In this interview, Jasmine Vojdani speaks with writer Porochista Khakpour about fragmented identity, being Iranian in America, regret, and her new book, The Brown Album: Essays on Exile and Identity. In The Brown Album, Khakpour traces lifelong experiences of alienation and cultural confusion. Her family left revolutionary Iran and relocated to Los Angeles a year after her birth, but this was not the glitzy, gilded L.A. of Tehrangeles so often associated with Iranian America. These essays recount Khakpour’s horror of appearing “other” as a child, her uncanny attempts to alter her appearance and affinities in hopes of belonging, and the ways that 9/11 ultimately upended her understanding of her place as an immigrant in America.
Khakpour writes with clarity about her disillusionment, which in her 2018 book Sick: A Memoir was directed at the American health-care system while the writer battled Lyme disease. In The Brown Album, she expresses searing internal conflict with humor. “Very few people have that experience of wanting to claw out the window of an airplane to see the place they were born that they’re detached from,” she said of flying over Iran, where she has not yet been able to return. Khakpour’s longing for other worlds resonates throughout this provocative collection.
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.
You identify as a novelist in many of these essays. What do you find compelling about nonfiction and what makes you return to it?
It was never my plan to be a nonfiction writer. Even in the fiction world I identify pretty specifically as a novelist. I wanted to be honest—I would never have chosen to be a personal essayist or a memoir writer. I’ve said a lot in nonfiction and I don’t know if I need to continue to speak my truths over and over again. I don’t love the genre to be honest. I’m even a little suspicious of it.
Structurally, the book is organized in two parts. How did you go about organizing these essays?
This book—it’s a small percentage of all of the essays I’ve written. My editor Maria Goldverg was a big part of creating a narrative out of what was there. I knew I wanted to focus on the Iranian-American essays, especially after having done a very different book on identity before that, about illness. The last essays are chronological in a way, and then the latter half is the more recent stuff. The final essay has never been published.
I really liked your later essays in the book. You write, “It took 9/11 to make me realize I was culturally Muslim and proud, and that in spite of no practice, I would forever be part of the story of Islamophobia.” I was struck by the fact that this narrator couldn’t fully understand her place in this country as an immigrant until 9/11 forced her to. Why do you think it took external pressures for that reckoning to happen?
It’s sort of unfortunate that negative events shape our identity more than positive events. For me, becoming really connected to my Muslim or Middle Eastern heritage came from Islamophobia and anti-Middle Eastern sentiment. It actually made me kind of become defensive about who I was because I knew I was not part of the team that could make those jokes.
It’s sort of shameful in a way—that earlier I really wasn’t that connected to my culture in a sense. I was that typical first-born immigrant child who tries to assimilate. And in fact I was sort of mortified at being Iranian because there was so much anti-Iranian sentiment in the U.S. I wasn’t very connected to Islam. I don’t think my parents really call themselves Muslim—my mom might but my dad doesn’t want to, even though his mother was a Sufi. I’m not a person who participates in religious practice. It doesn’t mean I don’t believe in God or don’t identify as Muslim.
I’m really interested in this idea that assimilation isn’t really tenable in the long run, even if for the first half or so of your life, it works.
At some point you have to realize that the racists were right. They were correct about who I am, [about] my allegiance, all that—the ways that they could see me. Whereas ‘good liberals,’ people on my team, were like oh, you look like you’re white. Oh, I would have thought your name was Jessica, oh, you pass as one of us. I actually prefer the racists recognizing me as “other.” Their fucked-up interpretation of things was, for me, more satisfying.
I was thinking today about that whole “why don’t you go back to your country” thing, and I would like to do that. But I can’t actually go back to my country, so I’m going to go back to my continent. I really want to move to Asia. I don’t think America works for most of us. It only works for a very small percentage of people. And I don’t think it’s a safe place for people of color or immigrants, for anyone who can be othered.
On the subject of passing, I noticed that your narrator, in this book and in Sick, tries on different identities. At various times, she’s the blond, the cyberpunk china doll, the goth, the Italian, and finally, the New York City author. Does her “cultural confusion” lead her only down paths with dead ends? Or are they ultimately an enriching part of her journey?
Well, they are probably ultimately a dead end. But the journey is enriching in a way. I think it would be really unenriching if I fooled myself to somehow think, like, I actually was Italian. My next novel actually has a character in it who pretends to be Italian for a lot of her life so she can pass. She does it as a form of protection and then she really starts to inhabit it.
There are people who are really able to fool themselves into being a thing. I think for me they were always very short-lived. Even when I did blond hair. In that ‘Blond Girls’ essay, it’s important for me to emphasize that I never picked a natural shade of blond, whereas my mother and her friends would pick these more golden shades. I like the feeling of flirting with impossible identities a lot. Of course, that’s not going to take you that far. So dead end, probably.
Escape and hiding are recurring, though understated, themes throughout the book. How do you reconcile this urge to hide with your desire to tell a story, with your call to authorship? What, as an author, can’t you hide from?
Well, it’s funny. You don’t have to be an author on social media of course, but I am one. I am someone who will share things with people I don’t know. I’m fine with being out in the world. What does escape mean for me? Some of it was escaping from identity. I don’t really feel those things anymore. Now I just feel a much more literal escape—like I want to get away from America. When I was ill, I really wanted to leave illness, or leave my body at certain points when I was really down. So for me, escape becomes more and more literal as I get older. I’m not trying to escape who I am anymore.
Your essay about going to Jakarta is really moving. I haven’t been to a Muslim-majority country as an adult, but I sort of feel similarly in certain neighborhoods in Paris, where it’s like ah, okay this is speaking to a part of me that I’ve never seen externalized to this extent.
Right! When I had tickets to go to Indonesia with this writers festival, I hadn’t remembered that it was a Muslim country. I did these satellite programs in Semarang and Java and Jakarta. And it ended up being a trip that was all about Islam for me. I ended up tape-recording all these prayer calls. I got to see Islam in a whole other context that really let me get in touch with its beauty—out of a politicized context of violence and xenophobia and racism. It had a whole other meaning and interpretation in Indonesia. It was really magical for me.
In that same essay, there’s a scene in the airplane where you’re flying through Iranian airspace and standing at the window trying to get a glimpse of Iran. You write, “for a second I felt like my longing could fill the plane.” What does it mean to you to not have access to your country of birth or to the place where a sense of belonging would be clearest?
It’s kind of a big problem, because we never really know how much access we do have or not. Every few years I think, oh I’m gonna go, and then somebody will stop me, whether it’s an actual official, or whether it’s the news turning with Iran and you just know better.
It’s extremely frustrating that in all my adult life the only time I got to see Iran was flying over it. There’s so much lore around Iranian mountains, and I got this really clear view of them. It was very special but also very sad. Very few people have that experience of wanting to claw out the window of an airplane to see the place they were born that they’re detached from, just because of politics and revolution and war. But I feel confident that I will go back at some point and I’m excited to find some way to do it.
In Sick as well as this book, you describe a feeling of placelessness, of never quite being in the right place at the right time as you move between cities and countries. But each new context reflects a different facet of your identity back to you. In New York, you’re the girl from L.A., in L.A. you’re Iranian, in Mississippi you’re a New Yorker, in England you’re American, and in Jakarta you’re a ‘Muslim author.’ Can you say more about how you experience the contextuality of your identity?
It’s super weird, right? Even in different parts of New York, I would be interpreted differently depending on who is the majority in my neighborhood or my environment. Visually, I pass for so many different things. No one really knows where I’m from. I wasn’t born here but I don’t have an accent.
Fragmented identity is probably a pretty unique experience. And I think it’s maybe a good quality for a writer. It’s allowed me all these different lenses on the world. It’s been good in that way but maybe a little painful on a personal level. There’s a lot of shit I don’t have together. My personal life is always a little bit of a mess and probably has more in common with people in their twenties than with people in their forties. I’m not married, I don’t own property, I’m always kind of broke. I’m sort of messy as a person but less so perhaps as an artist.
In “The Brown Album” essay, you tackle something so real for Iranian-Americans, which is that so many of them claim and hold dear a belief in their own whiteness. I’m wondering why it’s important for you to insist on your brownness now?
I think it has been important for awhile, but now there’s a larger discourse around race. Iranians have gained visibility. And I’m exhausted with the fact that, even as they gain this visibility, they seem to still be insistent on having that initial assimilation instinct, to just fit into whatever they think Americanness is. It’s an error, what they were thinking anyways, because they were equating Americanness with whiteness. I was very grateful from a young age that my dad said we were brown. I’ve never for a single day identified as white, I’ve never filled out a bubble that says “Caucasian” even, I always found that uncomfortable.
A lot of people don’t realize that Iran is a country that’s a lot like the US. It’s made up of all sorts of different skin tones from different ethnicities. The whole south coast of Iran is black. People don’t even know that because Iranians themselves ignore Bandar Abbas. They’re black, as black as anyone from Africa and there’s an obvious reason for that—it’s the south coast of Iran, so you know why they’re black, because of the slave trade. So Iranians have to take part in that dialogue. It’s really important that that extends to us too. I found it weird when I was trying to write about Iran and race how little was written about that.
Being an immigrant and being chronically ill are experiences that relatively few people share. What audience did you have in mind for this collection?
I remember meeting Elizabeth Gilbert in Australia—her secret was that each book was written to a different person, and that really helped me. I feel like Sick was definitely for chronically ill people, but specifically chronically ill women of color. This book, I really wanted this for Iranian-Americans. I kind of resist the idea of the mainstream Iranian-American narrative, which is the affluent Iranian-Americans like Shahs of Sunset, for instance. My family has more in common with other immigrant groups than with the Iranian-Americans in L.A. So it’s also for immigrants or people close to the immigrant experience in some way.
I really appreciated your insistence on class throughout the book.
I get emails from Iranians talking about this point more than anything—that they’re so grateful that there’s an Iranian [writer] out there who’s okay with talking about class. The fact that I was lower-, lower-middle class at best—and I still continue to be—that’s been heartening for Iranians and I’m really happy about that.
To what extent do you identify as a bilingual writer? How do you negotiate experiences that you’ve lived in one language and written in another?
The more alienated I feel from America, the more I gravitate towards my first language. I have a very vivid memory of learning English, which I think is different from some people. I was very young but I remember it as a major trauma of my childhood. I had to learn to survive, not out of a cute kid’s instinct to be a hit on the playground. I was in fact really bullied and teased for being an English Language Learner and not great at English. And I really took it on myself to become really good at it and arguably to master it. I can still hear an audible relief in people who, when they hear me talk, are so relieved I can speak English. Because of my name, right? Of course I have an accent, it’s like California/New Yorker, but they worry that I’m going to be so foreign.
What or where is home for you? Is it a place, an idea, or a set of qualities that can be assembled anywhere?
New York is actually the place that’s felt the closest to home than anywhere. Just because it’s so international and worldly and liberal and messy and colorful and beautiful. I love it. I would live in New York forever if I could figure out a way to economically swing it. It’s the place I’ve now lived the longest—I moved here from L.A. when I was 18.
Where is home? I haven’t quite figured it out yet. I’m now middle-aged but I don’t think I can live here forever. I do know that now is the time I need to leave America for a good chunk. I grew up in an East-Asian community, it seems most likely to me that East Asia will be my next move. I just feel most at home with those cultures, after my own.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on Tehrangeles, my fifth book and third novel. I was writing it as a joke to keep myself entertained when my last actual novel wasn’t selling. We kept hearing rejections from New York publishers suggesting that I write a novel about Iranian women in L.A. So I would sort of devilishly create what they were all asking for, and realized I was actually interested in this weird satirical book.
At some point I decided I was going to base it off of Little Women, which I hate, just to clarify—I was really heartened to read that Louisa May Allcott never wanted to write that book. Tehrangeles is about the four daughters of the first Iranian-American reality TV family. But it’s also at a time of war with Iran, which recently almost happened in January. It’s hard to write because I have to develop a Valley girl stream of consciousness. I have a cat character that has its own language. I should be working on it literally right now. Even though these are ideal conditions for us to be working in, no one I know can work right now. Which is so funny to me, because this is all we’ve ever wanted as writers—to be at home working.
Where are you finding consolation now?
I don’t know if I am. I think we’re in uncharted waters. Maybe the only vaguely, kind of cliché thing is that nature is flourishing now that we’re all inside. It’s kind of funny and consoling that nature can be so forgiving and bounce back.
I think what’s important is that we have to be brave and we have to live without consolation. The design of life is intrinsically not consoling—we die. It’s like, Surprise! You put in all this effort and heartache and work but then you just die. I don’t think it’s natural to be at peace with [death]. It’s like those people who say no regrets. I used to joke with a friend that we could get tattoos that said only regrets. Seriously, I only regret. I regret it all, I would do it all differently.