“On a Quest for All the Words”: Sanaz Toossi’s Homesickness

If you were to peruse Sanaz Toossi’s Instagram you would find a recent headshot with the tongue-in-cheek caption, “i am an extremely serious artist.” She stares into the camera, head tilted, with a wistful gaze and with a gold necklace pulling focus from her dark black hair. The pendant, hanging on the gold chain, is Sanaz’s own name in Farsi.  

When asked about her views on language, Toossi said “I love that language fails us. It should.” She went on to describe her acceptance of the limitations of language. “I’ve tried to learn to be comfortable with the inability to fully encapsulate something”  

Toossi’s writing beautifully makes space for the limitations of language. When told by an interviewer that her use of language evokes a sense of homesickness, she responded “I’ve been looking for that term for a really long time because I think it defines all of my work. Homesickness.”  

Sanaz Toossi grew up in Orange County, California, always aware of her family's home in Iran. She was raised in a bilingual household, with parents whose native language was Farsi. “I was a weird theatre kid,” she said of her youth. “When I started writing plays, I was trying to bridge the gap between my Iranian-ness and my American-ness.” 

Toossi went on to earn an MFA in playwright from NYU and had two Off Broadway plays premiere this year, at the age of 30. Toossi’s first play to receive a major production was English, which was set to premiere in 2020, but was postponed to 2022 due to the COVID pandemic. Called “a rich new play” by the New York Times, English is set in Iran in 2008 and follows four adults in an English language class as they anxiously prepare to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (commonly known as TOEFL). One student, Roya, is in the class so she can learn English to speak with her granddaughter, who was raised in “The Canada” and doesn’t know Farsi.  

When the characters of English speak their native language, the audience hears it translated as English, without an accent. Whenever the students speak English, the audience hears English spoken with their accent. When asked about this theatrical approach, Toossi said “I'd played with this conceit before when trying to write a family drama. I grew up in a bilingual household, and I felt that for an audience to truly empathize with my [native Farsi-speaking] characters, I couldn't actually write dialogue in Farsi, because the Farsi would act as a barrier to understanding the characters' inner lives.” English was developed over multiple years, and Toossi’s perspective has shifted in this time. “I've changed my mind about this. I love hearing different languages onstage. It certainly does not keep me from engaging. And in a way, I was re-enforcing the notion of non-English as ‘other.’" Ultimately, her goal was to write a comedic and honest portrayal of the anxiety of trying to be understood. 

While Toossi considers English a comedy, she’s given each of her characters an ache of longing. This yearning is present in much of Toossi’s life and her work. “I am always so cognizant of what it means to celebrate when not everyone is there,” she said. “I’ve never had a second where I didn’t know that. Everything I write has to do with that kind of ambiguous loss.” 

Toossi’s next play to receive a professional production, Wish You Were Here (2022, Playwrights Horizons), centers just such around celebrations, where loved ones are absent. The play follows a tight-knit circle of female friends living in Iran during the Iranian Revolution. The women plan their weddings, talk about their bodies, and comfort one another through the anxieties that plague them. As time passes, the clique finds themselves scattered across the globe. 

In the final scene of Wish You Were Here, the character Rana (the first character to disappear), finally returns. She confides in her long-lost friend about her ongoing plague of homesickness. “One day you can have a home, and the next, as you are hurtling through the air, you will have to vanquish home.” 

Toossi uses both poetic and colloquial language to express her character’s longing. Their homesickness vibrates underneath every word they speak. “So [homesickness] is the thing that I will always write about because I will never have all of the words for it.” Toossi said. “I think I’m on a quest for all of the words.” 

 Emily Abrams