The child of a British mother and Persian father, Annahid Dashtgard “was always trying to fix [her] world.” Dashtgard’s family was exiled from Iran in 1980, the year following the Islamic Revolution that ushered in a conservative regime. In Breaking the Ocean: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Reconciliation, Dashtgard lays claim to her life by way of a chronological account, beginning with her family’s move from Tehran to her mother’s hometown of Skellingthorpe, England, when Dashtgard was seven years old.
The author admits to only having “patchwork memories” and “no coherent narrative” concerning her years in Iran, but these absences only emphasize the straightforward honesty of Dashtgard’s voice, which is especially resonant because of its candour. Dashtgard avoids imposing a tidy arc on her memoir’s narrative, instead imbuing her memory’s absences with clear, insightful echoes of their impact on her life. Consider the reflection that closes the first chapter: “As an adult, I am left waiting, watching for flashes of gold, glimpses of the girl I once was in a land far away.”
There is a paradoxical immediacy to the recollections in this book, even though hindsight intervenes to remind us of what is no longer remembered, what has been forgotten across generations. This includes her mother’s inability to recall what Dashtgard and her siblings were like as young children. It’s “as if her [mother’s] memories are hostage to something other than age. Denied emotions – unnamed trauma – can often block access to the past.” Psychological insights are always embedded in the personal, fractured through the prism of Dashtgard’s own experiences, which are related in the manner of a luminous inventory dappled with joy and pain.
Trauma informs Dashtgard’s memoir. It begins with exile and crystallizes in racism, which Dashtgard encountered in England and later in her adopted home of Canada. When Dashtgard and her family move to Calgary, she is repeatedly targeted at school, her fellow students deliberately excluding her because she is visibly racialized.
Dashtgard’s memoir is rich with anecdotes that allow us to sense the author’s rebellion and frustration as she becomes an activist. She admits disillusionment with social hierarchies and reconciles her internal conflicts with a complexity that involves falling back on the wisdom of the body: “In activist work the pecking order is often established by how oppressed you are and how loud you can be about it; at Kripalu [yoga centre] it was about how much quiet transcendence you projected.”
Breaking the Ocean is unique in its generosity, looking to the past with a wholehearted anticipation for what can be retrieved in the present. It is deeply felt and striking in its clarity and relevance.