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10 Questions for Kayhan Irani

OPENING: A pair of sheer white curtains undulate as a breeze blows. They are suspended in air, floating on their own. Behind them, pitch black. 

We are here, at a criss-cross of story and memory, place and time.
We are here to witness and listen, to embrace and mend the fractures.
Why are you here?

(Four options appear in orange text. TO WITNESS; TO LISTEN; TO EMBRACE; TO MEND. Choose one to move ahead.)
—from "There Is a Portal," Volume 64, Issue 4 (Winter 2023)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
One of the first full length plays I wrote was in the fourth grade, and it was a play about a suffragette who was organizing her friends and other women to publicly rally for the vote but who simultaneously was in an abusive marriage. I really loved melodrama, and still do. For the climax she is at the big public protest she helped organize and is shot and killed by a hitman her husband hired to kill her. Oh, we had a stage slap in the play and I remember rehearsing that so many times to get it right and I remember the audience gasped at that moment! The beautiful thing about this place is that my fourth grade teacher allowed us to self organize and put it on for the entire fourth grade class. So me and my friends directed it and we cast our classmates, and we rehearsed in the school auditorium on our own. And everyone enjoyed it and participated in cooperated and this experience is what opened the door for my love of participatory theater, theater by/with non-actors, and theater that asks us to consider social and political issues. One funny thing about the play is that it was inspired by Mary Poppins. One of my best friends, Deanne, had Mary Poppins on VHS and we would watch it all the time and I was intrigued by the mother character who, in the movie, was portrayed as a sort of bad mother for neglecting her children and committing herself to the suffrage movement. But I was I was like yeah, this woman needs her own show! So I went and I wrote a story about her!

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Yoko Ono, Shailja Patel, Sharon Bridgforth, Ocean Vuong, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Zora Neale Hurston and many Palestinian writers across the diaspora like Suheir Hamad and Hala Al Ayan. They all channel love, history, memory, and connection in a way that opens my heart and reminds me that love is an eternal possibility despite the horrors that humans unleash.

What did you want to be when you were young?
When I was young, I wanted to be a lawyer or a performer.

What inspired you to write this piece?
So many things. But mostly, it came out of all the love I have for my friends, family, all the love that is here, all the love that is yet to come. It stems from the relationships I formed growing up in New York City with people in my neighborhood who do Zumba in the streets, people on the subway who I’ve had deep and long conversations with, strangers who tell me to “keep ya head up” when I’m walking down the block. It’s for the aunties and uncles who shared their cooking, or their stories, or something about their history with me, so that I could keep the tiny ember of culture and love of my heritage alive inside me. I want to work within loss but understanding that we build horizontal lineages with the people and places we are proximate to. And so migration isn’t solely a loss, it’s deep and wide connection I never would have had. And the conversation between loss and connection is what I want to have, how we move toward greater connection and how we reconcile and hold loss without it crushing all we have and are yet to create.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Street life, the magical possibilities that happen in public between strangers, with street and self, with walking inside of chaos and silence are always present in my writing.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
Always and forever, Miles Davis’ album In A Silent Way accompanies me through all stages.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I don’t have a typical first reader but Gargi Shindé supported this work through so many drafts and she allows me to send her all my writing. She’s a brilliant dramaturg among other things!

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Something musical. Whether playing an instrument or singing. Music is a universal and immediate language. All species respond and interact with music. I’d just wander the streets playing to pigeons and rats and moss and trees!

What are you working on currently?
I’m currently working on NYC Department of Education kindergarten applications for my child! The complicated, stressful process is how the department tries not to structurally make all schools equitable and good. So parents must play this tiny bloodsport to find what should be so simple and basic, a loving, caring, safe, and stimulating school setting.

What are you reading right now?
I just finished Valeria Luiselli’s novel Lost Children Archive for the second time. Talk about sound in a piece of literature, it blows my mind. I also read a series of books in a sort of circle, picking one up then another and reading them almost in a conversation. Right now I’m doing that with Healing Justice Lineages by Cara Page and Erica Woodland, New York Liberation School by Conor Tomás Reed, and Acorn by Yoko Ono.


KAYHAN IRANI is an Emmy-award winning writer, a performer, a cultural activist, and a Theater of the Oppressed trainer. In 2010 Kayhan won a New York Emmy award for best writing for We Are New York a 9-episode broadcast TV drama (WNYCTV) used as an English language and civic engagement tool for immigrant New Yorkers. In 2012 she was a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Researcher doing research in India for her play “Tree of Seeds.” Her one-woman show, We've Come Undone, toured nationally and internationally, telling stories of Arab, South Asian and Muslim-American women in the wake of 9/11. She has trained hundreds of groups in Theater of the Oppressed and participatory storytelling tools over the years, both nationally and overseas, in Afghanistan, India, and Iraq. She is currently building There is a Portal, an immersive digital experience, community pedagogy, and leadership development model that offers wayfinding tools to create networks of belonging through fracture.

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