Interviews with Young Iranians: Porochista Khakpour, Novelist

Porochista Khakpour

Porochista Khakpour’s Sons and Other Flammable Objects is the first great Iranian-American novel, breathless and overwhelmingly good. Its protagonist, Xerxes Adam, Iranian immigrant and son of Iranian immigrants Darius and Lala (nee Laleh) – whose relationship with his father is broken, who is lost in his vague notions of homeland – awkwardly and uncomfortably grows up in Los Angeles and flees father, mother, culture, all those vague notions of homeland, for college in New York and doesn’t look back, living from temp job to temp job, subsisting on Fruity Pebbles, alone in a crappy apartment in Lower Manhattan. After hearing a particularly harrowing story from his father, business as usual means total estrangement. Then the Twin Towers fall, and Xerxes’ already tenuous notions of self begin to crumble, too.

Maybe it’s because Khakpour is so young (she’s 29) and has lived some of this (though it’s no autobiography nor, thank God, another damn memoir) that she really gets it, what it can feel like to grow up Iranian in America. We asked her some (very long, in retrospect) questions about her book and her writing, and here’s what she had to say.

(Note: Khakpour is currently on tour. See her blog for event dates. She’ll be appearing in Los Angeles later this week: at Vroman’s in Pasadena on Friday, and at Dutton’s in Beverly Hills on Monday.)

Pars Arts: One of the things that struck me about this novel were the multi-layered isolations of its characters. Not only are the Adams foreigners in America, they’re foreign to each other, and the son, Xerxes, is so disconnected from himself. Though they live in Los Angeles, home to one of the biggest Iranian diaspora communities in the world, there are really no other Iranians in their sphere. (There
are very few other people they connect with at all, but I still found the lack of Iranian community striking.) Was this a function of your own upbringing in Pasadena, removed from LA’s heavily Iranian-populated Westside and Valley? Maybe I’m reading (or projecting) too much into it, but it also seemed to me like a comment on a fractured “Tehrangeles” and the loneliness inherent in immigration, even despite proximity to others who share your homeland?

Porochista Khakpour: I definitely agree with both your observations. Indeed, I felt even within the Tehrangeles setting, Iranians were and are in a sense quite alone. I have even observed certain Iranians who overcompensate—lose their Iranian identity altogether–to deal with this sense of isolation. I have a feeling, for instance, Beverly Hills High has many “popular” Iranian kids. . .but that you may not even know they are Iranian upon first glance or even after a good conversation. Then again, back to your first point–I grew up in Pasadena so can I really comment on the true Tehrangeles? Not really. We always only had at best one or two other Iranian families in the entire school district and it always felt a bit awkward trying to force ourselves to befriend them. I ended up being surrounded by mostly Chinese girls, so go figure! In New York, I still can’t find the Iranians. Maybe it’s just me!

PA: There is a fascination with names in this book – pronunciations, meanings in English and Farsi, historical burdens. For all his running from family and culture, his name is the one thing Xerxes can’t ever escape – an instant identifier to others and reminder to himself of who he is and where he comes from. Its nature is such that he’s constantly put in a position of having to explain himself and a history which doesn’t particularly feel like his – something almost any foreign kid can relate to. What does your own name mean, and what role, if any, has it had in perhaps forming an awareness of or sensitivity to the power of names, which comes across so strongly in Sons?

PK: My name is actually unusual not only to Americans but to Iranians as well. It is a very ancient Zoroastrian name–Porochista was the daughter of Zarathustra (aka, Zoroaster or Zartosht). It was very important for my parents to make sure my brother and I had “pure” Farsi names, which were ancient and representative of the glorious legacy of ancient Persia and all that jazz. But I always had a strange relationship to my name. For one thing, it was impossible for everyone–even my own relatives sometimes!–to pronounce. And so having a name that was un-utterable to most people completely shaped me. I was the kid with the weird name, therefore I got to be crowned “the weird kid.” My feelings toward it would shift a bit as I aged–during rebellious trouble-making phases, I took an almost subversive pleasure in how it would make people fumble and stumble over all its syllables. I’d let them fall. I thought it was badass. Only a few times in my life did I truly hate it–maybe during elementary school a bit when all my friends were named Lisa and Jessica. But I got over that fast. The worst part was always people wanting me to give me nicknames. Ugh. They have all royally stunk. Even now, when someone asks–or pleads, should I say–”Certainly you have a nickname I can call you?” I firmly say “NO, no way.” I just want to say, c’mon, you can do it, just follow how it’s spelled…

PA: I read your story, The 20-Year-Old-Virgin, when it was first published a couple of years ago and thought it kind of a victory for young Iranian women everywhere. You were so frank and so funny
about sex, a topic that’s treated with kid gloves (if at all) among Iranians. I realized, too, that the story doesn’t identify you as Iranian and your audience wasn’t necessarily an Iranian one, either, and liked the story more for that. Nonetheless, was it hard for you to write this piece? What kind of reaction did you get from it? The Iranian girl in me wants to ask: Did your parents flip out?

PK: Wow, I am always surprised that so many people read that piece. When I wrote it, I never imagined anyone would. I mean, I knew was a big site, but I was in a very different place. Basically, I was just really, really poor and I needed the money. I had applied to work there before and I didn’t get the job, but they seemed to really want me to write. And I really needed the money. My humor is often not the most lady-like, so I sort of spit it out and it turned out that it was perfect for that column. I think the piece is more about Sarah Lawrence College, my undergrad, than anything. Plus, the piece is also about virginity and safe sex–what could make a parent happier, right?! But honestly, I have no idea if my parents have read it. I don’t want to know. I tell my parents never to tell me if they read anything by me. It is a discussion I can’t handle having, being the immigrant daughter that was always out to please those guys!

PA: The bio at the end of that story mentioned that you had written one novel and were working on a second. Are you writing another novel now? If not, what are you working on?

PK: For years, I have been compiling sketches and notes for a second novel but I am torn which one to work on, really. It may be that I have three novels or something. When I do it, it will be fast, because I have a lot to work with in my notes. But these days, with less time on my hands, I am giving birth to short stories, mostly. I should have a short story collection soon.

PA: Speaking of bios, many of yours mention that Farsi is your first language. After growing up in America, does Farsi continue to be prominent in your life? Do you still think in Farsi, or read and write it?

PK: I definitely think in Farsi and converse with parents, brother, and relatives in Farsi. I read it and write it very poorly so I avoid it to spare everyone and myself the embarrassment.

PA: Your book is preceded by quotes from Sadegh Hedayat and Forough Farrokhzad; what influence has Persian literature had on your work?

PK: I grew up with a father who was obsessed with Persian literature, so my bedtime stories were often Ferdowsi… Those tales from the Shahnameh (or “Persian Book of Kings”) always enchanted me and shaped my imagination. Later I came across Hedayat who I thought was terribly punk rock–why was I reading all these French surrealists and existentialists and nihilists, all this Kafka and Sartre, when there was Hedayat? He is amazing. Farrokhzad I discovered much later and fell in love with immediately. She became my Plath substitute, in a way… I still have a lot to learn when it comes to Persian literature, however.

PA: I’ve also read you’re into metaphysical Victorian novels – which ones, what do you like about them, and how have they influenced your writing?

PK: I guess the main one I am talking about is Wuthering Heights, the only novel I can play that stranded-on-an-island-with-one-book game. I just got goosebumps thinking about it. It is one of the only books which I have reread over and over. And, well, aside from Bronte, I also am speaking of Melville and Hawthorne, I suppose. But don’t get me started, I will go on and on…

PA: What do you think of the Iranian woman memoirs that have emerged the last couple of years? It feels sometimes like there’s a ton of Iranian memoir for every piece of Iranian fiction, and almost everything produced in both these genres is coming from women, and is about women, though your book’s protagonist is male. Any theories on where the Iranian dudes are, both as writers and as characters?

PA: I have often wondered that and I have to say it was a small part of my agenda in writing this book. (I say “small” because I almost always use male protagonists or male perspectives, without any calculation.) But I was frustrated with a lot of the similarities in all the memoirs–their subject matters, their themes, their characters, their settings, their intended audience. I was just not interested in them. I kept thinking surely there is something more, something else? I couldn’t really find it, so it became more and more important to *do* it.

PA: Finally, here’s my cliche, writer-y question: How do you write? (Are you one of those writers who writes everything out longhand and then types it up on a computer?) What’s the process like for you, and where do your stories come from?

PK: I type on an iBook. I could do it no other way (well, I *could* use a PC.) I probably would refuse to be a writer if suddenly we all had to write longhand. (As a preteen I wrote a couple longhand novels though–and in pencil and on unlined paper!) Anyway, I have terrible writing habits–I don’t write every day and I spend too much time pretending to do research on the Internet, when really I am just playing. When I do really get into a piece of writing, it’s quite crazy–I work and work and work, nonstop for days even, taking few breaks, sometimes skipping showers, eating strange half-meals, sleeping erratically, the whole mess! I get lost in the feeling, the fever and frenzy of a purely mental storm. It’s quite something. I
miss it… just thinking of it inspires me to go try to recreate it right away, but you know, the second you ask for it, then suddenly you’re refreshing every few minutes and pillaging your way through eBay for a good half day.

[Photo: George Stilabower]

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great interview!

[...] made no secret of my fandom of Iranian novelist Porochista Khakpour, whom I liked before I even read her book. She’s one of very few people so far that has [...]


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