Uli Beutter Cohen
Porochista Khakpour, born in Tehran and raised in Los Angeles, is the author of the novels The Last Illusion and Sons and Other Flammable Objects. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Bookforum, Vice, Slate, ELLE and many more. She has taught at Columbia among other institutions and is a writer in residence at Bard College. Her memoir Sick, which is about living with late-stage Lyme Disease, will be published by HarperPerennial in 2018. We met Porochista at The Wing, where she runs the book club and is the good soul of literature.
You live in New York, but you’ve made it a point to see as many places in the U.S. as possible.
I’ve been lucky. I’ve taught in various schools all over the country and have traveled cross-country 11 times now! I’ve seen every continental state but one: North Dakota. I got all the way to South Dakota — I should have just gone! What’s wrong with me? If you’re going to South Dakota, just shoot up for a second. But really, I love American travel in such a big way. When we left Iran, we first went to Turkey, where we had relatives and friends, and then all over Europe. Sometimes you’d find little communities of Iranians here and there, but by the time we got to the U.S., we had that immigrant perspective on America which was a little bit, uh, overly optimistic, let’s say.
Like “American Dream” optimistic?
A part of me is still wired like that. I am a refugee. We left the Iran-Iraq war on political asylum. As bad as things are in America, I have a tendency to believe that this is still better than the places a lot of us come from. It’s hard to say. Trump’s America is hideous. Our clerics in Iran are making more sense right now than this guy.
It seems like you make a big effort to see the world through the eyes of people, not a nation.
I’m not very interested in nationalism and have never felt attached to just one culture. I’m interested in the whole world and in what connects us. For a lot of us, who are immigrants and refugees, there’s not one particular place where we belong. I’ve been able to find my people wherever I go. Sometimes they’re not necessarily Iranians, or a certain type of person, like an LA person or a New York person. It’s been interesting to see what the common ground can be — and it’s always a surprise.
Isn’t that nice, that the common ground is a surprise?
Yes, yes. Being a journalist has helped me with that. I’ve learned to be an observer and a guest in other people’s space at the same time. On my cross-country trips, one thing I share with people is enthusiasm for food. I’m not particularly interested in health food culture. I like regional American foods. The same goes for music. I don’t allow anyone to play their podcasts when they go on a road trip with me. We listen to the local radio wherever we are, and we have to talk to local people. We can’t just go on Yelp.
I’ve learned to be an observer and a guest in other people’s space at the same time.
All of the algorithms and preference settings make us miss so many things.
There’s too much of that — anticipating what people are like and then putting them in these boxes. I see that as a problem with Millennial culture. There’s too much prediction, prescription, and culture of advice. You’re not giving the person a chance to step outside of that. You’re saying, “Oh this person who’s Iranian-American, this person who grew up in suburban LA, they will respond to these things in this way.” I’ve been an outsider my whole life. I don’t belong to any culture. It always feels like a miracle when I’m like, “Ah, this really coincides with me.” I don’t expect that.
People are looking to be part of a specific community or culture, maybe now more than ever.
Yes, I mean we’re at The Wing, which is amazing. People of all sorts of backgrounds and different vocations come here. You could never predict who they are and it’s not just a place of leisure. It could have been that, but it’s not, which is really heartening for me and why I love my Wing book club. We have all sorts of families here in a sense.
A place to belong now that we’re all nomads and are moving away from our actual families.
Exactly, and there’s always a fine print with any family you walk into. There’s always a door that you could leave through. Freedom is a big, important concept, especially for Iranian-Americans. We had so many freedoms taken away from us and here the cost of freedom is very high. We actually end up talking about a lot of these issues in our book club. We talk about racism, feminism, every -ism on earth. It’s funny, no matter what we pick, the -ism is there.
What has the book club been reading?
Our first book was Witches of America by Alex Mar. Then we did Swing Time by Zadie Smith, Red Car by Marcy Dermansky, Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember by Christine Hyung-Oak Lee and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I hope we do Esme Wang’s The Border of Paradise this summer. It’s an incredible debut novel and Esme was selected by Granta as one of the Best of Young American Novelists. If someone wants to read along with what we’re reading, I blast it on my social media every month.
Let’s talk about your books and your writing process.
Different books require different actions. I tend to write the first draft very fast and then I spent years editing it. That’s my preferred way to work. During that process, I tend not to talk about it a lot. I don’t want other people’s advice. I want to remember my own instincts. My degree of suffering during that second novel was just cataclysmic, I mean it. That second book is just soaked in blood.
Wasn’t the Shahnameh, a very important book for Iranians, super influential on your second book?
Yes. It’s the most influential text for Iranians. I often describe it a combo of the Old Testament, Chaucer, and The Odyssey. It’s ingrained in our culture and we all reference it. My father wanted to preserve our culture in America, so he would read me those stories at night as a child when I would have severe insomnia and depression. I had such deep anxieties about my American-ness. There was the story of Zal in the Shahnameh that became huge for me. I knew that I would write about that story because it had the greatest outsider narrative — and the only happy outsider narrative that I had ever read.
Your books are about boys, fathers, and sons. Is there a reason that you choose the male experience for your stories?
I have so many different thoughts on this. For one, as a child, I ended up reading the Western canon and a lot of books were written by men and about men. I would go to the library and ask the librarian, “Can you tell me which books the important writers in New York read?” and they would give me The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. By default, my idols were a lot of male writers.
Second, I come from a culture where women are hugely underestimated. Daughters are often ignored and sons are everything. I had this strong sense of feminism at a young age and I saw a lot of tragedy in the world of men. Both of my books deal with fallen masculinity and men that have caused incredible destruction in the world. In both books, the women are the heroes. In order to write about women, I have to write from the perspective of the ruins of the world that we’re in right now. I’m very much a feminist and I’m also a realist.
Your new book Sick is coming out in 2018. It’s a memoir and about your life with a chronic illness, late-stage Lyme Disease.
This was not a book I’ve ever intended on writing. In fact, I never thought I would be a nonfiction writer. When I started talking very publicly on social media about my issues with illness, a lot of people started writing me from around the world. I didn’t want to be a spokesman for the illness and had all these reservations about “another marginal identifier”. Then I realized it’s way more important to have this book out, because there weren’t any that spoke to me.
When did you find out that you had Lyme Disease?
My guess is I got Lyme somewhere between 2006 to 2009. I was not taken seriously and my diagnoses were all over the place. I was told I had various cancers, ALS, MS, advanced scleroderma, diabetes — every health problem on the planet. What complicated it further, is that I was becoming addicted to benzodiazepines at this time. Doctors would constantly give me anti-anxiety medication and I’m a very addictive person. It turned into another huge monster. Several times in my journey with illness, I didn’t know whether I should be going to rehab, a hospital, or a psych ward. That sort of nightmare is why I think this story needs to be told. There’s shame around all of these things: physical illness, mental illness, addiction. Add a woman of color and of a different culture to it, and you end up with infinite amounts of shame. It’s not useful for us to go through these experiences and not talk about them. Esme and I met through Lyme Disease, for example.
It’s not useful for us to go through these experiences and not talk about them.
Given that so many human rights are under attack, what do you read that helps you keep it together?
My media diet is so bleak right now. I end up reading a lot of awful things just to see what the alt-right is doing. I like to keep an eye on them! I’m like, “What is Richard Spencer saying? Alex Jones? Bill Mitchell?” Fucking assholes. I’m in a moment of trauma and my media diet reflects that, but I am also trying to be vigilant. It’s a combination of everything. I love Brain Pickings, Electric Literature, Largehearted Boy, The Paris Review Daily, The Offing, New Yorker’s Pageturner, Guernica, Buzzfeed Reader and Book Riot, among others.
Do you have any reading rituals?
I try to read two times a day. When I wake up and before I go to bed. And one tends to be something for my work, the other is just for pleasure. There’s a wonderful book of poems by Chiwan Choi called The Yellow House that I’ve just fallen in love with.
Are there specific books that are fortifying you on your journey?
Clarice Lispector is one of those authors that I can’t get enough of. Forthcoming books by mentors of mine Victoria Redel and Danzy Senna are knocking me out. There are so many contemporary writers that I think are amazing but I can’t just pick one…Don’t make me! It gives me anxiety trying to remember them all. But I’ll write about it and always make sure people know in the end. I’m not shy about many things, least of all books!
I’m in a moment of trauma, but I am also trying to be vigilant.