Editor, Writer, Mother: Tiffany Vakilian aspires to transform the word ‘perfect’

Photo via Instagram.

I am a humble practitioner of opened eyes and artistic hands.

You’ve earned a master’s degree in Transformative Language, and have written and edited for a Transformative Language Arts Network magazine as more or less a start on your road to being published. Today, you have one book under your belt, so to speak – “Ugly Drawers, Pretty Panties: A Collection of Poetry, Prose, Dreams and Missives” (2015), and you are continuing to build your bibliography while balancing a life as a freelance editor, writer, and mother. This is all impressive. However, I really liked your response of why you write, saying that you are “a slave’s dream come true, and in the Library of Babel, I cry out their echoes.” Could you elaborate on that a little bit?

I grew up as a “military child” (I defy the term “brat,” even when it fits me perfectly). It was a long time after the Civil Rights acts were passed, but before the nation’s racism went so far underground it started hiding in plain sight. My life experience was still relatively sheltered, since my family grew up in Southern California. But my Mom was in high school down the street from the riots in Baltimore when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. She never lets me forget the ugly underworld from which she rose, and made sure that I saw myself as a beautiful woman, and unapologetically Black.

It makes for some funny conversation, considering my husband is German and Persian, and my daughter is all of both of us. In the 80s we were labeled Afro-Americans. Before that it was Coloreds, and now it is African-Americans.

My mother made me sure I never felt invisible, or lost in any label someone tried to give me. When I was in college, I realized I was a slave’s dream come true, and I get to be myself in a way a lot of my people never did (on some platforms they weren’t even allowed to exist as whole individuals).

 

I presumed the -ian suffix on your married name, actually, to be Armenian, which I guess would still be consistent with your husband’s Persian ancestry, given the number of Armenians that found a home among the people of that neighboring culture. Being someone from a mixed ethnic background who is also married to someone whose culture is far from my own, I can imagine the cultural contributions that the two of you present to each other just living as a married couple. What are some of the ways that you think the two of you have changed each other, what gifts do you think your culturally diverse family life will present your little one, and most importantly to our discussion here, what sort of influences has it provided to your writing.

You put two people in a room, and their individual ‘perfections’ will cause issues with each other, haha! I think I’m too close to the situation to tell you the best answer to that question, but I know he slows my thinker down, and I make him fight for his place in the marketplace more. But the more I think about it, the most obvious place we have opened each other’s eyes is in music and food. I opened him up to Motown and Rap, and he cooks food that makes me feel like I’ve visited most major countries already.

 

Tiffany’s first published work on the store shelf. Photo via Tiffany Vakilian

That sounds like a beautiful exchange. But certainly you must have some sense of how your culturally diverse home life has changed you, or at least the way you see the world. Has he developed any favorite musicians from the artists you’ve turned him on to, and has he developed in you any favorites from the countries to which his cuisine has taken you?

I wish I could give a straight answer for that. It’s in the way we do things. Little exchanges now have a more international and musical nuance. We sing phrases to each other, or speak rap (like most people, we make our own language). And family is everything. As I write this, I am sitting in Grosswenkheim. It’s a little German town where his mother was born and raised. We’re having a barbecue (“Heute grillen wir”). Yesterday, we drove to two stores to find meat and seasoning so Tony can make Memphis-style ribs for the family. It’s one of his specialties. It’s the sharing of good things from our life experience. My baby brother said Tony puts Holy Water in the ribs, but that was based on all American spices and cooking utensils. I’m excited to see the results this afternoon.

 

I’d be excited, too, if I was there. Good ribs are hard to find in this area of the world.

I was intrigued, in particular, by the subject of your degree, “Transformative Language.” I can sort of imagine what this might be, but rather than rely on imagination, it’s probably better that I simply ask you to define what it is in your own terms, and how it has influenced the way you think and express yourself.

Transformative Language Arts is the study and practice of using spoken, sung, written, or embodied words as an artistic means to facilitate and celebrate social change. It’s like a non-medicinal based, creative therapy. Maya Angelou, God rest her, is one of the best TLA Practitioners I know, but the term wasn’t invented until 2002. She used her works of art in any way she could to walk out the royalty she lost as a child due to tragedy, but found and fought for in later years. It changed her world, and it changed THE world.

 

It seems that the work Angelou did that most famously showed the therapeutic value of TLA before it even existed was “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1969). Looking over her biography, it sounds as if she had a rather eventful life filled with quite a few traumatic events. Is trauma a prerequisite to excelling in this art form, or can it be practiced by someone with a more sheltered existence?

Most artists I can think of are blessed with a sensitivity to life’s experiences, most especially their own. Quite a few of them overcame great adversity, choosing to push the healing through via creative expression. It is a well-argued point that artists must suffer to see and express the deeper colors of the oceans of life and time. I am a humble practitioner of opened eyes and artistic hands.

 

It’s certainly worthwhile to learn about just what triggers the creative spark in people, and probably more importantly the urge to transform the world, both in the present day and historically. Have you dug far back into your family history and uncovered the struggles that your parents’ parents might have fought in order to simply live, or has your understanding of the ugly underworld your mother overcame just been limited to her generation? How far back in history do the “echoes you cry out” go, and how direct are they?

I have uncovered quite a bit, but I didn’t dig. My family is more open than they have ever been about a lot of things that took place. We went through a lot, and there is a LOT more to unpack in what I *do* know. But I am happy to say we have ties to Geronimo, and most likely Harriet Tubman (we share a surname going back some generations, and she’s from where I’m from – Baltimore, Maryland). But the more I feel the pull to confirm it, the more I worry it won’t be the case, and I like the mystery. I was so sure at one point, but now I’m not. I don’t know why. But whether by blood or location, we are linked by the pride we have in who we are.

 

One comment

  1. Avatar
    Mike Stang says:

    Lovely to read this. You are the right side of history. Perhaps the future holds another published work? Another peek into that gifted mind of yours?
    There is hope.
    All the best of the holidays, V.

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