A Messy, Raw, Maximalist: Porochista Khakpour

by Ann Barry Burrows

American writer Porochista Khakpour is hard at work on her second novel. She says it is not the novel she was meant to write—read:was expected to write—as an Iranian immigrant, as either a New York-based or homegrown L.A. writer, or as a young woman with enough wit and verve in her prose to get her likened to Philip Roth in reviews of her critically acclaimed debut.

At Old Dominion University’s 34th Annual Literary Festival in October 2011, Khakpour presented on the theme, “The Lie that Tells the Truth,” speaking mainly of busting expectations for the female memoir. She read from her 2007 novel, Sons and other Flammable Objects, hopped a train bound for Dulles International Airport and then headed to her Picador Guest Fellowship for Literature in the American Studies Program at the University of Leipzig in Germany.

By December she was giving readings in Berlin and involved with students on the level of negotiating, as “practitioners of literature,” to use the university term, the differences in language and cultural preferences. She has held similar fellowship positions since her novel won the California Book Award prize for first fiction. Also, it was listed as a New York Times editor’s choice and Chicago Times Fall’s best, as well as a Dylan Thomas Prize contender.

Asked via email how she created a second novel following closely on her first, she replied: “I began the second novel a few years ago. Everything was different this time around. For one thing, I had published one book so there was this idea this would also get published. With the first one, I never imagined it would get to that stage, so there was little to lose. The stakes felt higher here and so it was rather difficult. I avoided writing for a while after my first novel came out. But then I had a summer of nothing but residencies and I was basically forced to write and suddenly, it came. In terms of subject matter though, this novel is much more me. It’s partially a fabulist tale. In my head it looks like a graphic novel or comic book really, all animated. It’s far less to do with my own personal history. I basically wrote the novel I always wanted to read – that was my main mission. Which is actually a harder battle than one might imagine—after a first novel, especially one that’s somewhat critically successful, there is this idea of the novel you should write. This isn’t that one.”

The personal history in which Khakpour engages in Sons and other Flammable Objects is, of course, Iranian. The old Persian myths are brought to bear in a tale of an immigrant father and son that is contemporary, spicy, and crisscrossed by shadows. The themes of nationality and relocation are fused with those of identity and feelings within family. The resulting stew is heated by hypnotically fanciful prose to an end that is poignant and even essential in its terms for reconciliation in a fractured world. Of course, the old stories rendered hardly resemble a history lesson:

“ … their ill-founded dynasties and incest-maddened emperors and the backward invasions and the shaky kingdoms built by homicide and suicide and even infanticide that directed the baddest karma like well-trained bloodhounds, all the unsound blood in the sand and restless spirits behind the sun from Before Christ, destined by history’s tireless cyclical soul to derail all the AD to come.” (from Sons and other Flammable Objects)

Naturally, Khakpour references her Iranian roots, but for an interesting purpose: “Well, before I wrote this novel I was never interested in writing about Iranians or Iranian-Americans. It took forcing myself to write about my own background to actually become interested in it. Much of it I knew—I grew up in a traditional Iranian family, with a father who was obsessed with Persian mythology and history—but I definitely had to go back and do research. I actually had to read some Herodotus for that second chapter, which riffs on the ancient genealogy of my protagonists’ names. I never thought I’d enjoy that until I did it. So interestingly, the writing has often led me to choosing subjects and becoming invested in research, not the other way around. It’s always language—the art—that moves me first. When I have the sound, the rhythm, the style, the ambience and mood, then I can get to the rest. I suppose I’m a bit of a language writer.”

The word research may give a clue to Khakpour’s original blend of spontaneity and precision, humor and poignancy. As she says, the language flows out of her, but then there is the matter of art: “I do first drafts very fast—very little looking back. But then I spend years revising and redrafting. I try to keep the energy of that first draft but with the discipline, focus, and polish of a 20th draft in the end.”

A critical point of craft, to pick just one, may be her use of adjectives. It reminds, perhaps, of author Barry Hannah, and the joyful expectation that develops when a reader is in the hands of a writer who will do pirouettes and nosedives with language – all to a good end. Notably, Hannah used adjectives, more than one, more than three, more than usually advised or accepted, producing effects such as this one from his short story “Testimony of Pilot “: “mutinous helium bursts around Saturn.” He would also rearrange a sentence, placing phrases in unexpected places to do a miner’s duty of jolting a reader and driving deeper into an attentive consciousness:

“… when his ex-wife from New Hampshire showed up naked with a single-shotgun gun that was used in the Franco-Prussian War – it was a quaint piece hanging on the wall in their house when he was at Dartmouth—and screaming.” (from Hannah’s story “Love Too Long”)

Meaning-rich and piled-on modifiers and clever syntax produce a lulling lyrical effect in Khakpour’s work, as well. There is reward for intense reading, and there are few ways to avoid the delicious entrapment of her prose:

“It was hard for him to pretend not to have heard that final, certainly improvised, incredibly effective arsenal-morsel. What Mrs. Cook, his last elementary school teacher, had once referred to as the ‘effin word’ had suddenly surfaced naked, loud, and toxic in all its verboten glory, like a defecating bogeyman, perfectly and shockingly used by, of all people, an adult, and adult stranger, over, of all things, his father’s mission to put bells on a bunch of annoying, bird-hungry cats. Xerxes was thrilled.” (fromSons and other Flammable Objects)

Khakpour displays complete security about her language choices, which often include relational and cultural markers. She routinely engages a rapt audience. “I think at some point I decided as much as I love Hemingway and Salter and Carver, I am not a minimalist,” she says. “I am a messy, raw, maximalist and I decided to allow myself all the too-many words I wanted. It can be a problem sometimes. I have to be a good editor and often I miss the mark and get gluttonous about my words. But the excess often suits my subjects and the rhythms of my sentences, or so I tell myself.”

Imagine you are a tourist, and all the tour guides on your trip are comedians. If the amusement is skillful, it can become as alluring as the new sights before you. Khakpour says that humor infiltrates her work because, simply, that is who she is. “Humor is a part of me, really. I don’t think it’s for everyone or all great fiction needs it. Many writers I love are very unfunny. But I have always been a prankster and jokester. I’m silly and irreverent. It makes its way into what I write inevitably,” she says.

Khakpour is also an accomplished non-fiction writer, including works in 2011 such as a 9/11 anniversary retrospective from an Iranian immigrant perspective, and a memoir essay centering on her father and her failed refusal to take a humiliating camel ride when she was young in Pasadena, California. The callous notions of a “camel jockey” or a “dune goon,” and their association with unacceptability for Middle Eastern immigrants, figures prominently in her published novel, as well. These days she is older, adult, experienced, a critically accepted writer on the world stage, and still joking. Khakpour continues to pursue essay, memoir and other non-fiction outlets in addition to her teaching and fiction writing, working fluidly between these forms of expression. She describes this intention as absolute. “They come from entirely different sides of me. And I procrastinate from one with the other—which is great, procrastinating from writing by writing,” she says.

Click here to go to Porochista Khakpour’s website.

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Ann Barry Burrows is a writer from Norfolk, Virginia. Before she turned to freelance work and fiction writing, she won state awards for her work on the staff of the The Virginian-Pilot daily newspaper, and she was a staff writer for Georgia Trend monthly business magazine among others. Ann also taught health in villages of Kenya and Nicaragua, where she helped to install water systems. A second-year participant in Old Dominion University’s creative writing program, her short fiction has appeared in Alimentum Journal, and she continues to work on a novel.