Porochista Khakpour’s “Brown Album: Essays on Exile and Identity” is a collection of essays republished into a singular meditation on the Tehran-born and L.A.-raised author’s journey within the Iranian American diaspora. The book is out May 19.
Porochista Khakpour was not trying to be a spokesperson for the Iranian American diaspora. The author tells me over the phone that she’s a fiction writer — a novelist with a love for “lush, maximalist or baroque” sentences that go against the style guides of many mainstream publications.
“I think that is hard for people to hear, that you have a book of personal essays out [but] that you don’t necessarily feel passionate about the form,” she said the week before her fourth book, “Brown Album,” is set to be released.
For those who have followed Khakpour’s many pieces on being Iranian in post-9/11 America over the past decade, this fact may come as a shock. From “Islamic Revolution Barbie,” published in 2009 at the New York Times, to “How to Write Iranian-America, or The Last Essay” in 2017 from Catapult, it seems impossible to separate the 42-year-old writer from texts about “Shahs of Sunset” — a Ryan Seacrest-produced reality TV show that follows a group of young, wealthy Iranian Americans in Beverly Hills — or the alienation that comes from being a young brown immigrant.
“Brown Album” doesn’t aim to dispel confusion, either. Released May 19, the book compiles Khakpour’s popular essays into one long-form contemplation on living in America as an Iranian. It also begins with a short passage in which the writer states, “[The essays in ‘Brown Album’] are a testament to the greatest and worst experience of my life: being a spokesperson for my people, a role I never dreamed of and never asked for. This is my pigeonhole, and this is my legacy.”
What’s the reason for repeatedly finding herself in the middle of such discomfort?
“I think [the essays] had some sort of benefit for the larger audience — Iranian Americans in one sense, but also just largely immigrants,” Khakpour said. “And that audience really needed visibility. These essays were not necessarily revelations in their topics, but they were published in major mainstream venues. And so I think, for my audience, [it] was that visibility that really mattered.”
Outside of Khakpour’s writings, one of the biggest forms of representation of Iranian American culture in American mainstream media is Bravo’s “Shahs of Sunset,” where stereotypes of the “Persian prince or princess” with their Mercedes-Benz cars and designer clothing flourish. But, as Khakpour notes throughout the book, such material excess is less about Iranians and the community than it is about how immigrants assimilate to meet America’s values in money, materials and all things pro-capitalism. She instead utilizes “Shahs” to define what it means to be Iranian in America through the show and its stars’ use of “Persian” as an identifier instead of Iranian. (The country changed from Persia to Iran in the 1930s.)
In the book’s first essay “A New Persian Empire,” Khakpour recalls an interview with “Shahs” cast member Reza Farahan, who she asked about the decision. The reality star replied: “Food is Persian, rugs are Persian, cats are Persian, people are Persian. It’s not because I’m ashamed or embarrassed. Mind you, I am very much more Cyrus and Darius than I am Islamic Republic.”
His reference to long-dismantled dynasties from the Persian Empire is a weighted one, especially considering Farahan was born just a handful of years before Khakpour in Tehran, and just six years before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Monarchies of a bygone era — of a time when the dying religion of Zoroastrianism reigned — color Farahan’s explanation, showcasing his perceived divide between Iran’s storied history and the country as it presently stands.
Both the TV star and writer were raised in Los Angeles in the years after Ayatollah Khomeini founded the Islamic Republic of Iran — an important similarity to note considering the different vision of Iranian America Khakpour writes in “Brown Album” than is seen in “Shahs of Sunset.” But rather than hide behind Farahan and other wealthy “royalists” in “Tehrangeles,” Khakpour’s writings about Iranian America also indict her own state of mind as a budding teen on the outskirts of the more-wealthy Iranian American community. In the same essay where she quotes Farahan, she mentions hiding “inside the American costumes [she] wore — punk, cowgirl, starlet — and took on Persian only when [she] had to.”
Though not entirely incorrect (Persian is, after all, one of many ethnicities in Iran), the confusion around her identity from those unable to find Persia on a map led Khakpour to anxiety. In the essay, she continues as her fractured, former self to those who may have asked “what is Persian”: “It’s the label for Islamic Republic-disliking Iranians! It’s what Iranians who used to be fancy prefer!”
Here at the heart of the “Persian vs. Iranian” issue — and arguably “Brown Album” on the whole — is a chasm within many Iranians abroad: There remains a longing for a pre-Islamic Republic Iran, one that risks glorification of the “modernization” efforts under the Pahlavi dynasty, and in turn, hosts a lot of internalized xenophobia and racism.
“You kind of have to do your own work,” Khakpour said. “I really had to discover Iran again for myself in many ways.”
Part of that work for Khakpour was finding and understanding her place among the diaspora. She and her family lived outside of Beverly Hills in modest South Pasadena, more specifically in a condo she calls a “dingbat.” (To explain the structure, she recalls a quote in the 1998 film “Slums of Beverly Hills,” in which Natasha Lyonne’s character explains the term as “a two-story apartment [building] featuring cheap rents and fancy names. They promise the good life but never deliver.”)
Sitting outside of the community of Iranian Americans in Tehrangeles, Khakpour was neither accepted as a part of the wealthy diaspora, nor in her predominantly-white town.
“All my first memories are from Iran,” she said. “Much of my formative experiences as a child were around the trauma of being new to America. So it’s really hard for me to feel American. Feeling Iranian is much more … me.”
Struggling to find her footing among her people throughout the early essays in the book, Khakpour’s “The King of Tehrangeles” showcases the class divide between her family and the Iranian American diaspora. In the piece, she writes of a job she once had along the glitzy street of Beverly Hills’s famed Rodeo Drive, in a boutique selling handbags that “cost well over the highest annual income [she] had made at that point.” Down the way and across the street was House of Bijan, a flagship store from the Iranian American designer known for being the man behind the most expensive shop in the world. Recalling the fashion mogul, Khakpour writes: “Bijan beat Americans at their own game … He embodied American overindulgence to the maximum.”
Khakpour and her family members were “the anomaly of anomalies in L.A.: the poor Iranian[s].” Unpermitted into the appointment-only store, the writer recalls how her parents were both interested in Bijan as a cultural touchstone but horrified by his lavishness. Similarly, in another essay, she notes that while many Iranian Americans of Southern California boasted a level of inherent conservatism that comes with, as she tells me, being “an extreme capitalist,” her parents were wishy-washy in their relations to American politics. Her father, she writes, even bounced from “a love of Reagan to a love of Sanders.”
“I get, more than anything from Iranian American readers, when they’re like: ‘Thank you for speaking out about being a poor Iranian,’” she said. “There’s just no representation with that.”
In the end, Khakpour “doesn’t feel connected to a lot of [Iranian American] people,” especially those that fit more closely to the “Shahs of Sunset” narrative. But, harking back to the issue of identification, her book points out at least one common idea among Iranians in America — a thread that can be found despite differences in class and politics, in lifestyles and area codes. Between “A New Persian Empire” and Khakpour’s self-described “manifesto” or the title essay that closes out the book, “Brown Album” denounces a long-time fable, believed by the Iranian diaspora and those outside the community, that Iranians are the original Aryans.
“My father talked about that ugly myth occasionally with something like half pride, when he felt Americans were being racist,” Khakpour recalls in her essay, even remembering a time when he told her at the dinner table: “We’re Caucasian, face it.”
But she also remembers him telling her at a young age to choose Asian on census reports, or saying: “We are gandom-gan … which means wheat-colored, the equivalent of brown in Farsi.”
So, what’s the truth?
The tale of Iranians as the original Aryans has roots that extend far beyond the Iranian Revolution, even before Persia was renamed Iran in the 1930s. According to Reza Zia-Ebrahimi in a piece for Tehran Bureau via PBS’s Frontline, the Islamophobia in Iran, rooted in a deep racism against Arabs, has followed Iranians for centuries. But it was around the 1860s when Iranian intellectuals began searching for a way to distance themselves from Islam, resulting in “self-Orientalization [which] involves an element of shame over traditional Iranian customs and features,” or a “dislocation, the attempt to dislodge Iran from its … Islamic reality and force it into a European one.”
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Echoing the sentiment in a contemporary context, Khakpour said: “One of the issues I have with my parents is that even though they’re Muslim, they’re kind of ashamed of being Muslim, and they don’t really feel connected to Islam … I sort of challenge them on that.”
This internalized xenophobia and racism rises above the Iranian diaspora, pulling Iranian Americans together in spite of the community’s classes, ethnicities and religions. Are Iranians brown or white? Are we Iranian or are we Persian? Unanimity around these complex questions does not exist.
And what of the diaspora’s spokespeople, like Khakpour, who take up a stance in an effort to bring these difficult conversations to light? To do so is to further alienate oneself from the community. She writes at the start of the final piece: “This is the essay arising from the tweets that resulted in death threats … This is the essay many of my own people would tell me to go kill myself for because I deny the whiteness they claim.”
Understandably, herein lies the anxiety and discomfort that may come from being seen as a spokesperson for an underrepresented community: When you write your own story, you inherently alienate someone else in their own ideas and emotions tied to the homeland and the host country. At the end of the day, one must remember that “Brown Album” is a book of personal essays, emphasis on the personal.
“The problem we have with all these Iranian American memoirists — and I mean, they’re everywhere — but they’re all women of a certain privilege,” Khakpour said when asked about entering a canon of Iranian American memoirs. “I just got very sick of that one image, because I didn’t fit into it at all. And so, I don’t think there is total solidarity, but I don’t think there should be either. It’s fine to be diverse in that sense.”
Ultimately, maybe what it comes down to is not to see Khakpour — or “Shahs of Sunset,” or other Iranian American memoirists — as a spokesperson for the Iranian American diaspora, but rather, to see “Brown Album” as a pillar within the multitude of individual stories that showcase Iranian identities. Maybe it comes down to allowing more space in mainstream media for these stories to be told, in order to paint a broader picture.
Khakpour sums it up well: “What is authentic Iran? I mean, there is no such thing. If you feel like you’re caught between different cultures, I think that’s a very legitimate sentiment that you should feel free to express.”
Top Image: Porochista Khakpour. Photo: Maria Nova.