Porochista Khakpour was born in Tehran in 1978 and raised in the Greater Los Angeles area (South Pasadena, to be exact). Her first language was Farsi, her second (and luckily mostly forgotten) tongue, Valley Girl. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and The Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars MA program. She has been awarded fellowships from Johns Hopkins University, Northwestern University, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Yaddo.
She began writing as an arts and entertainment journalist—her subjects have spanned from clubs (Paul Oakenfold!) to couture (Paul Poiret!); Maggie Gyllenhaal (Maggie’s first big feature!) to Fabio (Porochista’s first feature at 16!); New York City’s finest drinking establishments (Paper magazine bar columnist, 2000-2001, as well as New York magazine online bar critic) to rural Illinois’s most dangerous skydiving compound (2004 staff writer stint at The Chicago Reader). Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Village Voice, The Chicago Reader, Paper, Flaunt, Nylon, Bidoun, Alef, Canteen, nerve.com and FiveChapters.com, among others.
She currently spends a third of her time in New York City and two thirds three hours away in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania where she teaches Fiction at Bucknell University.
Question: Has your family faced any discrimination after 9/11?Khakpour: Yeah. My . . . They were not . . . not really isolated instances, but they started to feel uneasy. I remember my father talking about some of our neighbors; you know, sort of dealing with different types of glances on a day-to-day in a very diverse neighborhood outside of Los Angeles. And my brother having some isolated instances of feeling like he was . . . You know he would have conversations with people on an airplane or something, and then you know he would mention he’s from Iran, and then people would immediately say, “Oh, how do you feel about all the terrorists?” And then my brother having to say, “Well none of the terrorists were Iranian,” you know.
I myself had a harrowing experience because I myself only became a U.S. citizen three months after 9/11 . . . two months after 9/11 actually. My father had never become a U.S. citizen. He’s still not a U.S. citizen and he never felt the need to be. You know I think he’s always had the feeling he would return to Iran permanently. My mother, you know, applied for U.S. citizenship and took me along with her to do that. And I thought, “Okay great. I can travel with much more ease through Europe and not have to pay all those visa charges and all that.” So we, you know . . . It just so happened that my court date to go and be sworn in and everything happened in November of 2001, so I just became an American then. Around December I took an Amtrak across country. I became very phobic of flying, particularly after 9/11. I had started taking Amtraks back and forth from coast to coast. And there was one incident outside of Buffalo, New York I believe. It was like midnight and, you know, we’d already been on this stupid train for hours, and I had finally sort of fallen asleep. And the train had stopped, and suddenly there were flash lights in all of our eyes. And I sort of looked at my boyfriend and I said, “What’s going on?” And he said . . . And there were these men who were dressed, you know, like police; but I don’t know if they were sort of border police or what really was going on. And they were going around with flash lights asking people what the country of their citizenship was. And I immediately said Iran. The guy . . . And you know I had just become an American citizen, but I have always said I was born in Iran, you know. I’ve always said I was an Iranian citizen. I forgot for a second. And the guy just said, “Excuse me?” And I said, “Oh no. I’m sorry. I’m a U.S. citizen.” And he paused and he had a moment of just looking at me very silently. And here I was in a hoodie, and a t-shirt and sweats, and he said, “You’re Iranian?” And I said, “No, no, no. I just became a U.S. citizen.” And I realized somehow they were dealing with so much chaos on that train. Because it was so unusual for everyone aboard, he didn’t take more time with me. But I felt there . . . That was my first instance of feeling a sense of horror at what it meant to be Middle Eastern today. And then really the only other instance I have had a very awkward sort of feeling was this past summer right before my book tour, I was living in ____________, which I think most of us think of as a bastion of, you know, liberalness in Brooklyn. And I was at the flea market there, and one of the guys was selling all these knick knacks and sort of these pins . . . mostly concert pins. And there was a pin there that said, “Fuck Iran.” And at first I looked at it and I thought, you know, what is that? It’s just, you know, sort of Arial font, “Fuck Iran.” I wasn’t thinking sort of historically, and I went up to him and I said, “What is this pin about? And may I have it? I’ll buy it so someone else doesn’t.” And he said, “Oh these are. . . These were those pins that they used to sell in supermarkets in the U.S. around the time of the hostage crisis. These were all over the place.” And he kind of said, “Well I didn’t get it. My colleague over there found it someplace.” And I said, “Well yeah, because I’m Iranian. I have to have this.” And he ended up not charging me for it and apologizing a few times. But I just remember shaking for hours as I walked home with this “Fuck Iran” pin that’s still on my mantle. And you know I had known about the “Fuck Iran” slogans and that . . . the incendiary nature of that time period. But until I had that pin in my hand as an artifact of that horrible time, it was never very real to me. And it’s been something I have held onto. It’s been an important reminder for me.