Porochista Khakpour’s outstanding new e book, Brown Album: Essays on Exile and Id, tells a deeply transferring—and infrequently startling—story of being brown-skinned in America. Starting from Los Angeles to New York to Mississippi, these uncompromisingly sincere essays are humorous and despairing, poignant and trenchant, as they discover alienation and the seek for house.

Born in Tehran, Khakpour fled the Iranian Revolution together with her household and settled in Los Angeles. The ache of leaving her nation was intensified by the hostility and racism she encountered as a refugee in ’80s America, when Iranian-American relations had been at a low level. “Think about you’re a child, barely in elementary faculty, and also you’re already confronted with individuals simply hating you,” Khakpour says. The trauma of these early years runs by the essays in Brown Album in addition to Khakpour’s different work: two novels, Sons and Different Flammable Objects (2007) and The Final Phantasm (2014), and a memoir, Sick (2018), which chronicles her struggles with despair, drug habit, and Lyme illness.

Khakpour moved to New York for school and now lives in Queens. She hasn’t chosen a household life, one thing her mother and father are “a bit heartbroken” about; her mom referred to as her “wild horse” when she was younger, a nickname that embodied how her grandmothers considered her. “My grandmas cherished that I used to be rebellious,” Khakpour says, “they usually noticed actual freedom in me that they by no means knew as a result of they had been illiterate youngsters once they had youngsters.” In her grandmothers’ Sufi Muslim tradition, girls who didn’t get married and have youngsters had been accepted. “These girls turned the city sages. They had been not sexualized, or seen as merely matriarchal; they had been seen as lecturers, or activists. That’s me.”

With Khakpour’s customary poodle, Cosmo, trying on, we spoke over Zoom on a New York night and Tokyo morning in regards to the contradictions and conflicts Khakpour has skilled within the many years since fleeing Iran, and delved into creativeness, inventive freedom, and why she’s planning to go away America.

—Ann Tashi Slater for Guernica

Guernica: How’s it going with the launch of Brown Album?

Porochista Khakpour: Just a few years in the past, I felt like I by no means needed to write down once more, as a result of each time a e book comes out,  I’m so pressured. The entire means of being scrutinized to dying by all these blogs and publications, individuals with bizarre requests. And I’m an extrovert!

However the publishing course of with this e book has been so optimistic that I really feel like, I may do this once more. A part of the enjoyment is that everybody who’s interviewed me, such as you, has been a lady with some connection to the subject material of the e book—whether or not they’re immigrants, whether or not they’ve handled xenophobia and racism, no matter their slice of America or their relationship to America. I really feel like, after 4 books and years of labor, lastly I’m attracting the proper individuals.

Guernica: Brown Album consists of essays from over a decade of your writing, in addition to new work. What led to the concept for the e book?

Khakpour: In 2009, an editor prompt I strive an essay assortment. I used to be barely thirty, and I believed, Why on earth would anybody learn an essay assortment by a younger lady? We didn’t have Jia Tolentino, and these younger abilities now we have now who're placing out essay collections of their twenties. Nonetheless, I offered this e book, together with my subsequent novel, to the Knopf Doubleday group. And I labored with the right editor, Maria Goldverg. She’s the daughter of immigrants and understands the world I come from.

Guernica: You write about feeling “unending id angst” and “the existential confusion of a two-pronged id.” Are you able to discuss your id and the way it’s advanced?

Khakpour: Id is usually a response to another pressure at play, to the dominant tradition round you, proper? I’ve all the time thought of America as white America, and for me, Iranian id is in opposition to that. Xenophobia and racism had been my definitive cultural expertise rising up. They formed how I considered id—in response to the toxic poisonous impressions of us. For individuals who don’t perceive, all they must do is learn a historical past e book about Iranian-American relations within the ’80s. All of the jokes had been about Iranians, and it was mainstream to hate Iran. That was so painful, and compelled me right into a bizarre cultural delight that’s not regular for younger youngsters. 

I’ve had individuals inform me eternally, “Oh, you’re so obsessive about race, ethnicity.” I completely am, due to my early experiences in America. You’d assume that, having come from Iran to Los Angeles within the ’80s, I wouldn’t have needed something to do anymore with the information and politics, however I turned increasingly more of an activist. For me, the formative occasion, earlier than 9/11, was the LA riots. I keep in mind the riots vividly. I used to be fourteen. I keep in mind considering, that is if you determine who you stand with. It was a no brainer to face with the Black neighborhood, and the Asians who stood with the Black neighborhood. I leaned into this concept that who I used to be on a private, personal degree didn’t matter as a lot as who I used to be ideologically. So I’ve all the time been a type of bummer—individuals invite me to a celebration or a dinner, and inside a couple of minutes I’m ranting about politics. I’m unbearable in that approach!

I moved to New York once I was eighteen, and the closest I’ve come to a robust cultural id is “New Yorker.” Individuals name me “Iranian American” and I don’t thoughts that hyphenated id—although I want it was extra emphasised on the Iranian aspect—however I want they’d say “Iranian New Yorker.” I don’t really feel related to America; I don’t need to be accountable for America’s horrific legacies. In fact, I turned an American citizen in my 20s, I vote right here, I work right here, so I’m additionally complicit. However by no means by selection. If I may return in time, I’d persuade my mother and father to immigrate some other place. 

Guernica: In “Camel Journey,” one in all my favourite essays in Brown Album, you write that you simply resisted when your father needed you to go on a camel trip on the Los Angeles Zoo, and that trying again on it, you’d say:

Father, I don’t need to be taken for what I inevitably assume others will take this as… a gaggle of Center Easterners, about to get on the again of, of all animals, a camel, the camel being the animal they affiliate with us, what they take us as, camel jockeys…

You speak in regards to the longing you felt to be like everybody else and, on the similar time, to be “one thing altogether completely different.” This captures fantastically a contradiction so many people have skilled.

Khakpour: The factor was, I simply needed to be in a spot the place I may slot in, however I didn’t need to slot in in America. Not solely did we go away Iran, the place I used to be meant to be and the place I might have regarded just like the norm, however we got here to a spot the place we had been seen because the enemy. 

The camel, by the best way, is a humorous difficulty—truly hilarious! I used to be at an Airbnb in Oakland a couple of years in the past with my boyfriend on the time, and there was camel-print bedding, and I had a panic assault: “Oh my God, do you assume the Airbnb host knew I used to be Iranian?” And my boyfriend stated, “Loosen up, it’s in all probability some bedsheets from City Outfitters.” But when somebody makes even only a camel reference, I really feel nervous, prefer it’s a slur.

Guernica: In “One other Dingbat,” your essay about rising up in Los Angeles, you discuss California’s “droughts, the El Niño rains, the earthquakes, and people eighties serial killers.” This resonated, as a result of I grew up in 1970s California and its darkish aspect was very a lot a part of my mentality. , youngsters being kidnapped, serial killers.

Khakpour: Similar in my city! Always youngsters being kidnapped. Serial killers on a regular basis.

Guernica: What was it? I really like California—the wild, attractive landscapes; the probabilities of other existence on the sting—however there’s additionally lots of violence. The place’s California in your thoughts nowadays?

Khakpour: I've such difficult emotions for California. We settled there once I was round kindergarten age and I stayed till I left for the East Coast. I really like California’s literature and artwork and music, however its darkness traumatized me. Once I was younger and we had been in Monterey Park, an immigrant space, the serial killer Richard Ramirez was preying on the neighborhood. And the Northridge quake was on my sixteenth birthday. And there was the horrible 1984 hearth at Ole’s Dwelling Middle ironmongery store proper exterior my window, once I was a first-grader.

California feels so supernatural. If I hadn’t been by a lot trauma with my sicknesses, I’d be capable to abdomen it extra. However I’ve turn into bored with darkness. I've to maintain the world round me gentle and frothy and joyful. Within the final decade, I’ve almost died so many instances that I really feel like I have already got a haunted, shut relationship to dying and misfortune. 

The horrible issues which have occurred in my life have all the time been in California. Though New York is the place 9/11 occurred and I had a few automotive accidents, in New York, I’m by no means afraid. That is my chosen metropolis and id. However my household’s voyage to California and our life in Los Angeles had a lot trauma. I lately determined I can by no means return there. I've to discover a completely different technique to see my household.

Guernica: It’s difficult due to the intersection of your private trauma with the societal trauma California appears to have a particular model of.

Khakpour: And there’s a further layer: I really feel alienated from the Iranian neighborhood in Los Angeles. None of these persons are tweeting about Brown Album; they’re not on social media holding my e book. I grew up half an hour from that a part of Los Angeles, and we had been additionally eliminated by class. I don’t have something in frequent with these Tehrangeles Iranians. They simply ignore me—I feel they discover me scrappy and disgraceful. It’s unhappy to me as a result of they’re nonetheless my individuals. 

Guernica: What’s the that means of “house” for you?

Khakpour: Possibly it’s a midlife disaster, however I’ve been occupied with this lots. I’ve been on the lookout for cues about why I really feel joyful in New York. One factor that stands out is the place I reside, in Forest Hills, is an East Asian neighborhood. It jogs my memory of the East Asian communities the place I lived in California, and the place I felt most secure in America. I by no means felt protected in my own residence as a result of my mother and father had been all the time violently preventing. My finest buddies had been Chinese language and Korean, and I’d go to their houses—to the purpose the place I spoke some Mandarin, some Cantonese, and knew all of the meals! These worlds introduced me in. I used to be all the time clear I used to be an outsider, however I used to be so accepted. And there have been issues our cultures had in frequent. I didn’t must really feel ashamed the best way I did round white individuals as a result of my mother and father didn’t converse good English. My finest buddies felt the identical nervousness I did at lunch hour, the worry somebody would see our “ethnic” meals. We had been all the time paranoid about white individuals. White individuals had been truly within the minority in our college, however very lively and all around the tradition. My buddies and I knew we had been the opposite and that we simply occurred to be in a neighborhood the place there have been lots of us.

I’ve realized that for me, house is returning to my roots, to being Iranian. Since I can’t transfer again to Iran, I have to assume what’s the subsequent factor, and due to my childhood roots in California, I do know I should be in Asia. I really feel hopeful once I consider Asia. The concept if I lived there, the tradition that white America creates wouldn’t be my world, and can be secondary to my each day life, is very nice for me.

Guernica: Talking of hope, I really like the Clarice Lispector quote you utilize as an epigraph for “Brown Album,” the final essay in your e book: “On the backside of all the pieces there may be the hallelujah.” Within the essay, you deny Iranian People’ claims to whiteness; you discuss your struggles with sickness, with racism, with Joan Didion’s portraits of a Los Angeles the place “the brown and black youngsters had been lacking.” Why did you select the Lispector quote for this essay?

Khakpour: Lispector is a author I’ve all the time felt very near and it is a mysterious quote I actually preferred. Since “Brown Album” was the one unpublished essay within the e book, it had a sacred high quality. It’s a uncooked essay, with no use commercially to anybody, and it was vital to me that it not be refined. It has a manifesto high quality, additionally a rambling journal high quality. It resists what we all know of as an essay. So the Lispector quote felt like the proper chant, nearly ritualistic.

Guernica: It appears hopeful.

Khakpour: It's hopeful. 

Guernica: On the finish of the essay, you write:

“Let the file state that, throughout Trump’s America, I turned damaged.

I, a brown lady, eternally brown, broke.

One thing in me, one thing far above me, is aware of I'll mend.

We'll get by this, say the voices of ancestors.”

What be aware do you are feeling Brown Album finishes on?

Khakpour: Some individuals may assume the ending of the e book is unhappy. However for me, it’s hopeful, as a result of it’s about standing as much as problems with id, and it’s a second the place I may say Iranians must face troubling and unhappy issues in regards to the racist legacies in America. It was liberating for me to have the ability to discuss actually darkish issues on this essay and survive it, come out the opposite finish. 

Guernica: Studying “Brown Album” and the opposite essays in your e book introduced house to me the significance of creativeness in our writing and our lives. What position does creativeness play for you?

Khakpour: I’ve been considering lots about creativeness, the failure of creativeness. Claudia Rankine says—and I’m going to butcher this quote—she says that police brutality is the creativeness gone fallacious, that police make up psychological fantasies of what they assume they’re seeing, so there’s a perceived menace that’s not actual. A black teenager strolling on the street with some Skittles or doing his each day jog just isn't a menace. However should you’re a police officer within the US, a part of this establishment with its lengthy historical past of racism, your creativeness has been fed to create a grotesque drama. We consider creativeness in optimistic phrases, however it may well weaponize issues. 

Fairly often, creativeness is seen as frosting on a cake, an opulent state: I’m in an imaginative place, I’m creating artwork. That appears stunning and capricious and nearly decorative, however in apply, by way of one’s position and empathy, creativeness takes on a life-or-death high quality.

Once I was a child, I all the time heard, “She needs to be a author and she or he’s very imaginative.” It had a cute component. However as I acquired older, the idea of creativeness began to have a weight, typically a darkness, and nearly a accountability and a burden. It’s an vital phrase for our present second. Creativeness is tied to an ethical impulse or collective morality, and we want to have the ability to faucet into that.

Guernica: Sure, and associated to creativeness is the query of how free we really feel. Do you are feeling you will have inventive freedom?

Khakpour: That’s a really compelling query. I might have stated I did, and that was the entire goal of being in America. However I don’t assume anybody will be really free in a capitalist system. I’m positive my politics have prompted issues for me in a job sense. The truth that I’m nonetheless combating cash at my age might be tied to my ideas and the way I’ve expressed them. There isn’t a single millionaire activist on the planet, as a result of cash isn’t a pressure for good. 

So I’m not so free as I as soon as fooled myself into considering. You will be largely free and at peace together with your degree of freedom. Nevertheless it’s not precise freedom.

Does that imply I’d be free in different places? I don’t know. However there’s a lot about America that’s so painful for me, and I don’t need to get up each morning feeling indignant. I really like New York, however not that a lot. The American empire is collapsing and I’d hate to go down with it. The coronavirus has introduced house to me how crummy America is in comparison with the remainder of the world. I’m planning on transferring to East Asia. 

Guernica: You’re very cell.

Khakpour: All my worldly possessions match into two suitcases. I've no materials issues. I’m monk-like.