News and Interviews

Annahid Dashtgard on Her Exploration of Belonging, Racial Justice, and "the Glorious Messiness" of Being Human

Orange banner image with photo of author Annahid Dashtgard and text reading '"Where were the stories—ANY  stories—sharing meaning from  everyday life experiences  in Brown skin?" Interview with Annahid Dashtgard'

As CEO of Anima Leadership, Annahid Dashtgard has helped countless organizations create more inclusive and equitable workplaces. And one of the most powerful ways to create those needed changes, both in workplaces and in all other environments, is storytelling. 

In Bones of Belonging: Finding Wholeness in a White World (Dundurn Press), Dashtgard shares personal, powerful stories that offer a place for many women of colour, immigrants, and other underrepresented groups to see their experiences brought to the forefront. Witty, insightful, and alive on the page, Dashtgard's tales both challenge and entertain readers of all backgrounds as they chronicle a life spend searching, teaching, and sharing in pursuit of a better, less divided world.

Exploring just what belonging truly means, Dashtgard looks at both the macro—a country, a culture—and the personal—a marriage, a friendship, even belonging in our own bodies—to reveal a vision of both how it feels to live in a pervasive culture of whiteness, and what a more inclusive future could look like. 

We're excited to speak with Annahid today about Bones of Belonging as part of our My Story memoir interview. She tells us about growing up trying to find herself in the stories and books of white women, how her previous memoir helped her build a reserve of resiliency for the nerve-wracking process of sharing personal stories, and how nonfiction has the unique power to take readers deep into "the glorious messiness of what it means to be human."

Open Book:

How did your memoir project first start? Why was this the right time to tell your story?

Annahid Dashtgard:

As a Gen X woman, I came of age through the stories of other women, all white women. I would read these books, often late at night, as validation for what I was starting to experience as a young woman in what was still very much a man’s world. I learned it was okay to be angry, to look for ways to be connected to my body, to acknowledge the need for spirituality. I found ways back to myself through their words, but I never was able to touch the core wounding... to acknowledge the impact of being a racial outsider. Where were the stories—ANY stories—sharing meaning from everyday life experiences in Brown skin, in an immigrant body, in a Brown immigrant female body? I wrote this book for all of US, and to centre meaning-making from a non-white vantage point.


Did your memoir change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? Was there anything that surprised you about the process?


My book stayed true to its earliest vision. Everyone has a different writing process and for me, I have to see the skeleton outline before I can cast the bones. I knew early on this book would be on different themes related to belonging—to a country, in a marriage, even in our own skin—with the ten major stories connected by smaller vignettes in between.


What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


When I’m in the thick of a book, I can write anywhere for any length of time. I take all the time I can steal from the rest of my busy life. I often write later than the next day thanks me for, and with more red wine than my body can easily digest. Writing feels like a throwback activity to before times when it was done at a desk, quill in hand, wine goblet nearby, late at night by candlelight... When I write at night, I most deeply feel connected to my own voice, perhaps because I’m continuing this ancient tradition.


Did you experience any anxiety about making a part of yourself public in this way? If so, how did you or do you cope with the vulnerability of publishing a memoir?


This is my second book published in the form of a memoir. The vulnerability is always there, but this time around it is significantly less frightening. My resiliency muscles have grown stronger: I know more of the ropes and people now, I’m more confident in my writing voice, but mostly, mostly, because I’m clearer on my purpose for writing. My purpose anchors me when I start to hit the fear spin-cycle and allows me to hit pause (even if temporarily!).


Personal essays, memoirs, and creative nonfiction in general have becoming particularly in demand and loved by readers in recent years. Why do you think creative nonfiction is more popular than ever?


I think in an increasingly polarized and technologically driven world, we are seeking connection more than ever, and as it ever has, story is the universal glue. When we feel alongside someone reading their story, it is validating, comforting... and expanding. Somehow, story dumps us right back in the glorious messiness of what it means to be human.


When you're reading memoirs, what stands out to you and makes a really great book? Were there any published memoirs you found inspiring structurally or otherwise while working on yours?


Memoir has to be vulnerable, non-preachy and somehow link the ordinary to the transcendent. I really like Anne Lamott for the seemingly nonsensical blend of profundity and deep irreverence in everyday life moments. I appreciate the authentic vulnerability demonstrated by Cheryl Strayed in Wild, Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love and Glennon Doyle in Untamed. I loved Sherman Alexie’s use of the quilt metaphor to stitch together each of the elements in his book You Don’t Have to say You Love Me, where form reflected content, and Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries which was almost a stream of consciousness reflecting on love in the face of ancestral trauma. I appreciate Omar Pamuk’s book Memories of Istanbul and Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family as homages to homeland. As long as the voice is real and the writer takes me into their story, I will read any memoir.


What are you working on now?


A handbook for Leaders of Colour!


Annahid Dashtgard is CEO of Anima Leadership, a racial justice consulting firm. Over the last two decades she has worked with hundreds of organizations and leaders to create more inclusive workplaces. Her first book, Breaking the Ocean: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion and Reconciliation, met rave reviews. Toronto is her chosen home.

Buy the Book

Bones of Belonging: Finding Wholeness in a White World

Sharp, funny, and poignant stories of what it’s like to be a Brown woman working for change in a white world.
I take a deep breath, check my lipstick one last time on my phone camera, and turn on my mic. It’s about ten steps, two metres, and one lifetime to the front of the room. “Hello,” I repeat. “My name is Annahid — pronounced Ah-nah-heed — and shit’s about to get real!”
In a series of deft interlocking stories, Annahid Dashtgard shares her experiences searching for, and teaching about, belonging in our deeply divided world. A critically acclaimed, racialized immigrant writer and recognized inclusion leader, Dashtgard writes with wisdom, honesty, and a wry humour as she considers what it means to belong — to a country, in a marriage, in our own skin — and what it means when belonging is absent. Like the bones of the human body, these stories knit together a remarkable vision of what wholeness looks like as a racial outsider in a culture still dominated by whiteness.