One of literature’s highest callings is to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar, but it’s hard to say at this point whether 9/11 is strange or familiar. We have seen the images of those planes flying into the towers so many times that they are almost unnoticeable. For the 9/11 novel to be made fresh again would take a magic trick.
That magic trick comes in the form of Porochista Khakpour’s The Last Illusion, which tells the story of Zal, who is caged by his abusive mother and raised as a bird throughout much of his childhood. Taken from Iran to the United States, he tries to live what he imagines might constitute the life of a normal American teenage boy, but he loves to eat insects and doesn’t love sex. He grows enmeshed with a famous cheesy magician—sorry, “illusionist”—who has a plan for a big illusion in September of 2001. Zal also becomes romantically involved with a pair of sisters, one of whom, Khakpour told me, may have “the power to destroy New York.” Before cataclysm arrives, we discover New York again through Zal’s eyes, and we remember a fact that has all too often been forgotten since 9/11: that America belongs to outsiders.
The author of a previous novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, as well as one of the most accomplished nonfiction writers currently work, Khakpour is also one of a handful writers who actually says things worth listening to on social media.
We were supposed to conduct an interview over a quick lunch near her apartment in Harlem, and wound up talking for three hours. A radically condensed version appears below.
—David Burr Gerrard
One of the epigraphs to your novel is from Kafka: “A cage went in search of a bird.” Has the mind of America been in a cage since 9/11?
I like that phrasing. I think so, in some ways. Recently, the cage has opened a bit, but not all the way. The world that I came of age in in the ‘90s had very different promises and possibilities. I’m perpetually still trapped in the ‘90s, and that’s what allows me to be an artist at all. If I were to internalize the lessons of the post-9/11 era, I could not be an artist. I couldn’t speak freely. I would be wrapped up in fear and paranoia, which I am anyway to a degree.
It’s because I grew up around so many great, truly innovative artists and writers that I can fall back on that as my model. But I think that art and writing and journalism starting the day after 9/11 and arguably up until now has been—I hate to use the word hostage, because that sounds funny—but paralyzed. We still see it in social media, in all its loops of backlash. People are so afraid to be themselves, to express their opinions. A lot of that has to do with economic factors that came after 9/11, not just 9/11 itself.
I deal with 9/11 not just as a New Yorker but also as a Middle-Eastern American. I’m an American immigrant, born in Iran. If I were to really think about it from those perspectives, I probably couldn’t have written this book. I probably couldn’t have written a lot of things.
Have you ever felt that you wanted to write something but didn’t?
I have those instincts sometimes. For a second it will occur to me not to write something. Then I’ll quickly be like: “Fuck you, you have to.” For a second, I’ll feel the societal or professional pressures. Luckily, I have a rebellious streak in me that allows me to get past that as soon as I think about it.
There have been times when I’ve been edited a certain way, and I’ll think: wait a minute, this is not okay. I actually meant something a little stronger, a little more heated. I can be a tricky edit. I really try to argue for my point. But there have been times when I’ve compromised. I’ve been reminded that, particularly with nonfiction, it really is a collaboration in a way. There are always the originals, which I show my friends.
I’ve gotten away with a lot. With The New York Times, I’ve introduced words into their stylebook that they freaked out about. I think my case is the case of someone who has stuck to their guns. The area where that fails is that I have no money. I’ve never gotten money doing what I love. I don’t study the market, I believe in doing what speaks to you, and if it’s good people will follow. I know how people study the market; I know how to do that too. I know how to write a book that will be a bestseller. I’ve ghostwritten mainstream projects; I can’t say what they are. What has that entailed is not only being a dumber version of myself. It’s being the dumber of version of myself that publishers think will sell.
Publishers always underestimate the public. With both my first novel and this one, I had a set of readers who are not just writers. I always tell writers it’s stupid to only have writers as your readers. Give it to a few writer friends, but also pick people of lots of different vocations. Those people often have more time to read, so it’s not like you’re imposing. I try to have all sorts of people chime in—a truck driver, a waitress, a lawyer, somebody with an eight-grade education. I don’t want to write a book that’s just for the literary world or my people within the literary world. The lesson that I’ve learned is that the average person can handle it. A lot of writers don’t learn that lesson. A lot of publishers don’t. They think you have to talk down to women, talk down to minorities, talk down even to straight white men. They market things in ways that underestimate the intelligence of the consumer.
Could you talk about magical realism?
What’s interesting about magical realism—and I prefer the term “fabulism”—is that I’ve seen a lot of grumpy posts even in the last few years complaining about being people being weird and quirky on purpose. That shows so much ignorance about world literature. For most of the world, fabulism is the mainstream literature. It’s the other stuff, what we call psychological realism, that would seem weird to much of the rest of the world.
These characters are based on the Persian Book of Kings. Some of it’s quite realistic, some of it’s magical and weird. The bird boy story really spoke to me. I had my father read the Shanemeh to me every night when I was a kid. Then when I found the Latin American writers, it just felt like home. That resonates with me more than American writers writing about infidelity and gardening.
But I’m very interested in European surrealists and American experimental writers. They’re also my people.
Kafka is clearly a big influence. Not only in the epigraph. Zal’s story could be seen as a gloss on “Report to an Academy.”
Definitely. I like that a lot. I plowed through everything I could find by Kafka when I was very young, and I continue to return to Kafka. Kafka has validated so much of what is wrong with my brain.
For so many of us, we read Kafka, and we go: “Oh, thank God!” He speaks to the outsider better than anyone, ever. He’s still radical in so many ways by just being honest about his outsiderdom, about the nightmare of being on the outside but also the pleasure. It’s very double-sided. My life right now is both exactly as I want it, and also very alienating, and I feel alienated. To be true to yourself, to really live as who you really are, you can create weird or inhospitable conditions.
There are a lot of subway ads right now with this offensive slogan “Colombia is magical realism.” Do you worry about the issue of exoticizing?
I worry about that all the time as journalist, critic, and writer. I am appalled when someone sends me a book by an Iranian-American or Middle-Eastern American, and it’s full of magic carpets, pomegranates, and that weird arabesque font they always use for Middle Eastern stuff. And, as a professor, I see how that plays out in young writers.
I’ve always been conscious of that. But it’s really not in me to write magical weird Middle Eastern stuff. There’s a nod in my novel to the Persian Book of Kings, of course, there’s a nod to Persianness, but not even contemporary Persianness, or any familiar concept of Persianness. I would argue that Zal doesn’t even seem Iranian. He has no ethnic affiliation. He’s more a bird to me than anything.
In this book I make fun of exoticizing. There are moments when I play up 9/11 tropes, mainly because I was so frustrated.
Before my old agent retired, I joked with her that, to make money, I was going to write some bullshit “Not Without My Daughter” story that Americans are all over. She took it seriously for a second, so I had to say that I was kidding and I could never do that.
There have been a lot of novels that, like this one, have taken place in the months leading up to 9/11. There’s Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, David Foster Wallace’s novella “The Suffering Channel.” Did you feel any kind of anxiety of influence?
There was this moment when all those books came out, and everyone was like: “It’s too soon!” I thought that was so ridiculous, since any writer who was in New York was of course going to be affected by it. I watched it outside my window, and it was the biggest event of my life. I started writing essays about it before I started writing fiction about it. I’ve written about 9/11 more than I’ve written about anything Iranian.
You’re right that that those books do end with 9/11. But that seems to me one of the only ways you can tell that story. It was the end of a world, the end of a certain American ideology. I played a lot with this ending—I had thirty-something endings, I think. In the ending I chose an ending that was a little bit raw. I wanted there to be a rough texture to this ending. When you pick this book up, you know how it’s going to end. I want the reader to feel that anxiety throughout the entire book.
It would have seemed less honest to try to put a different spin on the 9/11 narrative. I’m going to do that anyway, because I’m a different type of writer. But I had to be honest to the story. This story felt like it had its own rules. All the characters became a part of me, much more so than in my first novel.
Could you talk about this novel versus your first one?
The first one I had no idea what I was doing, I had no it was going to be published. I had a fellowship at Johns Hopkins, and I was supposed to meet with Alice McDermott a few times about this long work I was supposedly working on. I was bullshitting. Then somehow the problem-solver in me made it actually work. I’m a pretty good problem-solver, so I tend not to throw things out, I try to make them work. Somehow I pulled out a manuscript.
In many ways, this book uses the structures of that earlier book. I found my rhythm with thirty-five page parts. The first book had a similar thing. My ideal short story would be thirty-five pages. I don’t know why. That’s just my rhythm.
The good thing with the first novel was that I had no idea I was going to get published without any of that stuff that you learn after a book comes out. With the second, I had to unlearn everything that happened after the first book came out. I tuned all of that stuff out. I had to tune out people who rejected this book because they wanted it to be like the first book. I thought: Did you really like that book? Nobody bought it. The first book was very conventional in some ways. Father/son, NY-LA, Iranian-American, 9/11. It had this very conventional concept, but I wanted it to be a language piece. I’ve always felt like a language writer, and I wanted the sentences to do all the work.
With the second book, instead of making language the focus, I wanted plot to be the focus. My first novel has very little plot. Both protagonists are very similar to me in a way that people miss because both protagonists are male. I relate to male coming-of-age stories more than anything. My brother always says that I’m transgendered in my writing, and maybe I am.
This is the book I always wanted to read. Paraphrasing Toni Morrison shittily: Write the book you want to read. The experiments were not only interesting but necessary about. I’ve always loved this book this so much; the first one, I always had reservations about. I was gutted when this book wasn’t getting the right publisher for so long. I couldn’t give up on it.
I felt I was too young for the first book. I was twenty-nine, but I felt like at child actor.
At twenty-nine, I thought I was too old to ever publish. I thought I was fucked.
Isn’t that funny? I never paid attention to contemporary authors. I always thought: Melville wrote some of his best works when he was really old. I always looked to those guys. I tried not to pay attention to what people were doing in New York.
Now social media forces me to know everything that’s happening with writers in New York. I wish I didn’t know so much. I feel like I have to constantly unlearn that stuff. I have to isolate myself. I love hanging out with writers when we’re talking about other stuff—books we love, weird things happening in our lives—but if we’re just sitting around having anxieties about publishing, that’s going to prevent me from being a writer, essentially. That stuff’s not useful. We have to stop talking about the commerce part.
I never knew how destructive that stuff was until I lost all my money. Lyme Disease wiped out my savings. I got an NEA that year; that all went. I got a huge settlement from a car accident; I used it to pay off my debts. But I lost nearly six figures, and now I’m living paycheck to paycheck.
It’s hard, but it allows me to be me, and to see things as they are. I’ve never felt more clear or more empathic with average people in the city. Those few years when I had some money, I was very disconnected from who I was before. I always thought it was a cliché that money’s going to change you. I wasn’t even that rich; I was comfortable. But that comfort gave me distance, and I don’t want that distance anymore. I’m happy to starve adjuncting and freelancing, so I can understand what this world is like for most of its people.
Particularly now, post-9/11.
Yes. I talk about a lot about my students being young millenials; they’ve never lived in a period where there was money. There was that brief period that you probably remember too—you’re a couple years younger than me, right?
I was born in 1981.
Okay, so you’re three years younger than me. Remember, there was this moment in the ‘90s when people made a lot of money. People thought they could leave college and make six figures. That was normal. At my first job out of college, I had an expense account and I would take friends out every night. Here in New York! I bitched about my job because it was too superficial, throwing parties across the country for Spin magazine. I quit that job and thought I was going to get another job. Then the economy collapsed and 9/11 happened.
Students that I have now were born in the late ‘90s. They have no sense of a time when people didn’t worry about money. I hope there’s another time when people have money, for their sake. But those young millenials have a lot of empathy; they’re really interested in being ethical. They’re really interested in being kind. We make fun of them for liking and favoriting, but there’s something good at the heart of them.
My generation, the Gen Xers, we were very smart and snarky and sarcastic all that. In some ways, I’m disappointed with the world we’ve created. I’m very excited with the young millenials—they might not even have a name, these guys born in ’96 and ’97—but I think they’re going to create a really interesting world that I want to live in.
Because they’ve lived their entire lives after the collapse of the last illusion.
Yes! They don’t have 9/11 as a traumatic memory. I was 23, you were 20, we were traumatized. Older millenials, too. For these guys, it’s just an event in history.
David Burr Gerrard‘s work has appeared in The Awl, The LA Review of Books, Full Stop, and elsewhere. His debut novel, Short Century, has just been published by Rare Bird Books.