Born in Tehran and raised in the Los Angeles area, Porochista Khakpour is the author of two novels and two books of nonfiction. Her debut novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, was a New York Times Editor’s Choice, one of the Chicago Tribune’s Fall’s Best, and the 2007 California Book award winner in the First Fiction category. Her most recent book, Brown Album, a collection of essays, was published by the Vintage imprint of Knopf earlier in 2020.
On Friday, December 4, Porochista will give the opening lecture of the 2020–21 Word Works season. Her talk on Writing Toward & Against Identity will explore ways that the personal essay can be instrumental in examining the self. Using her own award-winning writing, as well as classic and contemporary examples, she’ll show how memoirists and essayists can turn intention into action with their own essay projects, whether they are writing from an investigative or probing frame, or from an aspirational or exploratory instinct. She’ll also be teaching a class, with the same name, on Saturday, December 5.
We recently caught up with Porochista via email to learn more about how she navigates being both an essayist and a novelist, how her nonfiction practice has helped her come to understand herself, and why she felt driven to write an “unpublishable essay.”
In a recent interview with Columbia Journal, you mentioned that “I don’t love [nonfiction] to be honest. I’m even a little suspicious of it.” Why is that?
I think it’s more that fiction was my absolute true love and it was what made me want to write. I had no idea creative nonfiction even existed until my 20s. I guess my suspicion comes from how much easier it is for me to publish in that genre than anything else. It will take ages to sell my fiction but I don’t even need to pitch nonfiction anymore—I am constantly being commissioned pieces. I think for me the problems there are ones that have to do with identity and being pigeonholed.
Why do others have a need for my truth? What role am I fulfilling when I relay my own true stories? Why does this speak more strongly than other forms for people? Ultimately it’s a question of how do others see me and is that in sync with my own self reflection.
Your upcoming Word Works talk explores the ways that the personal essay can be an important tool in examining the self. Is there anything surprising that you’ve learned about yourself or your relationship with identity through your nonfiction?
Yes, there are many things—my best essays are ones where I learned something about myself. I think without a nonfiction practice I probably would not have come to understand myself the way I do today. There is a way in which you invent your presentation when you write an essay—there is your voice, your anecdotes, your arrangement of story. A good essay at its best is a confession of sorts. I always found myself a bit surprised at where I’d end up when the essay was really working. That’s the most rewarding experience of all for me, and I think experiences like that resonate for the readers. The readers can find themselves in your self-discovery and turn the questions around on themselves ultimately.
In an interview with the Adroit Journal, you mention that we have to be teaching writers to “have the confidence to say that their personal perspective and experiences are unique and valid and important, instead of having them cater to publications.” How have you learned to balance sharing your unique perspective and managing the expectations of publications in your own writing practice?
I really think about who my audience is, more than just who the editor or what the journal is about. Who do I hope to reach with this particular essay or article? That becomes a good way to guide my storytelling strategies in a piece. It’s pretty impossible for me to write something coherent without envisioning the reader on the other end.
You’re also an award-winning novelist. How, if at all, has writing nonfiction informed your approach to writing fiction, or vice versa?
I think for a while they felt in conflict but now as I am working on my fifth book—my third novel—I feel equally split. It’s nice to now have a body of work to evaluate. I can see what my own concerns, themes, aesthetic, etc., have been at times and all along in different ways. I think in examining what I gravitate towards I have a better sense of what to do next. I try to both imagine a reader who has never heard of me and one who has followed my work from day one, and I try to create works that will be of use to both groups.
You’ve stated in interviews that you intentionally wrote the final essay in Brown Album as “an utterly uncommissioned and uncommissionable essay.” Can you tell us about your experience working on this piece? How did writing this piece change or challenge your idea of what an essay is or does?
The title essay there was a funny one for me that offered a lot of challenges. For a long time, I imagined what could be an “unpublishable essay.” What would that mean? I had become so used to writing for certain word counts and specific venues that I had certain formulas in mind, say, when the New York Times would ask me for an essay versus when Bookforum or even Elle would. I thought about this essay being as long as it needed and I wanted it to be, completely oblivious to word count and maybe even a bit immune to form. I just wanted a space to say what I wanted to say without worrying about beginning-middle-end even.
After all, the essay is largely about the issue of race and ethnicity and xenophobia and racism, and I certainly have not solved those problems for myself. There could be no real ending, no actual epiphany. So it felt like “notes” in a way, connected narratives that almost operated like meditations for a manifesto. I like that my editor understood what I was doing there. So many of the final essays in the book challenge and sometimes contradict the conditions and priorities that informed the earlier essays in the collection that it felt satisfying to have a last word and have it be a bit raw in its expression. I think emotions are ultimately messy and we should sometimes be given the gift of seeing them that way without all the doctoring and calculation that form and genre like to impose.
Learn more from Porochista by attending her upcoming virtual Word Works lecture on Friday, December 4.