Porochista Khakpour’s debut novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, was a New York Times Editor’s Choice, one of the Chicago Tribune’s Fall’s Best, and the 2007 California Book Award winner in the First Fiction category. Her second novel, The Last Illusion, was a 2014 “Best Book of the Year” according to NPR, Kirkus Reviews, BuzzFeed, PopMatters, Electric Literature, and many more. Among her many fellowships is a National Endowment for the Arts award. Her nonfiction has appeared in many sections of The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Elle, Slate, Salon, and Bookforum, among many others. She has been guest faculty at VCFA and Stonecoast’s MFA programs, as well as Contributing Editor at Evergreen Review. Born in Tehran and raised in the Los Angeles area, Khakpour currently lives in New York City.
“I loved this country with the lukewarm, watery, neither-here-nor-there love that you bestow upon any country when it’s the only country you know. I accepted it and never, until much later, considered that it might not accept me.”
Porochista Khakpour’s essay collection, Brown Album: Essays on Exile and Identity, is marked by her strong voice, relentless pursuit of honesty, and damnation of conventional narratives. I spoke with Khakpour about Iran’s volatile relationship with America, the importance of immigrant stories, and the endurance of hope.
Mina Hamedi: I think you mentioned on social media that you’ve been preparing for something like this pandemic, in a way, your entire life.
Porochista Khakpour: I think for a lot of chronically ill people this is not that different from how we normally live. The isolation and hypervigilance. I was starting to feel a lot better, and I was in Europe a few months ago, so it’s a sort of weird feeling to be here, like I am backtracking into all this.
MH: For my family, who are Turkish/Iranian, quarantining is for the good of the community, so even though they see each other constantly, they’ve been diligent about staying inside.
PK: It is absolutely different for people who are community-minded and make sacrifices for their neighbors and friends!
MH: I love this collection and the fact that you begin with Yeki Bud, Yeki Nabud, dedicating it to Iranians in America. This phrase immediately reminded me of childhood tales my father used to tell me. What does this phrase mean to you?
PK: At first, it seems like the standard, “Once upon a time.” All Persian tales begin with Yeki Bud, Yeki Nabud. The literal translation is eerie if you think about it, because it means, “There was one, there was none.” Haunting. So why is it a convention in our storytelling? It is part of what I’m exploring in these pages: aside from storytelling, it is about being called to be the one in your demographic to speak for a whole people and my discomfort with that. This is a focal point in my essays; even as they get published in various places and receive attention, I feel uncomfortable with having written them in the first place. The phrase is about the anxiety of representation for anyone who is seen as part of a new demographic. The story of our migration as Iranians is relatively new. Even though there are Iranians who immigrated to the U.S. prior to the 1979 Revolution, there were more during and after the revolution.
MH: You mention there are no other works you are known quite as well for, despite the number of times you tell people you’re a novelist.
PK: That is a typical problem for a lot of writers of color, where there is an assumption that their work is always going to be autobiographical. What do you do when your work is actually autobiographical here and there? It’s like what they were looking for and hoping for the whole time. It feels insulting sometimes. I wasn’t ever planning on writing nonfiction, I was a fiction writer first and foremost.
MH: But you go on to say that, because of these preconceptions, you were gifted a readership of people who look like you and share your story. Do you think that would be the case if you weren’t writing nonfiction? If you stuck to novels?
PK: Before my first novel, I was a journalist and hadn’t written any personal essays. By the time the second novel came around, I already had a reputation as an essayist. I would say the sales from my first novel and subsequent novels after that, always went up whenever I had a personal essay published. Nothing helped my reputation as a fiction writer more than my nonfiction writing, ironically. That is both a gift and source of frustration at the same time, because what if I had never written nonfiction? Would I even be published today? This essay collection is something that editors have asked from me since 2009, when I was at the height of writing my personal essays. Oftentimes, I was one of the only Iranian-Americans writing, say, a Nowruz essay about our New Year’s traditions. You just didn’t have an influx of Iranian-American voices everywhere. I was in uncharted waters, and there were a lot of decisions that had to be made, such as should we anglicize certain words? How much should we assume our readers know? Why would a reader care about this? Do I have to couch it in some other cultural context to make it reach Americans? There were a lot of considerations like that when I was writing over a decade ago. Now, happily, there are a lot of Iranian-American voices. Am I frustrated that sometimes it feels like we are all just writing the same essay over and over? Yes, and I think that is a huge problem with the industry, more so than the writers. I understand we have parallels in our experiences, but when I was writing those essays, the last thing I wanted to be was a part of a tradition, or to be pigeonholed. It was exciting to have the opportunity to take something that was fairly common in my experience and bring that to a general audience that somehow had just not paid attention to us prior to that.
MH: You mention the parallels. If we are writing the same story over and over, doesn’t it contribute to the conversation? Doesn’t it change it eventually?
PK: What happens when things are just repeated over and over is a kind of culture-building. You are reinforcing certain tropes that don’t necessarily need to exist. Sometimes writers are derivative of other writers to such an extent they create cultural misrepresentation. We have to be careful of that. We are obviously not writing in a vacuum, and we are often writing in a tradition, but you have to teach writers to have the confidence to say that their personal perspective and experiences are unique and valid and important, instead of having them cater to publications. They have to have more courage than that.
MH: My introduction to your work was through your book, The Last Illusion, in which Zal, a boy living in a rural Iranian village, is hidden away by his mother in a birdcage, where he becomes socialized to birds, eating seeds and squawking like the birds around him. . You read a passage about Zal, and that image stayed with me. In your essay, “Blond Girls,” you write that you were now your “bird boy, Zal.” I felt there was more to that comparison that you didn’t share—
PK: That book is my favorite and always will be. Prior to having my memoir come out, I used to say The Last Illusion was the closest thing I’d written to a memoir, even though there’s a fabulous thriller element. I deeply related to Zal, the bird boy. We’re now in the golden age of non-binary rhetoric, and though I don’t know if I’d use that word, I’d always felt a certain gender dysmorphia and disconnect from what I looked like versus how I felt when I was a young child. My father read me the story of Zal, and I thought of him as the ultimate outsider. I was definitely struggling with those feelings in America. Not feeling like part of a culture can also translate to not even feeling human, which was a constant feeling I had as a child. The adjective most used to describe me by everyone when I was a child was “weird.” I’m fine with that now, of course. The Shahnameh became a formidable text for me because I consider it the ultimate Persian masterpiece. The Last Illusion was a book I needed to write. It took two and a half years to get sold. Nobody wanted a Middle-Eastern woman of Muslim culture writing about 9/11 in a sort of fantastical mode. It was scary, but I think every day that book becomes more and more relevant as our modern world becomes more and more dystopian.
MH: You write, “American specimens of Iranian descent.” Some Iranians who move here become that, but you seem to have pushed against it?
PK: If there was a way to go back to Iran, or a possibility of a future there, I would go back. I have a deep sense of, “that is where I am from.” Not here. It has always felt foreign to me. I came here at a critical age and struggled to fit in. In my family, we also didn’t have the type of padding that prosperity provided a lot of immigrant Iranians who came to the U.S. What is important for me with this essay collection is giving voices to Iranians who aren’t upper class or middle class. We were lower class or lower-middle at absolute best, and that group is silenced by both Americans and Iranians. Iranians are ashamed when they think of an Iranian who doesn’t have money, and I’ve always had to be open about that. My parents were in their early thirties, and there was so much possibility for their future. They had stable jobs and were creating their lives. And they were rapidly uprooted. I can’t imagine being forced into a new reality that fast and be expected to make a future for yourself and your kids in a country that makes it clear and continues to make it clear that they don’t value Iranians.
MH: Your life is defined by the revolution, an event that you don’t even remember well. What does it mean to be defined by a trauma that isn’t directly yours? That belongs to your parents?
PK: I tried to represent my family as best as I could in this collection, but I know that they do not subscribe to the way I see things. My mom feels lucky to be in the U.S. and always has. I feel grateful that I learned English and that it is my primary mode of writing, and I doubt I would have the same comfort in Persian. But that could’ve been any country, any language. If we had moved to South Korea, I would’ve had the same relationship to Korean.
MH: Do you feel this book is as much for your parents? Do you honor them by not being quiet? By having opinions?
PK: I try not to think of my parents when I write. They are supportive, and they haven’t forbidden me from expressing their stories, though I feel that is a huge problem I see in the Iranian-American literary community. This obsessive devotion to our parents is beautiful, but if you are constantly worried about what your mother is going to think about your anecdotes, why are you writing? Devotion in the service of your art is understandable, but when it is out of fear, I have no patience for that. It is not how artists should think or operate. When I have students freak out about that, my face is usually blank. Is your main identity being your parents’ child? Disconnecting from my parents gave me a sense of freedom.
MH: You found your voice, but they are still afraid.
PK: They probably hope I will stop being a writer at some point. They were always aware that I wasn’t privileged enough to go into this field and wondered what the end game with my personality was. I think personality is a really important part of being a writer, certainly an essayist. You have to have a voice and a personality that people get to know—that is what will carry people through your work. I use humor as a coping mechanism, and anyone who reads me knows that. It is a bittersweet kind of humor, and to me it is an accurate depiction of who I am. It also helps to be older when you write essays—you know yourself better!
MH: Your humor is very visceral, and in your humor, the pain comes through. In “Islamic Revolution Barbie,” you mention trying to tan your Barbie, hoping she’ll be brown like you, and you realize that one thing worse than being a foreigner was being a foreigner and also a girl.
PK: That essay was originally written for Forbes. They were doing a series of essays on Barbie for the 50th anniversary, but my piece was killed last-minute. I was pretty naïve at the time, so I sent it to The New York Times. I laugh about it now. “Do you want an essay on Barbie?” An Iranian-American spin on Barbie?” And they said sure! It appeared in the op-ed section in a time when editors were really pushing for different voices. They were receptive to getting a pitch from me every few weeks that was uniform in terms of tone and perspective. They had a sense that they were building for me an audience and bringing something different to the op-ed section, which wasn’t known for literary essays.
MH: It is a great example of what I consider your voice to be. Very honest and funny. In the essay, “Camel Ride, Los Angeles, 1986,” your father takes you and your brother to the zoo: “My father no longer looks like my father. He looks like a Middle Eastern man I don’t know. He looks like a sheikh, a terrorist, a sultan, a mullah, a dervish, a camel jockey.” You realize you’re similar to him and feel embarrassed. You mention feeling in danger when your parents were with you. How do you feel now?
PK: My brother and I didn’t have accents but my parents did and they were really having a hard time, understandably, fitting in. My father was darker than the rest of us, probably what people would imagine a typical Middle Eastern man looks like. Being around him put us in a sort of jeopardy as children. My brother and I could pass for a lot of things, but my parents being so much more Iranian than American, there was always a feeling that they would be “telling on us,” no matter what, because they couldn’t hide it.
MH: Do you think that danger exists now?
PK: It does. I think it got intense again with Trump. If you think about how 2020 started, my biggest fear was not a pandemic but going to war with Iran. I think a lot of people thought that. Anti-Iranian sentiment was skyrocketing again, the way it did in the ‘80s. Every few years it seems to rise and fall.
MH: Do these waves electrify you to write or do more?
PK: Yes and no. In a way I continue to write, but I felt this collection would be the last time I wrote about these issues. I said what I need to say. I think I’d be more interested in doing reported pieces on Iran rather than personal essays.
MH: Your reporting style is evident in this collection. Especially in “Another Dingbat.” You discuss the nature of those kinds of buildings in California. This raises questions, naturally, about what the history of a place means to you, especially coming from a place like Iran.
PK: I think that is a big issue. Personally, America can’t compete with other cultures. It is presumably a land of many cultures, but those cultures are under attack. The “America” we are sold on is supposed to be the land for immigrants. But I don’t think you owe anyone anything when you’re in a country, working and contributing. They force you to prove you belong when in a sense, no one does.
MH: As someone who had to move around to survive, for your health, what does home mean to you?
PK: I don’t expect to live in one place forever. I think about that more and more these days. When is it time to move on? Will it be a circumstance forcing me out, or will I have the freedom to make a choice?
MH: Referring back to “Islamic Revolution Barbie” and writing these pieces that are humorous and specific, tell me about “The King of Tehrangeles.”
PK: Back when I was living in Santa Fe, I was writing a log of essays about Iranian-American issues. When the designer Bijan died, I thought, I’m the one who needs to write about this. Not because I participated in his culture, but because I was in opposition to it. I think it was one of the first essays I really think that drove the “class” point. The existence of the wrong kind of Iranian. I was a broke, struggling Rodeo Drive shop girl, working across the street from the famous, gaudy, Bijan store, and I had no connection to rich, west L.A. Iranian-American culture. Tehrangeles was toxic. The title of my next novel is Tehrangeles, and it is satirical in tone because it has to be. If I were to just talk about the reality, it would be extremely sad. The feelings of rejection I felt in those communities, even when my family and I innocently went to a Persian restaurant—we got severe looks because we weren’t wearing designer clothes. It was clear to Iranians who looked us up and down that we were not affluent, and it was pretty traumatizing. Bijan was a perfect symbol of Tehrangeles and the class difference among those who had to move here.
MH: You balance the essays toward the end of the book that are heavier in content with the lighter, Persian stereotypes or depictions.
PK: With this collection, you grow up with me as a writer. These essays were written within the last decade, my 30s. There is more enthusiasm in the tone of the earlier essays. Though they are not chronological, my editor was the one who curated the order, and I liked how she saw things. The later essays are darker and heavier. I think it makes sense that, as an artist, I would be tired and suspicious by the end of this journey.
MH: Do you find that you obsess over your writing?
PK: In my nonfiction, I’m divorced from issues of immaculate syntax and diction. With nonfiction, I understand that you are in service of ideas and facts and memories. With my literary fiction, I probably have a more niche audience and am interested more in the experimental aspect. I’ve learned not to be obsessive.
MH: I want to go back to that word you used, service. You use it in the essay, “How To Write Iranian-America.” What does service mean to you? Is it to ourselves or others?
PK: In that essay, I’m poking fun at that word. The only way I could continue to write these essays was if I focused on the concept of service. No matter how much I loved being a fiction writer, my short stories don’t stay with people as much as my essays do. People would tell me how important my work was to them in a way I’d never heard when it came to my fiction. So I realized, even though I had discomfort with being a representative for Iranian-Americans, there was a need for my voice and it was actually helping people.
MH: You have this beautiful line in “Portrait of the Artist as a Debut Novelist”: “Stories to breathe with, stories to breathe through.” What are some of those stories for you?
PK: The whole body of immigrant-American writing is very precious to me. The Persian works of the Shahnameh, Rumi, Hafez. Canonical western works, as well, because that was how I learned English. And of course, anything hyphenated; meaning, work by writers who have alternative perspectives.
MH: Yes, the pursuit of William Faulkner!
PH: Yes! 19th century Victorian writing, Shakespeare—canonical works for me were an entry into mastering English. I really believe in the power of stories. Especially now, in the pandemic, we see how much people need and value art, because that is all we have right now. People are realizing they want these products, these are how they process. In an emergency, people see the value of art and not as an extra but as something they need and want, daily.
MH: After “Portrait of the Artist as a Debut Novelist,” you shift into that hyphenation. In “Thirteen Ways of Being An Immigrant,” you mention the “old world” coming for you. Do you feel haunted?
PK: I do! So many Iranians don’t have a sense of their ancestors or who they were. But I was close with both grandmothers who never got to tell their stories in their lifetime. I regret not writing those stories down. In the “Brown Album” essay, I explore a lineage that would be named Afro-Iranian, but I’m missing so many details. I’m haunted by the idea of race in Iran. We talk about the ethnic mixes in Iran, but we don’t talk about race. Are Iranians white or brown? I made the conscious decision to identify as brown at a very young age. Iran, in a way, is a country like America in the sense that we have all races there. There are areas with their own cultures, distinct from another part of the country. They have their own music and legends and stories. But so few Iranians talk about this. I think that is why the title is what it is. I had the title before the final essay. I always wanted to write about race and being Iranian. I talk about race in the American context a lot, but I think it is important to interrogate it from an Iranian perspective too.
MH: You mention the mixed feeling you get when you see a woman in full burka in Brooklyn. It is both not wanting to belong to that image, but also shifting into a protective mode when outsiders threaten that image.
PK: I have a lot of critiques of Islam and Iranian culture, but at the same time, it is what I identify with. Those are my people. At the end of the day, I will always be on that team. I understand on some level why I am always asked whether I feel more Iranian or American. It is like asking me where my loyalties lie. It will always be Iran. It is my dominant culture, even in America. We spoke Persian, had Persian food, and had Persian customs.
MH: These are not character quirks. This is your identity. Just because your body is here, doesn’t mean you leave everything behind. You write in “Today is a Sunny Day,” “It took me a decade to realize that the only truths worth anything in the end were those very details that, in resisting narrative, told the real story.”
PK: Resisting the dominant narrative. You can take that statement and link it to white supremacy or the patriarchy, things that dictate all of our cultures, but I think that on a more personal level, there is a story of Iran and Iranian America that most Americans are familiar with: Poor women who were forced to wear veils and had to escape their horrible husbands, and they came to America and were liberated. This is the dominant narrative everyone is influenced by. To get to the real stories, to the stories that resonated with me, I had to break away from this narrative. It was not true to my experiences or even my mother’s. I had to step out in a way that wasn’t done before and say, “This is who I am. It won’t fit into your idea of who I am, and that is okay. You have to make that leap with me.”
MH: In the book’s last essay, you discuss Joan Didion, the supposed matriarch of anyone who is writing essays or nonfiction, and characterize her tone as, “Classically ice-cold, crisp, detached, precise, immaculate naturally—she was everything I could not be and was not.” There is something to be said about being emotional and invested. What do you think?
PK: She is a major literary matriarch, and an icon, but she was never mine. Whenever I had to study her work, I never felt as affected as others, and I had to investigate why. She is a brilliant writer, but to me, being a brilliant writer is not writing perfect sentences. I respect her honesty when it comes to her personal shortcomings, but I feel there is a repressed quality to her. I don’t think a lot of immigrants or people of color think, talk, or feel that way.
MH: Who are your icons?
PK: I mention Faulkner again, because it is important to point out that for me, Southern American writers, whether Black or white, write in emotional and fraught ways. The prose is almost biblical. I connect to that. I love Iranian icons like Sadegh Hedayat and Forough Farrokhzad. I love Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. The Chinese avant-garde writer, Can Xue, who is also one of my mentors. My heart is with writers who write about the immigrant experience and writers who are not afraid to be experimental.
MH: Which photos do you remember most from the actual brown albums?
PK: My family at the zoo. There is such an ‘80s tint to the photograph. It speaks to a time period in L.A. when the smog was out of control. We were the poor family just trying to find something to do. Birthdays, Persian New Year photos are all in that album, and how much we tried to look like we were thriving and enjoying life, doing better than we actually were. In the photos I’m wearing nice clothes, but if you look at the surroundings, the apartment itself is very grim and brown. There is nothing beautiful there. There are photos of us at Disneyland, Beverly Hills, or in other hyper-American settings. Now, when I look back at them, I focus on my parents and think about how hard it would’ve been at their age, the age I am now, raising kids and moving to a foreign country. So many odds against you.
MH: But there is hope, even in this last essay.
PK: No matter what you put people through, they cannot break your bonds to your roots, culture, and your ancestors. That is something that will always be there. That is the hopeful aspect to the book. This collection states, this is who I am, and I won’t apologize for it. You cannot erase me.