Imagine smiling. Imagine flying or falling. Imagine having a child, then building a cage, then imagine putting your own child into this cage. Imagine him into a bird. Imagine that it’s all real. Does that make the hurt more tolerable? Can a person survive on imagination alone? What else can the imagination do?
In her new novel The Last Illusion, Porochista Khakpour retells a tale of the imagination at its most sublime. In the Shahnameh—The Persian Book of Kings—Zal, an abandoned albino boy, is adopted by a mystical bird and escapes his fate through a leap of imagination. Only if you believe that such a boy can go on to become a prince, that this prince can become a king, can redemption emerge on the other side. Imagination fuels stories and stories fuel hope. If your imagination needs fuel, read this book.
In addition to being an author, Porochista Khakpour is also a teacher. She has taught creative writing at Columbia and Wesleyan. This winter, she taught a free class at BHQFU, an arts collective committed to using the imagination to find an alternative to everything (including the MFA). Every Thursday evening, a group of aspiring writers flocked to hear her tell stories. We heard her tell about how, years ago, penniless, she had had to enlist a group of kind friends with office jobs to Xerox her first novel so she could send it out; about how she became a food critic to feed herself; about how anyone can turn a camel ride into a beautiful essay. We were wide-eyed hearing about the ways she’s had to hustle and cajole just to get her work noticed. My favorite stories were about self-confidence and how to get more of it: “When we get older we get scared. I think we all need to tap back into the eighteen-year-old-versions of [ourselves]. That I don’t give a fuck, crazy, unharnessed energy…for instance…” I wrote all of this down in my notebook, and I’m sure we all went home and retold Porochista’s stories to our spouses, roommates, pets.
The Rumpus: On the first day of class, you had us read the Jorge Luis Borges story “The Aleph.” In the story, The Aleph is this point in the universe that contains all other points and shows all possibilities all at once. Can you talk about why you like to begin with this story?
Porochista Khakpour: I tend to begin most classes with this story—it’s almost become superstition for me. For one thing, it begins with A—the “aleph”—which is sort of symbolically, ceremonially nice. But also I like to pair it with the great essay by Tim O’Brien, called “Telling Tails,” which emphasizes imagination and entertainment over fact and anthropological insight as the objects of great fiction. It’s a good way for me to let students know what I’m looking for. It is also an odd, stimulating piece that gets people in the mood, so to speak.
Rumpus: I agree that there seems to be two camps emerging in fiction—Camp Imagination and Camp Fact. But I think the division is really between good, believable writing and bad writing. Even though your novel is what people would call “fabulist,” it is ultimately completely believable because everything is emotionally grounded, like dream logic.
Khakpour: I wanted this to be the case. I wanted to literalize the surreal here. Those are my favorite kinds of stories. I love when Gabriel García Márquez does that, for instance—it adds to the joy, dares you to believe the unbelievable. And why not: so much of life is so dreamlike, so strange, so absurd.
Rumpus: Why did this story of Zal in the Shahnameh stick in your brain for so many years?
Khakpour: I love outsider stories. And I also like a lot of genre fiction, too. So I wanted to write a literary book that flirted with thriller and fantasy and even science fiction. I wanted the coming-of-age story and the love story to be about “outsiderdom”—one of the themes I am most interested in. The original Zal story by Ferdowsi gives a very moving account of an infant who had all odds against him—he was left to die in the wilderness and a giant, benevolent bird rescued him and became his guardian angel. This tale thrilled me; I’ve always wanted to write about it.
My interest, perhaps, came out of the trauma of being a young immigrant in this country and constantly feeling my “resident alien” status. I remember trying to learn English on kindergarten playgrounds. I tried hard to be a convincing American but it was a losing battle. I was labeled weird and that tag never left me—all through high school, I was always the oddball. It was not always an easy path—I just had to tell myself that one day, being on the periphery would become an asset (and I think it finally has, as a creative adult).
Rumpus: So you never really felt like you fit in after you moved to South Pasadena from Iran?
Khakpour: I both loved and hated South Pasadena. On the one hand, it was so diverse—all my closest friends were immigrants or had immigrant parents. On the other hand, it was a bit conservative—in a sort of wholesome, Midwestern, small-town sense. I never met a single writer until I moved to New York City for college. In South Pasadena, artists were around but invisible somehow. Even though it was just a fifteen-minute drive from Downtown LA, it felt worlds apart. That suburban American experience can both protect and stunt you. I couldn’t wait to move to New York to become the person I’ve always wanted to become.
Rumpus: I am always amazed by how people can hold past and present and future selves together all at once. The same thing seems to happen when Zal dreams “in bird.” He has this beautiful, sad yearning for what he thought he was, even though as a bird, he was literally just squatting in a filthy cage. Do you think it’s the power of the imagination that allows him to rewrite his trauma?
Khakpour: Absolutely. The mind is a wonderful, terrible thing.
Rumpus: What was your process like, writing this book? After you had the basic framework of the myth, how did you fill in the rest?
Khakpour: I write first drafts feverishly fast, and then I spend years editing. It’s not that sentence-by-sentence perfectionist technique some writers I admire use. I need to see the thing, in some form, and then work with it over and over and over until it makes sense to me—until its concerns approach me, until its themes come to my attention. At that editing stage, the story picks itself and it’s just up to me to see it, to find it. If I’ve done a good job, what it all means will force me to confront it in further edits.
Rumpus: Do you think being a writer is akin to being an Illusionist?
Khakpour: The Illusionist is the storyteller in so many ways. Symbols become his obsession. It’s not simply about creating plot—one must also grapple with theme. Nowadays we have a lot of characters and a lot of action but it’s hard to sit still and really meditate on meaning, worldviews, concepts, ideologies even. I make my Illusionist do what I’ve had to do, often with copious amounts of stumbling and frustration. His real humanity comes from being an artist, I think—his creativity is what makes him a man.
Rumpus: The Illusionist is even aware that his art is just a cheap trick but he is compelled to take it to the ultimate expression. At one point he talks about Kafka’s story “The Hunger Artist.” What does it mean for the artist to pull off the ultimate stunt?
Khakpour: Be careful what you wish for, I guess. I believe—this will sound bloated, but I believe it—that true art, the potent stuff, can take the world down with it, just like religion can. And the opposite of course.
Rumpus: As I was reading I thought about how Baudrillard said that 9/11 was “the ultimate event, the mother of all events, the pure event uniting within itself all the events that have never taken place.” It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that in your book, the fall of the towers is both the “ultimate event” that is imagined and executed by the Illusionist, but also something that happens that nobody can control. Is this what great art manages to do? Unite history and possibility?
Khakpour: Yes, on some level. 9/11 was just an enormous event in so many senses of the word—I mean, we are still in the “post-9/11 era” and perhaps will be forever? Sometimes it seems like it. It was such a monstrous act of imagination over anything else—the actual fatalities, while awful, were not what distinguished the event from others. It was the spectacle, what al-Qaeda gets its main power from—why their terrorism truly earns the word “acts.” They are very theatrical, always—the simultaneous violence, the grandiose, symbolic gestures (the number 911, “United” and “American” flights, the World Trade as target etc). And then its aftermath. It has affected us on so many levels: economically, morally, spiritually, ethically. It’s been all over the place. A new American identity emerged—we now live in a very different America. This is the power of the definitive event.
Rumpus: When you were writing, did you feel that the book was performing some sort of therapeutic function?
Khakpour: Maybe in writing about and through trauma it was therapeutic in a way, but it didn’t feel like it at the time. I was in a very dark place, in lots of foreign cities, far from New York. A lot of personal trials and tribulations took over my life in those years. It might be some time before I see what therapeutic function this book did serve. But for now, it’s not even easy to read from it.
Rumpus: Many of the characters in the book find themselves addicted to one thing or another: food, anorexia, insects, birds, creating illusions. “Their addiction turned into a lethal combination of boundless creativity and unshakable will.” How do you see addiction functioning in this world? Are people caged by their addictions, or do you see addiction functioning in a different way for them?
Khakpour: Addiction is a very compelling subject for literature—especially now that it’s nearly impossible to come out of adult experience without some addiction—to substances, sure, but also to love, sex, success, failure, power. My characters’ addictions are what makes them a bit stylized or “grotesque”—not just in appearance but through what drives them. Addiction is what threatens stability and normalcy and yet it seems very much a part of being human—at least we are all a bit obsessive and compulsive. Aren’t all humans driven by mad desires for one thing or another?
Rumpus: I thought it was notable how one sister is morbidly obese while the other is anorexic. The dynamic reminded me of Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls Fat and Thin and also Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, which talks about how late capitalism forces desire into these unhealthy, paradoxical, schizophrenic extremes. Eve Sedgwick calls this the twin hurricanes named “Just do it” and “Just say no.”
Khakpour: It’s very interesting—I love those books but I did not consciously try to make them opposites. At some point it occurred to me, many, many edits into it. For me, every human is a little bit an exaggerated version of a real human—in most cases, they are versions of myself. I am someone deeply motivated by extremes—the poles not only become home for me, but they also become, strangely, my comfort zones. There is less gray area there, less doubt. There is a security in being some thing all the way. Our culture, too, encourages this way of being—exaggeration, for example, is the key to advertising success in the United States. But hyperbole also seems a big part of Iranian culture, as well. I guess none of the sides of my hyphen are particularly subtle cultures. But perhaps there is also a sense that these characters are all parentless—every character in this book is feral in some way—without any guidance in their upbringing. They find no choice but to seek refuge in extreme behaviors.
Rumpus: So are these semi-grotesque, extreme characters meant to be visionaries? Cautionary figures?
Khakpour: All of the above actually. Although I do think that the very recent today (I did not feel this five years ago for instance)—really gives true eccentrics and outsiders such as Zal a chance. Being unique seems more desirable than ever. People are exhausted by clichés, by platitudes, by mass-produced realities, by what’s been done and done and done. The role of a true artist is to present their own unique vision, and so it has always made sense to me that works of art should be radical. The radical is simply being given more room in the mainstream. And I think young people—I’m talking about the very young millennials—they are bored by so much so fast and have such fast big brains, that they won’t digest lazy uninteresting work in the way my generation might have. This is a great opportunity for those on the fringe to be less on the fringe perhaps. I just see in pop culture, music, visual art, books, etc., a real hunger for the new and different, and I think that’s amazing. Satisfying this hunger is part of the responsibility of a creative person.
Rumpus: Can you weigh in on the MFA/POC debate? Do you think MFA programs are too white?
Khakpour: Is there even a debate? They are definitely too white. There are so many reasons, but a big reason is that the literary world is simply too white. When there are more professors of color being employed by these institutions maybe there will be some change in the student populations.
Rumpus: What were you reading while writing this novel?
Khakpour: I always read the Latin American writers. I love so many of them: Gabriel García Márquez, José Donoso, Alejo Carpentier, Jorge Luis Borges, Clarice Lispector. I also love a lot of American experimental writers and surrealist European writers. But perhaps The Persian Book of Kings was the greatest influence—I encourage people to look at it. There is such a wealth of incredible stories.
Rumpus: What are you reading now? Or last five amazing books you read?
Khakpour: I am reading Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, rereading some old Can Xue stories, and rereading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (as my third novel will be based on it somewhat).
Rumpus: You’re committed to experimental fiction and yet your novel feels so completely immersive. It doesn’t have that fragmented, pick-it-up-and-put-it-down quality that so many experimental novels have. Are you committed to telling a story, of giving that immersive experience?
Khakpour: I love to read and teach experimental fiction but yes, neither this work nor my first novel is really that experimental. It uses some experimental techniques but in the end, I would not say that it is experimental. I’m not sure why. I do a lot of writing on my own, and I have always just written this way. With these novels I really did feel compelled to tell these rather complicated, tangled tales as simply as I could—which might sound strange now that you’ve read it. Because for me to go fully experimental, it would turn into an artist book actually. And I’m not opposed to that. But I wanted to toy with the conventions of traditional narrative and sometimes to do that all the way, you have to actually utilize traditional narrative, I think—or it’s one way to do it. My third novel, while sounding even more “mainstream,” will probably be the most experimental of all.
Featured image of Porochista Khakpour © by Harry Griffin.
“My Future Goals and Ambitions, Age 11” © by and courtesy of Porochista Khakpour.