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Essay

The American Voice: Thinking Horizontal

By Sarah Lunnie, Literary Director

Artist: Layla Al-Attar (1944-1993)

When Heather Raffo began to write her celebrated one-woman show 9 Parts of Desire, she was writing to fill a void. Reflecting on the play earlier this year, more than a decade after its creation, she told the NEA’s Art Works, “[It] happened because there wasn’t an Iraqi female protagonist in the English language in the theater. It was literally just looking around for a genre that didn’t exist and realizing that I had to create it if it was going to exist.”

For Heather, 9 Parts of Desire represented the culmination of 10 years of research in Iraq, beginning when she visited her father’s family in Baghdad in 1993 for the first time since her early childhood. “I was like an orphan finding her family on that trip,” Heather wrote in an introduction to the published play, “soaking up every story about their lives and how my father grew up. I saw buildings my grandfather and great-grandfather had carved from marble; I saw the house my father grew up in; and I saw the obvious destruction of the country.” An encounter with a painting in the Saddam Art Center of a nude woman with her head bowed, clinging to a barren tree, haunted Heather after that visit. She discovered the artist, Layla Al-Attar, had been killed by an American air raid just a few months before she saw her painting. Heather’s desire to speak with other Iraqi artists who were her contemporaries soon gave way to a much larger field of inquiry, as one by one she interviewed the women whose stories would find expression in 9 Parts of Desire. This was research in the form of conversation. “My process was not one of formal interviews but rather a process of spending time together living, eating, communicating compassionately, and loving on such a level that when I parted from their homes it was clear to all that we were now family,” she wrote. “When an Iraqi woman trusts you, it is because she has come to love you, and that has been the process of finding and forming these stories.” 

"For Heather, who was born and raised in Michigan and whose mother is Irish-American, the making of 9 Parts of Desire was inspired by, and seems to have occasioned, a profoundly personal return home; an encounter, through others, with herself."

Heather distilled the voices and experiences of the many women with whom she spoke during that decade into nine fictional characters, and shaped their stories into a cascade of interweaving monologues. The play, which Heather performed herself, premiered in New York in 2004 and ran for nine months, garnering a Blackburn Prize Special Commendation and a Lortel Award for best solo play, among many other accolades. It has played across the United States and internationally for over a decade.

For Heather, who was born and raised in Michigan and whose mother is Irish-American, the making of 9 Parts of Desire was inspired by, and seems to have occasioned, a profoundly personal return home; an encounter, through others, with herself. It also represented her first foray into playwriting. While the research that informed it spanned years, the play itself began as a drama school project at the University of California, San Diego, where Heather, a performer first (and still), was studying acting. In finding a shape for the stories with which so many had entrusted her, she also found a shape for her process, and claimed a new identity. “I found from that that I actually really loved writing, perhaps prefer it,” she told Art Works. “I think after [creating] 9 Parts is when I really got to start excavating other avenues of my own writing. I’m very research driven, and I need to sit with things for quite a while. I’m an anthropologist of sorts. I need to go excavate in a community and really be with them, even if it’s a community I claim that I’m from somehow. I have to go and park myself, embed myself in [that community] for quite a while until I feel like I can understand issues from all sides. Understand it from opposing sides, really. And then I go away and — quite like an actor with actor muscles — just let it go in and come out.” 

It’s a process on which Heather has continued to rely. Her libretto for the Iraq war opera Fallujah was informed by hours of conversation with retired Marine sergeant Christian Ellis, a machine gunner whose experiences in Iraq left him with serious physical and emotional injuries. The opera follows a fictional Marine Corps soldier, Philip Houston, during a 72-hour hold in a veteran’s hospital following a suicide attempt, using flashbacks to reveal what he experienced during his deployment. “I wanted to put the audience inside the restless mind of a Marine returning from war,” Raffo told Westward Nation. “I wanted us all to collectively experience, without political point of view, how the memory of violence is carried by all who come into contact with it, how hard it is to heal from and how deep is the human desire to communicate even during conflict.”

The first embers that would ignite Noura were likewise kindled in conversation, this time in a series of workshops Heather led in New York with three different communities: a group of older women immigrants at the Arab American Association of New York in Bay Ridge; a group of young girls at Brooklyn’s Arab Family Support Center; and a group of young women at Queens College. In these workshops, called Places of Pilgrimage, Heather invited the women to write their own story in a first-person narrative monologue. Later, suspecting it might resonate with the women, she began to share Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, challenging them to remix or respond to the play to dramatize their own particular lived experience — and eventually taking up the challenge herself. “I gave them A Doll’s House [to read because] most of these women had harrowing stories of leaving home,” she told Art Works. “We discussed a lot how these women were carrying two ways of moving through the world and felt like two different people.” Elaborating on this psychic split in American Theatre, Heather notes that “American culture really does pride itself on rugged individualism, so even though our communities can be very rich and very connected, the way that culture and country works is with the goal of finding yourself and being yourself… Our capitalist ways of pursuing that are quite vertical. Eastern culture is very different — it’s very horizontal, community-connected, and it’s very hard, male or female, to step out on your own. You’ve got to take your whole family, your whole peoples with you.” 

"It is striking to observe that Heather, in the making of her work, seems to embody the horizontality she describes. Her approach to research is both communal and intimate, not merely a process of mining or gathering the stories of others, but rather one of incorporation and, ultimately, of transformation."

When I think of the work of playwriting, I tend to think of the excavation of individual experience, the illumination of private grief and hope, the expression of a singular imagination. As collaborative a form as theater is, the identity of the author in our culture is a predominantly vertical one. It is striking to observe that Heather, in the making of her work, seems to embody the horizontality she describes. Her approach to research is both communal and intimate, not merely a process of mining or gathering the stories of others, but rather one of incorporation and, ultimately, of transformation. She wants to know and to be known; she shares herself with others and, listening to their stories, is changed by them. Her process of channelling those experiences and of distilling them into stories for the stage reflects a similarly horizontal relationship to the identity of author. Heather’s Noura is wholly her own; but in breathing her into life, she takes her whole peoples with her.