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The latest in immigrant lit

Young Iranian American women are grabbing the spotlight and maybe changing perceptions too.

December 02, 2007|Swati Pandey | Times Staff Writer

The hit 1995 teen movie "Clueless" may be best known for introducing Americans to Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd, but first-time novelist Porochista Khakpour remembers it for another reason: It injected Iranian Americans into the U.S. pop-cultural consciousness.

"There's that scene when [Silverstone's character] Cher says, 'And that's the Persian mafia. You can't hang with them unless you own a BMW.' " Khakpour, 29, delivered the line in an authoritative teen-queen squeak.

It was a "hideous" milestone for Iranian-born, South Pasadena-bred, Brooklyn-based Khakpour, substituting for the stereotype of Iranians as veiled women and religious fanatics another unappealing notion -- of an excessively wealthy, insular immigrant community "in shoulder pads and gold jewelry."

Khakpour's goal was to challenge both stereotypes in her first novel, "Sons and Other Flammable Objects," which was published this fall. Her main characters, like her own family, are resolutely middle class and are more Zoroastrian than Muslim. They reside in a kitschy Pasadena apartment complex, not a "Tehrangeles" mansion. There are no religious fanatics or veiled women save for those in the novel's deliberately overwrought dream sequences -- filled with what Khakpour calls "Middle East paraphernalia, from the perspective of an American."

Twelve years after "Clueless," books such as Khakpour's, including well-received works by first-time writer Dalia Sofer and established novelist Gina Nahai, are putting the immigrant culture more fully into the spotlight. While the politics of their native country fills the news, Iranian American writers have been finding enthusiastic audiences since 2003, when Azar Nafisi's wildly successful memoir "Reading Lolita in Tehran" and Marjane Satrapi's innovative graphic novel "Persepolis" hit bookstores.

These writers' exploration of new genres and styles -- and their ability to tell the stories of a new generation of Iranian Americans, stories that don't necessarily start with the Iranian revolution -- makes it increasingly difficult to point a finger and place a label.

Last month, Khakpour read from her book to a packed crowd at Dutton's in Brentwood, showcasing one of the things that sets her book apart -- her stylized prose. While Khakpour says her long sentences are difficult to read aloud, she rarely stumbled as she presented a scene in which her characters encounter Ed McMahon on a class-envious trip to Rodeo Drive. The protagonist, Xerxes Adams, imagines drilling a hole under McMahon's "Star Search" stage: "On the opposite end of McMahon's shiny designer shoes, through the wailing volcanic fodder of the planet's core, would certainly be other feet and maybe knees and maybe hands and, hell, torsos of the perpetually aching, ailing, hurting people of the other world, most of the world, that looked somewhat more like Xerxes Adams, looked at least more as he was supposed to look, that shared with him something he could never quite get in touch with but clearly had to have." Her audience -- about half Iranian American, including some family and friends -- murmured knowingly.

But even as Khakpour's excerpt made clear how definitively American a book it was, she told the crowd that some publishers had asked her to "Iranicize" the book.

"Iranian memoirs set the rules for Iranian fiction a little bit -- for what types of things do well and what gets published," Khakpour said earlier in an interview, mentioning "Reading Lolita in Tehran." That story -- of a group of female students surreptitiously reading Western classics in post-revolutionary Iran -- has been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 100 weeks.

"Because my book became successful, publishers do want to repeat that success. So memoirs are fashionable," Nafisi said. "But behind [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, behind Bush, there are millions of people. Americans don't know what Iran is all about, and I think readers want to know what is behind the politics."

Iran's politics are, of course, hard to ignore, starting with the 1979 Islamic revolution, in which religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew the U.S.-backed shah. The ensuing crackdown by religious authorities -- including the imposition of the veil -- spurred a wave of immigration to the U.S. It took a tumultuous couple of decades -- from the 1980 hostage crisis through the Iran-Iraq war and the Salman Rushdie fatwa until the era of the "axis of evil" -- for these immigrants to start writing their stories.

Behind the trends

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