As­sim­i­late to the party

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - Casey Sanchez The New Mex­i­can

that moves to a big U.S. city with the delu­sion that the kids will main­tain their cul­ture, marry within their na­tion­al­ity, and be­come doc­tors or en­gi­neers should be warned of the true fate that awaits them. Wired to Amer­i­can pop cul­ture and pulled asun­der by dif­fer­ent coun­tries, im­mi­grant chil­dren take a hay­wire jour­ney of their own. Once-promis­ing sons may end up in stu­dio apart­ments, brood­ing gamers with bed­head, Moun­tain Dew breath, and eyes blood­shot from a night spent con­quer­ing Halo 3. Daugh­ters might be less in­ter­ested in hold­ing onto their roots than dye­ing them.

At least that was the ex­pe­ri­ence of Ira­nian Amer­i­can nov­el­ist Porochista Khakpour. Adrift in New York City, about 3,000 miles from her fam­ily in Los An­ge­les, she tried to rec­on­cile her Amer­i­can up­bring­ing with life in her na­tive Tehran by be­com­ing what she calls a Per­sian Bar­bie.

“In New York, with­out fam­ily, with­out an Ira­nian in sight, I took to fill­ing my­self in and out, like a col­or­ing book,” Khakpour wrote last year in The New York Times. “My makeup pal­ette turned all mul­ti­chro­matic mad­ness, and for ex­er­cise I sim­ply raved away at night­clubs: Pa­tri­cia Field stilet­tos, irides­cent body shim­mer, sparkly hot pants, and sky-high Afro — all hot pink, pleather, and prat­tle.”

Khakpour is a newly minted cre­ative writ­ing pro­fes­sor at the Santa Fe Uni­ver­sity of Art and De­sign. She reads Tues­day, Sept. 28, at the O’Shaugh­nessy Per­for­mance Space at the uni­ver­sity. In ad­di­tion to what she has writ­ten for The Times, her writ­ing has ap­peared in The Vil­lage Voice and Ny­lon and on, but her rep­u­ta­tion rests on her bril­liant 2007 de­but novel, Sons and Other Flammable Ob­jects. Laced with barbed hu­mor and sparkling wit on ev­ery page, the book fol­lows an Ira­nian-Amer­i­can fam­ily through ex­ile in Los An­ge­les and New York and an ill-fated trip to Tehran. In its ir­rev­er­ent, jet-pro­pelled take on the tra­vails of im­mi­grant fam­ily life in Amer­ica, it sits nicely along­side a spate of re­cent books that mash to­gether tragic im­mi­grant sagas with pop-cul­ture crazi­ness, such as Gary Shteyn­gart’s Ab­sur­dis­tan, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Won­drous Life of Os­car Wao. It’s a novel ob­sessed — in turns both comic and tragic — with Faulkner’s ob­ser­va­tion that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Sons fol­lows Dar­ius Adam; his wife, Laleh (who, to her hus­band’s cha­grin, goes by the easy, breezy Amer­i­can­ized so­bri­quet of Lala); and their son, Xerxes, as they flee Iran’s revo­lu­tion for the iron­i­cally named Eden Gar­dens, a sad apart­ment com­plex in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Fear­ful of the Amer­i­cans and the other im­mi­grants who sur­round them, the par­ents co­coon them­selves in their apart­ment, fright­ened of any in­ter­ac­tion that will brand them as Per­sian for­eign­ers. Com­i­cally, how­ever, the fam­ily in­jects its for­eign­ness into the com­plex in the most ab­surd ways pos­si­ble. In one hi­lar­i­ous scene, Dar­ius se­cretly kid­naps the neigh­bors’ cats, plac­ing bells around their necks, the bet­ter to warn his beloved blue jays of the fe­line preda­tors. “Their so­cial anx­i­ety was a con­stant source of dis­gust for Xerxes, in­still­ing in him early on a ha­bit­u­ally peeved state that would over­whelm the spec­trum of his emo­tional makeup later in his life,” Khakpour writes.

Xerxes is a source of pride and of un­bear­able shame. Surly and put off by his par­ents’ home­land drama, he bur­rows deep into Amer­i­can pop cul­ture, find­ing tran­scen­dent so­lace in watch­ing re­runs of I Dream of Jean­nie, to his par­ents’ ev­i­dent horror. On one of his tirades that veers be­tween dark hu­mor and bit­ter lac­er­a­tion, Dar­ius tears into his son’s syndi­cated TV crush. “She is Arab — get that straight. There are no Per­sian ge­nies. None! Ara­bian Nights, got it? No belly dancers ei­ther. This Jean­nie is just an Arab woman with a low self-es­teem who dyes her hair blonde, with a white man hus­band she calls ‘mas­ter.’ Ha! That sort of dis­po­si­tion is un­heard of among the hard — I’ll say it: bitchy — fe­males of Iran.”

With writ­ing like this, Khakpour is will­ing to risk of­fense to make the shop­worn im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ences of ac­cul­tur­a­tion and ex­ile seem fresh, painful, and funny. As their son grows older, Dar­ius and Lala slowly come to re­al­ize that he is a strange sort of hy­brid Amer­i­can, ill at ease with his peers and for­eign to his par­ents. “Dar­ius and Lala Adam re­al­ized that just be­cause you cre­ate a thing, doesn’t mean you will un­der­stand or even rec­og­nize it,” Khakpour writes.

Xerxes grad­u­ates from col­lege with an am­bigu­ous and pro­fes­sion­ally use­less lib­eral arts de­gree and moves to a rathole stu­dio apart­ment in New York, as far away from his par­ents and Iran as he can get. Not long af­ter Sept. 11, Xerxes falls for Suzanne, a beau­ti­ful, trust-funded, not-quite­half-Ira­nian woman around his age. (In­ci­den­tally, Khakpour does an in­cred­i­ble job of de­scrib­ing the sud­den lust and in­stant in­fat­u­a­tion that sat­u­rated the lonely sin­gles of the city in the months af­ter the ter­ror­ist attacks.) Khakpour art­fully man­ages to twist the lives of Lala and Dar­ius, Suzanne and Xerxes, Iran and Amer­ica in a way that shows how our sub­con­scious long­ings for in­ti­macy have a way of throw­ing us head­first into ev­ery­thing in our lives that we have run away from.

This isn’t a plot-heavy, se­cret-twist sort of novel, but Khakpour has a way of cre­at­ing un­for­get­table char­ac­ters that cause read­ers to turn pages as quickly as if they were read­ing a thriller. Though the novel spi­rals back and forth from 1980s L.A. to an­cient Iran, much of the plot takes place in the months be­fore and af­ter Sept. 11. The book was orig­i­nally (and mis­tak­enly) mar­keted by pub­lish­ers as a 9/11 novel (the ini­tial hard­back edi­tion’s cover de­sign fea­tured the Twin Tow­ers), but the book’s char­ac­ters — like most Amer­i­cans — have a much more oblique and foggy re­la­tion­ship with that tragic Septem­ber day.


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