Porochista Khakpour is the author of several books, including The Last Illusion, Brown Album, and Sick: A Life of Lyme, Love, Illness, and Addiction. She is senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and contributing editor at the Evergreen Review. Before moderating a panel for “How Can Women and Girls Win in Iran?,” the Zócalo event co-presented with Goldhirsh Foundation and with generous support from Pedram Salimpour, she chatted with us about her favorite places to write, the café she frequented in high school to play chess and argue with dirty old men, and her upcoming book, Tehrangeles.
Where is one of your favorite places to write?
I used to be very specific about where I would write. I loved libraries that had no windows, like the engineering floor of the university library—grim, but full of hard-working people. The austerity of the environment kept me focused. And then things shifted when I was constantly traveling. I got really into writing on airplanes. Given that I’m often disabled or chronically ill, airplanes became comforting for me: you sit there, people bring you water. I’m best in really small spaces. I also have classical music playing because of that tip every nerd in high school was told: if you play classical music it makes you smarter for standardized tests. For me, it was usually Mozart.
Who is on your dream dinner guestlist?
Jamaica Kincaid is one of my top writers of all time. I actually got her email address a few years ago from a friend who knows her. I still have not emailed her because I am so in awe of her—I don’t know what I’m worried about. I would also love Sadegh Hedayat and Forough Farrokhzad, two Iranian writers of the past that I cherish very much. Also, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. And I would like to toss in a chaotic person in this mix. You need somebody to stir things up. I do not love Barstool Sports, but I really enjoy Caleb Pressley’s interview style—he is this blond guy that looks like Kid Rock who does these really crazy interviews with people. I am transfixed with how amazing they are. And Nathan Fielder. Also, Donald Barthelme and Grace Paley I heard years ago had an affair when they lived in the East Village. If the rumor is true, and they were somehow reanimated in this world without their other loves, I think that would be cute to have them canoodling in one corner.
What can you tell us about your upcoming book Tehrangeles?
I’ve worked on it for over a decade. It will be coming out in 2024. What I didn’t see coming is that I’ve already started a sequel. There’s so much I want to say in this book that’s really important. And because I’ve grown with the characters, I see their humanity from different perspectives. It was important that it cook over time. I think, finally, I feel like letting myself let these characters exist in the world. I was very protective of them the way I’ve often been protective of younger female students. It is now a very Gen Z book. If I had to pitch it in Hollywood, it’s kind of like Crazy Rich (West) Asians meets Euphoria. I don’t think genre matters the same way as it used to—is my book YA or romance? I think those questions have become uninteresting to people. People should read whatever they want!
Do you have a favorite place to go in Los Angeles?
I’ve always been obsessed with Burmese food. My boyfriend took me to a gem of a café called Jasmine Deli which has such an incredible crowd. It’s in Culver City. Very gorgeous little spot and the food is so stunning. Of course I love Griffith Park, Huntington Gardens, Descanso Gardens. All those places are beautiful. One of the places where I get a lot of writing done is the South Pasadena Public Library. There’s a café across the street, Kaldi, which I went to throughout high school to play chess and argue with dirty old men. That was the café they filmed for Lady Bird (it was supposed to be Sacramento). That’s the thing about L.A., I just love the little lowkey spots.
What is something that you’re proud of?
I think I’ve been most proud of helping people in my life. I know that sounds like a beauty pageant answer, but it’s the truth: It has been the greatest honor of my life to be in a position where I can do anything to help anybody else; those are really important ethics that my grandparents taught me. Being part of a community for me is really important. It’s often been hard to find one community for myself. I guess I’m also proud of being a writer in English. It was my second language and very difficult and awkward at times. People didn’t expect a young refugee from Iran to say that they wanted to be a novelist in first grade.
Do you have a message for the women and girls fighting for their rights in Iran right now?
My message is twofold: I’m so proud of you, and it is so beautiful just to fight for your own rights and the rights of your community. There is no higher calling. The second part is: Please make sure you take care of yourself and leave some time for caring for yourself. That sort of work is extraordinarily difficult.
One thing that is always hard to think about for us is how unfair it is that the populations that fight for us are the exact populations we should be preserving. I can’t wait for an Iran where young women don’t have to worry about being great activists. They can live without the anxieties of politics and how to be free. I hope one day they can just take it all for granted. That’s ultimately what living free is: not thinking about identity, or how you’re perceived, or being under threat all the time.