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Listen to This One: Man Choubam

by Bianca Giaever
January 28th, 2020

Sharon Mashihi is a radio producer and one of the editors of The Heart podcast. This month I’m featuring a radio piece about a Persian self-help cruise she took with her mom, hoping to improve their relationship. The piece is called Man Choubam, which translates to “I Am Good.”

I called Sharon in Los Angeles to talk about her new life there, how she wants to be a mother, and how she often feels like a bad daughter. We also caught up about her upcoming podcast Appearances, which will be out later this year from from Mermaid Palace and Radiotopia, a fictional story about an Iranian family.

—Bianca Giaever

BIANCA GIAEVER: So I’m wondering, did your mom ever end up hearing Man Choubam?

SHARON MASHIHI: Not to my knowledge.

BG: Does that make you sad?

SM: Yeah. But I’m also scared she’ll listen and be hurt.

BG: Was there a period of time where you were trying to get her to listen?

SM: No, and I regret that. When the piece was going to come out, I said to her, “I’m scared for you to listen, I’m worried you’ll feel exposed.” Then I scared her, and made her not want to listen. If I’d been braver, I’d just be like, here’s my boyfriend and here’s my radio piece.

BG: So we’ve both made films and made radio. Which do you prefer, both as a consumer and a maker?

SH: As a maker, radio. As a consumer, film.

BG: Me too. That’s because radio is easier, I think. Do you see film as the aspirational medium?

SM: I struggle with having the courage and the vision to direct film. When I found radio, I thought it worked much better with my personality, because it’s more iterative. I try something out, it doesn’t work, and I adjust it. 

BG: Yes, that’s much cheaper to do in radio. There are people who make films iteratively, but it’s very stressful. 

SM: Yes, my friend Josephine Decker is iterative. But she has the fucking balls to be that way. I have historically lacked that courage. I hope to step into it.

BG: Do radio for a few decades, then turn to film.

SM: But also, I’ve always been a writer. As writers are, you’re a writer from the time you’re six or seven years old. This is why it was incredible when my friend introduced me to This American Life when I was twenty-four. I’ve always written for my own voice to read the writing out loud. I never liked my words just on a page, I’d always be like, can i read it to you. in that sense I do prefer radio.

BG: Do you still listen to TAL?

SM: Very rarely. In part because my ears are tired. The last TAL piece I loved was Ten Sessions. What was yours?

BG: Five Women and LaDonna, because they’re about character.

SM: You love character! As a human moving through the world, it’s so obviously the thing that motivates you.

BG: Yeah, reading profiles was what sucked me into journalism.

SM: When I was in my mid-twenties I kept trying to hire my friends to write a New Yorker-style profile about me. I didn’t have anything going on, so it would have been like “Sharon wakes up in the morning and maybe sends out a resume.” 

BG: Why didn’t they do it if you were going to pay them?

SM: Nobody in my life at that time had follow through. Nor did I. But I really had that fantasy.

BG: I know you’re a fan of performance art. How has that influenced you?

SM: I’m interested in interactions that feel heightened. I like when somebody has made decisions about how the interaction is going to go, and how those decisions allow for something new to happen. I also really like religion. I like religious experiences. 

BG: Are you religious?

SM: I don’t subscribe to a particular religion, but I particularly like Zen Buddhism. I like that everything has a form: the way you walk into a room, the way you eat breakfast, the prostrations.

BG: What are the rituals in your life?

SM: I must have talked to you a lot about my friend Georgia. She is one of my closest and favorite friends. If I read about her in a book she’d be one of my favorite characters. She creates ceremonies for people, and I asked her to make a ceremony for me. I now do the Georgia rituals two times a day, and one time per week.

BG: What are the rituals?

SM: When I first talked to Georgia, I was having tremendous anxiety working on Appearances. I was in a state of terror and misery. She said, what’s really in your heart? What do you really want? And I was like, what I really want is a child. I want to have a child. 

I’ve been carrying this idea that I’m going to have a child by myself after Appearances, but I have a fear that I can’t do that unless Appearances is good. I also have a fear that it’s going to harm my family because they’ll feel exposed. 

She realized that there’s this trifecta of me feeling scared: that I can’t have a child unless my show is good, that making it is being a bad daughter, and that having a kid alone is also being a bad daughter. All these things are blocking each other.

So in the ritual I have three objects: one for my mother, one for my art, and one for my motherhood/future child. I do this prayer about loving and cherishing my mother, my future motherhood, and my art, and how all three are connected. My favorite line is “I care for them all when I care for one.” I think of making Appearances as a doula for having a child.

BG: Where did this idea come from that Appearances needed to be good for you to have a child?

SM: Kaitlin [Prest, a friend and collaborator] thought that having a child was my way of procrastinating from being an artist. She thought I should have an art baby before a real baby so that a baby wasn’t the millionth thing derailing my career as an artist. Also, I have a history of not finishing work, and as my friend she wanted to see me finish something. She doesn’t care if Appearances is good. I keep having the idea that I’m not a worthy person unless the work is good. That I have no right to happiness unless the work is good. That I’m not allowed to have a boyfriend unless the work is good.

BG: Seems pretty common. So how is the production of Appearances going?

SM: I’m sad that it’s not better. It’s a mess, and it’s hard to understand. It needs to come out soon and it’s nowhere near ready. But in terms of going, I am in a groove of working on it steadily. Georgia got me out of the block.

BG: Do you think Kaitlin [Prest, your collaborator] is a better worker than you day to day?

SM: It’s so complicated because she’s a workaholic. She works to the detriment of her own health, late into the night. I mean she is a better worker. A way better worker. There’s no question., but I wouldn’t be able to survive her way nor would I want to. I’ve barely missed a day of writing in my journal since I was seventeen. I barely miss a day of meditating. I can’t work past 7 pm ever.

BG: What do you think drives her?

SM: She’s in love with the work. It’s the most important thing to her. We’ve also talked about a sense of entitlement. Sometimes I’ll say, why is so-and-so doing better than me? And she’ll say you don’t want it badly enough. So-and-so wants it really badly. Then we’ll talk about how so-and-so grew up as a white American, with a certain entitlement to privilege and success. I did not grow up feeling entitled to be an artist, or with a strong sense of self worth. Is it that I haven’t  wanted it badly enough, or is it that I haven’t  felt entitled, haven’t felt  invited to the party? Because I feel like I do want it badly.  And more and more these days, I feel like I’m invited to the party. I’m struggling to catch up.

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