Of Art and Magic: An Interview with Novelist Porochista Khakpour

[23 May 2014]

By Anita Felicelli

The Last Illusion is a fabulist novel, both haunting and comic, that takes the Persian medieval epic The Shahnameh as its starting point. In the novel, Zal is born fair-skinned and blond in Iran. His mentally unstable mother calls him White Demon and confines him to a bird cage along with her other pet birds, feeding him insects and letting him sleep on straw. He communicates with the birds by squawking.

After ten years, an estranged older sibling intervenes. A white American behavioral analyst adopts Zal and moves him to New York City. As a feral child, Zal has trouble growing into a human adult in pre-9/11 New York City. He eats candied insects and dreams in bird. He is thrilled to meet illusionist Bran Silber, who seems to share his fascination with flying.

However, chaos disrupts Zal’s isolated existence when he gets together with eccentric photographer Asiya McDonald and falls in love with her gigantic sister Willa. Meanwhile, Silber is planning his last illusion: making the World Trade Center disappear.

I met novelist, essayist and critic Porochista Khakpour and her mother on a sunny afternoon at Cafe Borrone in Menlo Park, California. Khakpour is on tour for The Last Illusion. She and her mother are both eating shrimp salads and drinking Prosecco. We talk about her novels, art, risk, autobiography, and individualism.

PopMatters: In many ways The Last Illusion reminded me of your first novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects, but weirder. Was choosing to tell a fabulist story a conscious decision on your part or something that just evolved organically?

Porochista Khakpour: The first novel was actually the weird book for me in being a realistic book. I’ve always been attracted to fabulist or surrealist or magical realist or experimental works. That is what I read and teach.

With the first book I felt more pressure to write what people wanted me to write. The first book was more about language. I focused and kept the plot very simple there. After that first book, I thought, now I can write what I really want to write. With the new book, I was less interested in language and more interested in having the plot be magical. It felt natural to me. It was so hard to do anything else. My third novel is in between the two, but it still errs on the side of the weird.

With this one, you were sinking into a style that was always yours.

Yes. The Last Illusion has the ambiance and tone and style of what I’ve always really wanted to do. With the first one, I was always uncomfortable with style and substance. I assumed my agent and I would work on the first novel for many years, and that we’d think about publishing it way into the future, but it all happened very fast. I never felt that it was ready. With this one, I do feel the novel was ready.

Was somebody suggesting you write more realistically with Sons and Other Flammable Objects, or was that pressure you put on yourself?

A wave of Iranian memoirs had come out. Usually I would think, who cares. I’m not the kind of person who cares about that kind of stuff. But I think subconsciously the pressure I felt about being a representative of Iranian-American sunk into me.

That was around the time I wrote the New York Times Iranian essays. I don’t normally write personal essays about Iranian-American experience on my own. I did one recently that ran with Vice magazine, but I did that incredibly reluctantly. It’s like pulling teeth for me now to do that stuff.  I had this feeling back then that there were people who wanted me to represent Iranian Americans and Iranian American women. There was a sense of who my audience was. And the hilarious thing is, being deeper into the literary world, I think much less about who my audience is.

All that knowledge about audience with the first book, short-circuited on this one. I just let myself go blank and do what I wanted to do. It’s not a success story necessarily. It took way longer to sell this book. Nobody wanted this subject matter and nobody really wanted this risk. I can’t recommend it, going this route, but I think it has higher rewards.

One of many things that resonated with me in Zal’s story is his preoccupation and quest to be normal. As an immigrant myself, the search for normalcy, was something that definitely preoccupied me until my late 20s. Is this preoccupation autobiographical for you, too?

I remember that as a young immigrant, feeling a deep anxiety about how to fit in. For me it was easy to write about Zal’s quest for transition into normalcy because that was how I felt, too. It was important in the book to keep the idea of normalcy kind of fluid. At certain times it was a positive, and at certain times it was a negative.

I wanted to look at normalcy without judgment. I wanted to investigate what it means. Normalcy us a substitute for humanness. So yes, it’s definitely autobiographical.

In another interview, you said you developed an interest in feral children at a writing residency. Did you link feral children to The Shahnameh right away?

You know how they always say to writers: pay attention, you never know when a story will come to you. There’s real truth to that. 

I wasn’t doing any work at the writing residency. I had brought some books with me. Comfort stuff. I had brought Robert Penn Warren’s Audobon Vision because I always loved that. And I brought this Dick Davis translation of The Shahnameh. I always found the story so comforting and now I could read it in English. I had wanted to write about the Zal story in The Shahnameh since I was a child. I was so mesmerized by it.

I had this conversation with another resident who said, whatever you do, don’t Google feral children. In a late night of Googling, I discovered this article about this bird boy who was found chirping like a bird. And it was just so terrifying. I happened to be reading The Shahnameh a lot that week, and that’s when the idea for this novel came to me.

Zal is a feral child. He is this bird boy. And Audobon Vision, which is preoccupied with birds, was right by my side, too. All the elements of the book came together there in this weird way. It was shocking to me. It wasn’t until that moment that I saw what the friction in the novel was going to be. I didn’t want to just tell the Persian story—that was already there. I wanted to do a modern retelling of it.

I was fascinated with Asiya and Willa, particularly the way you linked Willa with Scheherazade. What inspired you to write these opposite sisters?

The book talks a lot about storytelling. I thought of Willa as a survivor. To me, she’s the heroine of the book. She’s the real love interest. I see the Scheherezade story as the story of a woman’s intelligence trumping all else. Scheherezade survives because she’s brilliant and she’s an artist. I wanted Willa to have that bit to her.

Asiya, Zal’s girlfriend, to me is almost the antagonist of the novel. I was terrified by her and really hated her. So many people have told me they really liked her as a character, but I would rush to finish those sections when I would write them. I find her so terrifying. Asiya was, to me, what happens when magical thinking really consumes a person or even a society. Willa’s more grounded, I think. Asiya is in her own way, birdlike, but more menacing.

It's a Good Time to Be Weird

I wouldn’t say that I liked Asiya, but she was intriguing. Did you conceive of her before you wrote her?

I think when I wrote her, I thought she’d be a much more minor character. I knew the novel was going to be a coming of age story, but I didn’t know it was also going to be a love story. She forced herself more deeply into the book.

While writing, I thought, oh no, the last thing I want to write about is an anorexic eccentric—she had so many issues and she was just so dark. Zal has never been dark. Yet she represented a type of New Yorker and also she was the perfect character to put all that magical thinking into.

There’s a side of me that’s Asiya-like, too. A part of me that I hate is like her. Sometimes I’m prone to superstition and magical thinking and I can have a strange fantasy life that runs away from me. But Willa was my true love. I’ve never loved a character more than Willa.

You link her with survival, and survival is a big theme in this book.

Yes. I wanted all the things we take for granted as human beings—like kissing and eating—all those things to be reconsidered and reintroduced on the level of a survival story. I wanted to look at the basics of human life and look at how much of them have to do with keeping ourselves alive.

Is Zal is the character you most identify with?

Yes.

Did you identify most with Xerxes in Sons and Other Flammable Objects?

Yes, and to me Zal and Xerxes are pretty similar. Zal’s alienation, I’m really into. I don’t think I’ve ever felt comfortable anywhere I’ve ever been. That can be an advantage for an artist, but it can be unbearable to live through.

I thought it was interesting how you seemed to insert autobiographical information about yourself into the female characters.

I tried to think of the way my ex-boyfriends might describe me or categorize me. Like one boyfriend would have said, “Yeah, she taught a lot of yoga. She was really into faux-spirituality,” or another would have said about me, “The one with the ethnic name.” There were fun things like that in this book.

Art versus craft. There are a lot of American writers who describe themselves in terms of craft, using metaphors of bricklaying and stone masonry. I’ve noticed on Twitter and other places, you tend to speak about writing more in terms of art. Can you talk about that?

A lot of writers are phobic to call themselves artists. They don’t want to talk about art. I think the work of writing should be described the way visual artists or dancers or artists describe things. I’ve always been interested in the arts, sometimes more than letters or the humanities.

I’ve also been writing and known I wanted to be a novelist since I was four. But I’ve never read a book on craft, and I don’t really like to teach from that stuff.

I went to Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. We were in a very good program but they weren’t encouraging us to pursue one path or one idea of craft there. I like novelty and newness. The way I teach my students is to think, “What do you want to do and how am I going to help you be the best at that thing?”

I don’t want to tell someone what to write or what not to write. You have to let people do it their own way. Otherwise the field itself suffers. That’s why American domestic realism became king. That tradition is very exotic compared to what the rest of the world is doing.

Fabulism and magical realism are in many of our cultures, while the styles of Cheever and Yates and Salter, in which rich white men whose big dilemmas are fidelity or money issues, are not.

Birds are in both novels—what draws you to birds as a writer?

Oh, I hate birds! I had to housesit last month for these cockatoos and it was so horrible. They were in a cage like the one described in the book and I was so haunted. I’ve never liked birds.

I think flight is what I’m interested in, actually. So I make metaphors around things in the air in general. You think planes. You think bombs. You think stars. All the world of the things up there, whether they’re floating up or falling down, that interests me. The birds just happen to be the natives of the aerial.

Also, birds scare me. In my first book, there’s a lot of violence towards birds.  And here you’ve got a little of that, too, in a different way I guess. The idea of restraining or threatening these angel-like figures fascinates me. We should all be scared of things coming at us from the sky, right? It could also be that I was a child in Iran and my first memory was when anti-aircraft—

[Porochista’s mother broke in to explain] This is what happened. The Iran-Iraq war started. At night they tried to bomb our area. I took Porochista, and I was running down the steps down to the yard. And you could see the anti-aircraft. They looked like fireworks. They were shooting at the airplanes. I was holding Porochista, and I was shaking. And she was telling me “Mom, why are you shaking? Why are you shaking?” I thought they were coming for us.

From that age, she started having worries about this kind of thing. We left our country right after that. We went to Switzerland and my husband’s friend took us to a hot air balloon show. As soon as the hot air balloons went into the sky, Porochista started crying. She was troubled about things that go into the sky because of the memory of that war. [She turned to Porochista.] That’s why you hate birds, I think.

And then there’s 9/11 of course.

Khakpour: Yes totally. And I’ve been very uncomfortable with airplane rides my whole life.

There have been a lot of books and media coming out recently with explicit connections to fairy tales. What do you think our current cultural fascination with fairy tales and the magic that stems from them?

When we heard Vogue was going to mention the novel, I thought that was weird. Why would Vogue do that? It didn’t make sense. But then when the issue came out, it was all about spring novelists and fairy tales. It’s so interesting to me that we’re having this funny moment.

I think genre fiction, in the last decade has done a lot better than ever—fantasy and science fiction. I used a lot of tools from genre fiction to write this novel. We now have adults who are reading Harry Potter or Game of Thrones or things like that. A lot of those things have been coming into the mainstream, so publishers have seen a hunger for magical stuff. That could be part of it. And maybe the other part is that they’re getting more coverage now.

Yes, there’s been more magic and weirdness in film and television.

I think it’s been a particularly good couple of years for the individual. When I did that Helen Oyeyemi book review for the New York Times, I talked about Jerry Saltz’s piece in Vulture on The New Uncanny, and that was really interesting to me because I thought he was right.

For months before he wrote that, I thought, everyone’s obsessed with being weird. Is it now going to be cool to be normal? I read those Normcore articles. Have you read those?

No.

If you want to hate your life, Google the word Normcore. Normcore is a movement where young people dress really normal now, to look like Midwestern tourists basically, but in New York. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s in reaction to people being super-individualistic and strange.

The last few years, pop culture, post-Lady Gaga pop culture, was at its weirdest in so many ways. I looked at Saltz’s article because of the Kanye and Kim video for Yeezus. I think it’s an incredible video for its uncanniness and its interplay with myth. It’s a good time to be weird. It’s better than ever.

It also could be that the ‘90s are back. Kids are now discovering things that were cool when we were younger. That allows for something different than the conservative mainstream stuff that was so big in the era after us—the Brittney, boy band era. All my students were so conservative back then, and now they’re back to being weird and interesting. I’m grateful for that.

Photo (partial) by © Marion Ettlinger

Photo (partial) by © Marion Ettlinger

Isn’t there always a push and pull between the conservative and the interesting in our culture?

I think publishing has gotten suspicious of trends, so it’s not like there will be a backlash, or I hope not. The indie presses came in and they were renegade, but they saved publishing. Now the big publishers are trying to think like indie publishers.

I’m glad they’re doing it. I love all these 20-something people in the literary world who are changing the game. I think this is the best time to publish.

Anita Felicelli is a fiction writer, poet, essayist, critic and attorney. Follow her on Twitter @anitafelicelli.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/181979-of-art-and-magic/