An Ode to Anger
Just like every culture prepares tea differently, each expresses emotion uniquely. Is it sucked, hot and sweet, right onto the tongue, or cooled with milk before being carefully sipped? And anger, she is the most chameleon of them all. In Iran, she was a frequent visitor, expressed at the dinner table over the latest revolutionary news or because of missed dirt in the corner of the kitchen floor. She was accepted, part of the air we breathed, how we expressed our love for each other and the country we were part of. But in Canada, where we live now, the status quo modelled on emotionally repressed British society, anger hides herself in the closet made available only to certain people, in certain identities, over certain topics. Perhaps reframing my relationship to anger has been the hardest part of assimilating after exile.
When I first arrived in this land of winter cold and ice, to a northern city in the most conservative province of all, I was an unruly and opinionated girl of nine. Steeped in Iranian cultural traditions of ta’aroof, of heaping tables of food wherever we went to visit, of the loud cacophony of sound all around us in the city of Tehran, I was…not quiet. I was also quick to express anger– “Why did you do that?!”– in a tone at least two decibels higher than necessary, only to be found a minute or two later humming or reading quietly to myself. With such ease, the emotion had no more or less hold on me than any other passing through my small growing body.
But that’s not entirely true. When one remembers, one has to try and remember it all.
I was more acquainted with anger than those around me, not just because of the difference in cultural expression, but also the deep grief and injustice I felt about our forced departure. I was seven, playing outside in our walled garden just outside of downtown Tehran, when my father pulled me aside and told me, “We are leaving Iran next month. The country is changing and it is not safe for us.” I don’t remember my reply, just the protective tidal wave of anger that rushed through me. “Why, baba, why?!” I cried. He went on to explain, “Because someone named Ayatollah Khomeini is taking over and he is a madman.” I spent the next couple of hours tearing orange blossoms from our home branches, repeating under my breath, “I hate Khomeini, I hate Khomeini.” I knew I didn’t want to leave but I couldn’t also know how much I was losing. Not yet.
By the time I got to Canada, this anger at our forced displacement had seeped more deeply into the bone and marinated into a more complicated melange of rage, fear and grief. Like most children, I was adaptable. Had we had a welcome reception in our new home, perhaps the rupture of soul after leaving might have healed over, to be a forgotten and distant scar on the adult shape of self. But when we immigrate, as foreign bodies, we don’t have much say over what happens to us, only how we survive the transplant.
“The other children say she smells,” my grade six teacher reports to my parents, in front of me, in the classroom, my prison. I am three years into life in Canada and have gone numb, not from the bone chilling winters but the emotional temperature here. I don’t understand why the other children don’t like me, why they cross the street to avoid me. I don’t understand why people move away when I go with my father to get groceries or to the library for books. I don’t understand why I am spat on, or called Paki, or worst of all, the way I am rendered invisible by people passing by to greet other people who look and sound like them, pale skin and thin accents. I lose faith in the adults around me to make things better, because most of these adults do not seem to see what I see or hear what I hear. Like many children, I have taken belonging for granted and now that it has been stripped away, out of my reach, I don’t know where to go.
I can’t sleep at night. A few months into our arrival, I stay awake for hours after the lights go off and that continues for years. I want desperately to rest but am unable to surrender. I am not aware of feeling much of anything, just an internal crouching like a fox in its den, hearing the howls of the hounds from a distance. The emotion I reach for, wrap around me as a cloak of protection, is anger. Anger is safe, she is a gatekeeper holding back the less predictable monsters of fear and grief. Anger stokes the coals of hope, that perhaps one day things just might change, get easier. Anger helps me hold on to the notion that I deserve to be greeted like those around me, with smiles and cocked ears, micro-signals of respect. Anger holds my hand through the long years of childhood, as much an internal parent as the ones I have outside of me who themselves are surviving this foreign territory.
Years later, I’m twenty-eight and living thousands of miles from the small town I immigrated to, in the major metropolis of Toronto, and I am confronted with these ghosts of the past in the aftermath of 9-11. I watch images of middle-eastern people on TV and hear their voices speaking about being called names or spat on, or their houses or places of worship being vandalized and burned down. The fresh skin of belonging that has grown over my early wounds of rejection, is stripped away. I feel exposed and raw. I call my family members almost every day, unclear whether I am reaching for support or offering it. A week after witnessing the world I thought I knew dismantled, my white landlady knocks on my door to whisper to me with mock concern, “Are you okay? I can hear you yelling into the phone. It seems like you have a lot of anger.”
Rather than abashedly apologize, this is what I wish I had said to her: “Fuck yes, lady. I am angry. I am tired of swallowing the grateful immigrant narrative when I bust my ass twice as hard and get half the recognition. I’m angry when I watch the rising racism and Islamophobia and realize that the diversity Canadians pride themselves of being so tolerant of actually masks a fear of difference, which has, like most uncomfortable truths, been swept under the happy Canadian multicultural mosaic rug, waiting, just waiting, to emerge. I am angry that people here move away from conversations about race and immigration, identity and power, words that are my world. I am angry because I want things to change and anger is the emotion that drives things to be different. I am angry because I don’t know how else to be in the world right now. For the same reasons you can’t access anger, it’s all I can feel.”
But for any of us, we cannot be colonized by a singular emotion. That moment of waking up to my anger set me out on a journey to better understand it. I realized that because anger was so marginal in my adopted culture, I often felt ashamed of it and ignored what it had to teach me. Gradually, through years of meditation, therapy and bodywork I bravely allowed the fire of anger to quell so the waters of grief and fear could start flowing again. It took many years. Trauma–as a result of threatening experiences we cannot undo or escape–means that we lose our ability to know what the boundary is. Sometimes I overdid it and reacted to things my partner or children did that were clearly undeserving, or underdid it in other moments like being yelled at by a white teacher in my child’s classroom as I stood numbly.
Gradually, I developed my relationship to anger apart from trauma, one that allows for spontaneous opinionated expression aligned with my passionate Persian roots. For any of us it is hard to differentiate what is personality vs. what is identity: one is intrinsic and the other, a response to external systems where we are molded into ways of being not always of our own choosing. The ability to express anger freely is liberating, whereas being in anger lockdown as the way to survive racism and xenophobia is the opposite.
Last week, I got angry when a conference organizer asked me for my professional title to promote me in their advertising, and after giving it to them, heard back that they’d have to check ‘if it was okay to use’ as there was no self-promotion allowed. I was speaking for free, and this happened already after much time donated from my end. I swallowed and paused before responding. I let myself feel the feeling and what it was telling me. I was angry because I was feeling disrespected, and because I suspected this wouldn’t happen to a CEO of a bank, a white man who would never be questioned about their title or integrity. I replied via email: “I am formally declining the invite to be part of the conference. Given the time and generosity I have extended to be part of this, the level of micromanaging about how I am expected to show up is not what I would expect and it doesn’t feel good to me.” I moulded my anger into a boundary; no drama, no depression, just a line in the sand. A healthy relationship to anger offers a border between ourselves and the world, allowing us to thrive.
It has been twenty years since I was that young woman who started embracing her anger. I’d like to say I always use anger mindfully and purposefully, that I have it under control, but that’s not true. Anger can still be a volatile and mischievous mistress. What is more true is, with time, I have learned to be playful with my anger, to be more aware of her chameleon nature, of her need to sometimes control, sometimes speak out, and sometimes appear when she is not needed at all. I’ve embraced the knowledge that she is an essential part of the stuff I’m made of, and impossible to separate from; as valuable a piece as my heart, or courage. I will never deny or dismiss her, denounce her or worst of all, pretend she is not here because without her, dear reader, I may not be.
Annahid Dashtgard is a renowned author, changemaker and co-founder of Anima Leadership, a boutique consulting company specializing in issues of diversity, inclusion and anti-racism. Previously she was a leader in the economic globalization movement, responsible for several national political campaigns and frequently referred to as one of the top activists to watch. Her published writing credits include The Globe and Mail, CBC and numerous magazines. Her first book– Breaking the Ocean: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion and Reconciliation (House of Anansi, 2019)– garnered stellar reviews, referred to as a “luminous inventory dappled with joy and pain” (Quill and Quire). Dashtgard is currently working on her second book, Bones of Belonging, a collection of stories linking the personal to the political (follow her @Annahid).