In her meticulously observed memoir, Concealed, Esther Amini describes growing up in Queens, the daughter of Jewish Iranian parents who emigrated from the city of Mashhad in the late 1940s. To avoid persecution, Mashhadi Jews practiced their religion inside, in secret; outside, they passed as Muslim. Amini’s mother never learned to read and was only 14 when she married Amini’s father. They fought often: “Mom, on a lifelong rampage, hell-bent on emancipation,” Amini writes; “Pop, trembling, pining for solitude and silence.” Amini, who later became a psychotherapist, is sympathetic to her parents’ struggles and honest about her own. Amini, who lives in New York, spoke with me recently over Zoom about the various forms of concealment she and her family enacted and what it was like to write her first book. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Could you start by telling me what the process of writing the book was like for you? Did you interview family members? Did you consult the diaries you kept as a girl?

I have vivid memories of my childhood, I think back as early as the age of 2. So I did draw from memories. I did keep diaries and journals as a child, as an adolescent. I also spoke to relatives who knew my parents back in Iran and lived side by side with them in this underground ghetto in the city of Mashhad. I have an older brother who remembered a lot—he’s 10 years older than me, and so he was able to let me know about, for example, the arduous journey from Iran to the United States, which involved being stuck in India for 13 months, and those memories were very vivid in his mind. So I drew from myself and from others, and then I also did a lot of research on Mashhad.

There’s a contradiction at the center of the book between the silence that your father valued so highly and your own need to speak, to become your own person. I’m curious how you first experienced the impulse to write.

This was a lengthy process. As a child, I deferred to silence. My father sanctified silence, and I wanted to be loved—he was a very strong character. I lived in silence to a great degree. Of course, I went to public school, and there I was expected to speak. And I did. But I was shy, and I was withdrawn, and I had trouble with words. But I was also an avid reader, and that you can do in silence. I would hide my books from my father, who prohibited books when it came to me—this did not apply to my brothers. I read books under the covers with a flashlight at night. It took decades for me to decide, I’m going to write their story, my story, and I’m going to defy Mashhad—which was what this was really about. Because my father came from a world that taught him silence was best for girls, that girls should not be literate.

How did you feel as you were writing?

Of course for anyone to write a memoir, it is difficult. You have to pull up memories that you’ve repressed, that have been uncomfortable, that are painful. But on top of that, there was another layer, and I was battling—silently, within my own mind—prohibitions. There was a very strong censorious voice that was basically saying, You dare not do this. You dare not give voice to the city of Mashhad, to your ancestors, to those women before you who could not read or write, to those men who could but dared not keep a diary or a journal, because they were pretending to be other than who they were, and they couldn’t leave evidence of the truth.

There’s a really moving scene where your older brother takes you shopping for your first bra, knowing that your mom “couldn’t take it on.” Why not?

I think my mother was very self-involved, and she wasn’t really capable of paying attention to me [or] my development, be it physical, be it emotional. That’s one possible answer. Another possible answer is maybe as I developed, and became a woman, maybe that was loaded for her. Because when she began to menstruate and have breasts, she was handed over to my father, 20 years older, and forced to marry him. I don’t think watching me develop as a woman was a very comforting, safe, secure experience. I think it’s complicated. I, of course, wasn’t analyzing it at the time. I was just so touched that my brother wanted to make sure I kept up with the other girls and looked appropriate and did it in such a sensitive and respectful way, where in no way was I ashamed or embarrassed.

You write very movingly about the fact that your mother never learned to read. What did it mean to you to produce a book, something she wouldn’t have been able to read?

I was certainly doing something she couldn’t do, and maybe on some level it was my gift to her. That is really what the book is about at the end—expressing my appreciation and my deep respect for my parents even though I show their flaws. I didn’t want to distort the truth. I wanted the truth to be out there, and within the truth there was deep gratitude. But it’s also exercising my muscles and saying, I am going to use my voice, and I will allow people to hear me.

You write how, as a child, painting helped ease your sense that language could be artificial. How do you see that part of you interacting with or contradicting the part of you that is a writer?

I think they can live side by side. I’m so fascinated by the unconscious that when I write, I try to pay attention to what’s not being said or what’s said that’s concealing the opposite. When I’m painting, I don’t have to think in terms of words at all. I can let myself regress to a place where it’s visceral and it’s sensational. You know, language is artificial. We have feelings first, as a child. Later we learn to find words that will label those feelings—and does a label totally encompass the range of an emotion we are feeling? It doesn’t. You know, you say, I’m angry—does angry really portray that visceral sensation, when you’re 4, 5, 6 years old and you want to burn the house down and you at the same time love your parents and hate yourself and are confused and have all kinds of sensations that don’t have language? And you say, I’m angry. Well—it’s artificial! I think that’s why people write. I think they’re always struggling to say it in a better way, in a unique way, because it’s hard to lasso an emotion and accurately explain it. But it’s the best that we can do.

Natalia Holtzmans writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of BooksBookforum, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and elsewhere.