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Porochista Khakpour: 11 Snapshots of a Literary Life

June 25, 2012 11:03 pm | Posted by: stephen pierson

(from Issue Three)

1. JUVENILIA

When I was about 11, I wrote my first novel, an epic about “a Victorian girl.” Translation: a girl from a faraway time and place, where human women wore big fancy dresses and sat around sulking. That lifestyle was so appealing to me. I was a sad kid, and the only excuse I could come up with was that I had been born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

My heroine happened to be 11, with hair “the color of stallions” (translation: black) and skin of “pale wheat” (white or brown, depending on which Iranian you asked), and her name was knotty and yet “magnificent”: Contessa Van Prgkhjiollzshdiyyiani.

Contessa was indoorsy and prone to fainting, her pockets weighed down with smelling salts. She was always perched gingerly on her window sill, gazing at the outside world with mixed feelings. She eschewed friends—bores who mocked her “grand name” and her “odd secret beauty.” But she had two distinguishing characteristics: 1) melancholy; 2) genius.

The manuscript exists. It is written in pencil, in cursive, on unlined white paper. I supplied the cover art, also in pencil: Contessa VP, all huge eyes, corkscrew hair, and a frown, in an elaborate hoop dress, feather pen in one gloved hand, vanity mirror in the other. I worked on it, my diaries reflect, in lieu of hanging out with friends and spending unquality time with my relentlessly feuding parents. I composed on the same white desk until I was 18, always with the door closed. After all, Contessa did not have Porochista, but Porochista had Contessa.

By high school, I stopped writing novels altogether. It would be another decade and a half before the still youngish scribe would pick up the pen and mirror and turn to the literary novel that would come from the gut, a story that would survive, the story that would save my life.

2. GIRL AWTHOR

I can be fansy.
I can be tall.
I can ware hi heel shoos when I grow up.
Who am I?

Answer: A GIRL AWTHOR!

—My first documented riddle, 1983

On Thursday, May 2, 2006, it’s official. I am a girl author. I get a book deal.

It didn’t feel real—not for the obvious reasons—but because I was sleep-deprived, destroyed by crying and crying and crying about a non-literary tragedy. The night before, I had seen J, a bouncy college friend, at an East Village café that neither of us could really afford. We bonded over the sheer awkwardness of being nannies with master’s degrees, liberal arts graduates with some of the most expensive educations in the world. It was a nice dinner, until the bill came. I remember leaving a bad tip and saying goodbye and feeling all right, or at least a little less alone.

At some point during dinner, a text came in from an old friend in Chicago. Just three words: a good friend’s name—misspelled—“died” and “sorry.” I called to clarify, but our chaotic voices cancelled each other out. We had no vocabulary for this.

Even by now, I have never found the right sentence to go here. “I was gutted.” “I was devastated.” “It killed me.” But I could not give you a photo of a man in a casket, or a man prostrate over his bed sheets, all around him evidence of his final trouble. Instead I’d insert a photo of a burning building, bombs over a sleeping city. Crass, maybe, but sometimes up close it feels like this.

Even though he was a writer and a Middle Easterner, he was still a buddy of the most unlikely kind: A, the charming young ex-con, with tattoos from the edges of his face to his knuckles, who had a passion for bespoke menswear, obscure wines, and even more obscure books. His wife, Z, was a barely legal sex-worker/model, with the sharp peasant features that give certain Midwestern girls an almost exotic allure, sabotaged only slightly by a mouthful of braces and street-hooker manners.

A and Z had been my only friends in a rough part of Chicago. A adopted me because I was an Iranian to his Iraqi—old enemies, he’d laugh—with a head half-shaved, less for punk rock effect than for the supplementary income I earned as a hair model. I was neck-deep in poverty—been there, done that, he’d say, annoyed at my complacency—and a single mother to an ailing greyhound the whole neighborhood adored. A also said he had a feeling I had talent and asked to see my novel, which I never sent him, just as he never showed me the epic he wrote during his seven years in prison. Instead he took Z and me out on the town to trendy Wicker Park bistros, calling us both his wives, paying with huge wads of cash.

But he was also an unrehabilitated junkie back on a downward path that I—too wrapped up in my own dramas, already hardwired with an overly open mind—could not, would not, detect.

A year and half after my dogson and I had our last walk with A, that call came and told me this story: His heart had given out at 27, maybe from speedballs or a bad batch of heroin floating around Chicago Avenue.

The night I learned of his death was the first night of pure, dead-black insomnia I have ever experienced, every hour punctuated by a overwhelmingly vibrant memory. I spent the next day in a defeated fetal-squat on an oak chair in my boyfriend’s Brooklyn apartment—he would last only a few more months, then eventually reappear, via the miracle of online dating, in the arms of that very J. I had been hovering over my laptop for hours, bawling and trying to write a eulogy for A’s tribute website, when my agent called and left a message. “I have good news,” she said. The sentence I had been hearing for weeks, divided by a new word.

By then, I had learned never to answer when my agent called. I would let her leave messages and throw my depressed fits in private. In my head, versions of myself in jobs I’d held since beginning work on my novel catwalked with forced smiles and exhausted stomps: now, hostess; now, adjunct; now, tutor; now, hair model; now, bar reviewer; now, babysitter; now nanny; now, shopgirl!

Yet here it was: good news, a book deal. I freeze framed the moments before—unusually hot spring day, another highly fraught adios with the boyfriend, en route to the R train in the Park Slope neighborhood of the borough of Brooklyn in New York City, my battered Razr telling me I’ve ignored a message, finally listening, and there it was: everything, ever, answered.

Unicorns exist! Santa is not my parents! The world is just, Contessa! I had never broken $25,000 a year, and now some validation, hell, salvation had come. On the worst day, here it was, the happiest story of all time, a story so joyous I would have never written it.

There may be a wise man somewhere who said extreme sadness and extreme happiness cannot be successfully bedfellowed in a single day. But this joy—like a delicate magic shell—coated the saddest, coldest, most vulnerable core. For a moment, A flickered out of the picture.

But what a moment: I would have jumped for joy if I remembered how one jumped for joy. I hadn’t watched a movie in ages.

3. AN ACTUAL PORTRAIT OF THE YOUNG ARTIST

Spring 2007: A year later, I am back in New York, taking my author photo. I have known G, the photographer, for more than half my life. He was my high-school journalism teacher in Los Angeles, and he suddenly, shortly after moving to New York, had become my best gay.

He asks to see what I’ve got. I open my bag and out comes dress after dress, silk organza, crêpe de chine, satin, Italian wool, all impeccably tailored black dresses, fit for a modern Contessa VP.

Dollar signs flap their wings through G’s studio. I wave them away. Not what it looks like, I tell him. Just dating a fashion designer.

Just! G groans, rolling his eyes.

I go to the bathroom to put on makeup, a lot. The second I meet my own eyes in the mirror, the world starts to go black, and my vision is full of those psychedelic pulses that the world calls “stars.”

I tiptoe out—on eggshells with myself—and G brings me water, snacks, his hand, a hug, the perfect questions.

I have been through so much, I want to say. I spent much of the summer and fall in the midst of serious anxiety, panic, depression, chronic fatigue, gastritis, carpal tunnel, god knows what else, all the shattered states in the nightmare nation of chronic insomnia. I did what all people at a perceived end do before the end, I reached out and out and out, calling everyone I know, asking for help, collecting their anecdotes as cautionary tales, stories of hell, stories of hope, just stories to breathe with, to breathe through. With no use for the night, I’d call people at the oddest hours and want words from them. Please just stay on the phone; please tell me a story, any story. In the worst times of my life, I could not imagine anything more powerful than my only business, my first love: stories.

4. STARS, PART II

August 2007: Panicking a bit about my finances—the final trickle of my advance doomed to coincide with my impending book tour—I apply for a job at a university in Long Island and am called back for an interview.

Just weeks before the launch of my book, on the day of the interview, I am what they call “all nerves.” But in a good way, unlike the summer before. This time, I have hopes. I assume all the gods are on my team, since I haven’t been notified otherwise.

So far, a few blogs have said some nice things. I joined a gym I can’t afford, but I have joined a gym.

Iran is in the news daily. I am eating and sleeping. I have an uncanny knack for looking at clocks at exactly 9:11.

I take everything as an omen, omens that could go either way.

I am at a Starbucks in Park Slope, having taken on a pitifully ritualistic Frappuccino habit. I am reviewing my Teaching Philosophy, which sounds miserably fake, even though I love to teach.

When I stand up, there they are again, the stars—not Park Slope literary luminaries, but again the hypoglycemia-diabetes-cancer-AIDS-godknowswhatIhave kind. I panic. I don’t have much time before I miss the train to Long Island. I am worrying about this as my vision wipes out into the aggressive sunshine beaming over the brownstone rooftops.

Fade in, and I’m slumped on the street quite indelicately, with some young hippie chick asking me you okay you okay you okay. Her eyes go back and forth from my squinting eyes to my hair that is partially bleached white.

You passed out, she says, and points to the left. Let’s go to the hospital.

Evidence that nonfiction settings are sometimes less believable than fiction, the hospital happens to be across the street.

Not a chance, I tell her.

She protests, this girl I don’t even know. Eventually, I tell her the truth.

She nods sympathetically. I don’t have health insurance either. But still.

Somehow, she wins and half-carries me to the ER and then, as if to reward me, immediately disappears. I let the nurse take my temperature and my blood pressure before I run out the door. I call the university and tell them I will be late.

I fall four more times that day, but I get the job, the only job that will put up with my book-tour schedule.

Back at home, I watch my unsteady hands at the keyboard hit and miss over and over. During the spring before that very bad summer, a psychic told me too much anxiety surrounding the novel would breed disaster.

5. THE VERY BAD SUMMER

There is a season where it seems like maybe I won’t make it.

September 2006: I turn the novel in. I go out to a celebration dinner with a very normal guy I have somehow fallen into dating. I have theories about him: He is the type of guy who sees what he wants to see; he considers me an investment. How else could he exist? He is the type of guy whose face I could never memorize, who looks familiar to everyone. I call him Snowboarding Attorney. He puts up with my constant whining and tells me I look great, when I am down about seven pounds each month, with graying skin, hair falling out, a tipping and trembling mess. Any normal person would assume I am on drugs, and I am. At any given time, it’s a combination of two to five types of pills, prescribed by people who don’t know about each other, given to me by my second general practitioner, all three of my psychiatrists, the ER internist from my third summer visit to the ER, and a gastroenterologist. I am sedated at all times, yet so introspective I am paralyzed.

I pick at a whole fish and order dessert. I make bathroom visits devoted solely to dropping benzodiazepine crumbs under my tongue, licking any residue off my finger.

The novel made it, but I didn’t.

When I leave the Snowboarding Attorney that night, my only solace is out-of-body, myself in the second person, applauding having gotten through another date, relieved to be back at home.

Your parents’ home, which was to be your summer editing and writing retreat. You want to die again. You look at the box of pills—this isn’t me—Ambien, Ativan, Klonopin, Celexa, Trazadone. They are like names for weapons, an army of futuristic knives, jagged and unforgiving. They will get you a few hours of sleep that will keep you alive. You are terrified. Your whole life is doctors and ER rooms and shrinks, and they all shake their heads when they hear the answer to their question, “Has anything traumatic happened in the last few months?”

Yes. You tell them.

Traumatic means bad,” one doctor informs me.

They seem skeptical when you say you have a novel on the way, like a washboard-stomached woman complaining about third trimester pains—just another part of the crazytalk, they must think. Doctors have started to turn you away—I don’t know what to tell you, they say. All they can recommend is shrinks, and you have four. You pay for the visits without insurance, in cash or with plastic gold. You collect cards, any card.

You use the second person even now, because you have a sense of derealization—cognitive-behavioral therapy lingo. Your parents say you were possessed, your boyfriend that you were haunted by ghosts. A few friends are adamant about chronic fatigue, and you have called it everything from a blip to the dead end.

“So there is nowhere to go but up, because you must know there is nothing wrong with you,” Snowboarding Attorney says at the celebration dinner, then later over the phone, and in an email and over and over until finally he says he can’t take it and besides, he still has feelings for his ex. This is like the Brooklyn boyfriend, two in a row, but you don’t have hurt feelings. You have no feelings to hurt. You have a throbbing head, a rapidly beating heart, shaking hands, weak legs, a bad back, an acidic stomach, pinpricks and tingles and chills. Feelings are not your problem.

It is your mind you want back, that thing you write with, the only thing you were born to do.

You have gone to post–book deal hell and all you got was this serious debt. But it’s an okay place to be. There are no surprises in debt. Everything is as solid as death. You are officially down to earth.

I move back to New York in May 2007. After months of a strange sort of rehab culled straight from my California playbook—acupuncture, Chinese herbs, beads and talismans, a revived vegetarianism—I am happy. Happy to call back all the people I have called and held hostage for advice, the doctors I harassed on weekends, my parents who have been shocked and awed to depression since I arrived. Happy to call back my agent and editor and try to come up with new euphemisms for the old euphemisms of my condition. Happy to throw away pills.

I move back to my old neighborhood in Park Slope and pray this new summer is kind. It is, mostly.

The novel is out of my hands and in purgatory before entering the world. I love that phase: the middle of the road trip, someone else driving, seeing a world outside pass by, deftly escaping resignation to thoughts, assignment to words.

6. WAITING

August 2007: My publishers tell me the New York Times is going to review my book, and it’s tentatively slated for a date in September. I will lazily say that it is impossible to describe just how exciting that is, but it is also stressful, when there is a whole month to kill until the judgment.

Suddenly, there is time. Time has a way of injecting herself into the picture when there is waiting to be done. I remember this from childhood Christmases, a holiday we should have never celebrated in the first place. But there we were, my brother and I, with lists in hand and our eyes glued to the small department-store plastic tree and its ribboned droppings. Time kept on and on, like the cheapest toilet paper.

This time, though, because I am in it alone, the waiting is unbearable. It must be filled. I try yoga, massage, acupuncture, more therapy, but there is only one thing that does the trick.

Crank calls. This is a truth, sadly.

Even worse is this truth: I have a long history with this sort of thing. The first time was with K, my best friend growing up, in an elementary-school summer somewhere, when we got a wrong number trying to call our friend L.

“But I am L. The boy L,” the older gentleman on the phone insisted, chuckling. “What is your name?”

We played along, memorized the misdialed numbers and called more and more, spinning more intricate and riskier little yarns. He claimed he was a retired firefighter who liked “perky ladies,” particularly our type, per our description: tall, leggy, blonde Playboy models.

And we were certain the joke was on him.

Somewhere around that time, I also crank-called Kenya. I picked it for my country report and thought it would be special to interview a Kenyan. It blew my mind that there were people very different than American in the world. After all, my family, Iranian immigrants, were the different ones, from a different faraway place. How could there be a place where people would consider Iranians and Americans different? The globe with its many cultures seemed surreal to me, a kid who was lonely in school and at home, never quite an American, never quite an Iranian. I started reading National Geographic and once, after I was crushed by a photo of a tribal chief in a Stüssy cap holding a radio, I remember praying, Please, God, let these people still exist primitively when I get older and go visit them!

With the help of a librarian, I figured out the country code and began furiously dialing random numbers. Eventually, I got someone. I was very disappointed when the voice said “hello.”

In college, I went through a phase of calling my parents at odd hours and saying I was with the IRS or the FBI or CIA or the local police, whatever could get struggling immigrants on political asylum really going. The time difference was fascinating to me—for once, I could beat them to the day. I was good at doing voices and they weren’t used to hearing mine from far away, so it went quite well. When their troubles and mine both grew to the point where there was no space for fake emergencies, I stopped.

But this time, when I began crank-calling my friends with the assistance of my boyfriend, was something else. We had characters. We called famous people, professional contacts. Some never found out who it was. For one friend, it went so far that he paid to track the phone, a new pay-as-you-go that my boyfriend had recently bought. He was, to put it mildly, pissed. When my best friend heard from him, she was pissed. They both left messages that eerily employed the same sentence: “We’re fucking 30.”

To this day, I have not patched up things with about half a dozen victims of the Great NYTBR Waiting Period. The review was good in the end, but I lost friends I’d had for more than 20 years. What do you say? How do you explain it?

There are very few people going through what I’m going through, you imagine telling them. Very few people ever have, you know?

CLICK.

7. PORTRAIT OF THE STARVING ARTIST

October 2007: It is a fact that even a NYTBR-approved novelist can still find herself in highly undignified positions at certain times. Two months later, I am sitting Indian-style on the dirty linoleum floor at the JFK Delta baggage claim, hugging my carry-on bag like it’s a pillow and trying to sob subtly into my cell phone.

I’m crying about money, something I have a negative amount of, according to a robot at my bank. I have some change in my jacket, but it is not even enough to get a cookie from the concession stand in front of me and I am starving.

I haven’t had money for weeks. My paperwork from the new university job has not gone through. My publisher has paid for some plane flights and hotels, but I have not had more than what a struggling boyfriend could spare. I have a million fancy dresses to wear and a lot of good face to put on, but all I’ve been doing is eying the prices on every menu and pretending cookies and chips are my foods of choice, that Subway is my adorably ironic passion, that the McDonald’s breakfast menu is my kitschy little crush.

But the most disturbing part of overdrafting is that it results from a certain check, made out in the summer, that I have no memory of. It is a three-figure check, written out to…my psychic.

I call people, but I don’t want to ask for help. I want them to think of it as a humorous anecdote but not that it’s real, that my life is that difficult. After all, certain friends who are not involved in publishing think I am rich and famous. Why burst that bubble?

In the end, I borrow money from a friend of the boyfriend and take that walk of shame to a yellow cab, when I know there are buses and shuttles and subways and all sorts of only semi-impossible ways to get back to Brooklyn.

Later, when my publicist finds out, she is shocked. “Why didn’t you call us?!”

I give her some gloss-over answer, but I want to say, I don’t know who to call, when to call, why to call. I am learning everything over again. I have become what the publishing world and media suspect of a debut novelist—suddenly, I am new to the universe, not just to being a novelist. I suddenly don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

Weeks later, I discover during another bad moment—as the value of the dollar plummets and oil is sky-high—that gold is at its peak value. I sell what is left of family heirlooms to an old Iranian man in the Diamond District, who listens to a fraction of my story, gives me a decent deal, and tells me, “My boy in medical university; my girl, married and with baby. Your fault for being a starver of an artist, daughter.”

8. PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST WITH A CRAZY NAME, AND ALSO CRAZY HAIR

There is the issue of my name, of course. To everyone who is not Dr. or Mrs. Khakpour, it is insurmountable—the ultimate hyperethnic polysyllabic foreign name, even foreign to “my people,” who rarely recognize its Zoroastrian origin, the name of Zaratushtra’s daughter: Pourucista. My last name is the same as a famous Iranian soccer player—Mohammed, no relation—so people can handle it. It means of the earth, literally dirt-full.

No one can say it, and I even say it differently, depending on the person. In Farsi, it is best uttered in a low purr: Poe-roh-chis-TAWH KHAK-pur. (Americans—unless they speak Hebrew—are often disappointed to find out this is indeed the guttural kh, requiring more gut than a German ich.)

My name is such a mess of issues that it has been swept under the Iranian-American carpet, over and over and over, until I have forgotten it’s there.

Until publication season, that is. Then I start really hearing and seeing my own name again. It bends into its old bizarre forms: Porchista, Prochista, Parochista, Kahkpour, Kkakpour, Khapour, plus some I have never heard. People make fun of it like they did in elementary school; my book party gets linked on Gawker, and one of the first comments is the easiest: “Khakpour. I made that sound this morning before my first cigarette and coughed up last night’s tequila binge.”

Two months later, I go to a literary party in New York, and Gawker takes a shot of me drunkenly smiling. A commentator refers to me as “that Barista Kockpour.” Nancy’s Baby Names, a website created by a Harvard grad “to provide helpful, entertaining information to expectant parents,” includes me in her list of “some unusual real names for the weekend.” I appear alongside literary critic Cleanth Brooks, British archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes, diplomat Spruille Braden, and 16th-century Dutch Haarlem governor Wigbolt Ripperda, as “Porochista Khakpour, Iranian-American writer”—the only living unusual namer.

Before my NPR interview, Kurt Andersen asks me how to pronounce my name, and I tell him. When we’re on the air, he does the opposite of those who fumble it, who say it quietly and quickly, almost under their breath, like a bad thought they want to go away soon. He belts it! My first name is on target—go, Kurt, go!—but my last name is KHHHHAWK-por, which exactly rhymes with, say, “rock whore.” Katherine Lanpher, the fill-in host of the Leonard Lopate Show, turns it into the Mexi-Minneapolitan “Poew-rrrow-chista Khakpowr.” An Iranian Voice of America anchor, meanwhile, nails the last name but turns the first into Prochesta, a pronunciation that Iranians sadly seem to favor. Reading series hosts all fumble, and one even christens me Chalkpore. And, of course, many opt for what is still the general consensus among my closest hometown friends: Hawkpurr.

When people to whom I have to be nice fudge the damn thing, I have to smile, laugh, nod to make them feel comfortable, shake my head, roll my eyes jokingly, quickly add a smile, and, with a wave of my hand, give them the magic panacea: “Call me whatever you want, I’ve heard it all.”

They feel better.

I do not change my name and never will. But one way I have battled the drama of a bad name is with other distractions. I’ve had piercings, tattoos, hair of every shade, cuts from nearly shaved to ass-length braided extensions. Just before my literary shit hits the fan, I go to my salon in SoHo, the one I have patronized on and off for nearly 10 years, and I tell skinny, scowling B to “ugly me up” and show him a sketch.

“Tough,” he responds, racing both tattooed hands through my thick, black, disgustingly pretty hair.

“Totally fucked up,” I elaborate. “A little badass, kinda burly. Y’know?”

“Sick,” he shoots back. His face never changes, but he makes an approving squirm in his skin-tight black jeans. We have communicated.

He sends me to get a wash, and five hours later I walk out with randomly arranged chunks of white in my hair—paper-white that has taken triple-processing and several arguments with B to achieve—like some Persian-Californian Cruella De Vil–in-training in flip-flops and a sundress, instead of the razor-sharp stilettos and excessive furs of the Disney villainess.

People notice. Style.com applauds my “skunk-style highlights” and my “deliberately down-market look.” A writer for ParsArts, a young Iranian arts site, declares “my fascination with her as an author is slowly being overcome by a fascination with her hair.” The name disappears a bit.

It all reminds me of the classic comment I hear more than anything else: “You know, you don’t seem like a Porochista.” Those people are always the ones who kill its syllables so much that I, always a little in awe of what they’ve made of it, can’t help but honestly agree.

9. SUPERPOWERS

After my readings, I generally get some people who just want to talk. This is fine with me. I like most comp lit students, and I can stomach the occasional misled housewife who wonders if I’ve ever read this book called The Kite Runner, by a guy whose name she “forgets” (i.e., can’t say), which she read to know more about “us.”

The other group is not as easy—they appear to be average middle-aged white males, but that’s just their Clark Kent cover. They are really conspiracy-theory superheroes! They have seen the shadow of the World Trade Center in front of my novel and know I am Middle Eastern, and they have their own ideas about my religion, and so they want to share with me “the truth about 9/11.” I politely decline going down that road every time, and still they carry on. Eventually, I excuse myself to visit the bathroom and put on my own superhero getup, my Invisible Snakegirl tubesuit, which allows me to slither away undetected from even the most tenacious leeches.

But sometimes, it doesn’t work out. At one of the final readings on my tour, an older man maybe senses my impatience and murmurs, “Anyway, in a coupla months it’s suicide for me.”

10. FOR A LIMITED TIME ONLY: MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD INCLUDED IN THE PORTRAIT

On the afternoon of September 24, 2007, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, en route to addressing the United Nations General Assembly, gave a speech at Columbia University. It was a big deal.

Less of a big deal to the world, but a kinda big deal to me, was the next day: my technical publication date. One day after that, my first book club appearance; three days later, the first day of my book tour. In all my interactions, the theme was Ahmadinejad.

One woman at a reading whispered in my ear, “Iran is hot—lucky you!”

I fake laughed. What a gas. The senate has passed a resolution designating a whole branch of the Iranian military a terrorist organization, giving our American president the authority to really let the games begin with Iran, and I am lucky, did you hear?

Other people just want to hear something from some vaguely related horse’s mouth. At almost every reading, someone inevitably raises her hand and utters, “So, Ahmadinejad…?”

For a few weeks, I smile and nod. “Yes, Mah-moooood Ahmadeeeee-nezhaad”—deep Farsi phonetics—“my homeland’s president. Well….” Every reading provides a challenge to say something comforting yet not bland, aware yet not activist, polished but not sharp. It gets old quick. I start wanting to ask people, Can’t we talk about anything else? 9/11, anyone?! It’s a bad sign when you have to wish for 9/11 as an ice breaker.

At readings later that autumn, I become what Iranians call a bacheyeh powrooh, which translates as “kid full of spirit,” or a rather rude child. So I quip, “What about him?”

“Well,” says the nervously smiling American, looking down at her sneakers. “What do you think of all this?”

In my imagination, I am Picasso declaring “I don’t” when asked what he thought of the man on the moon. But in real life, humor—this time with a flushed face—is the only route I can take.

“I never dated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and therefore have no insight into what he’s like, what he’s thinking.”

But this American does not like that answer. “But certainly…?”

I smile, not unlike old M.A. himself, and say, “Imagine I see what you see.”

The American smiles back and sits down, done.

11. PORTRAIT, NOW

After all I’ve been through, I give up and dye my hair black, my natural color.

After a few months of this old black, as fake now as it was real then, they come in bunches not unlike streaks. Not one, not two, but many and counting, the early and yet expected outcome, perfectly white hairs.

 


Porochista Khakpour was born in Tehran and raised in Los Angeles. Her debut novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, was a New York Times Editor’s Choice and a 2007 California Book Award winner.

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Add your comments:


  1. [...] Khakpour on her anxiety as she finished her first novel. And an equally good essay on her discovery of James Salter‘s [...]

  2. Benjamin Reed says:

    Awesome.

  3. Ebie says:

    deep


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