By Houman Barekat
May 26, 2020
Of the many tens of thousands of Iranians who emigrated to the west after the 1979 revolution, the majority settled in California. Among them were Porochista Khakpour’s parents, who moved to the US with their young daughter in 1981. As employees of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, they had enjoyed a relatively privileged life; in their new incarnation as refugees they lived a more modest existence, inhabiting “a tiny crummy suburban apartment” in a lower middle-class neighbourhood in Pasadena. Khakpour’s father, a nuclear physicist, took a teaching job at a university. “They had deep accents, slim savings, and a resistance to assimilation. Like many, they believed their stay in the United States was temporary.”
New York-based Khakpour is the author of two novels, Sons and Other Flammable Objects (2007) and The Last Illusion (2014), and a memoir about illness, Sick (2014). Brown Album brings together a number of her autobiographical essays about being an Iranian American in the 21st century, which first appeared in publications such as the New York Times and Salon. They tell a fairly typical first-generation immigrant story of identity confusion and gradual self-discovery. Khakpour spent her formative years “trying on and discarding selves” in a search for belonging, a process she likens to “a child playing dress-up”: “The great thing about extreme artificial and overtly outré personas is you go back to that childhood game and linger in the lovely oddness of transparency.”
“The Iranian people and their government couldn’t be more different,” writes Khakpour, “and neither could the Iranian diaspora of Los Angeles and Iranians in Iran.” This difference is particularly pronounced in the rich Iranian Americans of Brentwood and Beverly Hills, easily identifiable by their blingy attire: “Designer black power suits and leather little somethings, gold chains and giant rocks, stilettos and red lipstick … always topped off by big hair, often a very expensive shade of flaxen.” Khakpour admits a grudging respect for their patron saint, the late fashion designer Bijan Pakzad – he of the notoriously expensive House of Bijan stores – who “beat the Americans at their own game” by building a brand on garish excess. She recalls it was nice, back in the 1990s, to see one of her countrymen being famous for something other than terrorism.
The author’s own upbringing was far removed from such glitz and glamour, but her fascination with this milieu – which comprises only a fraction of the 500,000-strong Iranian diaspora in the United States – is understandable given the vicissitudes of her early life. Indeed, while Brown Album’s primary focus is on racial and religious identity, it is also a case study in déclassé angst. Relegated from the elite by enforced exile, Khakpour bounces back up the social ladder when she gets a scholarship to New York’s prestigious Sarah Lawrence College. Most of the intake there are from more affluent families; her fellow students periodically tease her by remarking that their parents are effectively bankrolling her education.
After the publication of her first novel, Khakpour was inundated with requests from editors inviting her to write about race. Having started off as “a journalist … who wrote about music and art and fashion and books”, she now felt pigeonholed. This problem will be familiar to many ethnic minority writers: if you lack the social networks through which access to opportunities is mediated, writing about identity offers a way in; it’s the path of least resistance, but also something of a trap. There is a difficult conversation to be had about the ethics of the publishing industry with regard to the personal essay, a genre which trades heavily on the trauma of emerging writers – particularly women and minorities – as the price of admission to the fold.
Khakpour writes in the highly subjective style popularised by the New Journalism of the 1960s and 70s and currently much in vogue – an influence acknowledged in the collection’s title, with its nod to Joan Didion’s White Album of 1979. This mode of writing – anecdotal, fragmentary, at times quasi-therapeutic – has its limitations. For a more conventional and scholarly survey of the book’s terrain, readers might prefer The Limits of Whiteness by the sociologist Neda Maghbouleh. But Khakpour’s reminiscences are compellingly candid, and yield some illuminating psychological insights. In one essay, she remembers being cajoled into riding a camel during a family visit to LA Zoo in 1986. Her father thought it would be a fun treat, but the young Khakpour was reluctant: acutely conscious that racist Americans called Middle Easterners “camel jockeys”, she was mortified at the the prospect of conforming to stereotype.
Like many Iranians in the west, Khakpour has grappled with conflicting emotions regarding Islam. She recalls her response on seeing a woman in a burka in Brooklyn: “alarm, followed by a certain feminist irk, and finally discomfiture at our cultural kinship. And then it would all turn into one strong emotion – protective rage – when I’d see a group of teenagers laughing and pointing at them.” That protective impulse came to the fore when Donald Trump rose to power, and her instinctive solidarity with America’s embattled Muslim community resolved the identity question once and for all: despite having been raised agnostic, Khakpour has come to regard herself as “culturally Muslim”, thereby attaining “that elusive contentment … that comes from … embracing the different sides of yourself completely.”