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Being brown in America: Stories of exile, identity and belonging

Written over a period of more than 10 years, Porochista Khakpour’s collection of essays, Brown Album, is a reckoning with what it means to be an Iranian in America today
Tehran-born writer Porochista Khakpour was raised in the US, her family having moved to LA following the Shah's departure from Iran (Maria Nova)

An acclaimed novelist, Porochista Khakpour launched onto the literary scene with her novels Sons and Other Flammable Objects (2007) and The Last Illusion (2014). She is best known today for her non-fiction, which interrogates issues of identity and belonging. Her memoir, Sick, which was published in 2018, chronicled her lifelong struggle with Lyme disease.

Named after Joan Didion’s 1979 book The White Album, which chronicled the decline of American identity in the 1960s, Brown Album collects essays published over a period of years in which Khakpour became the “spokesperson for my people. . . a role I never dreamed and never asked for”.

Born in Tehran in 1978 to parents sympathetic to the Shah, Khakpour was a child of the revolution. Her first birthday party fell on the eve of the Shah’s departure from Iran on 16 January 1979, a state of affairs her family deemed temporary, which was also how Khakpour’s father viewed their consequent exile to Los Angeles a couple of years later.

Khakpour's parents were secular and educated "city kids" (Vintage & Anchor Books)
Khakpour's parents were secular and educated professionals back in Tehran who moved to a lower-income area of Pasadena (Porochista Khakpour)

Khakpour’s parents were secular and educated, “city kids” who worked for the Atomic Energy Organisation in Iran. While her father “tiptoed around the word royalist”, her parents’ sympathies tended towards the Shah.

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Before the revolution, Khakpour’s parents partied until dawn, shopped designer clothes, and lived in an upscale Tehran neighbourhood. The only drawback was the Sawak, the Shah’s secret service, which caused dissidents to disappear overnight.

The parties soon came to an end, and the music of Iranian singer Googoosh was replaced by air-raid sirens signalling war with Iraq. A popular uprising against the Shah toppled the regime in 1979, and the religious clergy siphoned the energy of the revolt to install a religious state.

A mathematics professor, her father was 35 when he decided to leave Iran because of the political situation. And yet he always believed he would return, and still does, says Khakpour.

“Everything about him was loud, even his laughter,” Khakpour writes of her father. “He played native music too loudly, he prayed with all his might, and when he said my country, he did not mean this one.”

From riches to rags

Khakpours’ parents’ “temporary” exile became permanent, as the Iran-Iraq war broke out, and the regime strengthened its authority. Khakpour grew up with a powerful sense of Iranian identity, but she faced the challenge of reconciling her Iranian-ness with living in America.

As she found her world torn apart, leaving behind her home and possessions in Iran, she held onto books to ground her: “reading and writing were all we had”. From an early age, she used books and writing to escape the reality she lived in.   

Indeed, Khakpour spends much of her life trying to come to terms with living in America, and understanding what it means to be brown in a white majority society.

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Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, she recalls the alienation of being the only Iranian at her school in the city of Pasadena, and living in a lower-income area of a mostly affluent town.

She writes about getting called a snitch by her teacher for painstakingly following the rules, and the embarrassment she feels when she rides a camel at the zoo as a child, fearing being cast in a Middle Eastern stereotype as a “camel jockey. . . How do I know that term? I do not know how I know that term.”

On the other hand, she also recalls how she used to Sharpie her dolls’ hair black, “calling them by Persian names: Bahareh, Banafsheh, Skippareh,” desperate for representation in a society where she does not see people who look like her.

While she has friends in school and tries to fit in, she is always aware of the racism that haunts her as a brown person, and the discrimination she inevitably faces as a girl from one of the most vilified countries in the Middle East.  

Long famed as a nucleus for the Iranian diaspora, Los Angeles is home to ultra-rich Iranians living in Westwood and Beverly Hills, nicknamed Tehrangeles. The Shahs of Sunset, a reality TV show produced by Ryan Seacrest, provides a glimpse into the lives of Tehrangelenos, who shop at high-price LA boutiques and don’t consider nose jobs out of the norm.

But on the other side of town, Khakpour grows up in the “South Pasadena projects.” She describes living in her “dingbat” apartment with growing mold and a “decaying carpet”. The Khakpours’ life was, “a riches-to-rags” regression steeped in the nostalgia of a life that was always “better in Iran” before the revolution tore everything apart.

Just like some of the royalists of Tehrangeles, whose support for the Shah’s regime was tied to their own wealth, Khakpour also called herself Persian, basking in the nationalist and revisionist pride of “old Persia: Kings Cyrus and Darius and the Persian empire; Persepolis; saffron-and-pistachio Persian ice cream! rugs! [...] did I mention Persian cats?”

But as she grows older, she matures into her Iranian identity, rather than romanticising a Persian past that may or may not have existed. She realises the emptiness of royalist nostalgia, and is intent on owning “the problematic present” of what it means to be from Iran, such as confronting the harsh sanctions the country faces, the protests for democracy with the Green Revolution, and eventually, the fight against Islamophobia in the US.

Sick of Los Angeles and its hypocrisies, Khakpour’s journey to accepting her place in America truly starts when she moves to New York for college in 1996, where she finds the home that has evaded her since childhood, a safe haven for a creative spirit like hers. But acceptance of her identity still proves elusive.

In a sense, Brown Album is about the niches brown people occupy in America, the vacillating sliding scale between black and white

In New York City, Khakpour jumps trains, loiters in nightclubs and wanders the city. She does drugs and explores her sexuality. She stakes an internship at Vibe, a hip-hop magazine, and gets braided extensions down to her hips.

Once mistaken as biracial by a DJ, Khakpour goes along with the lie but the guilt overwhelms her, and she ghosts the DJ. Eventually, she stops running and finally contends with being a twentysomething writer of Middle Eastern origin in one of the biggest cities in the world.

In a sense, Brown Album is about the niches brown people occupy in America, the vacillating sliding scale between black and white, the constant shame blurred with pride of a past homeland from which they are permanently barred, and the game of camouflage, reinvention and codeswitch that they indulge in.

As much as it is about Khakpour’s Middle Eastern identity, it is also about being American, the decision to hyphenate, and how in her myriad identity crises, Khakpour does not merely “find” herself: she builds herself.

“The first lesson: I could be myself, and that self honestly, truly, terribly did exist,” she writes.

Khakpour’s journey to accepting her place in America truly starts when she moves to New York for college in 1996 (Porochista Khakpour)
Khakpour’s journey to accepting her place in America truly starts when she moves to New York for college in 1996 (Porochista Khakpour)

A year after she graduates from university, Khakpour struggles with being a starving writer, obtaining freelance work but remaining “hopelessly unemployed”. She watches in horror from the glass wall of her 25th-floor East Village high-rise as a plane crashes into the Twin Towers.

As she witnesses the towers burning, a shock felt by the entire city, in that moment Khakpour realises she has become a New Yorker.

“I woke up, I saw it all, and never turned back. It took a world to crumble around me to learn who I was.”

And crumble it does. Khakpour’s novel is then optioned for publication, but success does not always promise glamour and ease. Just as she rises to her fame, her health deteriorates, she blows her advance in hunting for a diagnosis of her disease, and is forced to sell her family heirlooms from Iran to make ends meet.

Khakpour exposes the hungry reality of living off one’s writing. She works as a nanny to afford living in New York City, and she struggles with damp apartments that exacerbate her illness.  

Along the way, she meets friends and strangers, who share her experience as a brown person in America. One of them is her Palestinian-Iraqi friend, an ex-con and recovering addict, who loses his life to a drug overdose shortly before Khakpour signs her book deal.

But in the independent solitude of being a writer, Khakpour finds silver linings. Far from her Persian friends and family, and living in a building in Harlem populated mostly by Muslims, she receives a Nowruz invitation on her door.

And yet, even as Khakpour builds her place in America, she still contends with discrimination as a person of Iranian, Muslim and Middle Eastern background, amidst increasing Islamophobia post 9/11 (despite being raised agnostic with a father who had an interest in Zoroastrianism) and spiked tensions between the US and Iran, with the institutionalisation of the global war on terror.

Her feelings, as always, remain conflicted. While she remembers her initial reaction of shock at seeing burqa-clad women in Brooklyn (“Alarm, followed by a certain feminist irk, and finally discomfiture at our cultural kinship”), she would nonetheless find herself feeling defensive when that shared culture was threatened. “Then it would all turn into one strong emotion - protective rage - when I’d see a group of teenagers laughing and pointing at them.”

At readings of her first book, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, in 2007, she is inevitably questioned about what she thinks of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

And her Iranian identity is no less contentious. Khakpour’s great-uncle also happens to be Akbar Etemad, the former president of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, who is often credited with initiating Iran’s nuclear programme.

Despite his role in divisive world affairs, to Khakpour he was “the one relative who approved of my magenta-streaked hair and all my other rebellions, and who did not blink an eye when he caught me smoking.”

At readings of her first book, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, in 2007, she is inevitably questioned about what she thinks of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was in the news at the time for giving a speech at Columbia University, and was propagated as a symbol of Iranian dictatorship by the Western press.

But by now she has learnt to deflect rather than absorb identity hang-ups. “I never dated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and therefore have no insight into what he’s like, what he’s thinking,” she quips when asked the inevitable question at a reading.

Living in Trump's America

In January 2017, when Donald Trump bans travel from six Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, Khakpour is afraid she might become a refugee once again, just as she has accepted her home in America. Khakpour thinks, “We can do this. My family and I have done it before,” but she doesn’t know if she wants to flee a home she’s built for herself “twice”.

Brown Album Porochista Khakpour

With the surge in white nationalism following Trump’s election win, and police brutality, Khakpour reflects on the aspirational whiteness of some of the Middle Eastern community in America. Even though she can narrowly pass as white, she rejects ideas that Iranians are anything other than gandom-gan, which means “wheat-coloured” in Farsi. 

In her titular essay, “Brown Album”, Khakpour decides to carve out space as an Iranian-American, who is brown, not white, and stands against the injustice meted out to the outcasts of society.

She recounts seeing a Confederate flag hanging in the same neighbourhood where her parents live, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and facing a racist incident at a university, where she teaches writing. The students want to get her fired after she criticises a prolific white author. While Khakpour doesn’t lose her job, the incident leaves her shaken.

Living in Trump’s America is no easy feat. But instead of giving up, Khakpour fights for her place in what’s always been her home.

“I loved this country with the lukewarm, watery, neither-here-nor-there love that you bestow upon any country when it’s the only country you know. I accepted it and never, until much later, considered that it might not accept me,” Khakpour writes about America.

“Love is hard, acceptance is harder, belonging still hardest.”

Brown Album: Essays on Exile and Identity by Porochista Khakpour is published by Vintage 

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