Khakpour lived in New York at the time of the attacks. In an op-ed that she wrote for The New York Times earlier this month, she reveals that, as an Iranian national at the time (she is now a U.S. citizen), she saw how her hard-won assimilated life as a downtown club girl and roving journalist quickly changed. Even her most liberal and progressive friends seemed to raise suspicions and unfounded charges about her citizenship. It made her realize that American identity is fragile for immigrants — particularly those from the Middle East — even after spending decades in the U.S. If Khakpour is obliged to take a serious and sober approach to writing for this nation’s most august outlets of opinion, her fiction soars by allowing her to reach the parts of the immigrant experience that are too weird, funky, and full of painful human indecision to be discussed by East Coast-based commentariat.
My favorite chapter in Sons and Other Flammable Objects deals with the brief, if intense, friendships fostered in Southern California’s apartment complexes, in which immigrants, singles, and young families mix in explosive ways. The repressed middle-aged Lala steps away from her bitter, authoritarian husband to have her first-ever night on the town — egged on by her neighbors Gigi (a vibrant, snarky Latina housekeeper) and Marvin (a boisterous, steadfast gay man who Lala guiltily admits is the first black person she has ever talked to). In one of the socioeconomic mistranslations that limn this book, Lala decides to tell Marvin that in Iran, Santa Claus is a black-faced man. In what could be a moment of cross-cultural disaster, Marvin laughs as Lala bravely eats sushi with chopsticks she can’t use, convinced that she is courting death from bacteria with every bite.
Khakpour has completed a second book. “It’s a fabulist novel. You could say magical realist,” she said in an interview with Pasatiempo. “It follows a feral child protagonist who was raised largely as a bird. It’s based loosely on a Persian myth, and it has him interacting with a magician’s show roughly based on David Copperfield.” With its mix of fantasy, sci-fi, and magical realism, it’s certainly a vivid departure from Sons. Khakpour says it’s a return to her roots in fabulist literature, which inspired her earliest writings, and it is also set in the era of Sept. 11 — a day that haunts her still. “I think about it every day,” she says.
I haven’t read the manuscript, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Khakpour’s new novel turned out to be a complement to Sons. After all, the saga of immigrants in America is a tale that every day brims with absurdity and wonder. As my favorite line in Sons, uttered by the irascible patriarch Darius, goes, “He had lived well over twenty American-nonsenseChristmases and every year when it came, he’d realize it all over gain: this country is absolute glorious bullshit.”