Porochista Khakpour talks: The Mystery of the Short Story & the Politics of the moment
Porochista Khakpour Talks: the mystery of the short story & the politics of the moment
& Logan Buckley
Porochista Khakpour is the author of four critically acclaimed books, most recently Brown Album: Essays on Exile and Identity (Vintage Books, 2020). In 2018 she published the memoir Sick (HarperCollins), which Kirkus Reviews praised as “lucid, eloquent, and unflinchingly honest.” Among her many fellowships is a National Endowment for the Arts award. Currently, she is a guest faculty member at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) and Stonecoast's MFA programs, as well as Contributing Editor at The Evergreen Review.
In addition to being the guest judge for the 2021 Breakwater Fiction Contest, Porochista Khakpour spoke with Breakwater Review over Zoom.
Breakwater Review: What have you been reading?
Porochista Khakpour: I’ve been reading Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians trilogy as part of my research for my next book because, in a sense, my next book is, in my head, like Crazy Rich Iranians or Crazy Rich West Asians. So I wanted to see how a book like that really operated because I don’t really read material like this very often; my tastes are a little bit more experimental.
I [also] just did an introduction for McSweeney’s for their Stephen Dixon issue. He’s my old mentor who passed away last year (2019). I’ve been rereading a lot of his stories and reading some of his unpublished work that’s going to be in the special issue that’s going to come up very shortly.
BW: How has writing been in 2020?
PK: I’ve actually started my fifth book, Tehrangeles, which is a novel. It has already been purchased on proposal by the Knopf Doubleday group. It’s interesting, though, I’ve done less hard writing on it, and more scheming and mapping and [I’m being] a little bit more calculated with this book.
This time has been weird. The world is obviously suffering, and Queens, where I live, was the center of the pandemic for a while. But for me, personally, I’ve been doing well. I can live in these circumstances pretty easily. Because I’ve been chronically ill for many years, this [time] just feels like an extension of that. Even though I’m definitely an extrovert (ENFP—Myers-Briggs), I don’t have difficulties with life like this. This could go on forever and it doesn’t really alter my lifestyle very much. I like the days to be very silent. I like austere living conditions.
BW: What was the best advice you received as a young writer?
PK: Some of the best advice I got was kind of rebellious advice. Like, I think it was really liberating the first time a professor told me, “You really don’t have to write every day.” In fact, sometimes there’s this weird correlation between the writers I least respect or whose work I like the least and their working habits. I know so many writers who write every day and put out absolute garbage. So I don’t really understand the point of telling people to write every day if you’re just going to write poorly for most of those days. Write when you feel like it and when you’re really on. That was really important advice for me. I’ll never be able to afford the lifestyle of “write every day.” That’s also very privileged. I’ve always had to work multiple jobs. This is just not practical for me, and like I said, I’ve been chronically ill and don’t like writing through horrible physical pain.
BW: What are three things you wish you knew when you started out?
PK: I wish I had a better idea of how much of it [writing/publishing] is just commerce, like publishing drudgery, you know? There’s just so many contracts, paperwork. And [back] then I was too naive. I remember back to my first book in 2007 and how I always thought of how book readings will be a pleasant experience; “Ah, I’m in my dream bookstore now giving a reading to my friends. There’s an opportunity to showcase my work. How exciting!” It took me a while to figure out that this was part of my job. It’s in my contract. I’m giving these readings to sell books. This is what’s expected of me. I’m not reading what I love to read; it’s actually to get people to buy a book at a bookstore. It’s really off-putting for me. This is definitely one thing I wish I’d been more prepared for.
I [also] wish I’d have been prepared for the loss of friends, all the weird jealousy and bad energy. Some of my closest friends over the years who’ve been writers I’ve fallen out with for mysterious reasons...like we just aren’t in touch anymore, whereas [with] my hometown best friends, I’ve known [them] for over thirty years. I’m a person who keeps friends for life, but writers can be so bitter and angry and catty. Competition jealousy just isn’t part of my thing.
And [back] then, I also thought there’s a linear trajectory to professional success. I didn’t expect it to be so up and down. You get one big book deal, then a smaller book deal, maybe a big one again. Book sales haven’t been a linear progression, and I haven’t always increased my audience, but then my books have also been very different. So, maybe that’s why. I got offered better teaching jobs when my first novel came out than I get now, [on] my fifth book.
BW: Tell us a few of your literary influences.
PK: For me, Faulkner was a big one. I read basically everything he wrote in my mid-teenage years. I was really obsessed with Faulkner. It’s funny because he gets erased weirdly, particularly if you’re a writer of color. They don’t expect you to like him somehow, but he was really important for me on a language level, which is ultimately what I care about the most.
And then I’d say the Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad, who died in the sixties. She gets mistakenly seen as the "Iranian Sylvia Plath." I think she was even better than Plath. She was a very important confessional poet when Iran just didn’t have a lot of that, and her work continues to inspire Iranian writers generation after generation.
And then I’d say probably Jamaica Kincaid. She’s a real favorite of mine because of how she navigates the semi-experimental style. Her work is revolutionary for me. I just think she’s incredible, and now that Toni Morrison’s gone, [she’s] our greatest living author.
These authors taught me different things, but mostly they taught me on the language level, [and] that’s what I care about the most. I’m a stylist at heart. I’m not terribly excited by plot. . . . Language is just the heart of things for me, and all these writers have taught me to access the narrative through language first. I like maximalist stylists. I like writers who are at least semi-experimental. I just like writers who sound different to the conventional mainstream, you know, American, sort of semi-minimalist narratives and for me, a lot of Southern writers really do that well, but also, Toni Morrison tapped into some of that same consciousness really beautifully. So I guess you know, it’s kind of silly to say, but the Southern writers really opened a door for me on how to write and how to think as a writer.
I also am very fond of the Chinese avant-garde writer who has become kind of a mentor of mine, Can Xue. We got in touch a few years ago when I nominated her for a major award and she started reading my work, too, and started emailing me. She’s in her late sixties and lives in Beijing, but we’re very close. I ended up figuring out a way for her to come to the US. I arranged a tour for her and so we hung out in person quite a bit. She’s also always on the Nobel shortlist. That’s another writer whose work I absolutely love and who I think about a lot. She’s a genius. Her work is so radical. But she also does everything her own way. She doesn’t even believe in revision. She believes every piece of writing is a transmission from mysterious higher powers, and to fiddle with that is ridiculous.
BW: How does your approach to essay- and memoir-writing differ from that for novel writing? Are there any other genres you’re interested in exploring?
PK: I don't really like writing non-fiction. It's kind of funny to try to promote a book this year [Brown Album] and answer that question like that all the time. I'm being brutally honest: I really don’t enjoy creative nonfiction at all. Really. I like it when it's journalism. So, I’ve a very separate training as a journalist. My favorite mode there is investigative journalism. So it's like a very different hat to wear. And it requires like a very different sort of mentality. I think, actually, temperamentally, I'm better suited to being a journalist than a literary author in many ways. But the personal essays and memoir, they’ve been my bread and butter. So, I don't want to bite the hand that feeds me. [For example,] my book Sick has finally earned out [its advance]. It’s my only book that earned out. These [nonfiction] books definitely have done better [in publishing] in a lot of ways, and I sort of resent that. I think my novels are better. And I just think that's where the real art for me is. I don't really read a lot of non-creative nonfiction. I mean, I wrote and read a lot of essays and memoir and things like that when I was writing Sick, just to see what's out there and see how I could also be in the genre, but I didn't find those books unforgettable, to be honest. I know a lot of people are really attached to not quitting nonfiction but I just, it’s fine. I teach it a lot. There’s a lot of nonfiction writers I admire. Like John D’Agata, who’ve done interesting things with the form, but then there's a whole lot of others who don’t experiment, and those are the books that seem to rise to the top. I hope to push the genre in certain ways. But I could live without it easily.
BW: Is fiction political? What does a fiction writer owe the current moment?
PK: Yeah, I think everything is political. I don't know how it isn't political, to be honest. I think we get exhausted by the concept of politics and all its different meanings. But it's a very important part of the mission of all arts.
BW: Can you envision a moment when fiction is no longer political, and if so, what does that look like? Or is that not something we can even imagine anymore?
PK: I don't know. No, I don't think I can really imagine it. I don't know what that would mean. Like, the idea of writing in a vacuum is like. . . . I just think that it's so weird and irresponsible, and maybe privileged, for a writer to think outside of the politics of a current moment. And I don't really know what you're about, to lack that, to not want to be engaged with your moment. And the writers who love to say they're disconnected from social media or the internet, that they're hiding like a hermit in their cave. . . . Even that, to me, is a very political decision that is based on the status quo and its close engagement with [politics].
BW: The Last Illusion, your second novel, was grand in scope and had many sides to it: hyper-realism—9/11, Y2K, anorexia; myth/fabulism; coming of age; a love story; fringe-identity; a satire of sorts. Can you describe your lessons learned from working on such a big, bold canvas?
PK: My first book was very minimal on plot. It was very much concerned with language and had a lot of lush, maximalist, interesting stylist prose. And then with my second book I wanted to do something different, where I wanted the plot to be very Baroque and maximal, but I wanted the writing to be fairly simple. So in a sense, to me, it's almost like my genre book, in a way both a little bit of fantasy and science fiction. The two main threads of that plot came to me in very separate pieces. And so then I thought, what if I mashed up two seemingly unrelated plots, just finding their connection in itself would create an interesting plot. So that's how I approached it. I had my magician, I had my bird boy. And then I had the whole 9/11 concept there, but in a fabulous sense. It was kind of a risky work because it's like a fabulous thriller, but it also had a lot of triggering subjects in it. There were actual parts of it where I had to create almost racist or xenophobic tropes in it because that was part of the point; some of the themes were uncomfortable. It is, for me, a book that was very dear to me. And in some ways, maybe my favorite book that I've written, just because I think it's very original and interesting. And I don't think there's a book really like it out there. And I think it's deeply political. It was a very difficult book to write. But it’s a book I'm pretty proud of.
BW: Where do your stories come from? Where do you find your raw material?
PK: It's a little mysterious where they come from. Usually it's not very clear to me, although I guess I could explain it. First of all, The Last Illusion came from a short story I'd written in graduate school that I was encouraged to continue by my mentor, Stephen Dixon. Sons and Other Flammable Objects came from a short story called “Spectacle.” My second book came from these weird, disparate threads that I wove together, and I knew I had another 9/11 book in me. My memoir, Sick, was something that people really wanted from me when they learned I was chronically ill, and I would share my experience online. I was a little bit nudged into it because I didn't really want to write a memoir. And then Brown Album...just felt logical at this point. You know, now I'm in my forties, and I have this large body of essays. I really wanted to collect just the Iranian-American essays. It's not all of them, but it’s a good portion of them. And because I think that itself tells a certain story, and I also just sort of want to stop writing personal essays, I thought it was my collection and I can move on. Of course, I'm still working on personal essays.
BW: Can you tell us more about Tehrangeles?
PK: It's about four sisters and is loosely, satirically based on Little Women. And they are part of the first round of an Iranian-American reality TV family at a time of war with Iran. I've made it now, as coinciding with a pandemic, which is a really weird choice, but it somehow works. Because I'm working on it now, I just thought, why not? And so it's sort of a wild book. It's darkly humorous, like a lot of my other work, but it's a little flashier and more fun. All the Crazy Rich Asians [maximalism] I mentioned earlier, you know. It’s about these extremely wealthy four sisters, and they’re sort of in this weird period of their time. It's also largely about identity and what it means to put on certain identities. There's a lot of blackfishing and whitefishing in the book, which I think in Iranian popular culture, we have a lot of. There's dealing with identity of a non-binary character that's very dear to my character. And just a lot of people trying to figure out and craft their identities. It’s just a book that really involves that more than I even thought when I started it. "Tehrangeles," of course, is a portmanteau that refers to that part of Los Angeles that is highly Iranian-American and very affluent, and involves Westwood, Beverly Hills, parts of Bel Air and Brentwood, and parts of Santa Monica. Very, very much like not where I grew up, but like 40 minutes from where I grew up. So we were there often, but I was fairly rejected by that Iranian society. I didn't grow up rich. I just didn't really have anything in common with those people. And I still don’t, you know, they're not really my audience.
BW: Considering that you’re the judge of our 2021 Breakwater Fiction Contest, what makes a short story work for you?
PK: You know, I find a lot of the masters of the short story craft to be very boring. And I prefer novels to the short story. So it really has to grab my attention. It has to really show me why it needed to be a short story. It really has to have that jewel-like feeling, you know, this little nugget that's pristine in a way. I have very high standards for short stories. It's really rare that a short story will stay with me forever. That's really important to me, the idea that a short story can really shake you out of real life and can take you somewhere really special. I also think that with short stories, syntax, and diction are more important than ever; you simply have less sentences on a page. So, things have to be very tight, which is why I think I struggle with writing short stories myself. It’s hard for me, as a novelist, to be that tight in the short form. I find them very mysterious, how short stories get crafted and how they come to be. I really respect the form. I think it's like, almost like poetry. It’s a fascinating form.
BW: Any examples of your favorite short stories?
PK: James Salter's “Last Night” is really very triggering. It’s like just a nightmare in so many ways, but it's a short story I would teach off and on and that’s one particular Salter short story that has definitely stuck with me. I [also] like a lot of innovative, interesting work like Curtis Sittenfeld’s short stories. [And] I like short stories that are very close to poetry. Of course, I love Lydia Davis' flash fiction. I like a lot of like David Foster Wallace's shortest stuff, actually. He has some almost, like, flash fiction that I really, really enjoy. I love Borges in general, but there’s a paragraph in his story, “The Aleph,” that’s known for its ambitious literary style that people often talk about. It's hard to not spoil the story, but it's a paragraph that that story is known for that I think is probably the best paragraph ever written in literature. I teach it quite a bit. I don't really teach a lot of Chekhov or Alice Munro. I respect them, of course, but they're just not what I really read a lot of. I tend to veer toward the more experimental work. Like the surprising, interesting stuff, you know.
BW: What do you think about MFA programs and novel writing?
PK: I taught novel writing, in particular, for many years. And I taught it very differently than I taught the regular workshops. . . . You know, the workshop format is not necessarily ideal for novel writing because it's hard to pick up and stop. And, you know, I don't read many novels at once, like some people do. I like to really immerse myself in the novel. You're requiring something very different from people when you workshop a novel chapter by chapter, and then they have to consider the macro as well as the micro. It's a different mentality to get into. So when I did the novel-writing classes, we probably read like five novels a semester and then workshopped novel chapters. So, it’s asking a lot of students, but you know. Like I said, I taught it very differently.
So it was interesting in the end, and the novels we read in my classes usually were things like Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, which I guess now I would give a trigger warning to, for sure. And it is historical fiction, even though that's hard to admit when you read it. But I found that to be interesting when you're just talking about the possibilities of a novel that goes so far in so many directions. And then I also would teach novels that are failures, sometimes, in my opinion, but also just some that are obviously failures, like Stephen King's Carrie. I think it’s a clear example of a book where the movie is much better. I believe it was his first novel, so that's [probably] why. It's not that all first novels are bad, but like, he just needed to learn quite a lot. And [I’ve had my students] read a ton of other books that were semi-experimental and engaging in that way. James Salters’ Light Years, you know, I really liked Salter as a stylist.
BW: In a similar vein, are there any short stories that you see as failures?
PK: For my intro classes, there are a lot of short stories I teach that I don't think are very good but can be helpful for young writers. I’ll get in trouble for saying this. . . I mean, like Jhumpa Lahiri’s “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine.” Yeah, I hate that story. I actually think she's a better short story writer than novelist, but I just think as a writer of color, I find so much of what she does so pedestrian, and so catering to white audiences. It's so saccharine and annoying. But do I think it's helpful for like an intro student who's just starting out and you want to give them something right away? It's never a story that I look forward to reading, and I don't draw any inspiration from it. So there's that. I'm trying to think if there's other pieces like that, I mean, that [one] I personally don't love. A lot of Alice Munro is like that. I realize it’s sacrilege to say this among writers, but I feel nothing when I read her work. I like dazzling experiments and things like that. So I don't find realism for realism’s sake very interesting.
BW: Does emotion have a place in fiction writing?
PK: Of course, but it's a little like we’ve become a little heavy-handed in our society. Now there's such a currency put on it, it’s so commodified through the culture of social media. I'm so tired of people talking about their feelings, or I just find it not very interesting. It’s the same thing over and over. And I think so much of women's fiction I just can't stand, if you can call it that. I just don't really like to communicate that way.
BW: Tell us about your essay selection process for Brown Album.
PK: Well, it's funny because actually my editor had a lot to do with it. I was very sick shortly after we sold Brown Album. The curatorial skills for me were a little bit daunting, and so I basically sent her the file that was basically just one document with cut-and-paste of all my essays that I could find online. Like almost all, it was just like hundreds of pages of essays, with no real organizational scheme, except I think I just put it in chronological order. But that wasn't really the right order. And so she had a really good sense of how to divide them and the story that that would tell. There was a lot of adding and subtracting and curating that was out of my skill set. So, she had a lot to do with it. I was surprised, you know, putting together this first collection, like how much like rewriting and reconsidering, and all that is involved, but there's some real art to that, curating and making a sort of tangible storyline through all these essays that came out at very different times for very different publications. So, I think that was a big challenge, too.
BW: Can you talk to us about writing in the second person as you’ve done in a few of your essays?
PK: I just felt the essay, “How to Write Iranian America,” really needed to be in second person. It's a very long essay, and it just came out that way because I really wanted the reader to be in my shoes, to experience why I was basically complaining about achieving my dream of being a published writer, and all the stuff that came with it. And so I really needed the reader to simulate my mindset in a sense. So, it just felt so natural. And, you know, I've always enjoyed like Lorrie Moore's second-person stories or even, very controversial now, Junot Díaz’s “How to Date a Browngirl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie).” But that’s probably cancellable story today. But I really like it actually, technically. And so I really admire when I read good second person; it has to be really bulletproof for it to be really good. It's hard to write second person for a long period of time. Even grammatically, the English language doesn't really lend itself well to second person. So there's logical problems in grammar when you do second person. If it's not done perfectly, it really suffers. And then I think what you [have to] deal with is that tons of people just don't like it, the way that they don't like experimental forms. They're inconvenienced by the idea of having to go on a journey that sounds different. You just can't do it all the time; there really has to be a good reason for why you're doing it. Some people will just find it off-putting, you know, and they’re the same people who find anything experimental off-putting, so you just have to let go of those readers. It's definitely not for everyone.
BW: How do you treat emotions and sentiments in your personal writing?
PK: Well, I think that is the fuel for a lot of like personal essays and memoir. It’s really hard to do and that's why I don't love it. It's like you always have to be very emotionally frank and very much bury yourself in that way. And sometimes I don't feel like doing that. So that's my resistance there. I had a lot of conflicts with this book collection, which is a collection people wanted from me for quite some time, but I knew in order to write it honestly, I had to write about my reservations. In a way the later essays almost question impulses of the earlier essays in the collection. So it was important for me in a lot of ways to talk about the conflicted nature of human beings and personal essayist which I don’t really hear writers talk about enough. I don't know why really. But there are some real obvious problems with the form culturally, you know.
BW: Do you prefer paperback or hardcover?
PK: So you know, even though this book deal [with Brown Album] wasn't a lot of money, the Tehrangeles portion of the book deal was much higher. In fact, they really wanted to turn Tehrangeles into a hardcover. And I really enjoyed having the last two books of mine be paperbacks, actually. But why is that? Well, because people can afford it more. $15 versus $25. That’s a big difference. It’s a really different ask, $25 and up, you know, and I have hardcover books coming out for $30, $40. And I'm talking about non-academic, mainstream publishing putting out books that expensive. I don't think anyone can afford that. That's like, books that cost as much as clothing, many dinners, like, it's a lot. Everyone's in a sort of state of economic crisis, or at least most of the world, so it's too much to ask people to spend $25 for a book. $15 is a much more palatable amount. I wish it could be even less, you know. I struggle to afford books, so, I'm sure others do, too. You know, I've had to sell my own books, sometimes to use bookstores to like help pay rent. It’s not easy. Publishing is very over-the-top with this expense.
BW: Any literary critics/reviews you like reading?
PK: Yeah, I work as a book critic quite a lot, so I really respect it when I think of how difficult it is to do book criticism well. Well, of course, Michiko Kakutani; she's always very interesting to read. I love a lot of The New Yorker book criticism. I love other critics of Bookforum, and the London Review of Books. You know, my friend Patricia Lockwood does a really good job, but her stories are not exactly courteous. They're always like hybridized essays. You know, my ex, funny to mention him, Christian Lorentzen, I think his book criticism is very good. And we are pretty aligned in our tastes. Oh, a writer I kind of very interesting, quirky writer, whose criticism I find very surprising and interesting is Molly Young. She does some work for New York Magazine now. And she's just like, a delightful writer. I (also) really like Lauren Oyler.
There's other writers I disagree with but I admire their criticism. I mean, I really almost always disagree with Jessa Crispin. Like almost like a rule, I do not see eye-to-eye with her. And I think she's just much whiter than she thinks she is. But I respect her putting herself out there and going against the grain and being really hard-headed about her positions. I think that there's a need for that. And I love writers writing about other writers, you know. I really look forward to reading (in the New York Times) what writers have to say about a different writer. Like when I was on the cover of The New York Times Book Review in 2014, for my book review of Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird. It was one of my first really big book reviews, and I just thought, how interesting it was to also think about writing not just a critique of a book but also creating a beautiful piece of writing that honored the book.
You can read the short story Porochista chose from our selected finalists for the 2021 Breakwater Fiction Contest here.
Brown Album: Essays on Exile and Identity is available now in independent bookstores & public libraries.
SUCHITA NAYAR is a first-year MFA student in fiction writing at University of Massachusetts, Boston. She began her career as a financial journalist and then worked in finance. She is the fiction co-editor for Breakwater Review.
LOGAN BUCKLEY is a first-year MFA student in fiction at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He is the fiction co-editor for Breakwater Review.