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American Girl

Iranian born and LA bred, novelist Porochista Khakpour tells a true American tale.

By Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson
Photo by Christine Taylor

Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, couldn't feel more American. Bordered by the Susquehanna River and the bucolic campus of Bucknell University, the town center is on the National Register of Historic Places for its pristine stock of 18th- and 19th-century architecture. There are signature wrought iron lampposts and leaded glass windows, overflowing flower baskets, manicured lawns, and a seven-block main street flanked by quaint mom-and-pop shops. Population: 6,000.

Walking the streets on a warm August afternoon, sunlight honeying the facades of the Federal-era brick buildings, Porochista Khakpour, A&S '02 (MA), soaks in her new residence. The 30-year-old is about to begin a yearlong appointment as visiting professor of fiction in the Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell. She and her boyfriend, fashion designer and writer Brian Frank, moved to town a few days earlier, trading their cramped Brooklyn, New York, rental for a two-story bungalow with hardwood floors, built-in cabinets, and more space than they know what to do with. They have an actual yard, and in the driveway sits a newly purchased used car capping off this all-American visual: It's a behemoth Crown Victoria in good condition, save the freshly chipped bumper paint where the previous owner's Bush/Cheney sticker used to reside.

It's been nearly a year since Khakpour's first novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, came out, and the last 12 months have been full of readings, media interviews, book openings, writers' retreats, and travel, capped off with the summer release of the book in paperback. Sons earned instant critical acclaim. The Chicago Tribune dubbed it fall's best book for 2007. The New York Times named it an Editors' Choice. Khakpour won the Prize for First Fiction at the 77th annual California Book Awards and was one of 30 authors considered for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. This summer, she earned a coveted spot on the long list of authors contending for the prestigious Dylan Thomas Award. Google her name and hundreds of results pop up: Web-exclusive videos and blog postings, personal essays, interviews, and readings (including an appearance at Google itself). Porochista Khakpour is a rising star in the literary world.

It is not her budding fame, however, that is drawing the attention of the Lewisburg locals on this summer day. Decked out in a stylish knee-length dress and ankle boots, with richly painted lips, Khakpour stands out. It's hard to place her ethnicity. Italian? Greek? Middle Eastern? One thing is certain: She is striking and seems exotic in this small town. Khakpour strolls along reveling in the architecture and getting a bit lost in search of a small café to buy a lemonade. It is perhaps because she is so engrossed by her surroundings that she fails to notice people stealing glances at her, and in some cases outright staring. Or maybe she is well aware of the attention but has spent a lifetime learning to live with it.

Khakpour is, in fact, from Iran, born in Tehran, but raised in the white-bread suburbs of Los Angeles. She was weaned on Farsi, so English is technically her second language and Valley Girl, she will quip, her third. Her inaugural novel delves into the conflicting dynamics of an Iranian-American family, much like hers, living in Los Angeles and contending with the personal and cultural crises arising out of September 11.

Referring to her interchangeably as Iranian, Iranian-American, and — on rare occasions — "Brooklyn based" or "LA based," the media generally lumps Khakpour into a category with other female "immigrant" writers, like Jhumpa Lahiri and Dalia Sofer (whose book about a family surviving the Iranian revolution, The Septembers of Shiraz, also came out last year). In spite of living 26 out of her 30 years in the United States, one thing Khakpour has never been called is "American." Her work, however, has been compared to prominent American novelists'. Paper magazine echoed other critics when they likened her writing to that of Philip Roth, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral: "Like Philip Roth, except from Tehran not Newark!"

The comparison leads to a poignant revelation: Khakpour looks nothing like the classic American novelists. She is not white and she is not male. And yet, this Iranian-born Los Angeleno may well represent the new face of modern American fiction.

The very first sentence in Sons lays out the conflict that is to unfold over the next 396 pages: "Another in a long line of misunderstandings in their shared history, what caused Xerxes and Darius Adam to vow never to speak again, really began with a misplaced anecdote. . . ."

Sons is the story of an Iranian father, Darius Adam, and his Iranian-American son, Xerxes, and their struggle to reconcile their disparate world views. Darius is a stubborn, cynical man, who reluctantly left Tehran after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 to seek a safer life with his wife and infant son in Los Angeles. He often chastises Xerxes for not being Iranian enough and balks at his son's inability to grasp the dire nature of human existence. "Your era thinks they're gonna live forever — they won't. Wait till burst goes that bubble and you see the ugly side of the real world — in every man's life the world's worst shows itself."

Xerxes, on the other hand, is sensitive and intellectual, marooned on an island of otherness while trying to acclimate to his new culture. He lives in secret fear of that ominous "burst" his father portends and recounts his earliest childhood memory as witnessing anti-aircraft missiles igniting the skies over Tehran. Publicly, he tries to diffuse his foreignness through humor and wit.

It is perhaps because she is so engrossed by her surroundings that she fails to notice people stealing glances at her, and in some cases outright staring. Or maybe she is well aware of the attention but has spent a lifetime learning to live with it. The fundamental break between father and son begins in Los Angeles in 1987. A young Xerxes fails to understand Darius' obsessive need to surreptitiously capture the neighbors' cats and tag them with belled collars — a process preventing the released felines from stalking and eating the local birds but creating a firestorm with the neighbors. The father/son fissure is aided and abetted over the years by poor communication and protracted silences. A gruesome anecdote also involving birds — a story about an Iranian game that Darius unwittingly recounts to his adult son in an awkward moment — results in the atrophy of their relationship, and the two men stop talking altogether.

In weaving together the stories of Darius, Xerxes, and Lala, the family matriarch, Khakpour captures the complexity of America in its many forms. For the Iranian father, America is a burdensome reminder of a country and a culture now lost. For the Iranian mother, it anesthetizes the past with its vanilla suburbs and fruity cocktails. For Xerxes it is the trap of being suspended between the needs of a father's past and the desire to define an independent future within the all-consuming quagmire of contemporary American culture. "You didn't want me to belong to this country, but yet you wouldn't let me have the ease and clear conscience to belong to you," Xerxes says to his father.

So Xerxes runs away to New York, only to find his worlds colliding once more in the horror of a September morning: "The worlds mix again, the horrible foreignness I fought to escape, crashing right into the phony Americanness I failed to pull off."

Khakpour writes vividly about the aftermath of 9/11 — not the well-traveled text of politics, loss, war, and Iraq — but the more insidious, psychological impact of that day, the anxiety that heightens "when the news had some new tidbit to dash like extra oil onto an already burning skillet." A description of Xerxes getting trapped in a stalled and crowded subway car reveals the muffled, interior turmoil unique to this particular time in an American city, that great backdrop to the private panic attack. "Eventually it got moving again and once out and back up and in the New York air, Xerxes, like a spring, bounced back into form — that was what New York did to you, you were Gumby, you were superhuman, you could forgive and forget, because if you could take it there, you could take it anywhere — and like the rest of the residents of the island, he forgot moments like those enough to take it from day to day."

The book unfolds the way memory does, with a spiraling and looping path, rather than a linear one. Khakpour often introduces the aftermath of a conflict and then backtracks to the source event. The characters grapple with their various reactions to what's happening, at times with fumbling humor, at times with rage and anxiety. Only in hindsight do they begin to pull the threads into a cohesive narrative for themselves (and for a reader). And even then, one is left with the distinct feeling that this life is messy and often unresolved (but, as in real life, not without some reward).

Author Alice McDermott was Khakpour's faculty adviser in the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. She remembers being immediately struck by her writing style and, along with professor and author Stephen Dixon, she encouraged Khakpour to turn her short story work into this novel. "The first thing I always think of with Porochista as a writer and as a person is exuberance. There is just this tremendous energy and a sense of delight, line by line, in the prose," McDermott says.

"I think it's somewhat stylistically experimental at points," Khakpour says about her writing style, "but in some ways I think of it as realist — hyperrealist."

Sons is, on many levels, the real story of Khakpour's life. Born in 1978 in Tehran, Khakpour's first memory is of being cradled in her mother's arms while anti-aircraft missles shot through the skies above — a memory that she recreates with brilliant prose in the book, giving it to Xerxes. She and her parents fled Iran after the Revolution brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power (her family was connected to the government of the overthrown Shah). She was nearing 4 years old. "At that age where you were really getting a grasp of language in your early toddlerhood, when it's all really coming together for you, we were essentially fleeing Iran through Asia and Europe," she says. "I didn't have my room full of toys that we left in our beautiful Tehran apartment. I had one stuffed animal that I got sick of very quickly. I didn't have many people to talk to. I had my parents."

During long hours spent on planes, buses, and trains, Khakpour remembers talking nonstop. Her parents gave her paper and pens, and she would create drawings and ask her father to write down words to accompany the images. "We created books and we would buy a book or two along the way, and those were a magical out from this feeling of constant instability," she says. "I knew at 4 that I wanted to be a writer, before I could even write."

After a brief pass through Boston (her father had attended MIT), the family settled in Los Angeles in an apartment complex identical to the one in the book. Khakpour remembers showing up on the first day of school, painfully overdressed in formal clothing and more proficient in Farsi than English. Thrown in, she learned to adapt. She paid attention. She watched TV (her favorite show was The Twilight Zone; Xerxes' is I Dream of Jeannie). Khakpour learned to observe people and, like Xerxes, use humor to deflect her otherness. "Weird paired with funny tended to work out well," she says about those first years of school. "I tended to beat them to jokes, about me even, and it gave me a niche."

"This is such an American story," Alice McDermott says. "It is about fathers and sons and it is about this brand new world of California and some kind of reconciliation of the past. It's the story that the American novel has always been telling." This initial foreignness afforded Khakpour a special view of American culture. She was not smothered by the everydayness of it; rather she stood a bit outside looking in. "When you have grown up with two languages in such close proximity to one another, I wonder if it creates a disassociative disorder of sorts. You're a total observer," she says.

Khakpour did not just learn English, she analyzed it, took it apart, and put it back together again. In high school and college she wrote short essays — what she calls "metafictional math lit" — and she continued to turn to books for inspiration, particularly the narratives of great American novelists. "I was really into the Western canon as a kid. I was reading books that were by, for, and about white middle-aged men, so I've always been interested in the adult male in various forms of crises," she says.

Her list of beloved authors is long, but she cites Vladimir Nabokov, James Salter, and Herman Melville as some favorites. "It's nice to read things that have nothing to do with what I look like, what my name sounds like," she says. "They are books that take a lot of joy in language and craft, and they take risks."

Like Xerxes, Khakpour fled Los Angeles for New York. She was 23 when 9/11 happened, a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, and she watched the towers collapse through the window of an East Village apartment. When Khakpour sat down to write the novel in 2003, during an Elliott Coleman Fellowship at Johns Hopkins, she went in knowing that she wanted to take the same linguistic risks as the authors she so admired. She also knew that she wanted to rise above a book that simply portrayed the Iranian experience. Novels by Iranian women were being published at a fast clip, adding to a growing genre of literature written by immigrant women. Books like Azar Nafisi's memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran and Dalia Sofer's The Septembers of Shiraz remain rooted in the Iranian experience and culture. Khakpour took a different path. "I wrote the novel that I would like to read, the novel that I always wished someone in my ethnic group would write: a novel that wasn't just for my ethnic group."

Khakpour expounded on this idea in an online interview last winter with the Web site 3 Quarks Daily. "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," she said. "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. . . . All we have is this chick lit for the ethnic set, essentially."

She added, "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."

By some definitions, the American novel is, at its essence, a book that represents the spirit of life in the United States at the time it is written. It is a book that moves beyond ethnicity and class to relay the psyche of the country and to capture the cultural landscape. Whether it is the existential battles portrayed in Melville's Moby-Dick, Steinbeck's account of the Great Depression in The Grapes of Wrath, or Sinclair Lewis' small-town-versus-big-city quandary in Main Street, the novel has been a wonderful lens through which to observe the evolution of the American ideal. This is a country of immigrants, and its literature reflects that — from John Winthrop's essays in the late 1600s about the promise of the new American city to the political and emotional upheavals for three generations of Jewish Americans in the 1960s as told by Philip Roth in American Pastoral. It is easy to see why critics compare Khakpour to Roth (who, coincidentally, went to Bucknell). Like Roth's, Khakpour's writing is at once incisive and expansive, capable of offering a broader social context through the very intimate details of a family experience. Khakpour possesses the insight to write about something as it is happening, to capture the essence of a moment as unwieldy as 9/11 without falling into treacly prose or obvious plotlines.

"This is such an American story," McDermott says. "The Iranian part is in some ways incidental to the heart of the novel. It really is that American story of immigration, finding something better, looking at the past, but with the cool eye of someone who has started anew. It is about fathers and sons and it is about this brand new world of California and some kind of reconciliation of the past, but I don't think it is in any way confined by a specific culture. It's the story that the American novel has always been telling."

Khakpour's novel is firmly rooted in America, but you would not know it to read the press. When the Los Angeles Times wrote a profile on Khakpour in the winter of 2007, they titled the piece "The Latest in Immigrant Lit."

A literary star on the rise, Khakpour gives a reading in September 2007 at Bourbon bar in Washington, D.C. "In the press for the Dylan Thomas Prize, I'm simply being called an Iranian writer, which is interesting because it's the first time the hyphen has really dropped for me," Khakpour says about losing the "American" half of her usual descriptor. "If you think of it like the Olympics, I would be representing Iran not the U.S. There's no acknowledgment of my U.S. heritage."

So what does it mean to be American? What does it mean to write an American novel? It is a timely question, especially in a political season where a black man born in Hawaii is questioned for his "Americanness."

Sons is, at its core, the story of the elusive American dream, a story as familiar and symbolic as that green light at the end of Daisy's dock. Whereas Jay Gatsby was in search of status in the roaring '20s, Xerxes, it could be said, is in search of stability, that all-too-slippery quality in this shifting American reality, a quality that seemed particularly out of reach in a place like New York at the dawn of the new millennium and continues to haunt the country today. Xerxes wonders if he is having some kind of a breakdown, and his personal anxiety speaks to the larger anxiety of the time. There was the crashing, literal and terrifying, followed by a slow-moving domino effect of other crashes: war, housing markets, financial sectors, international repute. The fissures of this Iranian-American family, extrapolated, represent the fissures within American culture itself. The story reflects the desire to seek and inhabit a place we consider home in this widening global community, and the fear of threats coming to our door.

Sitting on the porch outside a small coffee shop in Lewisburg, lemonade in hand, Khakpour ponders what's next. She is excited to get back into the classroom and talk about literature with students this fall, and she is thinking about novel number two. "I sometimes have this weird feeling that certain people want me to write the maudlin, blockbuster, woman of color, Iranian-American, politics-driven novel," she says. But that's not where her heart is. The next book, she thinks, may take place in a small Pennsylvania town like this one. Or it may not. She's not sure yet. Whatever the direction, she is interested in exploring new themes in American culture (adding, with a laugh, that she just might throw in an Iranian character for good measure). "The ultimate career would be if every novel is different and that the press couldn't bottle me up and tag me," she says. "They would have to deal with all my idiosyncrasies."

Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson is a Baltimore-based freelancer.

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