Assimilate to the party
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 Nerve.com, 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.