Born in Esfahan, Iran, Khadivi is the recipient of a Whiting Award for Fiction, a Pushcart Prize, and a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts Grant. She recently sat down with me in Berkeley one evening after she’d put her two young sons to bed.
JENNIFER KAPLAN: In your first novel, The Age of Orphans, we meet a Kurdish boy who goes from child slave to soldier of the regime that massacred his family. In the second, The Walking, we follow a next-generation son during the Islamic Revolution. Now, in your new book, A Good Country, we meet the third generation, Rez, a typical, privileged Southern California teenager, a son of Iranian immigrants, as he comes of age and becomes radicalized. How does A Good Country stand on its own, and how are the three books connected as a trilogy?
LALEH KHADIVI: The trilogy is very loose. I wanted people to be able to enter into any of the books and feel a completeness without having to be tied to the other books. A Good Country stands alone in that it's a book that takes place today, or maybe five years ago, and captures a phenomenon in the West that is recognizable: the radicalization of the children of immigrants. The ancestors of the main character Rez, his parents, and his grandparents, are very faintly mentioned. If you haven’t read the other books, you won’t notice. But if you have, the connection with the grandfather and the father, who Rez does not have a connection to, which I think is very true of many immigrant kids, will add to the wealth of your imagination.
That said, the idea of the trilogy is really important to me, to be able to place Rez in a historical context. I wanted to show how he’s inherited the trauma of landlessness and not belonging. This robbing of a person’s sense of belonging and identity is the first scar. Rez’s father inherits the damage, the ways in which men are made vulnerable by nationalism and by that kind of citizenship and that kind of desire for belonging to a nation. For me to see the ways in which — over generations, especially through generations of men — a sort of tragedy plays out was very important. Rez feels the need to find his origins and to be in a place where his persona is not questioned or discriminated against. I wanted Rez’s desire to move back to the Middle East to be a kind of circle, a return.
When did you first start thinking about Rez?
I began thinking about children of immigrants in Europe and their families, who had moved there to raise them as Europeans in the supposed blissful light of European democracies. Their families left Turkey, left Iraq, left Afghanistan, left Syria, left India, and now these young people were rebelling and going back. Some of them were doing it quietly, and some of them were doing it loudly, and some of them were staying and being violent on European soil as part of a radicalization that had taken place online.
I grew up in this country as an Iranian American, and I get it. There was always a sense that there was a ceiling for who I could be. I didn’t know how that worked, and I wanted to investigate it. That was what brought me close, the question of: How do you get to be American? And by American I mean, how do you get to be comfortable here? Not just financially comfortable. How do you get to be comfortable in your skin? With your hair and your face and your name?
Is that why you wrote from the perspective of a teenage boy?
I don’t know. My editor thinks that I am a boy, which I find hilarious and convenient for him. But in my first book, I wanted to write about a certain change of human dynamic that happens when people start leaving their tribes and belonging to state nations. I kept on trying with these female characters, and I couldn’t do it because the females couldn’t leave the house. In the Middle East at that time (the 1920s), if you were a woman you couldn’t just traipse down to the square and have a conversation. It wasn’t allowed. I couldn’t get them to the places I needed them to go, so I started to write from a man’s perspective, and I could go wherever I wanted.
Masculinity is more interesting in this regard, because when you write about men the rules are very obvious. There’s no pretending that there’s fairness. There is this idea of masculinity. Men will be honored at the higher rate, have access to more wealth, more power, whereas there is sparseness around the topic of women. I thought about Rez as a kid who wanted to buy into that system, who wanted more than anything to be American.
And, who doesn’t want to write teenagers? Everything is happening. They can wake up one morning as a Christian and go to bed as a Jew or a Muslim. That’s what adolescence is. You start high school as one thing and you end as something else. Physically, emotionally, trying to figure out where you belong. They’re very fecund for narrative.
There’s a lot of drugs and sex in the book.
There is a lot of drugs and sex. Have you been a teenager? I was teaching at Oakland School of the Arts while writing this book, and I thought, This is interesting. The students were very alive in a volatile way, really crazy. They were very interesting, really smart, and pushing boundaries. There’s a way in which the distance between youth and adulthood is becoming very, very small, especially when it comes to drugs and sex and that sort of pushing the body. But when it comes to actually maturing spiritually and emotionally and intellectually, that period is becoming longer.
What was the most interesting thing you learned while writing A Good Country?
The biggest knot that I had to untangle was the ideas around conversion, because I am not a practicing religious person, and because I was raised in the shadow of Islam. It was in my house, it was in my parents’ lives, but it wasn’t a pillar that we were gathered around. The United States rewards its immigrants for not being devout, for coming to the god of capitalism. I had to learn — and I don’t think I’ve learned it all the way — what belief was. What it meant to go from not believing in anything to believing that there was value to religion and religion was going to lead you to make decisions to leave your life and your family.
I did a lot of research on people who had had religious conversion experiences. I read Ecstatic Confessions by Martin Buber and found the idea that a character can go suddenly from godless to godful. Rez doesn’t go all the way. He wants other things too, like community and belonging. But there’s something in religion that is enchanting, and he gets that, because it hasn’t been in the rest of his life. I learned a lot about what it would be like to be a teenage boy of privilege in a rich neighborhood in the United States. And a lot about what it would be like to be a boy who’s both accepted and not accepted at the same time.
If I had to describe the learning process as a hundred steps, this book took me on the first five or 10. The process of conversion was the most difficult to conjure, because I couldn’t get it wrong. If I got it wrong, then the whole thing would sink.
Why do you think we Americans are so interested in radicalization?
Because it’s dangerous. It’s scary. Radicalization is a word that’s come into the vernacular in the last few years, and it has been associated with suicide bombers and with children of immigrants of color who have disavowed their lives and their allegiances to the countries that they were raised in. There is something very threatening about switching teams mid-game. I think that’s what’s going on, and Americans are fascinated by it because it is completely foreign to them.
When a person chooses the unknown or chooses violence it is interesting, because the United States is built largely on notions of defensiveness and comfort. That’s the opposite of what the radical does. The radical engages, provokes, is willing to forgo comfort and security, and is willing to be offensive rather than defensive. That’s scary to people, not just Americans. It’s scary to humans.
You include three epitaphs, three definitions of the word “radical.” What are you trying to say?
For me, writing is about the words. For a lot of people it’s about the story, but I’m not that interested in the story. I’m interested in language. The word “radical” comes from somewhere, it wasn’t just invented yesterday. I looked at how the word came to us from science, from unpredictability and a kind of chaos. The free radical. It is not attached to anything, and therefore you cannot appeal to it. I can’t predict what it is going to do. If you take that writ large and have a bunch of people in your society who do not think their lives on this earth, in this realm, are as valuable as they could be in heaven, there is an implicit danger there. The experience of mass shootings in the United States — the white American men who punish others with their darkness — is another kind of radicalization.
When you take a word to its base it then opens. It starts to mean everything. That’s really interesting to me. If I think about a word and how it originated, why humans have evolved to use it, then my imagination turns on. If I think about how humans have been trying to communicate a notion for a long time, the notion becomes very small and crisp and tight. There’s something that makes me want to understand how we as humans are connected to all the people who came before us. My job is to remove how we now think and allow the reader to feel the original intention of the language. It’s all the same. Jealousy, euphoria, ecstasy, fear. Shakespeare, basically.
Do you think Rez’s experience was purely damaging, or did it yield anything positive in his life?
I think there was positive. You would have to be a deeply devout American to think that the system works for everybody, that it’s all good. I think Rez is moving toward becoming a better version of himself, something that doesn’t have anything to do with getting a good degree from a nice university or having a fancy job or living a good upper-middle-class life. What he seeks is a brotherhood with other people, in a community where he can offer his services and in return be accepted. That’s the journey I feel a lot of people make when they convert, and when these kids radicalize. Some are out for the guns and the blood, but some are out for something different. Because there’s a way in which American culture encourages loneliness and ostracization. The idea that you can’t belong unless you fit all these bills and there’s a different way in other cultures. But that’s not the truth. You belong regardless.
Jennifer Kaplan is a freelance writer who is working on a memoir about her mother, sex therapist Helen Singer Kaplan.