I Will Raise My Hand and Be Heard: An Interview with Porochista Khakpour

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Porochista Khakpour. Image via Twitter.

Porochista Khapour has made a home for herself on the outside.

Born in Tehran in 1978 and and raised in the Greater Los Angeles Area, her experience as an immigrant and a person with Muslim roots first informed her experience as “other.” As a woman who has come up in the male-dominated world of academia, she has grown used to discomfort and dissonance, and allowed it to fuel her voice, rather than cause it to falter.

She has been awarded fellowships from the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, Northwestern University, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her work has been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes. She is most recently the recipient of a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Literature Fellowship in Creative Writing (Prose).

Her debut novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove/Atlantic, 2007) was a New York Times “Editor’s Choice,” Chicago Tribune “Fall’s Best,” and 2007 California Book Award winner. It also made the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing shortlist, the Dylan Thomas Prize long list, the Believer Book Award longlist, and many others. Her second novel, The Last Illusion (Bloomsbury, 2014), received equal acclaim, as a Kirkus Best Book of 2014, a Buzzfeed Best Fiction Book of 2014, an NPR Best Book of 2014, one of Buzzfeed’s 28 Best Books By Women in 2014, an Electric Literature Best Book of 2014, a Volume1 Brooklyn Favorite Book of 2014 and a winner of many other awards.

Her other writing, including essays, reviews, cover stories, and columns have appeared in or are forthcoming in Harper’s, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and many other magazines and newspapers around the world.

Khakpour spoke with Sampsonia Way Magazine about crafting her characters, her own identity, and her thoughts on the use of fabulism and absurdity as a means of political resistance.

When I was doing some research for the interview, I came across an article from the BBC that was talking about a hotline that has been established by the Department of Homeland Security for people to report “illegal aliens-” and I make a point to put those ridiculous words in quotes. What people have been doing though, is that they have been calling and reporting- “I saw ET!” or “I saw a UFO!” and telling these crazy stories, trolling the hotline. It got me thinking, as I was also reading about your work, about the politics of absurdity and the politics of crazy characters and magic, and the role that absurdity can play in resistance. 

Yes, the hotline you are talking about is actually called VOICE [Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement]. It is so insidious and it is so wild that it lends itself perfectly to this sort of mischief. I was so heartened to hear that people were leaving these phone calls and leaving these messages. I mean, one of the only heartening things right now is this certain kind of dark humor or kind of wild nihilism that some of those who are most at risk can channel. At the same time, some days, I have no sense of humor, and I find myself so irritated. I want people’s authenticity and sincerity. I have a longing for what is real, even though I know that authentic expression is a dicey operation.

My first novel, my second novel, a lot of my essay work and all of my short stories have elements of dark humor and also fabulism, and sometimes absurdism. When I think of the work that I love to read or the work that I am sometimes in dialogue with, it is often experimental literature of some sort. It is darkly comic, fabulist, and I have often thought about why I have been so drawn to that. This very tame school of American domestic realism or psychological realism or whatever you want to call it, is fairly unique to America. We think of it as our way of internalizing whiteness. We assume that this is the literature, that this is the standard, but if you look at world literature, if you look at all sorts of literature, look at different types of literature from around the world, we have lots of fabulism, we have lots of magic, we have a lot of darkness and we have a lot of absurdity. There isn’t this sort of insistence on one to one correlations on sentence levels. There isn’t this insistence on trying to capture the authentic or the real. They see the problems with that immediately in other cultures, in a way that America does not. So often our canonical texts have had to do with say, white suburbia, or a very white urban experience. These to me are problems. Even the tone of this kind of work, I can appreciate it, from almost a fetishistic standpoint. I’ve often said I enjoy Cheever, Yates, and even Salter on a sort of occidental, fetishist level, where I find them very exotic because to me it is not normal- these very wealthy white people whose only problems are infidelity, tea time, martini hour, trains into the city. Even New York- I have been there for 20 years and New York still has that sort of exotic quality to it. To me, WASP culture, is very exotic. It is as weird as it can get. It is surreal to me. So it is always interesting to think of what perspective we are coming from when we regard something as surreal or ethereal or hyper-real.

That is always the thing when trying to create work that is for even a general audience, whatever that means. I often think about what angle I’m coming from and what the framing is going to be. I think about everything I do on some degree having a commissioned aspect in the sense that I think about who the audience is. My audiences are all very different. A work of investigative journalism, a work of personal essay, a novel, in a sense all have different audiences. The memoir that is coming out will be for another different a different audience, and so I feel at times that I am talking to different people. It is interesting to think about other people who might overhear or who might feel talked to, those I can’t predict, who also become an audience. That’s what becomes very exciting for me. 

To me, WASP culture is very exotic. It is as weird as it can get. It is surreal to me.

I think a lot of people would think about imagination and creativity as a luxury, something that people can only engage with if they have the extra time and money, but the stories that you write are stories of people who are using creativity, imagination, magic for survival. How do you think those things tie together?

In the second novel, I created the myth, in a sense. I recreated the summer before 9/11. There is that layer, and of course, there is the Persian myth— the story of Zaul that is from the Shahnameh or the Persian book of Kings. There is the riffing on this medieval epic. The funny thing is, when I was writing it, I was constantly thinking about how myth can help you survive but it can also trap you. I felt that a lot of the characters in the stories were trapped in mythology, too. For me, it was like a pre-9/11 experience I was creating with post 9/11 paraphernalia. There was this feeling of being stuck. We can never again interpret the summer before 9/11 in an innocent way. I look back on shark attacks that summer that were happening all over the place or say Gary Condit and Chandra Levy. How do we think about those events outside of 9/11? It is a real feat not to. It’s tempting to say they were omens or somehow we should have known, right? I constantly think about a time I was on the subway, and saw a police officer, an undercover cop, a few weeks before 9/11. He raised an arm, and all these wires were exposed under his shirt. That has become something I think back to and wonder- ‘What? What was that cop doing? What was that related to?’ There are all sorts of ways that we mythologize and fall into magical thinking. For me, a lot of the magic in my work is also a cautionary tale about magical thinking, too. I am obsessed with magical thinking. I am very seduced by it, but at the same time, I find it terrifying. I am a fan of astrology- in one sense I find it fun, but I also find it extremely dangerous. Sometimes, even these days when people talk about mercury in retrograde, I find it to be a slippery slope and a little bit of a problem, in a sense. In The Last Illusion, too, I write a lot about Y2K and that era. For me, it is hard to forget that time of mythology, that time of numerological delirium, where we really all thought that the world was going to end because of numbers. There’s something dazzling to me as a writer about that but there’s something also really frightening to me about that as a citizen on this planet.

What do you think draws you to myth particularly?

It is so deeply ingrained in my culture, the idea of myth, and even the reality of myth, and the levels of superstition. I was telling somebody about this the other day— about how I still can’t get it together to cut my nails at night, for instance. Because in Iranian culture— I don’t know what they say— you’ll die if you cut your nails at night or something. There is some sort of threat that you are not supposed to do that. But if you look back at why that myth maybe existed in the first place, it probably came from villages where there was not proper electricity and so people could cut themselves. Something as simple as that. There are all sorts of rituals that in my household growing up were a part of our daily life even though I came largely from scientists and math people. There were all sorts of rituals that we would participate in on a daily level that were not translatable to Americans. It is that other side of my hyphen— my American experience is fairly secular, fairly rational perhaps you could say. It is fairly non-magical in many ways, but the Iranian side feels very tied to myth and magic. Tied to the beauty of that and tied to the pitfalls of that. And of course, I should add- that is linked to all sorts of spirituality that comes from religion and cultural identity and for me that is tied quite a lot to Muslim identity. Both Muslim identity and also Zoroastrian identity came at different points into my family’s life, and they had all sorts of significance. Even when they weren’t explicitly around, they were very much on the table.

Another thing that I was really curious about in reading through your writing is the aspect of gender. I read in The Rumpus that Sons and Other Flammable Objects was called an autobiography?

In some ways I have actually referred to both novels as being strongly autobiographical. 

I was interested in it being called an autobiography because the book centers on this relationship between a young boy and his father. I was wondering about how you think about gender in your work.

That has been a really interesting discussion that I think constantly evolves when I talk to my readers too, and for a long time I really didn’t have a vocabulary for it. I wasn’t able to say if there is a gender fluidity in my own being or in my own writing. Is there something? I didn’t know how to put it, but I can tell you simply what I know is that growing up, my father and I had what might be seen as a traditional father-son relationship, and there are many reasons for that. You can look to all sorts of aspects of my culture. For instance, in Iranian culture, boys are revered in a way that girls might be in Western culture. The young women growing up are not seen as important and so they have pressures, but maybe more freedoms in a way, too. I was ignored in some ways and allowed to be a writer because I wasn’t expected to make much of myself. However, I was not okay with that. As a child I was very much the oldest immigrant child and I would announce myself and have these very intense clashes with my father. My dad, even years later, talked about how there was a competition between us. Sometimes at the dinner table it was like we were throwing darts at each other. There was no such thing as “daddy’s little girl.” Growing up I had my brother there and a lot of other boys in my life. I went to a public school in suburban LA and there were a lot of guys I always hung out with and I was reading a lot of work by men, too. I was constantly thinking about how to survive in the world of men.

You could say, in a way, that I was a tomboy, but that would be a little bit of a misunderstanding. I had deep reservations about being in the world of men, but feeling that and having that instinct that this was going to be part of my life. I have often said that I don’t feel competitive with women. I feel like they are my people, I want to boost them and elevate them. That is my instinct. Sometimes I feel a bit competitive with men. If they are not my student and they are challenging me. I am not the girl that doesn’t raise her hand. I will raise my hand and I will be heard, I will not back down, and many men in the literary world have seen this side of me. (laughs) I have no tolerance for misogyny on two cultural levels, Iranian and American. That is sort of where that comes from in the first novel, why it is a father-son novel. It is not about my brother at all, but there is a lot in there that is me and my father. That allowed me also to explore. I didn’t want it to be a novel about gender. I could have had it be a young woman but I felt like that would have led to a different discussion. So in a way, having it be this sort of performance of myself as a male gave me certain freedoms to talk about some other things.

I am not the girl that doesn’t raise her hand. I will raise my hand and I will be heard, I will not back down.

In The Last Illusion I used a male protagonist in a different sense. I also have a male protagonist but his sexuality is actually what is more of an issue. He is asexual but he is not sure. So he is having all of these experiences that he doesn’t really understand, but he’s really struggling with being human before he can even become a man. That outsider narrative really interested me too. I guess I think of gender and sexuality both from the perspective of an outsider. I have never quite felt comfortable in my own skin and I have never quite felt comfortable in any environment that I have ever been in. I have learned to live with that discomfort. People usually think I am extremely comfortable wherever I am, but it is because I never feel at home. I always feel outside of a thing and I found comfort in that role. I feel that there is a great advantage for the writer to have that, too— being an observer, an infiltrator (laughs). Not belonging has been a tremendous comfort to me in the end.

Porochista Khakpour. Image via stonefoxbride.com.

That’s interesting that you say that because I know many other writers and poets who have said something similar. Do you think that being on the outside gives you a particular freedom because then you don’t have much to lose?

Yes, being already outside, I think you don’t have to struggle for a certain level of acceptance. You don’t have to struggle for that. I don’t want to be part of normals. I see them, I sometimes can blend in with them, but I have no interest in what their lives look like. I don’t have an interest in how they walk through the world. Whatever my arrangement in life, there is always an aspect of abnormalcy. Among my writer friends, my artist friends—all sorts of creative friends I have– we understand that stuff. My students, they understand that stuff. There is a different world that maybe would not understand that, and I feel sorry for that world on some level. I feel like that is why a lot of older people often regret not having done something creative or have the instincts to go into another career and do something creative. There is something nurturing about it. I think to really be an artist, to really inhabit that, you have to accept on some level that you are not going to belong. Being an outsider, for instance, can be like being an observer, right? That is a great, great advantage for a writer. I mean, there is the announcing yourself, the performing yourself— there is also the listening and taking in. So, I think the posture can be quite comfortable. Has it always been comfortable for me? No. Being an activist for me often felt like a tremendous burden, and I felt that I had been called to it, but I didn’t choose it. Say in a moment like this, in the political climate here, I feel ready for it. I feel all sorts of depressions and anxieties of the moment, but not related to where I stand in various conversations.

Not belonging has been a tremendous comfort to me in the end.

You do a lot of writing about 9/11 and about Y2K which you’ve mentioned as these moments where everyone truly thought the sky was falling and we all found ourselves in this extreme, almost absurd moment. I’m curious to see how it feels now, in a post-election world where I think there is some of that same chaotic feeling. Do things feel different to you now? Do you think about what role your writing can play in this moment?

I keep thinking that we have never gotten out of the post 9/11 era. In a way, it feels like a ball was thrown and maybe it is just about landed now. Maybe it hasn’t even fully landed because there is always a new low it seems. Even under president Obama, I think he dealt with some of the most horrific aspects of the post-9/11 era and now we are seeing another wave of that. I do not know when it will go away. That’s the thing. For Americans, 9/11 cemented this idea that some menace could be here, on this soil. One of the things I have found myself telling people is that there is so much American anxiety about World War III. Think about the Cold War. I grew up under this constant fear of nuclear proliferation and the Russians. We had just come to America and I was thinking about other things I was worried about, such as the Middle East. But Americans were obsessed with this. As I have grown older, one of the things I keep coming back to is that America is safe because it creates circumstances where it is untouched by the atrocities of the rest of the world and yet it has a hand in the atrocities in the rest of the world.

While Americans fear the idea of the World War III here, they are constantly causing and constantly involved in World War III everywhere else. Many people have been living in World War III for a very long time. As we speak right now, so many cultures are in hell. There are active genocides happening all around the globe. This becomes the problem with Americanists- this idea that we are somehow an exception. What is happening I think, Trump—I keep joking calling it Trump-istan— in a way is similar to the dictatorships and demigods that we have seen in other regions and other cultures. As I talk with different immigrant groups and friends I have of different cultures, I find that there is a part of us that laughs dryly and bitterly. We think- “Oh this thing? They wanted this thing here? Okay. Well we left the places we were from so we wouldn’t have that.” We were not so delusional to think it would never happen in America, but it is now happening. It is something that many other people have dealt with all around the world. I keep saying we have a window, and I think we might still be in the window, where something can be done and there can be hope. My great hope for this country is that that level of bloodshed not come here, because you have so many people from around the world here with so much hope and investments in spite of so much trauma and continual turmoil. You will always be affecting the world when you affect America. In another sense, you are affecting the world when you affect America because of our financial interest and ideas of whiteness, and the interest of Western Manifest Destiny thinking that still permeates. So, it is really, really complicated and hard these days to frame the idea of where we are. I did not think we would be here, to be honest. A part of me feared that we would be here, but what I find myself thinking is, in spite of a lot of evidence to the contrary, I did not think we would be here. I had a greater optimism, perhaps a very American optimism, thinking that things would be better. However, I think that there are a lot of very smart, active, good people who truly are working in all sorts of levels of resistance. Maybe something can come of that, but we are yet in the middle of the story.

I think to really be an artist, to really inhabit that, you have to accept on some level that you are not going to belong.

The great literary scholar, Frank Kermode always talks about apocalypse and the ideas of endings and end times. He says every generation worries about the world ending because we are always in the middle. We don’t know our beginnings and we don’t even know our civilization’s beginnings. We don’t know our own endings and we don’t really know our civilization’s endings. We take whatever signs we can but we are always in the middle of the story. When we are in an apocalyptic or crisis mindset we think we are close to the end but we are not even unique in that thought so who is to know, right? That is hard for artists and a lot of thinkers because we are control freaks on some level. We don’t know how to write this and so we must be sort of honest with ourselves and realize that we can’t be attached to too many things. We have to observe and we have to accept that we just don’t know.

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