Nowhere Is Home: Two Well-trav­eled Writers on Roots, Writ­ing, and Ex­ile Porochista Khakpour & Alexan­der Chee

TWO WELL-TRAV­ELED WRITERS ON ROOTS, WRIT­ING, AND EX­ILE

Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture - - TRAVEL -

In this mes­mer­iz­ing con­ver­sa­tion, Porochista Khakpour, au­thor of Sons and Other Flammable Ob­jects (2008), The Last Il­lu­sion (2015), and the forth­com­ing Sick, and Alexan­der Chee, au­thor of Ed­in­burgh (2016), The Queen of the Night (2016), and How To Write An Au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal Novel: Es­says (2018), talk about the haunt­ing power of place and trav­el­ing. These two ac­claimed writers take us into their past and share vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and lessons that in­formed their work. They re­mind us that some trav­els con­tinue to trans­port you else­where, long af­ter you’ve ar­rived home.

Alexan­der Chee: I won­der about the con­nec­tion be­tween writ­ing and travel and how travel has made us into the writers we are.

Porochista Khakpour: So much of my travel has had to do with ex­ile, leav­ing revo­lu­tion/war, and escaping other trau­mas through my life in that spirit.

I took my first trans-pa­cific flight at nine months [old], for ex­am­ple, to Seoul, and we moved so much in my first years that my life felt like a long trip. My fa­ther was fol­low­ing work at first, al­ways, to Korea, then to Truk, Guam, Kauai, and then Maine, where we set­tled—which ini­tially felt like a mis­take. My par­ents be­lieved travel was ed­u­ca­tion, in­her­ently, but also fun. I re­mem­ber go­ing to Mex­ico one sum­mer on an ex­change pro­gram to learn Span­ish—some­thing I wrote about in my new es­say col­lec­tion—and I re­mem­ber feel­ing my world, my mind, my sense of self, all grow­ing from the out-of-the-or­di­nary con­text in which I ex­pe­ri­enced my­self. The value of travel, even if I was un­happy with where we were, was al­ways clear to me.

I once just walked out of my Chicago apart­ment, with ev­ery­thing still in there, never to re­turn. I was that kind of mess. It also in re­cent years has been so much about con­nect­ing to my Mus­lim iden­tity while trav­el­ing on book work to In­done­sia or Pales­tine—the clos­est I can get to my home coun­try of Iran.

Your story of ex­ile makes me won­der how we’re shaped by the trips we don’t get to choose. The first re­ally “writerly” jour­ney I took hap­pened when I was just out of col­lege. In the fall of 1990, I bought a ticket to Ber­lin and a re­turn flight from Lon­don. I stayed 10 days in Ber­lin, trav­eled by train to the ferry to Lon­don, stayed a few days in Lon­don, and left for Ed­in­burgh for a week. I went on a spon­ta­neous trip up to In­ver­ness with my brother, who was in Ed­in­burgh at the time on a study-abroad pro­gram. It was the first time I was trav­el­ing while writ­ing, some­thing that would be­come a big­ger part of my life. I was work­ing on an es­say dur­ing that trip—my first es­say for pub­li­ca­tion—about the rise of Queer Na­tion. This was for a jour­nal called OUT/LOOK, and I was fax­ing ed­its [to] my editor and I felt grown. I’d been an in­tern at the mag­a­zine when the writer for the is­sue failed to ap­pear, and my editor asked if I could step up. I did. The es­say ap­peared on the cover. I am hav­ing a poster of it framed for my of­fice at Dartmouth. But the trip also marked me and my imag­i­na­tion in so many ways I think I’m still sort­ing out. I ar­rived in Ber­lin on Oc­to­ber 3, 1990—the day of the re­uni­fi­ca­tion [of East and West Ger­many]—en­tirely by ac­ci­dent. I can still see ev­ery­thing, from the queer punk squat­ters I fell in love with to the po­lice sur­round­ing falafel stands to pro­tect them from racist vi­o­lence. I bought a copy of James Bald­win’s The Fire Next Time and read it on the train down to the ferry to Lon­don, and it con­firmed the value of what I was do­ing: I was on this trip to see if I thought I could live any­where be­sides the United States. On the way to Ed­in­burgh, I still re­mem­ber the land­scape out the train win­dow—the stun­ning beauty of it—and then how Ed­in­burgh it­self was pretty much all en­chant­ment. I went to a gay cof­fee­house and met a jour­nal­ist and a Tory prime min­is­ter who gave me a car tour of the city, telling me about the un­der­ground parts that were buried over dur­ing the Black Plague (that ended up in my first novel—ti­tled, yes, Ed­in­burgh), and tak­ing me ev­ery­where from Arthur’s Seat to the house where they filmed the adap­ta­tion of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The vi­sions still find me at times—the af­ter­noons bik­ing through In­ver­ness with my brother, the leaves float­ing in the wind, rain­bows ap­pear­ing along the loch, hand­some wind­surfers chang­ing by the road. But part of why all of this is so vivid in my mind is that I had the feel­ing of be­ing changed as I was chang­ing. The trip marked me tak­ing pos­ses­sion of my fate, my ed­u­ca­tion, my life.

There was a stretch in 1999 to 2000 that might qual­ify as my first writerly travel. I had just re­turned from my ju­nior year abroad at Ox­ford, where I had found my aca­demic foot­ing again, more or less—let’s face it, there were still clubs and drugs and long nights. But when I got back to Sarah Lawrence, I went deep into those old habits. I was a schol­ar­ship kid, and I re­mem­ber my se­nior year I didn’t have much schol­ar­ship [money] left and there were so many loans and grants and I had sev­eral on-campus jobs and in­tern­ships. I was burn­ing out fast, so I de­cided to go back to Cal­i­for­nia with the main

“I re­mem­ber feel­ing my world, my mind, my sense of self, all grow­ing from the out-of-the­o­r­di­nary con­text in which I ex­pe­ri­enced my­self.”

“There’s some way that trips are ac­tu­ally about trav­el­ing in­side, a jour­ney you need to make in your own life that you can’t make if you stay in the place you live.”

pur­pose of spend­ing Y2K away from home. San Fran­cisco was the an­swer! I had been there be­fore to visit friends, but this time I re­ally had a nar­ra­tive. At that time, I was still iden­ti­fy­ing as pan­sex­ual, or some­times bi­sex­ual, and I thought of claim­ing these iden­ti­ties as a pos­si­ble way of con­nect­ing me to queer­ness prop­erly. I felt I had failed at Sarah Lawrence and at Ox­ford. My best friend at that time met me in San Fran­cisco, and some­how a guy from the band Brian Jon­estown Mas­sacre was with us the whole time too. We were a trio, drink­ing ter­ri­ble Old Crow whiskey—drink­ing ev­ery­where on the streets of that city, all through­out the day, look­ing for the party. We prob­a­bly haunted ev­ery hu­man in the Cas­tro for “the party.” But this is where the nar­ra­tive turned on me—this was my first San Fran­cisco New Year, but it was the Y2K New Year. So much was boarded up. I thought it was one thing to see that in Soma, but you’d go into the Mis­sion and the Cas­tro and there it was: ply­wood over store­fronts and restau­rants. There were so few peo­ple on the streets. It was so eerie. Amer­ica, even [in] this en­light­ened city, was down for mag­i­cal think­ing all the way. A sort of near-mys­ti­cal nu­mero­log­i­cal fer­vor had taken over the coun­try, and this was it— the world was end­ing! The banks were sup­posed to go hay­wire, the com­put­ers to stop co­op­er­at­ing, bombs and mis­siles were to go off?! Who knows. But I re­mem­ber that tense, taut day, a sort of low hum of ex­pec­ta­tion ev­ery­where. I re­mem­ber think­ing, This is the part that will re­ally mat­ter and that you will write about one day (which I did with my sec­ond novel, The Last Il­lu­sion). Not the part that came later: Me and Kather­ine fi­nally find­ing the Em­bar­cadero and drunk­enly kiss­ing dozens of strangers, and then find­ing our­selves vom­it­ing on the bus and wak­ing up in a stranger’s house. The first words I heard on the first day of 2000: “Don’t worry—we didn’t have sex...yet.” The vomit bucket was handed over and the worst part of it was we all had to go to brunch to­gether with com­plete strangers who had also had their own lost night. I also left San Fran­cisco re­al­iz­ing once again I’d failed at my queer­ness!

It’s funny to me that your trip would end [in SF], in a sense, when mine started there.

This was such a good-bad ex­pe­ri­ence that I felt com­pelled to travel by my­self [over] spring break. Sarah Lawrence had a two-week break and my friends wanted to do ironic things like go to Day­tona, and I had nei­ther the bud­get nor the in­ter­est. I was also ex­tremely on drugs again and a mess when a pro­fes­sor asked me how [I was go­ing] to get back to my­self. It turned out to be read­ing. She [found out] I had be­come ob­sessed with Faulkner at 15 years old—i didn’t know then that ap­par­ently many stu­dents of Ara­bic and Farsi are drawn to South­ern lan­guage—and she told me to think about writ­ing some­thing on him. Since I had jour­nal­ism in­tern­ships, I de­cided to try my hand at an im­mer­sion-jour­nal­ism jaunt and to also get out of New York. I went to Mis­sis­sippi. I had no idea what I was do­ing. We barely emailed then, but some­how I had the guts to email these South­ern Stud­ies grad stu­dents at Ole Miss and ask them to crash. They obliged! They were think­ing I was go­ing to be “a writer from New York” and I didn’t cor­rect them, but I’m sure that when they saw a 22-year-old turn up in sneak­ers and a back­pack, it was clear. Long story long: I met Faulkner’s old­est liv­ing rel­a­tive at the time, his nephew Jimmy, and Jimmy took me all around and showed me se­cret Faulkner spots ev­ery sin­gle day for two weeks. We’d get up at dawn and hang out till the evening. I ended up break­ing my veg­e­tar­i­an­ism with him over cat­fish at a juke joint. I ended up hang­ing out with peo­ple look­ing for Con­fed­er­ate gold on the banks of the Tal­la­hatchie River. And I feared for my life many times. I saw very deeply into the United States’s prob­lems for the first time since the L.A. ri­ots. I also tried to fig­ure out where I fit into it all, but mostly failed. I wrote this 30-page pa­per, which 15 years later be­came a long es­say for The Lonely Planet Travel An­thol­ogy: True Sto­ries from the World’s Best Writers. When my first novel came out, I was in­vited back to Sarah Lawrence to read, and that same old pro­fes­sor came with the pa­per in hand. She seemed re­lieved to be able to as­sume I was off drugs!

Hi­lar­i­ous. I have been that pro­fes­sor. There’s some way that trips are ac­tu­ally about trav­el­ing in­side, a jour­ney you need to make in your own life that you can’t make if you stay in the place you live. The phys­i­cal bound­aries of our lives are also the emo­tional ones, and the con­texts we live with be­come a short­hand for

get­ting through. I some­times think we mis­take the con­tainer we choose for the per­son we are. Be­tween birth and age 6, we moved from Rhode Is­land to South Korea to Truk, Guam, Kauai, and Maine. A loop out from New Eng­land to Asia and the Pa­cific and back. I was no ex­ile, but the world felt like some­thing pass­ing by me. The idea that I be­longed to some­place be­sides that sense of move­ment was—is—very hard for me to get used to. I didn’t know how to get a pass­port from Per­pet­ual Move­ment then, but that was what I wanted. I had no pa­tience for na­tion­al­ism.

“I can imag­ine with both of us it’s hard to place where on earth we are from—we have the bur­dens and priv­i­leges of pass­ing in many ways.”

I can imag­ine with both of us it’s hard to place where on earth we are from. We have the bur­dens and priv­i­leges of pass­ing in many ways. Na­tion­al­ity be­comes tricky that way: How does any Amer­i­can ever feel at ease with the United States and its trou­bled his­tory that it con­stantly dou­bles down on, some­times at the ex­pense of our ori­gins? I still have trouble feel­ing like I be­long any­where. Har­lem has been the clos­est to home of any place I’ve lived, mainly be­cause of how Mus­lim it is and how ac­cept­ing of all types of Mus­lims. It is the only place I’ve lived in the United States where peo­ple re­gard Iran with re­spect and joy and ac­tual in­ter­est, not fetish or fear. I re­mem­ber be­ing on a plane to a book fes­ti­val in Aus­tralia when I re­al­ized we were [in] Ira­nian airspace. This was not long af­ter a story I was go­ing to do with [the writer] Hanya Yanag­i­hara for Condé Nast Trav­eler fell through—a home­com­ing trip to Iran, span­ning three ci­ties over a month. The risk of me be­ing a dual na­tional with a pub­lic pro­file made ev­ery­one so ner­vous it got can­celed. I was gut­ted that I could not go back to Iran, and I found my­self writ­ing my editor things like, “I’m will­ing to go to Evin Prison for it!” I mean, I was deep in that sort of wild, mad de­sire, that long­ing for a place that would likely not even know what to do with me ei­ther. Any­way, on the plane ride, I nearly threw my­self over a pas­sen­ger and said, “I have to see my home.” It was the clos­est I had phys­i­cally been—i just cried over the big moun­tains and any sign of ci­ties for hours. It could have been any­where, but it was my home. On the flight back to the United States, I did the same. And at Dubai Air­port, where I stopped over, I heard Farsi be­ing spo­ken and tried to imag­ine my­self liv­ing there. This spell ended the minute I went to the smok­ing lounge, in ripped jeans and an army jacket, tat­toos vis­i­ble, and sev­eral men, who of course knew I was Mid­dle East­ern—i could not pass there— were like, “Hey sis­ter, what are you do­ing here by your­self like that?” I no­ticed it was all men and one or two blond Euro­pean women. No one had a prob­lem with them, but they did with me. I was gut­ted all over again. In a sense, then, travel can feel so seem­ingly op­po­si­tional to home in good and bad ways. It is an­chor­less­ness to me in a po­ten­tially pos­i­tive way—so that, say, peo­ple like you and me, with many homes or no real home, can find our own an­chors. The home within. The com­part­ment you’re think­ing of. We had to build it.

Porochista Khakpour was born in Tehran, raised in the Los An­ge­les area, and now lives in Har­lem. Her de­but novel, Sons and Other Flammable Ob­jects, was a New York Times Editor’s Choice, one of the Chicago Tri­bune’s Fall’s Best, and the 2007 Cal­i­for­nia Book Award win­ner in the First Fic­tion cat­e­gory. Her sec­ond novel, The Last Il­lu­sion, was a 2014 “Best Book of the Year” ac­cord­ing to NPR, Kirkus, and many more. Among her many fel­low­ships is a Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts award. Her non­fic­tion has ap­peared in the New York Times, the L.A. Times, and Book­fo­rum, among oth­ers. Cur­rently, she is guest fac­ulty at Ver­mont Col­lege of Fine Arts and Stonecoasts mfa pro­grams, as well as a con­tribut­ing editor at The Ev­er­green Re­view.

Alexan­der Chee is the au­thor of the nov­els Ed­in­burgh and The Queen of the Night, and How To Write An Au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal Novel: Es­says. He is a con­tribut­ing editor at The New Repub­lic and an editor at large at VQR. His es­says and sto­ries have ap­peared re­cently in the New York Times Mag­a­zine, T Mag­a­zine, Tin House, and Best Amer­i­can Es­says 2016, among oth­ers. He is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of English and cre­ative writ­ing at Dartmouth Col­lege.

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