Free of Silence: Catherine Mwitta in Conversation with Ava Fathi

Ava Fathi

Ava Fathi, whose essay “On Silence, My Inheritance” appears in The Malahat Review’s fall issue #216, discusses journaling, building on a recurring theme, and the circular nature of trauma in her Q&A with Malahat Review volunteer Catherine Mwitta.

Read an excerpt of "On Silence, My Inheritance" here.


Ava Fathi is an emerging writer and undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, where she studies English literature as well as Middle Eastern Civilizations and Creative Writing. She is a proud Iranian Canadian and second generation immigrant dedicated to translating, preserving, and conveying the Iranian tradition—specifically to an English-speaking audience. "On Silence, My Inheritance" is part of a larger body of work exploring the "inheritance" of cultural and diasporic displacement, as well as immigrant grief and trauma.

In “On Silence, My Inheritance,” you write about the trauma you experienced as a child. How did it feel to write and reflect on these difficult moments in your life? Therapeutic?

I’m not sure that it was therapeutic as much as it was a direct result of therapy. Ironically, although I’ve always loved to write, I was never able to keep much of a diary or a journal or anything. I knew I had trauma, I knew I wanted to process it and move forward—but journaling my childhood experiences just never worked. Or maybe it was too hard to attempt it alone. Then, about two years ago now, I had what I call in my piece a “mental disappearance.” Around that time, I also began to realize how much my trauma and mental illness was not only affecting me, but my loved ones. It was a cycle that I myself was in the middle of perpetuating. And so I just… refused. I refused to pass that kind of pain and suffering down the line; one day, inevitably, to my kids. I decided to finally see a therapist, and through our work together I sowed the seeds for this piece. In therapy, I was forced to reflect (and yes, journal) those difficult moments in my life, one by one, and I started to really see how each critical moment shaped me into the person I am today.

I guess this is my longwinded way of saying yes, it was difficult to write and reflect on these moments. But it was also easy, because I so badly wanted to break free of the cycle.

There is a circular narrative in your memoir. Your mother tells you to "stop crying" in the car as you're leaving your childhood home at age 7. Then as an adult, when you’re driving, you tell your brother to "shut up" when he panics after a near-accident. When you were building the story's narrative, did you already have this foundation of a circular narrative, or did it evolve as you wrote?

It definitely evolved as I wrote. From the beginning, I wanted to write about the circular nature of trauma, how it grows and festers the more that it is silenced and suppressed, but I wasn’t sure which memories in particular I wanted to focus on. I started by writing out those memories that were clearest to me in my mind. I would focus on the tiniest details, like the flowers on the hem of my mother’s shirt, and let them guide me. Why did I remember those flowers in particular? What was so special about them? Where did I remember seeing them? The more specific my focus became, the more memories I unlocked. I realized car rides, for example, were a consistent theme. Not yet leaving one place, not yet arriving at the other—car rides are a state of limbo, a gap between destinations, where conversations can be had without really looking at the other person, at the driver. There’s a sense of disembodiment and rootlessness, or else transition. If one refuses to speak, the silence can be suffocating. If one speaks too loudly—too candidly—their voice carries. In my life, at least, the car ride has been the most ideal or perhaps the most common place to talk about difficult subject matter.

This story is about generational trauma, particularly the emotional suppression many children experience in their families. Was the choice to italicize words such as "liar," "fuck you," and "it would break him" a device to give yourself and the people in your essay some agency?

It was not an intentional choice, maybe, but definitely a subconscious one. I use a lot of italics in my writing, mostly because the emotions that I’m trying to convey to the reader are just overwhelming. This piece in particular is breaking at the seams with shame and rage and suffering. Italicizing adds not only emphasis, but a certain voice and sincerity that evokes a visceral, if not physical, reaction.

Are there any essays you would say inspired this piece? If not, who are the writers who inspire you more generally and/or whose work are you reading right now?

I actually don’t even read creative nonfiction. Although I clearly have a healthy respect for the genre, it’s just not the kind of reading I’m generally drawn to. I’m a big fan of what many would call “escapist literature.” Romance, Fantasy, Young Adult, the odd Historical Fiction novel. I’m especially interested in Fantasy that’s inspired or rooted in non-Western cultures and mythologies. Right now, I’m reading The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, a historical retelling of a famous Russian folktale. I highly recommend.

What writing advice would you give to writers who want to write CNF pieces that deal with heavy topics such as depression/PTSD/ trauma?

It’s all about timing. Sufficient time needed to pass for me to clearly reflect and process those traumatic moments. I needed to be able to separate myself from the events that took place. Also, be brutally honest! I was afraid for a long time that I would be hurting my parents by writing about some of these experiences. And maybe I did hurt them. But being free of silence, being free of the shame of silence, is so much more important than sparing anyone’s feelings.



Catherine Mwitta

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