Prologue to “In the Liquorice House: A Memoir”

In the liquorice house
there is a liquorice clock
which beats out liquorice time

I am an only child, but I didn’t live alone with my parents until I was thirteen years old. I am not a child of the Iranian Revolution. My parents didn’t flee Iran. They emigrated in the mid-1960s; I was born in America and lived in San Francisco by the start of the Iran-Iraq War. And when it came to the Revolution, I never felt like a child.

Of all the cousins and uncles and aunts and grandparents and friends and strangers who stayed with my parents and me, no one was ever younger than nineteen. Everyone seemed old. And for the political refugees among our houseguests, time had stopped. There was a very tall man with nine fingers who stayed with us for nearly a year when I was six or seven. He had been some sort of a radical (probably a Marxist), and he had paid the price for his ideals. Despite his height, his spine was broken; he could hobble but only with painful exertion. His complexion was the color of burnt pears: ugly, I would say, had he not had warm eyes and a generous smile through graying lips. Knowing no English, he was absolved from all but the simplest decisions: he spent months sitting on the corduroy sofa on which he also slept, in the corner of the living room. He smoked cigarettes and read everything and anything he could get his hands on: my parents’ Persian language books; the very royalist Persian weekly from D.C. that always got to us a week late; the Iranian picture books people had brought for me with illustrations much realer and darker than those in American ones. Nobody interacted with him very much. He was maybe thirty-eight.

He was patient with me.

“What happened to your big finger?” I asked him.

“Thumb,” he said, correcting my Persian. Shast.

“I want to know,” I insisted. “I would like to know.”

“They cut it off.”

“What did they do with it, this thumb?” In my mind at the time, “they” always denoted one of two men: depending on the situation, either Khomeini or Ronald Reagan. I knew which one we were talking about.

“I don’t know.” His brown eyes looked down at me from that frozen head atop that crooked spine. He smiled. “They probably burned it.” I imagined a brown thumb on an ash heap, like one of the Camel cigarette butts in his crowded ashtray.

“Whose thumbs do they leave on?” I asked.

Another beatific smile. “Nobody will touch your hands, Mouse.”

“Why not?” I made fists around each thumb.

“Because you’re a mouse.” That answer simply hollowed my horror but didn’t comfort me.

He never left the house until he did, and we never spoke of him again until I asked my parents about him in my late teens. He apparently left San Francisco to stay with a long-lost relative in Virginia or West Virginia — my mother calls them both West Virginia — and we never heard from him again. Neither my mother nor my father can recall his last name, and when I press them to find out, they look at me sadly and quizzically, as if I’m reminding them of someone’s death day.

In the liquroice house
there are chairs on which
liquorice people sit.

My parents’ best quality is their genuine blindness towards race. Except toward “Americans,” which to them signifies white Christians with last names like Anderson.

Ricky Anderson was my blonde friend in third grade who came over one busy evening when someone — my mother or maybe my aunt — was preparing baqali polow, a rice pilaf with dill weed and fava beans that is slow cooked in a big pot layered at the bottom with potato slices. The potatoes become crunchy as crusty grains of rice and fava beans stick to them.

Ricky and I were playing a decathalon video game on my father’s chunky IBM computer in the study, which doubled as my cousin’s bedroom for two years. I left the room for a minute as Ricky pounded the keyboard to chuck a long shotput; I came back with one of these potato slices. They’re best right as they’re scraped off the bottom of the pot, and I knew by filching one and taking it back to the study on a sheet of paper towel, I was making myself vulnerable to questions. But I had also opened up the door to the study, and the scent of dill and saffron and fenugreek had already slid in and stuck to the walls, the window panes, and Ricky’s flaxen hair.

“What is that?” Ricky asked with his reedy voice. Four years later it would descend into an over-masculinized baritone.

“It’s potato,” I answered.

“Like a potato skin?”

I didn’t know what a potato skin was. We always peeled potatoes.

“Not really,” I said, using my parents’ most maddening English expression.

“I won,” said Ricky. “You got silver.”

That night my mother’s elementary school friend Giti was visiting us with her husband James. They lived in Sacramento, and, on occasion, they’d drive down to San Francisco and stay with us for a night or two. James was an older African-American man who had been Giti’s professor in art school in San Francisco in the ‘60s.

Ricky and I stared at each other for a second. There was something about his pallor, a blurred malice that, with the lambent light from the green and black computer screen, made him look scary.

“I guess I should go,” he continued. He glanced at the half-eaten potato slice. “Unless…”

I panicked. Ricky with malodorous Iranian food and a black man in the kitchen? Ricky, who always ate casseroles. Ricky, for whom Sunday afternoons were spent playing tennis at a country club, not watching three hours of Persian-language programming on UHF in a room full of smokers. Ricky’s father, who would sometimes answer the front door shirtless, frightened me like Ronald Reagan did. I knew better.

“No,” I said, almost barking. “It’s a special Iranian day. A holiday. There can only be eight people there. That’s the rule. It’s like Passover.” Bad example, I thought. He won’t get it. If Ricky were Alan Rosenberg, my Orthodox Jewish friend, or Peter Lee, my Korean American friend, this wouldn’t be so awkward.

“I’d be a nuisance?” Ricky asked. I hated him for using a big vocabulary word and for making me feel even worse.

“My mom can take us to pizza on Saturday,” I answered. “We could go to the video arcade.” Ricky quickly scuttled out, jumped on his bike and rode home in the foggy dusk. We stopped speaking to each other after the fifth grade.

In the liquorice house
there are liquorice books
which liquorice people read

When those who lived with us spoke English, they spoke and wrote British English. They maneuvered through America in lifts and lorries, wearing braces and jumpers and bathing costumes. But no one really ever spoke English in our house.

When I was in the second grade, maybe because my English was at last strong enough or, conversely, because I was doggedly determined to figure out what a casserole was, English chapter books opened themselves to me: worlds whirled around me and washed me up at the shelves of the public library. The author of a book called Danny, The Champion of the World, Roald Dahl shot to the top of my list of favorite authors, and I fell in love with all things British. British was accented; British was somehow familiar. In 1984, when I learned an Iranian visitor was coming to us by way of London, I insisted she bring me Dahl’s newest book Boy, a memoir. I wanted to have the first British edition: I’d feel closer to him.

The winner of the second and third grade spelling bee at Jefferson Elementary School won a free lunch at the school cafeteria. I knew I could beat quiet Martin Choi and throaty Kelly Culver and natty Natalie Morricone, who, despite the pretty pink ribbons in her hair, always seemed to have a faint mustache of Cheetos dust. I had watched the bee as a first grader, and I was ready for the tough words: eucalyptus; Mississippi; mayonnaise. I had read all those fuzzy-paged hardbacks from the public library. I deserved the applause for that free lunch.

It came down to me and Natalie. Mrs. Haight, h-a-i-g-h-t, was a new fourth grade teacher, and she struck me as too tall for a teacher. Natalie got eucalyptus. The teachers clearly didn’t refresh the list annually. I stood up a little taller and wiped my hands on my corduroy trousers, readying myself for when she tripped over the e-u or the y. She didn’t.

“Well done, Natalie,” said Mrs. Haight. “Danny your word is…licorice.”

I knew this. Dahl wrote about the sweet-shop in the Welsh town in which he had been raised. He would buy “liquorice bootlaces” with his six-pence pocket money, although he had been warned by his mate Thwaites that liquorice bootlaces because they were made from rats’ blood: many a Welsh ratcatcher had become a millionaire by selling his dead rats to the Liquorice Bootlace Factory.

“Licorice,” I said confidently, squinting into the stage lights. “L-i-q-u-o-r-i-c-e. Licorice.”

“I’m sorry,” said Mrs. Haight, deadpan.

“No,” I murmured.

“Natalie?” asked Mrs. Haight. But I was right: the trick was the c-e ending. It was liquor, like Haystack Liquors on Judah Street, plus i-c-e. I prepared myself for Natalie to get it wrong; with all that dried cheese she continually had to tongue off her lips, she’d no doubt start the word l-i-c-k, and I could correct Mrs. Haight afterwards.

“Licorice. L-i-c — ” Ha! I pushed back my Linus van Pelt Peanuts glasses. “ — o-r-i-c-e. Licorice.”

“Congratulations, Natalie. You’ve won this year’s spelling bee!”

Before the children had a chance to applaud, I shouted.

“Wait! It’s with a q. I know it’s with a q. It’s in my book! L-i-q-u-o-r-i-c-e. It’s in Boy.” That made no sense. I wasn’t sure how to pronounce the name Roald Dahl. “The book Boy. It’s in my book.”

“I’m sorry, Danny,” Mrs. Haight said. “Natalie is correct. Please sit down.”

Burning, I sat. Mrs. Haight clearly hadn’t taught long enough to know the correct spelling. After Natalie got her certificate, receiving it like a beauty pageant winner, I foundered down the risers and approached my own teacher, Mrs. Hicks. She was smart. She had introduced me to Roald Dahl in the first place, with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

“I’m sorry, Danny,” she said. I glared up at her. The teachers should be apologizing for their ignorance, not as consolation.

“But I know that’s how you spell licorice,” I answered. My voice was starting to crack. My eyes burned.

“Not here,” she said. I knew immediately what she meant.

“But I’m from here.” I stamped my foot. Mrs. Haight walked by us, holding a stack of grownup books.

“Now don’t be a sore loser, young man,” Mrs. Haight said sternly. “It’s a bummer, but be a good sportsman.” This isn’t a sport, I thought. I felt hot breath rise up my throat, and I started to cry, feeling so much h-a-t-e.

In the liquorice lobby
liquorice jackets hang
with empty liquorice sleeves

In the liquorice house, there now live a man and a woman, ages seventy-three and seventy-one. I have returned there twice since I turned eighteen: once on September 11th, 2001, when thousands died, when liquorice juice bled out all the windows and the door gaps, in shiny sheets, like telegrams from an impedance coil, and we become known to the world as liquorice people; and once on December 26th, 2006, when one man died, my boyfriend, and I had lost my home and had nowhere to sleep. In the liquorice house, we call liquorice shirin-bayān: literally, sweet expression. In the liquorice house, liquorice is sweet, though smoky, though black, though adult, and everyone loves its flavor, because it is all we have. In the liquorice house, no one has finished mourning.

[1] “In the Liquorice House,” by Iain Crichton Smith, from River, River (Macdonald Publishers, 1978). The poem is quoted in its entirety throughout the essay.

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