I’ve heard, rewound, heard my mother tell me, over and over again, that she had to learn to keep her distance because it was too hurtful for her to be close to me.

So, in this series, I wanted to go into what would make a mother feel that way—to go into the feeling of being so worried about your children that it doesn’t feel safe to know them in their totality. I really felt that Vida was in me. I cried as her; I felt like I was crying her tears. I felt like I was trembling her tremble. I think it opened up additional channels of compassion.

SF: What has it been like to put something this personal out into the world?

SM: My family has not listened to the show. After the show came out, I was in a really bad mental state. I did not want to be alive. I was so consumed by guilt. I called my dad and told him that I felt horrible, because I felt like the family would feel really exposed. My dad asked to listen to the show, and I told him that I didn’t think he should listen past the prologue. He sent me a series of really effusive, supportive texts, saying, “This is so well done. You should never feel bad about expressing yourself. If anyone is upset by this, that’s their problem.” That helped alleviate my panic about it. But I still worry. It’s on my mind all the time. 

SF: Appearances catches your character at a crossroads: She’s trying to decide whether and how to have a child. As far as I can tell, that crossroads is relevant to your personal life. Did exploring your options through the character of Melanie help you make a decision about having a baby?

SM: Well, before I started making this show, I had a plan, which was to spend one year pitching the show and one year making the show—and if, in that time, I didn’t organically end up with a partner who wanted to have a baby with me, to start trying to get pregnant via insemination after I finished the show, and have a baby alone. Right now, I’m in the few weeks following finishing the show. But the thing that the show did for me, which I had not anticipated, was that it got some of the baby fever out of my system. I got to have an avatar of myself get pregnant, have a baby, go the whole way. I thought as I got older, I would feel more urgency. Paradoxically, I’m finding myself with a little bit less urgency, but I’m still very much turning over this question.

I think another realization that I came to while working on the show is that I so fantasize about what my own life as a mother will be, but I shouldn’t be too surprised if I find myself feeling quite similarly to my own mother. I could end up having a similar dynamic with my own child. I think that I will feel tremendous pain, tremendous worry, and I imagine that at some times, as it has for my mother, it will feel like more than I can bear. I can’t predict what ways I might shut down to my children because of being overwhelmed. But it will always be true that I want to know everything about the people I love, and in that way, I will be a different mother.

Sandra Fox is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, an editor at In geveb, and the host of Vaybertaytsh: A Feminist Podcast in Yiddish.