My most valuable contribution to literature is probably this: a couple years back, I used the NYU English Department copier to run off some manuscripts for an impoverished friend. I had read her book in email attachment (subject line: “the nov-hell”) and thought it was great. At the time, Porochista Khakpour was freelancing for various magazines and websites and appearing at parties in cool t-shirts. Flash forward to the present: Sons and Other Flammable Objects has been well received almost everywhere (here’s the New York Times’ review), and I’m proud to have been one of the little people who helped along the way. I urge you to read it! Or to attend her reading this Thursday, February 21st, 7:30pm, at Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
This past week, Porochista and I conducted the following email interview, in which she is characteristically astute, honest, funny and indefatigable:
Asad Raza: One of the most remarkable traits of Sons and Other Flammable Objects is its tonal assurance, especially for a first novel. From the first pages, it’s just so evident that your writerly voice is confident, stylistically developed, and unique. It hooked me immediately; I remember that first night, thinking, “wow, here’s a real writer.” But it also made me wonder: how long did it take to evolve your narrative style, and how self-conscious a project was that? Or do you believe it was somehow, mysteriously, there all along?
Porochista Khakpour: I think I have been inconsistent with my answer to this question, so I feel a little nervous. It’s a very good question but the answer could be black or navy–depends on distance, light, eyes, etc, you know? So I have two answers that are close, but just off: on the one hand, anyone who has spoken to me for a while can attest to the fact that the “voice” is actually my voice, really. I am breathless, excursive, complicated, full of twists and turns. I am not just a literary maximalist but a conversational one, and probably one just in general. On the other hand, when I wrote the novel I was very frustrated with “immigrant fiction” and “multicultural lit” and even specifically the prose of Iranians of the diaspora. I felt very alienated from the literature that I was supposed to be close to. I had no patience for all the lazy stereotypical stories and these stock characters and these very familiar and generic themes… with little attention, whether in the composing or editing, to the actual art of fiction. It was almost as if publishers were thinking, well, this is literature for people with accents, who must not speak good English… therefore it will be written by people who don’t write good English! Do you know what I mean? So when I began writing Sons and Other Flammable Objects, I made “style” a priority. Some of the book is quite stylized, in fact, and occasionally experimental. This is the type of writing I like and the sound of the voices in my head as well–I don’t think in conventional linear narrative, so how could I create it authentically? So I wanted to write a book I would want to read, I guess–written by someone who was from my part of the world, but yet pushed the prose beyond the limits of what “my people” had done in this country yet. The truth is, they could have done it and could be doing it, who knows, but the publishers may have dumbed them down or picked the easier outs–the more clean, simple, pedestrian road–and all we have is this chick lit for the ethnic set, essentially. I wanted someone who was not even interested in Iran or 9/11 or Middle Eastern men to be able to read the novel and just enjoy the actual writing. And I guess I was lucky to not have to actually invent some new style to embark on for that mission–I kept it true to the same voice I used in writing crazy stories about chaos theory (in grad school, I was a writer of painfully pretentious metafictional sci-fi-math lit), the same voice I speak in, email in, text in… I am a one-trick pony, in some ways, but luckily my trick is kinda unique!
I stepped away from this email to go to the bathroom and I had a thought to add: also, I think I just told myself to be champ up already and be that “real writer” you are talking about–I mean, the first sentence I wrote is the first one you see; same with the last sentence. I took on that role. Artists are performers/entertainers as well as some other things, but if you’re telling someone, here, go on a ride with me for about 396 minutes of your life (roughly what I think it would take to read 396 of my pages), you better have a good sense of how to steer that vessel. A writer that doesn’t have confidence from word one, is a sinking ship. Maybe that is the difference between some of the writing one does in college and what makes it to print.
But I also suspect you connected with the tone and liked it but that it may not be for everyone. I mean, it may have confidence but it just may not be your kind of ride. Some people like boxing matches, some people like piano recitals. I tried to lay it all out for them from the first sentence so they wouldn’t be misled. And that may be part of the problem with the less literary and more commercial fiction in this country—and some of the aforementioned immigrant fiction offenders fit in here–it wants to be for everyone. I don’t want my writing or my very self, for that matter, to be for everyone. SOFO and I both don’t like that sort of IKEA school of happy homogenized universality–we’d rather be more alone in the bad weird kids’ corner. We are not well-adjusted and proud…
Asad Raza: Thanks, that was almost too rich; I’m not sure which of these many points and paths to take up, but how about this: if your literary “voice” is your “real” voice–and I agree, I can often hear your voice when I read you–if, then, your narrator is you, to a degree, then what about your characters? Your narrator delves quite omnisciently into the subjective experience of two characters who are not you at all, but who strike me as fully convincing. Care to say anything about how you pulled that off, where all this imaginative insight into these lives came from?
Porochista Khakpour: Sorry about that lengthy and late answer. I will now attempt to answer this is in a punctual and brief manner! I have always either written from the perspective of or about men. Particularly middle-aged men. I don’t really know why this is, but I suspect it has to do with the fact that I always a reader of the Western canon (and by this i mean, my reading list was often very in sync with Harold Bloom’s suggested one, consisting of 19th century European writers and early 20th century American ones) and that literature was primarily written by and about and for men. I have also always been fascinated by men in crisis particularly and this novel, one could say, is also about Xerxes’s quarter-life crisis and Darius’s mid-life one. So that was very natural for me. The female characters seem more invented and, say, artificial (in their composition) than the males. I have always been very interested in the life of my father and my brother as well, I have to admit. And I have generally been friends with men older than myself. So there is that.
I had never written about Middle Easterners, or speifically, Iranians, before. But I wanted to write about them just like I would about men of any ethnicity–and in that sense, make their experiences universal… rather than exploring the psyche of a sort of Orientalized, marginalized people that has been done to exhaustion and caricatuture, I’d say. “Otherness” was not really a muse here. Men often feel like the blankest, cleanest slate to me—women seem more complicated and “loaded.” Having said, I am now working on a new novel that seems to feature an entirely female cast–a real challenge for me. I seem to feel very comfortable writing about fathers and sons… but mothers and wives and daughters feels like a complete adventure. Women’s constitutions, their internal make-up, their struggles, their voices, their multi-layers–it all feels strangely new to me. And, again, I am dealing with archetypal feminine models–at least, the bits that I find really true to “flesh and blood” womanhood—rather than woman of the “other” classification, in spite of the fact that some of my female subjects in this next book do come from foreign countries.
I also never worry too much about being “real.” I am generally not so interested in psychological realism, or at least I don’t start from that place. I begin with the prose and style and voice. What excites me about literature is that you are tackling consciousness and because of the very scope of the universe, you have infinite possibilities for infinite consciousnesses, so who’s really right in saying a character is unbelievable? I can tell you the story of many real people whose stories seem unbelievable. History is most markedly riddled with all moments where men have stepped out of character, after all. The real task as a writer is to write it well and that’s why the prose becomes my obsession–because if you nail that, then you can go pretty much anywhere with character.
Asad Raza: Yes yes yes. You’re talking about one of the things that really attracts me to S.O.F.O.: your approach to “Iranianness,” or “Middle Easternness, ” or “otherness” generally. To be a bit highfalutin’ about it, I think you don’t see these categories as ontological, but as epistemological, rooted in experience rather than essential being. Or, to anecdotalize: coming from America, where ethnic authenticity is often a fixation, I remember being totally struck by long-ago visit to a restaurant frequented by the cool in East London, called Viet Hoa. It served great, spicy, unattenuated Vietnamese food in this plain, white room with high ceilings and no ethnic signifiers or romanticizing paraphernalia, no paper lanterns or murals of Saigon markets or stone mini-waterfalls. I just found that so freeing, that feeling that any kind of food could and should be presented under conditions of what I’ll call, for lack of something better, modernism, or maybe contemporaneity. And your attempts to universalize the experience of your characters, rather than play up their special ethno-religious uniqueness, excite me the same way (do you mind that I’m comparing you to a restaurant?). This, to me is the work our generation is and should be doing. It’s about moving two steps past the East/West dichotomies of the sixties and one step past the eighties’ fixation on hybridity. So I think you’re developing newness there–but I also want to hear more about your antecedents, the influences that got you here…
Porochista Khakpour: First of all, I think I have been to that very East London joint. It was good. So, no, I don’t mind.
This novel is one of the first truly Iranian-American novels (notice I say “novel”—memoirs are a whole other monster when it comes to my people). There is some hyphenates-pioneering going on, for sure. And this is not to brag or establish myself as an innovator but just a fact that has more to do with circumstance than anything. The Iranian diaspora came into being largely post-Islamic Revolution, so that would make anyone who truly owns the Iranian-American tag in their early 30s at most. I was 3 when we left Iran and just became a US citizen at 23–I just turned 30. The children of the revolution are now just old enough to be able to crank out a novel. And I’m fairly young for a novelist, so it makes sense that I’d be one of the first and with that first comes a new sensibility. For instance, I think my novel is just as American as it is Iranian. Many of the Iranian writers who were writing in English before me would have never advertised this. They were more in sync with their publishers in Orientalizing their image and in part buying into that Orientalized image–they were like all that auto-exoticization that certain ethnic eateries inflict on themselves that you were talking about. My allegiances to a homeland are fairly split down the middle—these days I may feel like a reluctant American, but I went through mich of my childhood in the Eighties as a reluctant Iranian. So how do you represent this? Well, local color becomes a bit of an issue. Also, my novel is not just bicultural but bicoastal. So it’s all over the place–sure, I have some Farsi words and mentions of some Persian foods and traditions and holidays, but I also have American TV shows and punk rock music and the Manhattan landscape and Angeleno scenery . . .all that culture to me in a way should cancel itself out and become its own thing (like Viet Hoa, I guess!) Of course, I thought about these things more deeply after the thing was written. I’m not sure how conscious I was of it all as it was being written. Maybe this newness has to do with the new identity of the writer—I mean, many interviewers and reviewers and even just people who met me along the way, have been confused by who I am. Here is this girl with the impossible multisyllabic hyperethnic name, with a bit of a Valley Girl accent (maybe tinged with a slight New York edge), maybe a bit eccentric in personal style. . .I have a lot in common with lots of plain old American suburban trash kids, but also kids that went to fancy liberal arts schools, but also kids from immigrant families, but also kids from immigrant families that were aristocratic in their homeland but pretty struggling in this one. It’s like when they ask Iranians to fill out one of those questionnaires that ask what race you are. My parents would say Caucasian, but I always thought Asian. I’d hear Iranians parading around saying “white” and that we were of the Aryan people and all this unappealing stuff, when I’d always look to the Afghanis and Pakistanis, for instance, and think, why do they get to be brown? Aren’t we brown? I guess we’re off-white, off-brown? Iranian-Americans have a real interesting and yet still somewhat undefinied Otherness that makes them quite an interesting subject–and that’s why I am hooked on it at the moment. I think for a long time even in Southern California they were largely ignored as an immigrant population in spite of relatively large numbers over there, but it was because it always seemed like the Iranians were temporary immigrants.. .they’d be returning to Iran sooner or later, right? Well, now nearly three decades later, we’re still here and rather firmly.
A lot of my identity issues or rather anti-identity issues then have to do with setting–time, place, my age even. I barely ever existed outside of the reality of the Iran-Hostag-Crisis-era-and-aftermath. If that doesn’t give one some good/bad ideas when it comes to identity and identity politics, dunno what will.
Asad Raza: “Off-brown.” Too good. The Revolution rendered the Iran that you were born in somewhat unrecoverable. So how do you relate to the Iran of the present: current Tehran, not Tehrangeles? Just as the historical events that swerved your life to America have made certain kinds of observations of life possible, do they also occlude other things?
Porochista Khakpour: I don’t relate to the Iran of the present at all. I don’t know what it’s like in the slightest. I have some relatives there–my grandparents spend winters there off and on, and we have some cousins. ..but I have no real idea what the day-to-day life there is like. In fact I only wrote scenes that took place in Iran from the media–and explicitly so. I wanted the characters’ fantasies and nightmares of modern-day Iran to be largely informed by what they had seen on the TV and read in the news in the last few decades. And part of the reason Iran never makes it as an actual setting–oops, spoiler alert??!—is because I didn’t want to attempt to write realistically about a place I haven’t been to since I was a toddler. All I know of Iran is what the media has presented and tidbits of speculation from relatives and maybe some stray anecdotes from people that have been there. But I do see some value on commenting on such filtered impressions–there is something to bothering to examine how these very secondary sources influence us when the primary sources just can’t. I toyed with the idea of going to Iran at one point to create a far different ending for the novel–but even 5 years ago, it didn’t seem like the easiest vacation plan.
Asad Raza: Very honest answer. Your first novel has been reviewed or mentioned positively in many prestigious places, and your social movements are tracked by the likes of Gawker. Has becoming a public and successful figure made working on the new novel different? Afraid of losing your edge?
Porochista Khakpour: I guess I don’t really feel like too much has changed. Luckily writers fall into a low-tier of celebrity–there is no literary paparazzi (maybe for Dan Brown and JK Rowling but even that would be kinda pathetic), pretty impotent gossip page presence, and no real (well, rarely) obsessive fans (generally pretty harmless nerds who just happen to be avid emailers). I don’t know to what degree I am perceived as a public or successful figure. I feel like my life is the same as ever–sadly–and that was a humbling thing to learn, because every time you hit a milestone in life, it’s inevitable that you will wonder (hope) that is will change everything (for the better). But you’re still the same person with the same problems. Usually bad events change you or your life–a car accident I was in in 2005 really dramatically derailed me, in a way that, say, a devastating reception for this novel could never have.
It is a fact that I do get emails from strangers, it is true that I have met a few people that I don’t know but who act like they know me (or profess to know of me), and I have had a few incidents of internet agitators going to town on me (a very bored www-weirdo for instance went on a diligent defacing-my-wikipedia-entry campaign that was brought to my attention when friends of mine asked if it was true that Crispin Glover and I had been “romantically linked” or if Mia Kirschner’s character on “The L Word” was really based on me!) For the most part it’s been an amusing sideshow to this whole coming-out-ball of debut novelisthood.
My most passionate demographic seems to be youngish lit majors or elderly male 9/11 conspiracy theorists. They tend to target me post-reading. The latter group tends to find me very disappointing when they realize I’m not one to egg on their convictions.
What has interested me more or inspired some self-examination at least, has been the interviews. Since my first interview with Fabio at age 16 [ed. note: Hunh?], I’ve been interviewing public figures–to use your term–in the arts and entertainment world. It’s been interesting to suddenly be on the other end of the Q&A, the receiving end of the tape recorder. It’s very difficult for me not to try to get into their minds and reconfigure questions or manipulate some of the direction of the interview. It’s also hard not to be tempted toward “giving good quote.”
But in regards to my second novel, not much has changed in my mindset, thank goodness. I mean, who knows what would have happened if I had been received very poorly? My reviews rather were pretty positive and my Gawker coverage (ha!) was largely kind—so no more demons to wrestle with myself than usual. I did learn more about the publishing industry and the booksellers and the buying public and that was all eye-opening. I never paid attention to the whole commerce aspect of the book world and then I started learning about it and now with this next novel I am trying to purchase a low-grad time machine so I can go back in time just a couple months–nothing fancy– and un-learn this recent cruddy knowledge. So far I’ve been lazy in acquiring the ol’ machine because even though I will suddenly have, like in the movie “Jacob’s Ladder” those 10 second flashes of some menacing blurry head-waving horror hallucincation, that shrieks at me “Bestsell! Bestsell! Bestsell!”, in the end when pen touches down on paper (or fingertip to ibook keys, i guess) “what you are picks its way,” to ruin a Walt Whitman quote. I don’t know how one “sells-out” with fiction. You can rarely fool anyone or yourself with the written word, I’m finding. All the bullshit just sinks to the bottom like shrimpshit, but the good stuff just floats to the top like. . .lilypads. Um, yes, lilypads.
Asad Raza: So what’s your favorite color?
Porochista Khakpour: Black&blue. (As one color. Also known as “blue-black,” I suppose, but that’s like superhero hair which is not what I mean really.)
Asad Raza: Just wanted to check if you were capable of a one-sentence answer. You’re not. But I already knew that. Any advice for our readers about their own fiction projects?
Porochista Khakpour: Take nobody’s advice. The old rules are outdated, it seems to me, and the new rules that are coming are too much, too fast, shaky stuff that becomes outdated as quickly as you hit “refresh.” It’s both horrifying and liberating, depending on whether you see glasses half-full or half-empty, I suppose. I really believe the technological advancements of the past two decades, plus the 00’s stable economic instability, plus post 9/11 era politics, have made an unreliable narrator of all the “experts” in all industries and all vocations. All you have is your instinct, what you began with in the first place. I hate to boil it down to that bad tattoo mantra (or a bad Dave Navarro album title, or maybe Cicero?!): “Trust No One.” But really and truly, this is where my head is at–back to troubled teenage wisdom. And it’s working for me.
Asad Raza: Sounds good to me. Thanks for doing this, P!
Porochista Khakpour: Thanks yourself, Asad, and this lovely site. I love that 3qd refers to Murray Gell-Mann. I grew up with that name constantly haunting our household–he was one of my dad’s favorite professors at MIT. Later he taught at CalTech in Pasadena, where I was growing up, and I think my highly hypochondriac (off-brown!) family started religiously going to this ear nose & throat specialist that he recommended even. See, everything really is connected!