The latest in immigrant lit
The hit 1995 teen movie “Clueless” may be best known for introducing Americans to Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd, but first-time novelist Porochista Khakpour remembers it for another reason: It injected Iranian Americans into the U.S. pop-cultural consciousness.
“There’s that scene when [Silverstone’s character] Cher says, ‘And that’s the Persian mafia. You can’t hang with them unless you own a BMW.’ ” Khakpour, 29, delivered the line in an authoritative teen-queen squeak.
It was a “hideous” milestone for Iranian-born, South Pasadena-bred, Brooklyn-based Khakpour, substituting for the stereotype of Iranians as veiled women and religious fanatics another unappealing notion -- of an excessively wealthy, insular immigrant community “in shoulder pads and gold jewelry.”
Khakpour’s goal was to challenge both stereotypes in her first novel, “Sons and Other Flammable Objects,” which was published this fall. Her main characters, like her own family, are resolutely middle class and are more Zoroastrian than Muslim. They reside in a kitschy Pasadena apartment complex, not a “Tehrangeles” mansion. There are no religious fanatics or veiled women save for those in the novel’s deliberately overwrought dream sequences -- filled with what Khakpour calls “Middle East paraphernalia, from the perspective of an American.”
Twelve years after “Clueless,” books such as Khakpour’s, including well-received works by first-time writer Dalia Sofer and established novelist Gina Nahai, are putting the immigrant culture more fully into the spotlight. While the politics of their native country fills the news, Iranian American writers have been finding enthusiastic audiences since 2003, when Azar Nafisi’s wildly successful memoir “Reading Lolita in Tehran” and Marjane Satrapi’s innovative graphic novel “Persepolis” hit bookstores.
These writers’ exploration of new genres and styles -- and their ability to tell the stories of a new generation of Iranian Americans, stories that don’t necessarily start with the Iranian revolution -- makes it increasingly difficult to point a finger and place a label.
Last month, Khakpour read from her book to a packed crowd at Dutton’s in Brentwood, showcasing one of the things that sets her book apart -- her stylized prose. While Khakpour says her long sentences are difficult to read aloud, she rarely stumbled as she presented a scene in which her characters encounter Ed McMahon on a class-envious trip to Rodeo Drive. The protagonist, Xerxes Adams, imagines drilling a hole under McMahon’s “Star Search” stage: “On the opposite end of McMahon’s shiny designer shoes, through the wailing volcanic fodder of the planet’s core, would certainly be other feet and maybe knees and maybe hands and, hell, torsos of the perpetually aching, ailing, hurting people of the other world, most of the world, that looked somewhat more like Xerxes Adams, looked at least more as he was supposed to look, that shared with him something he could never quite get in touch with but clearly had to have.” Her audience -- about half Iranian American, including some family and friends -- murmured knowingly.
But even as Khakpour’s excerpt made clear how definitively American a book it was, she told the crowd that some publishers had asked her to “Iranicize” the book.
“Iranian memoirs set the rules for Iranian fiction a little bit -- for what types of things do well and what gets published,” Khakpour said earlier in an interview, mentioning “Reading Lolita in Tehran.” That story -- of a group of female students surreptitiously reading Western classics in post-revolutionary Iran -- has been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 100 weeks.
“Because my book became successful, publishers do want to repeat that success. So memoirs are fashionable,” Nafisi said. “But behind [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, behind Bush, there are millions of people. Americans don’t know what Iran is all about, and I think readers want to know what is behind the politics.”
Iran’s politics are, of course, hard to ignore, starting with the 1979 Islamic revolution, in which religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew the U.S.-backed shah. The ensuing crackdown by religious authorities -- including the imposition of the veil -- spurred a wave of immigration to the U.S. It took a tumultuous couple of decades -- from the 1980 hostage crisis through the Iran-Iraq war and the Salman Rushdie fatwa until the era of the “axis of evil” -- for these immigrants to start writing their stories.
Behind the trends
As much as publishers drive the market, so do the writers’ choices, and there are a few reasons why memoirs became the mode for so many Iranian writers -- and why most of the writers making waves in the U.S. are women. UC Irvine comparative literature professor Nasrin Rahimieh, who directs the Dr. Samuel M. Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture there, cited a simple evolution in genre -- after the social realism that dominated mid-20th century fiction around the globe, writers naturally moved to tell personal stories.
For Iranians, Nafisi also noted, personal stories seemed much more important after the revolution, when so many personal experiences were outlawed in the public sphere.
Women in particular were the ones hidden or even erased from public life -- which might explain why immigrating Iranian women felt more compelled to write about their experiences. Men, as in many immigrant cultures, were more pressured to pursue lucrative professional careers or, at least, write “serious” nonfiction.
“Becoming a writer is not highly regarded for Iranian men,” Nahai said. She also had another explanation: “Publishers think that an Iranian woman is more exotic.”
Some writers contribute to the stereotype of the oppressed, veiled Iranian woman, others challenge it, and others, particularly those like Khakpour who set their books in the U.S., simply don’t address it.
“As some writers have said, they don’t want to write only about being Iranian,” Rahimieh said. “They want to feel free to write as other Americans do.”
Nahai tested the bounds of that freedom in 2001, before there was an “Iranian” category in which to put her. After two novels that drew from her family history in Iran, Nahai set her third work, “Sunday’s Silence,” in Appalachia.
“People punish you for not writing about Iran -- not the reviewers, strangely enough, but the readers. The readers are so disappointed if you write outside of what they identify you as.”
Nahai’s new novel, “Caspian Rain,” returns to Iran for its setting, but unlike many memoirs, it unflinchingly depicts the cruelty of Iranian women against other women, which, as Nahai noted, is often the only way for women to exercise power over other people. Rich in-laws and society gossips relentlessly mistreat Nahai’s main character, a poor girl who marries up and suffers for it.
“I don’t think my job is to worry about how Americans are going to perceive us,” Nahai said. “My job is to present the truth.”
Sofer and Khakpour differentiate themselves by writing mostly from the perspective of male protagonists. In “The Septembers of Shiraz,” Sofer starkly depicts the arrest and imprisonment of Isaac Amin, charged with the same crime as Sofer’s father was -- spying for Israel.
“My father was very impressed by it, though I imagine it was hard for him to read,” said Sofer, 35. “It was very difficult to write, but I needed to re-create what happened, from his perspective.”
Khakpour focuses on Darius and Xerxes Adams, a feuding father and son living in the U.S. Both confront American prejudices ranging from the harmless -- repeatedly mispronounced names -- to the devastating, such as when Xerxes’ closest childhood friend cruelly taunts him with a drawing of a camel.
Khakpour cited a steady literary diet of dead white men of the Western canon and poetry from the Persian Book of Kings (which still sits in red leather-bound glory on a packed shelf in her parents’ South Pasadena home). She also wanted to get as far away from another much used and abused category -- “chick lit” -- as possible. But mostly, it was the recognition that Iranian women aren’t the only ones dealing with frustrating stereotypes, especially since 9/11.
“There’s nothing more sinister or threatening than a Middle Eastern man right now,” Khakpour said.
‘The baggage of Iran’
The cross-cultural story is only just starting to be told (notwithstanding the pioneering works of earlier writers such as Nahid Rachlin, whose “Foreigner” came out in 1978), as the generation of Iranians who immigrated as children is reaching adulthood.
This generation, as Sofer and Khakpour both noted, grew up less than secure in its Iranian-ness, came of age in the politically correct, hyphenate-happy 1990s, and began to write in this decade with greater assurance in and some freedom from their cultures.
“I think there’s a certain comfort with people publishing now who are 35 and under,” said San Jose State University literature professor Persis Karim, 45. Karim was born in the U.S. to an Iranian father and a French mother. “They have a personal and linguistic confidence. They’re less burdened by the baggage of Iran.”
And as such, they’re a hit on the American literary scene. Khakpour and Sofer have received much attention and overwhelmingly positive reviews. Sofer won the prestigious Whiting Writers’ Award for “emerging writers of exceptional talent and promise.” Khakpour’s novel was selected as a New York Times editor’s choice, and Jonathan Ames described it as “kaleidoscopic, gorgeous, and mad.”
Khakpour, for her part, has not skirted away from controversy. After receiving a rare negative review, written by Carolyn See in the Washington Post in the form of a letter to Khakpour, she parried with a blogged note, saying that See had her “granny panties in a bunch” and assailing See for saying the book’s characters should have visited an Iranian consulate (there isn’t one).
Khakpour said she took issue with See’s age since See took up Khakpour’s youth in her review. (Reached for comment, See said only that Khakpour is entitled to her opinion.)
And both Khakpour and Sofer were in Radar magazine’s recent photo spread on five coutured and coiffed worldly young female writers, who were praised for having literary talent despite their “international pedigrees and unimpeachable sex appeal.”
Flattering, perhaps, but Khakpour, like the others, looks forward to the day when she will be considered just a writer. “Why is there a Western canon? Because white people have always had the luxury to be writers and artists, more than brown people who were just trying to survive. It’s a luxurious thing to write a book.”
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