Q&A with Leila Mansouri, author of “Nothing to Declare”

Leila Mansouri’s “Nothing to Declare” was published in The Offing’s Fiction department on November 22, 2021. Q&A conducted by Di Jayawickrema, Assistant Fiction Editor.

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Di Jayawickrema: “Nothing to Declare” is the only story I’ve read where the main action consists of a character deciding what to do with an orange! Despite an arguably minimal plot, I was pulled through the story at lightning speed. Can you talk about how you sustained tension and momentum in the piece?

Leila Mansouri: It’s funny you ask, because the first draft had even less plot! It was just the main character, standing in a Customs line, getting more and more anxious. The orange showed up because I thought, “Oh no, I have to give her something to do!”

But I’m glad the orange found its way into the story because it gives Nazanin’s character a chance to toggle back and forth between her big nebulous fears – about Customs and the drama in her family – and a very concrete decision: What do I do with this orange? And what that does is allow the orange to attract all her other fears to itself like a magnet. The fact that Nazanin has a real choice about what to do with it makes her feel like she has some agency over those other things also – like if she can just figure out the “right” thing to do with her orange she can keep herself safe and take care of her family. That’s what keeps me invested, at least – this sense that whatever choice Nazanin makes about the orange could end up mattering for her life in huge ways.


DJ: To me, this story perfectly captures the way immigration trauma can unspool in the so-called “good immigrant.” Nazanin follows all the rules but experiences real psychic panic as she waits in the Customs line. Can you speak to how this story interacts with the “good immigrant” narrative, and with immigrant anxiety and fear?

LM: Yeah, I think this actually ties into what I was just saying about the orange. Because the notion that Nazanin has agency over much beyond what she does with her orange is a “good immigrant” illusion. There is no magical set of checkboxes or rituals that protects anyone at the border – especially not someone who’s Iranian or from a Muslim background. Likewise, there’s no amount of education, wealth, or “good” behavior that guarantees anyone “model minority” status. What drives that status is the whim of the white majority, which designates certain groups as “good” in order to justify the demonization of other groups. And those designations can reverse themselves at any moment – to see how just look at the experiences of Japanese Americans in the 20th century. “Good immigrant” and “threat fit for concentration camps” are very different labels, but they’re flipsides of the same structure – a structure that treats Asian and Muslim immigrants as fundamentally “other” and unassimilable.

Where this comes into the story is that those of us who get cast as the “good immigrant” always sense we’re on unstable ground. Maybe not consciously, but definitely in our bodies. We might tell ourselves that if we just keep our heads down and work hard it’ll all be OK, but a part of us always knows that’s not really true. And the more we double down – the more we try even harder to be the perfect “good immigrant” who does everything right – the less safe we actually feel.

That’s what I wanted to play with in the story – the tension between what’s basically Nazanin’s superstitious belief that following all the rules will protect her and the reality that it doesn’t. A lot of the time the rules aren’t even followable. I wanted the Customs line to force Nazanin into confrontation with this reality, so that the anxiety she normally pushes out of her consciousness bubbles to the surface.


DJ: Someone is detained in the story, potentially. I think you took deliberate care not to name the ethnicity or possible class position of this person but as I read the story, I noted the careful details positioning Naz as a well-off, professional-class, second-generation immigrant. It made me wonder if the broad spectrum of risk immigrants and migrants face, which varies based on class, status, race, and other positionalities, was on your mind as you wrote this story?

LM: Absolutely. One of the things that interested me is how Nazanin is affected not just by the risk she personally faces but also by her developing awareness – and the possible detainment is a big part of this – of how the risks are catastrophically worse for others who don’t have her passport and resources. This double whammy gave the story a way to engage with the inequity in how this country polices its borders that didn’t reduce border violence to its most extreme manifestations – to the literal concentration camps, for example.

Addressing those extremes is incredibly urgent. But when we treat them as exceptions to an otherwise fair and humane system, we miss that they’re just one node of a vast border enforcement network, all of which is arbitrary and violent to some degree. “Good immigrant” communities are especially susceptible to overlooking the quieter versions of this violence, I think – it’s all part of that same “If you just follow the rules, you’ll be fine” mentality.

So in the story I wanted to get at how this experience at a border shakes Nazanin’s confidence in the whole system. Part of that is her recognition of what could happen to her despite all the privilege and resources she’s coming into this situation with. And the other part is bystander trauma from witnessing how the system treats people who are even more vulnerable.


DJ: I want to ask you about the gorgeous and original use of a second-person point of view in the story but I’m not sure how to without spoiling the breathtaking ending! Is there anything you can say about your point of view choices without giving too much away?

LM: Second person always feels like a risk. Lots of people have a really visceral negative reaction to it. That’s largely, I think, because it pushes readers into a character’s perspective in a way that can feel uncomfortable, even claustrophobic, especially for readers who are used to unfettered freedom of movement. But I really felt like that was necessary for this story – both to get the feeling of immediacy I wanted in the Customs line and to let readers in on how Nazanin’s consciousness gets reshaped in the aftermath of that experience. So it’s really great to know you enjoyed it! I hope others do also.


DJ: You’re working on a short story collection and a novel! Can you tell us more about these projects?

LM: The short story collection centers on Iranian-American women and puts the emphasis on the North American half of that hyphen. There have been so many refugee stories and immigrant-nostalgia stories, but there’s so little, still, on our experiences here. And there’s even less that manages to hold the complexity of those experiences or that pays attention to how this country pulls us in – and not always as victims – to its racism, inequality, and imperial violence. So, I wanted to honor that, and also to explore the lies we tell to try to manage the gap between what our parents want for us and the realities we face here. Like, right now I’m working on a story about a woman who’s gotten a fancy Silicon Valley job – but she hasn’t told her mother it’s with a startup that makes AI sex dolls.

The novel takes all this a bit further, delving into how our lives here get distorted by our complicity with a nation-state that’s done so much damage, both within and beyond its borders. I won’t get into too much detail, but its main character has hit a glass ceiling in her translation career at an unnamed national security agency. And she’s dealing with that when her father, a lifelong atheist, receives a terminal cancer diagnosis and starts reconnecting with Islam in this way that’s unsettling for him and totally confusing to everyone around him. So, as you can probably guess, I’m having a lot of fun with it.


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