Finding the words to write about tragedy.
I grew up in Tehran — a bustling city much like New York, yet distinctly different. My husband and I immigrated to the U.S. in 2000, and after more than 10 relocations across the country, we settled in Baltimore in 2004. This marked the longest I’d lived in one place since leaving my homeland.
Prior to Baltimore, my primary urban experience was in New York City, where we lived for three years. I cherished urban life: strolling to pick up groceries, visiting the local bakery for fresh bread, relying on public transportation, walking to the library, and hailing cabs for concerts. Manhattan, in that sense, felt akin to Tehran.
So, I was enthusiastic about our life in Baltimore, except that shortly after moving near the University of Maryland Medical Center, I discovered that Baltimore lacked many of these urban conveniences — certainly not in the area where we resided. It’s challenging to articulate, but I felt haunted, as though I instinctively grasped its rich history and the lingering ghosts it held.
My connection with the city was profound, though its charm was not immediately evident; I could feel it rather than see it. This was a sentiment I knew well, having grown up in Tehran — a once-beautiful city adorned with pomegranate and persimmon trees, fragrant jasmine, tall chenaar and acacia trees, and the resonance of poetry. Today, it’s hard to see that beauty among the weightiness, the darkness, and the burden that lingers in the air. I can feel it, though — a sense of gravity, courage, and poetry, even in the verses I’ve heard countless times but still find haunting.
I was just 8 years old when the Iran-Iraq War started an eight-year period that spanned my entire childhood. I carried the weight of that conflict with me, like an extra limb. Yet I had no desire to speak of it or to write about it.
It wasn’t until years later, on September 11th, after the first building was struck, that I found myself in my neighbor’s apartment several floors above, gazing at the Manhattan skyline, rendered speechless. We couldn’t see the second airplane from our vantage point, but we watched as the south tower of the World Trade Center erupted in flames and ultimately collapsed, followed by the north tower — a catastrophic event that unleashed weeks of thick, white dust that blanketed Brooklyn and years of simmering hatred and war.
This was my initial impetus to begin writing again. But I harbored the doubt and uncertainty so often felt by immigrants. I lacked confidence in my ability to write in English, and writing in Persian didn’t feel right. (Or, I should say, it didn’t feel enough.)
Nevertheless, there I was! Living and breathing in Baltimore — a city with ghosts of beauty, history, music, poetry, drugs, crime, fear, darkness, and a glimmer of hope, all coexisting. It was an oddly familiar feeling. My very pores seemed to flow with emotions, and I distinctly remember sharing my sentiments with a friend.
One day, after a long, aimless walk, I found myself standing in front of the University of Baltimore. I ventured into the admissions office and inquired about noncredit writing courses; I was ready to put down roots in my new home. Years later, I graduated with an MFA from the creative writing program, yet I still wasn’t quite prepared to write about my experiences of war.
And so, here we are — I am a writer and graphic designer, or perhaps I am a graphic designer and a writer. The order doesn’t matter, for graphic design, much like poetry, demands that one convey a great deal with few words and a generous amount of white space.
[Editor’s note: This piece is in support of the Inner Loop‘s “Author’s Corner,” a monthly campaign that spotlights a DC-area writer and their recently published work from a small to medium-sized publisher. The Inner Loop connects talented local authors to lit lovers in the community through live readings, author interviews, featured book sales at Potter’s House, and through Eat.Drink.Read., a collaboration with restaurant partners Pie Shop, Shaw’s Tavern, and Reveler’s Hour to promote the author through special events and menu and takeout inserts.]
Pantea Amin Tofangchi is an Iranian American poet, writer, and graphic designer and art director. She was 8 when the Iran‐Iraq War started and in senior high when it ended. She grew up in poetry, war, death, conflict, beauty, hatred, love, and censorship all at the same time. Along with her husband, she immigrated to the United States in 2000. She writes poems (in English) and essays, stories, and plays (mostly in Persian). Her work has been published in Ploughshares, Little Patuxent Review, Welter, Atlanta Review — in which she won the International Merit Award — and other journals. She was selected as a finalist for the National Poetry Series’ 2016 and Georgia Poetry Prize 2018. Her book of poems, Glazed with War, is her story, her life, written from her childhood’s perspective.