Author | New York
April 3, 2018
The following interview was conducted over email. It has been edited for length and clarity. Out of concern for the writer’s safety, their name has been abridged.
Going into as much or as little detail as you like, can you tell us about a time online harassment impacted your life and via what technologies and platforms?
Since my first novel came out in 2007, I’ve been dealing with some level of online harassment. I had a blog briefly in the year before my novel came out, as I couldn’t afford a website then, and there were cyber harassers from around the world there, too. Just being an Iranian public figure can attract these sorts, it seems—but it’s interesting that it happened to me even before [the release of my novel].
How has online harassment impacted your writing life? Have you found yourself refraining from publishing on certain topics or avoiding certain events, literary gatherings, and/or corners of the internet?
At times, I’ve been very anxious. I’ve had to act “weird” in ways people don’t understand. I’ve had to ask people to come with me to events. Because I’m also partially disabled, it can make me feel all the more vulnerable. At times, I’ve said no to certain publications because I feel that many aspects of my identity have lured harassers, and I simply can’t take anymore.
You’ve been forthcoming about the fact that online harassment has taken a heavy toll on your mental health and wellness—an act of honesty I see as brave and necessary to this conversation. In what ways has your mental wellness been compromised by online abuse, and what are some tools you’ve developed for coping and thriving?
It has made me very anxious and depressed at times, and I’ve had to seek therapy, meditation, the help of friends. I never asked to be a public figure—it just happened to me, largely through the internet, which I also can’t quite quit for so many reasons.
How have various support communities helped you in combating fears of intimidation, career backlash, and concern for your physical safety?
Online communities have always been helpful because so many people online know how this feels.
Did you ever have to turn to law enforcement during your online abuse and, if so, were they helpful?
I did go to law enforcement more than once, which was hard because I have a historic aversion to that kind of authority. But in both cases, I was advised by others to do so and made to feel that others could be in danger if I did not report it, especially since I teach. So I did. There are different theories on this. In a [presidential] administration like [Donald Trump’s], in a climate like this, it’s hard to say if this would be the right thing [for certain writers] or not. It’s troubling and of course [requires] measuring your own privilege.
Is there value in confronting one’s online trolls? What are your feelings about “naming and shaming” or the now clichéd advice, “Don’t feed the trolls”?
I often think “don’t feed the trolls” is outdated. I think a lot of trolls, MRAs [Men’s Rights Activists] for example, first got their strength from being ignored. That was how their marginalization worked: They believed they would be ignored, and so they created these societies in some fringe and pretended the rest of us were firmly in some mainstream that had all the power. But these days, I do find myself trying to ignore them. I’ve become pretty skilled in learning who might be dangerous and who might not be. It is very time-consuming though, and I wish my life did not include this.
To what extent do you think social networking sites should be held responsible for online harassment that takes place on their platforms? How much does “free speech” need to be taken into account?
I think Twitter has been a great space for the most part, as it is full of women of color—I feel much safer existing there. However it’s also where our abusive, maniacal president is. It is also where Nazis are allowed to roam for way too long. It’s where I initially encountered MRAs, around Gamergate. And I’ve been harassed on all the sites. All of them. Even Instagram. All I can do is continue being myself and keep tabs on potential problem people at best. I can also talk to others. One of the best things that happened to me was that the trolls put me on block lists. I was on some version of the Social Justice Warriors’ block list that came out years ago, and it was such a relief to be blocked by them. The harassment went down by a lot. But I’m starting to realize that during the  election, a lot of my harassers may have been Russian bots—this is something to figure out still because many of these “people” imitate others. It’s all very unclear to me right now and creates some degree of anxiety. Also, some harassers of my friends have now poured into me, and I’ve seen all sorts of insidious behavior.
In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned having experienced rape, harassment, stalking, manipulation, and cyber harassment at the hands of too many men in the literary field. In light of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, what advice do you have for spurring collective action in the literary community to combat injustice and hate in online spaces?
I think we won’t have any progress until white supremacy and toxic masculinity/the patriarchy are addressed properly. We are again in the middle of it, and often it feels like we can’t just forget that it matters this time around. And we need to include everyone in this discussion. I think [cisgendered, heterosexual men] need to do a lot more in educating and supporting other cishet men. I think white people need to do a lot more work, too.
At PEN America, we see online harassment as a free expression issue—a behavior that interferes with and sometimes even succeeds in silencing the voices and creative expression of writers. What’s your advice to writers out there who have been targeted by online abuse, especially writers who may be in more financially or professionally precarious positions?
I would beg writers to take care of this in some way and not ignore it. Even just reaching out to some other writers who have been through it. The worst thing is silence or assuming it will go away. With many of my cases and my friends’ cases, nothing went too far, but the fact that we were all aware of it was something. Just knowing that others know [about online harassment] is something, too.