Ultimate saviors

Porochista Khakpour author of “Sons and Other Flammable Objects”


Ultimate saviors
by Homa T Nasab

In Sons and Other Flammable Objects, Khakpour builds her luminously intelligent debut around the travails of an Iranian-American family caught in the feverish and paranoid currents immediately after 9/11. Darius Adam and his wife, Laleh (who, much to Darius's disgust, Americanizes her name to Lala), flee revolutionary Iran for the alien territory of Southern California, settling in an apartment complex with the allegorically enticing name of Eden Gardens... Khakpour is an elegant writer, and she imparts a perfect sense of the ironies of being Persian in America, where the blurry collective image of the Middle East alternates between blonde genies in bottles and furrow-browed terrorists in cockpits. (Publshers Weekly)

HT: How old were you when you left Iran?

PK: My parents give conflicting ages every time I ask, but it appears to be somewhere between 2.75 and 3.5 years!

HT: Oh, I like the way that you are so specific. Have you been back to Iran since you left?

PK: No. I wish. A little while ago, particularly in late 90s, I thought for sure I would be visiting regularly by now. But with the current climate there, I’m not sure I’m up for it. One day, I always say. . .soon, I hope!

HT: You were raised in Los Angeles…when did you move to NY?

PK: I moved to New York in 1996 to attend Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY, just a half hour upstate from midtown Manhattan.

HT: Sarah Lawrence, huh? I know another young, hip and talented NY writer (art critic) from there…her name is Ana Finel Honigman! [I actually met Porochista through Ana.] So, why NY? In cultural terms, I assume this was a huge leap…

PK: Oh yes. I always wanted to move to New York. I went to a painfully “normal” public high school and there was no talk of creative writing there or anywhere in my town. I had never met a “real writer.” I assumed they all lived in NY. My aunt was a very talented, brilliant poet/painter and she used to live in New York, so I always imagined New York was where the real artists were.

HT: I can see why you would have that image of NY…especially given this first authorial adventure. I guess, in many ways, I have a hard time imagining Sons and Other… to have been written in LA. Its frenetic rhythm and energy is so…shall I say…NY!

PK: Ha, yes, I know what you mean! Actually, Sons was written in a far more disturbing place: Baltimore! I was on fellowship year there after grad school at Johns Hopkins and I had about 7 months to work on a long work. The pace may be a result of my lifestyle and even finances back then---I was in a horrible rush to finish a draft in those 7 months, because I was holding on to the belief that I would maybe never have another opportunity to simply be paid to write, without interruption. I taught one class a week there, and for a couple months I hostessed on the side, but really all I did was write in those months. So I forced myself to crank out a draft and then for two more years I went through hell editing that frantic, almost manically-scribbled manuscript.

HT: The “manically-scribbled manuscript” actually serves the text really well. So that is what I mean by your novel’s NY-ness; I am referring to the work’s energy. However, living in Tehran-geles, no doubt, informed your understanding and experiences of immersing in a very complex diasporic community.

PK: Well, my family never exactly lived in what they call Tehrangeles. In my mind that is the West side of Los Angeles: Beverly Hills, Westwood, Brentwood, Santa Monica, etc. My family was in a more modest community, Pasadena, on the other side of town. Westwood is ruled by Iranians!

HT: Ok, then, that is my East coast ignorance of California culture. To us, all Iranians from Southern California are Tehran-gelesy!

PK: Right, but in my town there was always maybe one or two other Iranian families in our entire school district, but we barely ever knew them. There were maybe half a dozen Middle Eastern kids in my whole high school of 1200 kids the whole time I was there. My community was mostly Asian (Chinese, Korean, Japanese) and white, with a good deal of Hispanic and black.

HT: Yes, but this also means that you were in tune with other diasporic communities as well! I know I keep going back to the Sons’ energy…but I actually think that this fiercely energetic and energizing style perfectly suits the tale of a young diasporic character. You convey that restless sense of homelessness and perpetual state of identity crisis extremely well. Do you want to explain?

PK: There was no way to compose this book in standard, simple linear narrative to me. It’s not just linguistic pyrotechnics and hyperkinetic writing for the sake of razzle-dazzle—it just felt like the most honest way to express the chaos in my head: my memory, the bits of history I had internalized so deeply, the distortions and revisions, the unwieldy ulcer-inducing secrets and naked shivering truths.

HT: On that note, how autobiographical is this work?

PK: Well, it’s about a father and son. And I can say that while I have a little brother who is the protagonist’s age, it is not about him! So. . . there are many bits borrowed from my family life, but of course everything is twisted and exaggerated and reordered and reinvented for story purposes. I would have nothing to really say in a full memoir, I think. My own life is not that interesting. But on a more comical note, for a long time I kept my parents’ real address in the manuscript (I grew up in an apartment complex very, very similar to the one in the novel). . .and it wasn’t until the final copy edits that I noticed it. My editor kind of raised an eyebrow, and I was mortified that I had let that one go. . .

HT: Ok, so this is not autobiographical… however, I am particularly impressed by your George Sandian ability to construct a male character so well. Explain why you chose to right about the main character as a man?

PK: I have always written about men or from men’s perspectives. I wish I knew why. I suppose men in mid and quarter life have generally been my muses—men in crisis, I suppose. Their often not-spoken-of tribulations fascinate me. Having said that, I do think the women in the novel are the ultimate saviors, in a sense. I hope they don’t get too overshadowed by the troublesome men at the nucleus of it, because their whole story would be nothing without the female foundation.

HT: Do you think that choosing a male character freed you of the obligation of positioning an ethnic woman…one who is bound by the heavy weight of a traditional culture like that of Iranian?

PK: Very interesting—yes, possibly. I also think there is too much already written about that archetypal Woman in a Veil, cooking and crying in a cramped kitchen with other Women in Veils. You know?

HT: Oh, yes, how well I know! I have seen numerous variations on the theme that you just described in dozens of art, mostly photographic, exhibitions!

PK: Right…but, I am not a very typical woman and so I would probably not be able to even write about a woman like that well. Also, I write what I know and I really have little direct exposure to oppressed ethnic women in Third World countries—I can only imagine and go by what I have read. . .and that wasn’t enough information for a novel like this.

HT: In this sense, your style reflects the characters’ attempts to stay afloat…to defy the gravity of tradition.

PK: I hope so!

HT: Back to cross-gendering. This is usually the domain of male writers some of whom do it very well like Arthur Golden and the “Memoir of a Geisha.” But you have done it twice over with characters of the son and the father… What process(es) did you go through to achieve this?

PK: Hmmm…there wasn’t too much of a process involved. It’s just how I think, I guess. And I suppose I was very interested in how Middle Eastern males were perceived in the aftermath of 9/11, no matter where they were from. I was very interested in how they dealt with it.

HT: You are dealing with a very contemporary historic event…why did you choose ancient Persian names for your characters, then? Personally, I see your choice as a witty, moving and yet subversive attempt at revivalism…

PK: Well, I think you got it. I wanted to poke a bit at Persian history and highlight my belief that many of the personal problems of the men in my book were actually ancient cultural problems that got a bit twisted through the filters of time. From the moment they were given their very DNA, even before they were tagged with their names, that very rich history was going to define their every step. It seems obvious but I think this is very different for many Americans, for instance, who often come from many different places—various European countries mixed with Native American blood, mixed with Black or Hispanic blood, etc. Iranians who come from Iran and Iran only come from a very illustrious and complicated and sometimes scary culture, that I think can be best defined as the old Persian Empire—I think modern Iranian consciousness has never gotten past that pinnacle, in a way. Ours is a very expansive history, a history that is of course far more ancient than the cultures of many Western people. So of course, the issues have added up, gotten more and more entangled . . . today in the Middle East, the same ancient wars are being fought, for example. Much of the dialogue is the same now as it was in our history books.

The book also toys with the male imagery of “kings” and so naming them after the Kings Darius and Xerxes made my agenda a bit clear. Still, they are common Persian names so it wasn’t a stylistic stretch.

HT: Playing with names, name changes, word plays… You really like this. I get the impression that you really love words…sometimes for their own gorgeous, sumptuous and seductive sake.

PK: Yes, well, English was my second language. I arrived at a Southern California playground, after years of refugee hustling from country to country, knowing only Farsi. So English was this new magical mode of expression—the first art I consciously took up. Because of being so aware of the language-learning process, I think I really married myself to being a writer early on. Storytelling was all I had to do on all those bus rides from country to country, as my parents fled. And when I got a hold of American books I saw them as a sort of golden ticket to life in the New World that was to be my home. I think many immigrant writers become real language writers—Nabokov for instance. In some ways, English has always been a foreign tongue to me—Farsi being more of my default setting—so it was more of a vehicle for play, adventure, exploration, and then also partially survival. It was and is how I have “made it” in this country that I am not actually from.

HT: I can see how so many first generation immigrants would identify with your relationship to language…and to the very process of integration. Of attempting to come to grasp with this oh-so-ever-new reality in the midst of which they find themselves! …I am not fixated on the revivalist aspect of your book…but…I do like the way you integrate a mini course on Persian Empire into the narrative. Here is the (perhaps) obvious question: Did “300” have anything to do with it?

PK: No, that movie came out far after my edits even were done. But people have asked that a lot! It’s funny. Maybe the movie has helped in a way—people already know who those guys are. . .although, I still haven’t seen the movie. . .

HT: I haven’t seen it either. Nor do I have nay desire to do so… Another iconic choice you have made is to have the events of the novel take place around the time of the 9/11. This was a devastating period in contemporary American as well as world history. What gave you the courage to take this on?

PK: I lived in lower Manhattan on 9/11. I lived on the 25th floor of a highrise that had a perfect view of the World Trade so the whole thing was like having front-row seats to the most devastating cinema of your life. 9/11 effected me so much, left me so traumatized and even paralyzed to an extent, that in my grad school year following the event, all I could do was write about it over and over and over. And of course, everyone thought it was too soon to write about it. But it was my only therapy. The event and my survival of the event seemed so surreal to me that I was deeply attracted to narrating it somehow. A way to make sense of it, I suppose. And so it was so central to my life, that I felt obligated to make it be central to my novel. And when writing about contemporary Middle Eastern men, how could I not? Their perception as a result of 9/11 was very fascinating to me.

HT: Speaking of contemporary (Middle Eastern) men: you have done a great job creating two distinct voices (Darius and Xerxes)…and have managed to sustain that distinction throughout the novel. This is a very difficult thing to do.

PK: Well, I like to play with voices a lot. I talk to myself and read out loud as I write, so for me it’s a kind of theater. There is a performance aspect to writing, an exhibition element, that people never talk about enough, I find. It was very important for me to have their voices be at odds with each other, just like their very personalities and worldviews.

HT: I have to tell you…sometimes when I read a good book, it gives me the feeling that “I just cannot put it down.” With Sons and Other Flammable Objects, I had the feeling that “I cannot wait to put it down…but I cannot.” Half way through the novel I realized that the first sensation was simply due to the book’s enormous vigor. I felt intimidated… but I also thought that it would be so rude to put it down. Rude because the author (you) confides in the reader (me) in the most urgent and private manner. Your style…your richly elaborate and descriptive style, as if, inverts William Faulkner’s Southern lulling ways. Your sentences and paragraphs just keep going…with the type of vitality which is derived from a spontaneous & honest(!) mindset.

PK: Hmmm…actually I think it came from reading Faulkner! Funny you mentioned him. He was my first literary love. I read almost everything he wrote when I was a 15 or 16. I found prose experimentalists very exciting, liberating, and reassuring even. They could stretch the boundaries of psychological realism through pumping a sort of more emotional realism through their syntax. . .Faulkner made every very personal family tragedy this universal dilemma through just his language, I think. I loved how Faulkner was all heart, all pulse, all blood and guts. And I always think a bit chaotically rather than linearly so it also suited my own actual voice. When people hear me speak, they are often amazed at how much I sound like how I write. . .especially if you really get me going on something I care about, I’m all breathlessness: commas and dashes and almost no periods, ever!

HT: Exactly! That is how felt: breathless. That is where the “I cannot wait to put it down …but I cannot” came from…Tell me, what other writers have influenced your work the most.

PK: A lot of dead white males, actually. I was always attracted to dusty unfashionable stuff like the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Victorian metaphysical novels. Very little contemporary writers, other than David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, those so-called “metafiction” guys. I guess the latter group’s prose did influence me at first, but usually I tend to read very little of what I suspect might influence me. I don’t want to be influenced. For that reason, I have read very little of Salman Rushdie, although what I have read of The Satanic Verses astounded me.

HT: When I finished the book…all I wanted to know was when are you going to get behind your computer and write the sequel. Do you have a sequel in mind? Not a sequel proper…but a sense of resolution? Where will Xerxes end up? Darius? Lala? I want to know!

PK: A sequel—wow! Well, a side of me thinks that would be hilarious. . .but mostly I think I am a bit tired of my novel. These days, in book tour season, I am really worn out on my characters and am dying to work on a new novel. And possibly a novel not about Iranians at all—who knows? But for the time being I am working on a short story collection that again does tackle Iranian immigrants and their mishaps. Maybe a sequel in the form of a short story would be fun—or maybe a cameo from Xerxes or Darius or Lala in the new collection. That’s not a bad idea actually. Perhaps. We’ll see. . .I’m curious if I will do it myself!