POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR’S DEBUT NOVEL Sons and Other Flammable Objects is an award-winning dark lyrical comedy. The novel revolves around the Adams family — Darius, Lala, and Xerxes — and pays special attention to the father, Darius (who for all Persian readers will have an allegorical relation to Darius the Great, who ruled at the height of the Persian Empire), and his American-born son Xerxes. The Adamses immigrate to the United States after the Iranian Revolution. As Darius attempts to transplant his Iranian roots into Los Angeles’s soil, Xerxes tries to forget his hyphenated identity, a silent signifier for social stigma given the novel’s post-9/11 context. Eden Gardens, the apartment complex where Xerxes grows up, inverts the reference to innocent, prelapsarian human relations, re-envisioning Eden as home to “the not so fragile types like The Drug Dealer and The Sorority Girls.” Xerxes longs to sever himself from his Iranian parents, and when he moves to New York for college, he doesn’t look back, living paycheck to paycheck and surviving on Fruity Pebbles. When his father visits New York and shares a rather disturbing story from his childhood, though, memories of his family and distant homeland return to him. Xerxes’s response is far from sympathetic or understanding, and their relationship strains further, especially when the Twin Towers fall, and Xerxes’s already tenuous notions of self come crashing down with them.
During Ms. Khakpour’s recent visit to Santa Clara University to discuss the intersections between “Family, Ethnicity & Politics” in her writing, we had a chance to sit down for this interview.
Roxanne Rashedi: One of the things that struck me about Sons and Other Flammable Objects — and there were many — was the way you seamlessly shifted through varying geographic locations and temporal spaces. While the members of the Adams family are foreigners in America, they live in Los Angeles, home to one of the biggest Iranian diaspora communities in the world. I found it interesting that while there was a diverse community in the Eden Gardens complex, there was still no other Iranian family mentioned living there or in the surrounding area. Was this intentional? Or, was this a function of your own upbringing in Pasadena, removed from Los Angeles’s heavily Iranian-populated Westside and Valley?
Porochista Khakpour: Bingo — yes, I grew up quite isolated from Los Angeles’s famous Iranian diaspora. And by that I mean we were about 30–45 minutes away depending on freeway traffic. We’d make weekend treks to Tehrangeles for Persian food and it was almost like visiting the zoo or going to Disneyland. It was another world. Back home in South Pasadena, I was the only Iranian in my grade and one of a handful of Middle Easterners in the entire school system. I was definitely friends with other immigrants, but I remember almost resenting the one or two other Iranian families in our tiny city, because it felt like we were obligated to be their friends. I wanted to write about that specific world of mine instead of writing about immigrants in a fairly homogenous immigrant enclave, which is what you always expect when reading about any immigrant or ethnic group. Well, I wanted to write about what was interesting to me about suburban lower-middle-class Los Angeles — that mixing of ethnic groups and eclectic immigrant identities where everyone who was “other” just kind of stuck together. White people were the majority and we made up the alternative, but what was great was that none of us had anything in common, other than the fact that we were not white. And not rich — that was the other thing, the class element. I wanted to write about Iranians who didn’t just come to the United States with a ton of money and become instant socialites. They rarely get written about or depicted, Iranians of a lower class who just barely stayed afloat here and, well, you have to break out of Tehrangeles, home of the richest Iranians in the United States, to find them. Even if it’s just 30–45 minutes away.
RR: I was fascinated with the names in this novel. The pronunciations, meanings in English and Farsi, and the history behind father Darius and son Xerxes were intricate and intriguing. Xerxes tries to escape his family and culture and even ventures out to the other coast, yet his name is a constant identifier to others and to himself about who he is and where he comes from. When he has to explain his name, he in effect recounts a history that he can’t quite relate to. What does your own name mean? So let me ask you about your own name, and what role, if any, has it had in perhaps forming an awareness of or sensitivity to the power of names, which comes across in Sons?
PK: Perhaps it had a role. I’m not sure. My own name is an ancient Zoroastrian one, the daughter of Zarathustra. And what’s funny is that it’s entirely foreign to Iranians as well. Iranians and Americans alike can’t pronounce it. It’s a very nerdy, obscure, and a slightly hippie name. And I guess, in a sense, it forced me to be even more different than I already was. It was the first obstacle in meeting me — how the hell do you say her name? So it was just another way this immigrant kid was labeled “weird.” And I owned it. I resisted nicknames, pen names, etc. The names “Darius” and “Xerxes” are not uncommon names but their last name “Adam” is entirely made up — it just means “human” in Farsi. There is a way in which the book is stylized and that was part of that — I wanted realism of course, but I also wanted it to operate a bit outside of real life, on a sort of stage where my characters get to play actor-versions of themselves, if that makes any sense.
RR: Your novel has epigraphs from Sadegh Hedayat and Forough Farrokhzad. What influence has Persian literature had on your work?
PK: Hedayat and Farrokhzad are great literary heroes of mine so it made sense that they appear on my epigraph page. Those two and Ferdowsi are deeply in my blood. The Shahnameh or “Book of Kings” is the inspiration for my second novel, which actually attempts to recreate one of its most indelible threads. But that’s about it. I grew up mostly reading the Western canon.
RR: I recall the splendid reading, which you and Danzy Senna presented at the Folger Shakespeare Library back in 2011, where you mentioned that you were working a second novel. Are you finished writing it?
PK: We just sold it a couple months ago. It’s coming out in June 2014 from Bloomsbury. I am putting a few edits here and there in place and it’s basically done. It’s entirely different.
RR: I understand that you’re a fan of Victorian literature, namely Wuthering Heights and works from Melville and Hawthorne. Why these particular authors? And have they influenced your writing and/or writing process?
PK: I used to be, but not so much anymore. Honestly, I love 20th-century American literature the best. Melville is a true love though. Moby-Dick means more to me than almost any novel — it taught me what experimental writing was all about. Faulkner is another one — I read all his works as a teenager and his rhythms, pacing, cadences, everything, are in all of my sentences. He was my greatest teacher. I just love great stylists. Later, James Salter taught me a great deal about how to tell a story without sacrificing the brushstrokes — there is always plot but there is also always art.
RR: I have heard you comment on your frustration with the recent emergence of Iranian women’s memoirs, specifically the similarities in subject matters, character development, themes, settings, and the intended audience. Was this frustration in mind when you wrote your novel? Did you hope to explore and create something different and was this one of the reasons you decided to focus more so on fathers and sons, for instance?
PK: I was just not interested in them. I kept thinking surely there is something more. I just couldn’t believe there were so many Iranian memoirs that were nearly identical; they told the same old story with the same old depictions. I grew tired of them, and I wanted to tell them, as pretentious as this might sound: I’m an artist too, and I’ve done more than live. I’ve created lives other than my own. I just think this rush of memoir writing added very little to the very exciting concept of a new, emerging artistic expression, particularly for diasporic peoples. I kept wondering where the fiction was. And it came and has evolved with time and patience. But sometimes, writers get lazy or editors think more along the dollar signs, especially since it just seems no accident that the stories delivered are exactly the ones that white Americans expect and look forward to. They are predictable plot lines and a story the American public knows well. But that’s not the whole story. I am interested in the other stories that don’t get told as often, the more complicated ones that, in effect, complete the picture.
RR: My students want to know: How do you write? Do you write everything out longhand first and then type it up on a computer? What’s the process like for you, and where do your stories come from? What inspires you to start and what keeps you committed to finishing a project?
PK: I write on a computer, my MacBook Air, currently. I am too messy for longhand. I write very raw, ugly, illiterate first drafts very quickly (novels are always in first draft in under a year) and then I spend years and years fine-tuning, revising, editing, etc. What inspires me? Who knows. I am not inspired that much. That’s why I write long form fiction — I am not much of a short story writer. Ideas come seldom, but when a good one comes, I really stick to it and see it out. I’m a problem-solver — I’ve never thrown out an entire manuscript; I’ve always forced myself to repair it until it was a lovable thing again.
RR: “To MFA or not,” is a question many writers ask themselves. Many established writers seem to be encouraging young writers to explore low-residency MFA programs and/or external writing workshops like VONA, Las Dos Brujas, and so on. As one of the leading contemporary Iranian-American writers, what role, if any, do you see yourself playing in community outreach?
PK: Well, I’ve been teaching pretty much nonstop since 2007. I am very committed to teaching writing and I do believe in MFAs and all that. I don’t know if I think specifically about getting Iranian-Americans to write. I suppose I should encourage them to be something other than doctors, lawyers, and engineers, as their parents often wish. But I think while writing can be therapy for some and just a great hobby for others, it’s not necessarily a solid life path for most. I wouldn’t wish it upon everyone. I don’t feel ecstatic when a young kid tells me, “I want to be a writer when I grow up.” It’s a very hard life. It’s full of rejection and dead ends and sometimes devastating solitude, and it often does not allow you to be that normal, well-adjusted person we often dream of being. A life in the fringes, barely scraping by, living in your head all the time — I don’t know. I know it was the right choice for me, but I’m careful not to assume this will work for everyone.