By Taggert Smith
Heather Raffo’s 9 Parts of Desire is a brilliant one-woman play, in which Raffo portrays nine different Iraqi women she’s interviewed in an interwoven series of scenes. While initially seeming an odd choice, it is through this form that the play develops one of its core themes–the ability of the artist to express oneness and unity across the experiences of various people and to be the medium for stories that otherwise wouldn’t be told.
The play itself was inspired by and heavily features an Iraqi artist, Layal, a nude painter who was bombed in the war. Her work, often depicting herself, nude, alongside trees or other elements, is controversial, and not seen by many for the meaning it carries. The paintings are meant to convey artistically the stories of other women without having to show their bodies, as she describes her work in Raffo’s interpretation, “I paint my body / but her body, herself inside me. / So it is not me alone / it is all of us / but I am the body that takes the experience” (8).
Often, she paints the trauma of other women they may not be able to express themselves. For example, she paints a woman who was eaten alive by Saddam’s son’s dogs after she spoke about her abuse at his hands in the form of a tree branch, but the branch is beautiful and untouchable, hung high above the snarling dobermans.
Over the course of the novel Layal’s role as a conduit or microcosm of the female Iraqi experience is reinforced as in the scene leading up to her death, she repeats lines said by the other 8 women in the play, as if all of their voices existed inside her, and are being brought out and revealed in this moment of trauma.
The scarring left on the country of Iraq as a whole but especially Iraqi women by the regime and the war created a shared experience, a connection through which the tragedy and experience of so many different women could be shared. Out of this trauma, within the story through Layal, and on a metatextual level through Raffo, art is what illuminated this connection and brings these stories to a caring audience.
In performing this play, it is Raffo’s words and expression we see, and she takes artistic liberties, but she is truly a conduit for the stories of the many Iraqi women she’s interviewed. Like in Layal’s own work, it is “all of [them]” but Raffo’s is “the body that takes the experience” (8). By playing every character she subconsciously sends the message articulated by the Mullaya, “my body but her body / herself inside me / why do you look at us as we have two hearts? / we have only one heart,” and this expression of unity, empathy, and solidarity is one of the most beautiful things about the play, and a powerful tool with which to demonstrate the tragic experiences of Iraqi womanhood (63-64).
A review on the back cover by Gloria Steinem, a renowned feminist and journalist, declares simply, “the female half of Iraq has come to America,” and between the 9 unique yet connected characters Raffo interweaves, the often contrasting pictures of womanhood, that is truly the sense one gets while reading.