The Assay Interview Project: Melody Moezzi
April 30, 2021
Melody Moezzi is Iranian-American, Muslim, an author, attorney, and activist. Her latest book, The Rumi Prescription: How an Ancient Mystic Poet Changed My Modern Manic Life, earned her a 2021 Wilbur Award. She is also the author of Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life and War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims, which earned her a Georgia Author of the Year Award. She is a United Nations Global Expert and an Opinion Leader for the British Council’s “Our Shared Future” initiative. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and myriad other outlets. She has also appeared as a commentator on many radio and television programs, including NPR, CNN, BBC, PBS, and others. She is a graduate of Wesleyan University and Emory University’s School of Law and School of Public Health, and at present, she is a Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
About The Rumi Prescription: Rumi's inspiring and deceptively simple poetry has been called ecstatic, mystical, and devotional. To writer and activist Melody Moezzi, they became a lifeline. In The Rumi Prescription, we follow her path of discovery as she translates Rumi's works for herself - to gain wisdom and insight in the face of a creative and spiritual roadblock. With the help of her father, who is a lifelong fan of Rumi's poetry, she immerses herself in this rich body of work, and discovers a 13th-century prescription for modern life. Addressing isolation, depression, anger, distraction, fear, and other everyday challenges we all face, the book offers a roadmap for living with intention and ease, and embracing love at every turn--despite our deeply divided and chaotic times. Most of all, it presents a vivid reminder that we already have the answers we seek, if we can just slow down to honor them.
Sayantani Dasgupta: Your beautiful book has the most inventive format. Each chapter is in the form of a diagnosis (Dx) and then its prescription (Rx). How did you decide on it?
Melody Moezzi: I wish I’d been wise enough to “decide” on that format, but I didn’t really. It’s more that the book decided for me. I began writing it as a largely chronological memoir (with flashbacks here and there and translations of Rumi’s poetry interspersed throughout), but once the book started to take shape, it was clear to me that each chapter revolved around a different basic human emotion that I was struggling with at the time. While some of the “diagnoses” overlap with clinical conditions, none of them represents a pathology per se. They’re all just emotions we all contend with simply by virtue of being human.
Early on in the book you write that you usually skip author’s notes and introductions. And yet, you have included one in The Rumi Prescription. From a craft point of view, what do you think author’s notes offer to the reader and to the author? Although I can understand readers wanting to skip them if they feel they are being kept away from the main story.
I learned the importance of author’s notes the hard way. For years, I just assumed that if people are listed as translators on the covers of books, then that must mean they actually speak the original language from which they’re translating. Turns out, not so much. The most popular “translators” of Rumi and Hafiz, for instance, don’t speak Farsi—but it took me forever to realize this, because I never read their author’s notes even though I’d read all of their books. So yeah, I now read author’s notes—and sadly, I write them too. I say sadly because I still hate them, for as much as they can be a good place to draw attention to something important that doesn’t fit well within your main narrative, they can also be a place to get away with shit. Like consider a book of medical advice by Dr. I’m-not-really-a-medical-doctor. The author’s note is where he would slip that in while simultaneously mentioning that he has a PhD—never mind that it’s in puppetry.
In The Rumi Prescription you talk candidly about not having advanced degrees in creative writing. And yet, you have published multiple, well-received books. In person, you and I have talked at length about how MFA programs sometimes forget to remind students about Plot or how given the intensive nature of classes and workshops, students sometimes feel hesitant to approach agents and editors until they feel they have the “perfect” manuscript. Could you elaborate on that? What sorts of steps could MFA programs take to make students feel empowered? What steps could students take to feel empowered?
I’m so grateful that I never got an MFA. For one, I really enjoyed studying law and public health, and both my JD and MPH routinely inform my writing. Certainly, I could have also done an MFA, but I didn’t—and I highly doubt I ever will. Mainly because after having taught in an MFA program now, I can’t imagine willingly subjecting myself and my writing to so much scrutiny from so many people who know nothing about Iran or Islam, both of which underlie pretty much everything I write. It’s not that I don’t care what non-Muslims or non-Iranians think of my work. I do, and I want to reach out to them through my writing. Nevertheless, I insist on being the protagonist in my own life and work, and honestly, I know of no MFA program that would foster that, at least given how inordinately white so many of them still are. I have yet to teach a single Muslim or Middle Eastern student. Not one. So, hell no, I wouldn’t want to be the only one in a workshop of a dozen people whose knowledge of my culture and history isn’t just limited, but also wildly biased toward the negative stereotypes they’re so used to seeing reproduced in all sorts of American media. I think if I’d done an MFA and had all these other writers critiquing my work like this, I’d have given up and never submitted anything, because I’d have been brainwashed into believing there was one style of writing that “worked” and another that didn’t—and my writing would invariably have fallen in the latter category simply because people wouldn’t “relate” to my stories. I have enough bullshit in my life, so I don’t need more. That said, I love teaching creative writing—yes, even in an MFA program, because I can use my classroom as a way to subvert the status quo and center writers and writing that often gets overlooked—if not demeaned—in programs like this.
I think if MFA programs want to empower students of all backgrounds, they need to quit catering to students of one background, but as it is, they don’t even seem to acknowledge that this is what they’re doing. As a lawyer, I know that the legal profession has a long way to go to become equitable, but I see the literary world as being so much worse. After I graduated from college, for instance, Ohio State offered to waive my tuition and give me a stipend on top of that to attend their law school. I doubt any MFA program would have offered me anything close to the same deal, but that’s exactly what it would have required for my immigrant parents to get behind my studying creative writing of all things. All of this to say, I think MFA programs could best empower students with full funding and generous stipends, so that people without the “right” financial or cultural background to pursue an MFA would feel comfortable—and supported!—in doing so.
As for what students can do to empower themselves in MFA programs, I suggest they write and publish books—and that programs actually call them books and not “theses,” because as writers, we ought to understand that words matter! I see far too many talented students just never submit work for publication, because either they’re too intimidated by the crap statistics or too overwhelmed by the world of publishing.
I love asking this question of bilingual or multilingual authors. Do you think differently in each of your languages? Does that impact what you write and how you write?
I think so. I feel most liberated, for instance, writing in Spanish, because it’s the only language I actually chose for myself. It’s also the only language I’ve ever used to dabble in original poetry. English and Farsi were both chosen for me. Writing in English, I always have to overcome this strong feeling that I have something to prove. Writing in Farsi, I also feel like I have something to prove—but I’m at such a disadvantage, because I speak kitchen Farsi and read at a 4th grade level. So I haven’t really written in Farsi unless you count the Persian that shows up in my books, which is a decent amount now that I think about it, but it’s always transliterated using the English alphabet, so it doesn’t really feel like writing in Farsi. In any case, I rarely write in either Spanish or Farsi regardless, because they’re not the languages I know best.
The Rumi Prescription is such a moving tribute to your father, and to the unique bond you share with him. How comfortable was he on having so much of the book’s focus placed on him? Since one of the anxieties shared by many students is how to write about friends and family members without making them feel hurt or angry or misrepresented, what advice would you give them? Did your father read the drafts?
Both of my parents are used to me writing about them at this point, so it’s not really an issue. My dad was excited to know that I was learning and writing about Rumi. He didn’t actually realize until late into the game that so much of this book was about him. I let him read the final draft, but that was it. He basically circled every word he didn’t know in English. I didn’t simplify all of those words, but I did simplify some of them, and I’m confident that this made the book better. As for advice to students on writing about friends and family members, I simply suggest writing as honestly as possible—both about yourself and others. If this means you have to write fiction to protect certain people, that’s fine. I think it’s valid and honorable to protect friends and family members who appear in your writing while they’re alive. When they’re dead though, I say they’re fair game.
Because I grew up in New Delhi, I have several Muslim friends, and I tend to think of azaans and mosques as a very normal and expected aspect of life. Were you nervous writing about mosques and their (lack of) inclusivity? Did you worry at any point that you might alienate even moderate Muslim readers or Non-Muslims interested in learning about Islam? What if the art and architecture of Islam was their way of entering/negotiating the faith?
I generally don’t worry about alienating readers when I’m speaking my truth. And my truth is that I hate walking into most mosques, because of the rampant gender segregation that has everything to do with bullshit cultural norms that need to be shattered and nothing to do with Islam. It’s not just that I hate gender segregation; it’s that I know that this kind of segregation and the inequity it promotes is 100% un-Islamic. For one, men and women pray side by side in Mecca, so it ought to be good enough for every mosque in the world. I love Islamic art and architecture—which is yet another reason I refuse to stand by and say nothing while people I consider heretics disgrace it with their misogyny, perverting Islam to satisfy political ends.
It’s important for me to be clear, as I am in all of my books, that I am not a feminist in spite of Islam. Rather, I am a feminist because of it. Jihad is the most natural, intuitive concept I’ve ever encountered in any philosophy—and I’m big into philosophy by the way; it was my major in college. In any case, for those who are still misinformed, jihad doesn’t mean holy war as it is routinely mistranslated. There is nothing holy about war within Islam. Jihad means struggle, and it refers to the struggle against injustice, both within the world and within your own soul. The Qur’an teaches that there is nothing worse than oppression, specifically stating that oppression is even worse than killing. So yeah, I would be shirking my duty as a devout Muslim if I didn’t call out the misogynists within my own faith while acknowledging that they exist within every other faith and non-faith. As a Muslim woman in the vein of Khadija—who was the first convert to Islam, without whom there would be no Islam, and who was a total badass on pretty much every level—I know that Islam is empowering to women, so when I see men using it to disempower women, it infuriates me.
You write very poignantly in The Rumi Prescription that immersion in Rumi has expanded your language and understanding of the culture and religion of your ancestors. How do you encourage/cultivate a love for research and curiosity in your students? Especially in students of creative nonfiction, who may feel the stories they have heard or the experiences they have lived may not be enough to base entire essays or books upon?
I encourage my students to be curious about everything, big and small. Often, I do this by leaving long comments on their work about things they mention purely in passing. I did this today on an essay wherein a student referred to Sade as a “90s singer,” as opposed to a musical genius and icon who transcends eras. I basically wrote a whole separate essay about the wonder of Sade in the margins of her piece, focusing on “Soldier of Love,” which came out in 2010.
My favorite chapter in The Rumi Prescription is chapter 5, which is on Distraction. It’s the one I suffer from the most. Now that this book is out in the world, and no doubt you are working on the next, and the pandemic is still keeping us all housebound, how are you handling your distractions? How are you bringing yourself to the page? Who are you reading to stay afloat? Is your writing practice different now than what it was pre-pandemic?
First, I spent a year basically not writing anything—and having tons of difficulty even reading. My goal for most of 2020 was to not kill myself, because I was struggling with severe depression. As I write this now, into March 2021, a couple weeks before the Persian New Year, I’ve achieved that goal, and I’m giving myself credit for it and refusing to feel guilty for not being as productive as plenty of other people during pandemic. The depression has finally lifted thanks to family, friends, prayer, meds, therapy, chocolate, and just being merciful with myself for a year. Recently, after consulting with a friend and fellow author who is one of those writes-every-day-no-matter-what writers and has been for decades, I recently started writing every morning from 7-10. I get up at 6, take a shower, get dressed, do my morning prayers, set a timer, and I’m off. So far, it’s working, which is sort of revolutionary for me, because I’ve never really been one of those writes-every-day writers. I’m only on day 11, but I’m praying it sticks. I have a hunch it will, because it feels amazing to be doing the thing I know I was put on this planet to do every day—and also to be finished doing it before lunch.
One more question related to teaching. This is based on the “show and tell” strategy you share in chapter 10, wherein students in your class give presentations on texts that are meaningful to them. What are some other teaching strategies that you have found to be particularly useful in the creative nonfiction classroom?
I invented these things I call “Creative Action Plans.” All of my students—grad and undergrad—must create one at the start of every semester. I begin the assignment thus: “Contrary to myth, good art doesn’t demand misery. Rather, it demands creativity, persistence, and resilience—none of which requires us to torture ourselves or allow others to torture us. In fact, they all require us to treat ourselves with kindness and mercy, recognizing that self-care is a vital part of any abiding creative practice. Remember the words of Audre Lorde: ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence; it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.’ Thus, in an effort to better arm you for this lifelong battle as students, writers, and human beings, I’m assigning this Creative Action Plan (CAP) to maintain and revise throughout your lives.” The students’ plans must take into account creative, psychological, physical, interpersonal, and financial self-care—as I think all of these are interconnected and indispensable when it comes to building a stable and lasting creative career. It’s a weird assignment that I admit some students have resisted. But what I’ve found most encouraging—and the main reason I refuse to make it an optional assignment—is that, thus far, it’s often the students who seem most resistant to building a Creative Action Plan who also seem to get the most out of it.
Who should the readers of The Rumi Prescription read next?
MM: Radical Love : Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition by Omid Safi. The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet by Benjamin Hoff. The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne (also a father daughter team!). But if you haven’t read the Autobiography of Malcolm X yet, then read that first. Divergent Mind: Thriving in a World That Wasn’t Designed for You by Jenara Nerenberg.
Born in Calcutta and raised in New Delhi, Sayantani Dasgupta is the author of Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, & the In-Between—a Finalist for the Foreword Indies Awards for Creative Nonfiction—and the chapbook The House of Nails: Memories of a New Delhi Childhood. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, The Bellingham Review, The Southern Humanities Review, The Hindu, and others. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing in the MFA program at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, and has also taught in India, Italy, and Mexico. She is a Contributing Editor at Assay.
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