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
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.