The stories in Better Than War (2015, University of Georgia Press) encompass narratives from a diverse set of Iranian immigrants, many searching for a balance between memories of their homeland and their new American culture. The everyday life of each character subtly reflects viewpoints that are simultaneously Iranian and American, of all ages and circumstances. These stories deal with family, friends, relationships, urban life, prison, school, and adolescence. They also contain powerful messages about what people want, need, and deserve as citizens and human beings. For instance, in the story “Better Than War” a young Iranian boy must overcome the fear of asking an American girl on a date. His friend tells him there is no shame in pouring your heart out to someone you like. The boy must realize that expressing emotion and sorrow is worth the embarrassment because it shows loved ones that you are better than hatred—and especially better than war.
Siamak Vossoughi was born in Tehran and grew up in London, Orange County, and Seattle. He graduated from the University of Washington and has lived in San Francisco since then. Along with writing, he works as a tutor and substitute teacher. Some of his writing has appeared in iranian.com, Faultline, Fourteen Hills, Prick of the Spindle, The Rumpus, Missouri Review, and Washington Square. He is also the recipient of the 2013 Very Short Fiction Award from Glimmer Train. He is currently writing a novel.
Better Than War
I was thinking of an Iranian boy waiting to ask an American girl in his class out on a date because he wants to know first if there is going to be a war or not.
"What if we're at a movie theater together and they make the announcement that the war has started and the whole place whoops and hollers?"
"That would be terrible. Do you think she would whoop and holler with them?"
"No. I can't see it. She's too wonderful."
"But there's her family. What if her father is a Marine sergeant who doesn't take any guff when it comes to questioning the chain of command?"
"Is that what he is?"
"No, he's an accountant. But it's the principle."
He was spooked. I understood it.
"Look," I said. "It makes sense. We're new to this."
We're new to what? To living in a country that might start a war with the country we're from?"
"Yes," I said. "Here's what I think. I think you should ask her out on a date. If you go to a movie theater and they make an announcement that the war has started and the whole place whoops and hollers, I think you should cry if you feel like crying."
"Then where do we go from there?"
"You should go wherever you were planning on going."
"What if I just feel like taking her home?"
"Then you should take her home."
"What if her father comes out and he's happy that the war has started and I feel like fighting him?"
"You shouldn't fight him."
"Because you're going to wake up the next day and there's going to still be a war."
"But I'll feel better, won't I?"
"No, you won't. You'll feel worse."
He looked at me like he was at least hoping I wouldn't say that.
"I hate war," he said.
"I'd hate it even if she wasn't so pretty."
"I believe you."
"But it does make it easier to hate it."
"Maybe you and she could hate it together."
"I know. But sometimes that's not enough."
"When do you mean?"
"Sometimes how much I hate war is all I am."
"What do you do then?"
"I don't know. I try not to fight anybody."
"But if she sees me crying in a movie theater where they're whooping and hollering, she's going to want to know the whole story."
"It's good to tell someone the whole story."
"Yes, but what'll I have left?"
"You'll have a lot left."
"Yes, you'll have something no one's ever had left. An Iranian boy pouring his heart out to an American girl. You know what you'll have left? Your heart. You don't have to lose it when you pour it out."
"Even if I cry in a movie theater?"
"Even if you cry at a puppet show. You don't think there are puppet shows in Iran? You don't think there are little kids watching them who deserve to watch them and who deserve to grow up and remember they watched them? You don't think they deserve a little peace? Crying is one of the most peaceful things you can do. If you hate war, you have to be a proponent of crying. Crying in a movie theater full of Americans while you're out with an American girl, that's some advanced-level crying. That's up in the treetops of crying. If they had any sense, they would join you. I hope to hell that she would join you."
"I think she would."
"Sometimes I feel like crying just over the chance of a war."
"There's not a thing wrong with that. Makes all the sense in the world to me. I think if you cry over that, you should remember how you cry. And you should laugh like that. And you should eat like that. And you should tell her stories like that. You're going to have to be better than war."
"Better than war."
"I don't know if I can do it."
"You already know you hate it, don't you? That's the best part of hating something, is now you know what to be better than."
"The war is going to be everywhere."
"One boy can do it. One girl can do it."
"Do you think she can do it?"
"Yes. Do you?"
"Yes. She already is better than war to me."
"Maybe you are already better than war to her."
"That would be a good start. That would be a good start if I was better than war to her."
"And she would know that your crying is an effort to stay that way. And everything else."
"I hope some day I can be better than war without the need for any war."
"I hope you can do it too. I think that might be the whole point."
I don't know the Iranian boy or the American girl or the class they are in together. I guess it gets too hard to carry the possibility of war around by myself, so they rise out of me in order to make it a little easier. If I had a community of Iranians in America, with our own streets and neighborhoods and lazy afternoons, I guess they would rise out of that, but I don't, so they rise out of me instead. They're still just as real and I still feel just as sorry for them, as much as if I could put down my pen and walk downstairs and go outside and there would be Iranian old men and women sitting in doorways and Iranian children playing and Iranian mothers and fathers calling for them to come inside, none of whom deserve to be waiting to hear about war before they can live, all of whom deserve every moment of life before them, knowing somewhere that each of them is better than war, and not needing any vision of war to remind them.
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