Porochista Khakpour’s remarkable new book, Brown Album: Essays on Exile and Identity, tells a deeply moving—and often startling—story of being brown-skinned in America. Ranging from Los Angeles to New York to Mississippi, these uncompromisingly honest essays are humorous and despairing, poignant and trenchant, as they explore alienation and the search for home.
Born in Tehran, Khakpour fled the Iranian Revolution with her family and settled in Los Angeles. The pain of leaving her country was intensified by the hostility and racism she encountered as a refugee in ’80s America, when Iranian-American relations were at a low point. “Imagine you’re a kid, barely in elementary school, and you’re already confronted with people just hating you,” Khakpour says. The trauma of those early years runs through the essays in Brown Album as well as Khakpour’s other work: two novels, Sons and Other Flammable Objects (2007) and The Last Illusion (2014), and a memoir, Sick (2018), which chronicles her struggles with depression, drug addiction, and Lyme disease.
Khakpour moved to New York for college and now lives in Queens. She hasn’t chosen a family life, something her parents are “a little heartbroken” about; her mother called her “wild horse” when she was young, a nickname that embodied how her grandmothers thought of her. “My grandmas loved that I was rebellious,” Khakpour says, “and they saw real freedom in me that they never knew because they were illiterate teenagers when they had children.” In her grandmothers’ Sufi Muslim culture, women who didn’t get married and have kids were accepted. “Those women became the town sages. They were no longer sexualized, or seen as simply matriarchal; they were seen as teachers, or activists. That’s me.”
With Khakpour’s standard poodle, Cosmo, looking on, we spoke over Zoom on a New York evening and Tokyo morning about the contradictions and conflicts Khakpour has experienced in the decades since fleeing Iran, and delved into imagination, creative freedom, and why she’s planning to leave America.
—Ann Tashi Slater for Guernica
Guernica: How’s it going with the launch of Brown Album?
Porochista Khakpour: A few years ago, I felt like I never wanted to write again, because every time a book comes out, I’m so stressed. The whole process of being scrutinized to death by all these blogs and publications, people with weird requests. And I’m an extrovert!
But the publishing process with this book has been so positive that I feel like, I could do this again. Part of the joy is that everyone who’s interviewed me, like you, has been a woman with some connection to the subject matter of the book—whether they’re immigrants, whether they’ve dealt with xenophobia and racism, whatever their slice of America or their relationship to America. I feel like, after four books and years of work, finally I’m attracting the right people.
Guernica: Brown Album includes essays from over a decade of your writing, as well as new work. What led to the idea for the book?
Khakpour: In 2009, an editor suggested I try an essay collection. I was barely thirty, and I thought, Why on earth would anyone read an essay collection by a young woman? We didn’t have Jia Tolentino, and these young talents we have now who are putting out essay collections in their twenties. Still, I sold this book, along with my next novel, to the Knopf Doubleday group. And I worked with the perfect editor, Maria Goldverg. She’s the daughter of immigrants and understands the world I come from.
Guernica: You write about feeling “never-ending identity angst” and “the existential confusion of a two-pronged identity.” Can you talk about your identity and how it’s evolved?
Khakpour: Identity is often a reaction to some other force at play, to the dominant culture around you, right? I’ve always thought about America as white America, and for me, Iranian identity is in opposition to that. Xenophobia and racism were my definitive cultural experience growing up. They shaped how I thought of identity—in reaction to the poisonous toxic impressions of us. For people who don’t understand, all they have to do is read a history book about Iranian-American relations in the ’80s. All the jokes were about Iranians, and it was mainstream to hate Iran. That was so painful, and forced me into a weird cultural pride that’s not normal for young kids.
I’ve had people tell me forever, “Oh, you’re so obsessed with race, ethnicity.” I absolutely am, because of my early experiences in America. You’d think that, having come from Iran to Los Angeles in the ’80s, I wouldn’t have wanted anything to do anymore with the news and politics, but I became more and more of an activist. For me, the formative event, before 9/11, was the LA riots. I remember the riots vividly. I was fourteen. I remember thinking, this is when you decide who you stand with. It was a no-brainer to stand with the Black community, and the Asians who stood with the Black community. I leaned into this idea that who I was on a personal, private level didn’t matter as much as who I was ideologically. So I’ve always been a kind of bummer—people invite me to a party or a dinner, and within a few minutes I’m ranting about politics. I’m insufferable in that way!
I moved to New York when I was eighteen, and the closest I’ve come to a strong cultural identity is “New Yorker.” People call me “Iranian American” and I don’t mind that hyphenated identity—though I wish it was more emphasized on the Iranian side—but I wish they’d say “Iranian New Yorker.” I don’t feel connected to America; I don’t want to be responsible for America’s horrific legacies. Of course, I became an American citizen in my 20s, I vote here, I work here, so I’m also complicit. But never by choice. If I could go back in time, I’d convince my parents to immigrate somewhere else.
Guernica: In “Camel Ride,” one of my favorite essays in Brown Album, you write that you resisted when your father wanted you to go on a camel ride at the Los Angeles Zoo, and that looking back on it, you’d say:
“Father, I don’t want to be taken for what I inevitably think others will take this as… a group of Middle Easterners, about to get on the back of, of all animals, a camel, the camel being the animal they associate with us, what they take us as, camel jockeys…”
You talk about the longing you felt to be like everyone else and, at the same time, to be “something altogether different.” This captures beautifully a contradiction so many of us have experienced.
Khakpour: The thing was, I just wanted to be in a place where I could fit in, but I didn’t want to fit in in America. Not only did we leave Iran, where I was meant to be and where I would have looked like the norm, but we came to a place where we were seen as the enemy.
The camel, by the way, is a funny issue—actually hilarious! I was at an Airbnb in Oakland a few years ago with my boyfriend at the time, and there was camel-print bedding, and I had a panic attack: “Oh my God, do you think the Airbnb host knew I was Iranian?” And my boyfriend said, “Relax, it’s probably some bedsheets from Urban Outfitters.” But if someone makes even just a camel reference, I feel nervous, like it’s a slur.
Guernica: In “Another Dingbat,” your essay about growing up in Los Angeles, you talk about California’s “droughts, the El Niño rains, the earthquakes, and those eighties serial killers.” This resonated, because I grew up in 1970s California and its dark side was very much part of my mentality. You know, children being abducted, serial killers.
Khakpour: Same in my town! Constantly children being abducted. Serial killers all the time.
Guernica: What was it? I love California—the wild, gorgeous landscapes; the possibilities of alternative lifestyles on the edge—but there’s also a lot of violence. Where’s California in your mind these days?
Khakpour: I have such complicated feelings for California. We settled there when I was around kindergarten age and I stayed until I left for the East Coast. I love California’s literature and art and music, but its darkness traumatized me. When I was young and we were in Monterey Park, an immigrant area, the serial killer Richard Ramirez was preying on the community. And the Northridge quake was on my sixteenth birthday. And there was the horrible 1984 fire at Ole’s Home Center hardware store right outside my window, when I was a first-grader.
California feels so supernatural. If I hadn’t been through so much trauma with my illnesses, I’d be able to stomach it more. But I’ve become uninterested in darkness. I have to keep the world around me light and frothy and happy. In the last decade, I’ve nearly died so many times that I feel like I already have a haunted, close relationship to death and misfortune.
The terrible things that have happened in my life have always been in California. Although New York is where 9/11 happened and I had a couple of car accidents, in New York, I’m never afraid. This is my chosen city and identity. But my family’s voyage to California and our life in Los Angeles had so much trauma. I recently decided I can never go back there. I have to find a different way to see my family.
Guernica: It’s complicated because of the intersection of your personal trauma with the societal trauma California seems to have a special brand of.
Khakpour: And there’s an additional layer: I feel alienated from the Iranian community in Los Angeles. None of those people are tweeting about Brown Album; they’re not on social media holding my book. I grew up half an hour from that part of Los Angeles, and we were also removed by class. I don’t have anything in common with those Tehrangeles Iranians. They just ignore me—I think they find me scrappy and disgraceful. It’s sad to me because they’re still my people.
Guernica: What’s the meaning of “home” for you?
Khakpour: Maybe it’s a midlife crisis, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I’ve been looking for cues about why I feel happy in New York. One thing that sticks out is where I live, in Forest Hills, is an East Asian community. It reminds me of the East Asian communities where I lived in California, and where I felt safest in America. I never felt safe in my own home because my parents were always violently fighting. My best friends were Chinese and Korean, and I’d go to their homes—to the point where I spoke some Mandarin, some Cantonese, and knew all the food! Those worlds brought me in. I was always clear I was an outsider, but I was so accepted. And there were things our cultures had in common. I didn’t have to feel ashamed the way I did around white people because my parents didn’t speak good English. My best friends felt the same anxiety I did at lunch hour, the fear someone would see our “ethnic” food. We were always paranoid about white people. White people were actually in the minority in our school, but very active and all over the culture. My friends and I knew we were the other and that we just happened to be in a community where there were a lot of us.
I’ve realized that for me, home is returning to my roots, to being Iranian. Since I can’t move back to Iran, I need to think what’s the next thing, and because of my childhood roots in California, I know I need to be in Asia. I feel hopeful when I think of Asia. The idea that if I lived there, the culture that white America creates wouldn’t be my world, and would be secondary to my daily life, is really nice for me.
Guernica: Speaking of hope, I love the Clarice Lispector quote you use as an epigraph for “Brown Album,” the last essay in your book: “At the bottom of everything there is the hallelujah.” In the essay, you deny Iranian Americans’ claims to whiteness; you talk about your struggles with illness, with racism, with Joan Didion’s portraits of a Los Angeles where “the brown and black kids were missing.” Why did you choose the Lispector quote for this essay?
Khakpour: Lispector is a writer I’ve always felt very close to and this is a mysterious quote I really liked. Since “Brown Album” was the only unpublished essay in the book, it had a sacred quality. It’s a raw essay, with no use commercially to anyone, and it was important to me that it not be refined. It has a manifesto quality, also a rambling journal quality. It resists what we know of as an essay. So the Lispector quote felt like the right chant, almost ritualistic.
Guernica: It seems hopeful.
Khakpour: It is hopeful.
Guernica: At the end of the essay, you write:
“Let the record state that, during Trump’s America, I became broken.
I, a brown woman, forever brown, broke.
Something in me, something far above me, knows I will mend.
We will get through this, say the voices of ancestors.”
What note do you feel Brown Album finishes on?
Khakpour: Some people might think the ending of the book is sad. But for me, it’s hopeful, because it’s about standing up to issues of identity, and it’s a moment where I could say Iranians have to face troubling and sad things about the racist legacies in America. It was liberating for me to be able to talk about really dark things in this essay and survive it, come out the other end.
Guernica: Reading “Brown Album” and the other essays in your book brought home to me the importance of imagination in our writing and our lives. What role does imagination play for you?
Khakpour: I’ve been thinking a lot about imagination, the failure of imagination. Claudia Rankine says—and I’m going to butcher this quote—she says that police brutality is the imagination gone wrong, that police make up mental fantasies of what they think they’re seeing, so there’s a perceived threat that’s not real. A black teenager walking in the street with some Skittles or doing his daily jog is not a threat. But if you’re a police officer in the US, part of this institution with its long history of racism, your imagination has been fed to create a grotesque drama. We think of imagination in positive terms, but it can weaponize things.
Very often, imagination is seen as frosting on a cake, a luxurious state: I’m in an imaginative place, I’m creating art. That seems beautiful and capricious and almost ornamental, but in practice, in terms of one’s role and empathy, imagination takes on a life-or-death quality.
When I was a kid, I always heard, “She wants to be a writer and she’s very imaginative.” It had a cute element. But as I got older, the concept of imagination started to have a weight, sometimes a darkness, and almost a responsibility and a burden. It’s an important word for our current moment. Imagination is tied to a moral impulse or collective morality, and we need to be able to tap into that.
Guernica: Yes, and related to imagination is the question of how free we feel. Do you feel you have creative freedom?
Khakpour: That’s a very compelling question. I would have said I did, and that was the whole purpose of being in America. But I don’t think anyone can be truly free in a capitalist system. I’m sure my politics have caused problems for me in a job sense. The fact that I’m still struggling with money at my age is probably tied to my thoughts and how I’ve expressed them. There isn’t a single millionaire activist in the world, because money isn’t a force for good.
So I’m not so free as I once fooled myself into thinking. You can be mostly free and at peace with your level of freedom. But it’s not actual freedom.
Does that mean I’d be free in other places? I don’t know. But there’s so much about America that’s so painful for me, and I don’t want to wake up every morning feeling angry. I love New York, but not that much. The American empire is collapsing and I’d hate to go down with it. The coronavirus has brought home to me how crummy America is compared to the rest of the world. I’m planning on moving to East Asia.
Guernica: You’re very mobile.
Khakpour: All my worldly possessions fit into two suitcases. I have no material things. I’m monk-like.