Universal Stories: Kayhan Irani talks about There Is A Portal


On Friday, November 9, IJ presents There Is A Portal, a performance from director Rania Lee Khalil, written and performed by Kayhan Irani, and with video art by Gazelle Samizay. IJ’s program assistant, Eric, sat down with Kayhan to discuss the origins of the work, storytelling, and Kayhan’s processes. Read on, and then join IJ and Kayhan on November 9!

Eric: The central question you pose in your show is whether or not your origin story as an Iranian-Indian immigrant growing up in New York City can be a universal story in today’s America. Why is it important for a story to be universal? 

Kayhan: It’s the specific that brings out the universal. It’s not that my story is just like your story. It’s probably different. But there are aspects of my story that can resonate in someone else’s life even if it isn’t a one-to-one comparison. There’s a part in the performance when I talk about losing my ancestral language - not being able to speak the language of my parents and the language of my grandparents. Maybe that’s not your issue, but maybe there’s something in the quality of the loss of my experience that you felt in something else and that you can connect with and feel empathetic about. It’s that universality and it’s also really about the specifics. If you’ve not experienced the loss of your ancestral language, it gets you to actually think about what that might be like. I think in America, which is a country of immigrants, it’s important for us to remember what were the languages that we spoke and how they were erased from our mouths and our tongues. That happened in my lifetime and it may have happened to you three generations ago. That’s still something for you to connect with.

Eric: What might surprise audiences about There Is A Portal?

Kayhan: Intimacy. I want it to be a very intimate performance. I structured it to be a very simple and intimate telling of my life as if I’m speaking to you in my home or in a safe, quiet space where it’s just us. I want audiences to feel that intimacy. It’s really about opening up a space of intimacy and sharing where we can all heal and fully see each other as we are.

Eric: In a broad sense, what has the role of telling stories played in your life?  

Kayhan: It’s multidimensional. I found very early on in my childhood that telling stories collectively could build relationships and bring people together who normally wouldn’t sit or play together. On another level, storytelling in communities, especially in communities that I was a part of, which was an immigrant community, can bring a community together. Telling stories about where we come from was an essential dissent against the erasure of the stories of people of color and immigrants that US history forgets. The story, history, and knowledge that my community told about who we are and where we came from was essential in making sure that I understood I was connected to something deeper, specific, broader, powerful, smart, and important.

Eric: I was wondering if you could talk a little about your work using stories as a mechanism or conduit for social change.

Kayhan: There are two levels on which I work with storytelling. One is storytelling as process. Storytelling investigates our own lives, reality, and experiences, and airs these experiences as a way to analyze and understand where we fit in a larger social picture. How are we privileged or not privileged in this society that we live in? What particular interventions or desires have started to percolate as a result of understanding my social story in a new way? How can I commit myself to intervening and acting in a particular manner or on a particular issue?

We use story as process to help integrate the multiple parts of ourselves, the social selves, the subject of our own lives, and also how we are placed in the subject position by the dominant society, and use that to build power, find truth, and identify how we want to move forward. I use Theater of the Oppressed as one of my methodologies and I train people with these methodologies so they can use it, take it forward, and adapt it.

On the other side, the creation of stories is about speaking back to the stock stories - the stories repeated in our dominant culture that reinforce the status quo and social hierarchy. In America, that’s white supremacy, patriarchy, and class domination. How can we create stories that speak back to white supremacy or patriarchy, and show a value and goodness of all human beings and how human beings are interconnected, cooperative and full of agency? In that way, stories can serve as a nutrient to heal something that’s been missing from a community or silenced so effectively by dominant structures. Stories can be used in all these ways.

I think one of the main conduits of my work is that I always partner with organizations and individuals who have already been mobilized. I think it’s beautiful that some artists want to individually use their art in the direction of social justice and social change. But if you’re doing social justice work as an individual, you’re just not going to be effective in isolation. You have to partner and you have to build with people who are already mobilizing and who can work in multiple different ways. Any movement for social change is not going to have one tactic or strategy. It’s going to work in multiple ways. The expressive arts and storytelling should be just one of the many ways that movements are working. It’s very important for me that I don’t pretend to be the wizard behind the curtain. I am offering a set of skills and a toolkit to people who are already doing the work in some capacity.

Eric: Along the timeline of your career in storytelling, social justice and social change, where does There Is A Portal fit in? Is this a new chapter or a retelling? How are you looking at this project in particular?

Kayhan: In a way it’s a new chapter, but also a kind of synthesis of my work, learning, and experience. I’m bringing together elements of my own art-making. I’m speaking to young people and I’m using my story as a portal, as a doorway to engage young people of color, young immigrants. What’s their story?

These are the lessons I’ve had to learn through the ways that I’ve been complicit in my own hurt, in the ways I’ve hurt my family, and the ways in which I’ve healed and moved on, built community, and found a home here. I want to offer that to young people so they can start to think about it now. I started to think about that in my thirties and now into my forties. I want young people to think about that now and to have the resources to say that yes, I’ve been hurt, but I can also heal. And from that hurt, I can find my voice and speak out, not hide or feel like I shouldn’t be active or I don’t belong, and identify something that I never want to happen to anyone again. I’m inadequate in some way. My hope is that my story can open the doorway for their understanding of their value in society. 

Eric: So it sounds like the concept of the portal serves two purposes: that of a window into your own lived experiences and that of an educational tool for young people who have had similar experiences to help them reflect on those experiences. Is that accurate?

 Kayhan: Yes, kind of both things. The portal is a doorway. It’s a conduit and multi-directional. I am holding in my heart young immigrants and young people of color, because I’m healing that person in myself. But the ways in which I tell my stories are also universal: loss, hatred, regret, disappointment, and connection. So I want each person to be able to open up something inside themselves and ask: where have I pushed the door shut? Where have I pushed this thing down and gone about my life and not acknowledged where I’m still hurt? Can I open that up and really look at my own healing? How can I now engage in this society to ensure that we create a society that doesn’t continue to harm people? It’s not “if you haven’t experienced fleeing from revolution, then you can’t connect.” It’s rather, “what have you lost along the way?” How can looking at what you’ve lost help you understand people who are experience loss right now? And also help you understand what you need to reconcile within yourself in order to be a more effective ally and really be part of a movement for immigrants’ rights or whatever it might be. It’s really an invitation and a truly heartfelt connection we all can make.

 There’s a specific line in There Is A Portal - it’s a two-part phrase in Farsi that says, “From my heart to your heart there is a portal.” It’s this idea that anytime we shut down possibilities for human connection, we’re allowing the oppressive forces to win. The more we can keep our hearts open to understand that we have the ability to make a connection with any human being and understand one another’s pain and stand up and fight for one another is possible not just from a place of “this is right,” but from a place of deep understanding.

Eric: Kayhan, thank you so much!

Join Intercultural Journeys and Kayhan Irani on Friday, November 9 for There Is A Portal.