where do you live – Harlem, New York
Luggage – I don’t care
Gadgets – beats by dre
favorite accessory – Cynthia Rowley Flask Bangle
favorite charity – International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran
favorite apps – Seamless, Instagram
favorite airport – Copenhagen Kastrup and BWI Baltimore Washington International
favorite airline – Virgin – used to love Delta Song but they don't exist anymore
home is… where my dog is.
where would you like to live? I think I am where I would most love to live – New York City - but I would love a country house in northern New Mexico
where & when were you happiest? Whenever I’ by the ocean
what do you consider your greatest achievement? Surviving in New York City
what is your current state of mind? Excited
how many trips do you take a year 10-20
how many of those are vacations 2
without traveling, you relax by - Reading for pleasure
won’t board the plane before/without – Magazines, earplugs & coconut water
indispensable in your carry-on – Hydrosols & Argan oil
take off routine – Immediately find a really engrossing article & ear plugs
first thing you do after landing – Text my mother
Porochista is a sparkling and spirited writer, and we always end up chitchatting about everything—which is what happened last week when we caught up over lunch at NeueHouse. Her debut novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects was a New York Times “Editor’s Choice". Her other writing (essays, features, reviews, cover stories, and columns) have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vice, GQ, The Paris Review Daily, Slate, Salon, Guernica, Departures, Paper, Bidoun and many others. She has taught creative writing and literature at many institutions including Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, and is now on a three year fellowship at Bard College. A lot is changing for Porochista these days. She was caught up in some drama with book-blogger Edward Champion threatening her, and then threatening to commit suicide. She’s been busy jetting around for the book tour of her new novel, The Last Illusion. She’s also still battling late-stage Lyme disease. We sat down to discuss her fear of flying (and flying objects), being raised a false Zoroastrian, and, obvi, Kim K’s recent #breaktheinternet cover.
rawan: Parochista, your name is an ancient Zoroastrian one, right? You’ve said in previous interviews that both Iranians and Americans can’t pronounce it. So, what’s in a name? Your characters: How do you name them, and is there a reason you’ve consistently used ancient Persian names? What influence has Persian literature had on your work, in comparison to how your Persian-ness has impacted your day-to-day life in Los Angeles, New Mexico, and New York? The pretty things of old Persia can be a lot less problematic to process in the backdrop of 9/11, and the complexities of the green revolution as a cultural context.
porochista: I love that. Well, I can answer rather simply, because it’s less political than it is just a product of my upbringing. My family got to LA only a handful of years after the hostage crisis. And so my mom and dad were basically sort of royalist affiliated, though I think now they would not be so proud of that. But you know, when we moved into this tiny apartment in Pasadena, California, they just filled the space with Persian art, and books on Persian history and all that. And so the idea of ancient Persia was really rich in our home, and at that point I just saw it as my family sort of reclaiming their old heritage, while in a new place. The idea was always that we would move back. My family finally bought a home only a couple years ago. It was always [assumed to be] temporary, so this was just the temporary place we were going to fill with relics of old Iran. And then we would go back—I always had that feeling. So I think that it’s sort of a product of that. Of course you know, as I’ve gotten older, I understand how it’s political, and that it could be seen that way.
You know, it’s tricky in a way because I can’t claim any sort of Zoroastrian-ness, really. I mean, you have to be born into that, but until I was eighteen, I thought we were Zoroastrian. We would go to the temples and no one would be friendly to us. I didn’t understand why, but now I do. My father would take us there just to take us. I mean, he told us it was our religion. I mean, he kind of screwed up that way. So I believed I was of a religion that I really wasn’t. So of course that fell out. And then once 9/11 happened, I found myself speaking a lot for Muslim Americans, even though my family had abandoned Islam a long time ago. But I felt that I was still culturally Muslim, certainly.
I think I’ve always felt like an immigrant. And now more than ever, I feel very much part of a sort of pan–Middle Eastern-ness. Unfortunately, the events of the last decade lumped all of us together out of ignorance. And since then we’ve sort of been forced to operate that way, even though all the countries of the Middle East have problems with each other.
rawan: Yeah, nobody gets along.
porochista: But I think that in the end it’s not a bad thing altogether. Where I was born, in Iran, there hasn’t been a particular regime that I can affiliate myself, or my characters, or anything I write about, with. Maybe in the future there will be, but there is nothing there right now that I want to go back to. There is no feeling in my life of anything I really want to go back to. I’m all about the future.
rawan: That actually carries us straight to the next question. In both of your books, flight is a really strong theme. Could you tell me a little bit about why you think flying keeps coming up in your work?
porochista: Funny—I was in San Francisco about to do a reading, and an interviewer was interviewing me. And my mother came on that one leg of my book tour with me. And the interviewer asked the same question and I started giving bullshit answers, and my mother was sitting there grumpily. And suddenly she interrupted, saying, “I know why.” It was the one thing she said the whole time. And I was like, “Really, why? Why? Why do you think?” She said, “It’s because when we came from Iran and finally got to the US you were so afraid of things in the air.”
Because my first memories of Iran are all of anti-aircraft missiles, and bomb sirens, and shelters. There was always this feeling that something from above was going to come and hit us. And so when I first got to California, hot air balloons, planes, all that stuff really disturbed me. So she linked it to a sort of trauma. And I think there is something to it. I don’t particularly like birds. I actually find them kind of frightening, and I don’t like aerial dinosaurs; I find them scary. But it’s hard to deny they are really major in both of my books. I think for me, they operate entirely metaphorically. They only have a figurative value, the idea of wings and flight and ascension and the heavens, or just the idea of being ungrounded.
Of course then you add in that so much of what I write about has to do with 9/11. It’s such a big part of my work, and that of course carries with it a lot of imagery that has to do with flight and impact and all that stuff. In the example of the Zal story, I was fascinated by the idea of a boy raised by this amazing benevolent creature in the woods who happens to be a bird, though it could have been any animal really. It’s funny, also, that I have feather tattoos on my hands, and I’m telling you I don’t love birds. They represent the Simurgh symbol from The Last Illusion so they’re a symbol of protection. I’m not necessarily a hippie girl who loves feathers, you know.
rawan: Does being a hyphenated American add to that sense of being out of place?
porochista: I’ve always thought of myself as a hyphenated individual, as an immigrant. You know, I had to learn English here on the playground. So I’m always aware. Whether people see it in me or not, I see myself as a foreigner. This is a problem I have all the time. People will look at me and say, “You look like your name could be Jessica.” It’s like such a weird comment to give to someone. “Thank you, I guess?” I don’t know what I’m supposed to say, so it’s really uncomfortable for me. Because I do definitely feel very much like someone who is from another place, but who is here now.
We can’t forget those formative experiences as a child. So in some ways this issue comes up all the time. Sometimes I think, oh, did I get a job because they really needed a woman of color? And then other times I’ll ask myself whether they even see me as a woman of color. Then there are other times where I’ll think, oh, am I being discriminated against because I’m from somewhere else? The typical white American never has to think about these things as part of daily life. I do, every single time I give my name.
rawan: You have to spell it.
porochista: I understand; no I get it. But every time we see our names, we have to reckon with this whole thing of our otherness. Where Jessica’s don’t, you know.
rawan: It’s a little different for me, because I’m an American who didn’t grow up here. I’ve been in New York a few years, and I had lived in Montreal before that; I’ve sort of lived everywhere. Recently, a friend of mine said to me, as a compliment, “Oh you could pass for someone who grew up here.” And I thought, “I don’t really understand why that’s a compliment.” I don’t sound like I have an accent? I didn’t really get what she was trying to tell me.
porochista: Yeah, I always wonder, what is that?
rawan: What does that mean? You realize there are people outside this country who live in modernity, right? She meant that I could have been more traditionally hyphenated-American. And the truth is, thanks, but I’m not trying to assimilate into anything.
porochista: I know, exactly. I didn’t get my citizenship until 2001. And so I was an international student in college too, and you know, didn’t feel comfortable going to their events either. Like I just didn’t feel comfortable anywhere, and New York I think is the best place for people like us.
rawan: No one cares.
porochista: It’s one of the only places no one cares; any other place you go to, it matters. The way I’ve made it easier for myself to deal with it, is by making it a subject I write about. And so that helps me sort out those frustrations. I talk about these issues all the time on social media, or with my students.
I was just telling this story to a bunch of students I talked to recently, about the first time I taught Baldwin many years ago. I had a student say, “Thank you so much for exposing me to Baldwin.” I said, “Oh yeah, of course. He’s one of my favorite writers.” And she said, “Yeah it’s so cool.” And this is a blond, blue-eyed girl. She goes, “You know, it’s just crazy, he sounds just like me, like one of my friends. It’s cool. I never thought I could read a black person that sounded white.” And I thought, what a terrifying thing it was, that comment. And it was really intense, but you know, this is America; these are not our problems, these are American problems. So that’s what we have to remind ourselves. It’s a young, stupid country.
rawan: Because if you’re in the middle of nowhere, sort of all of the fly-over country, really there are like three categories, right? And if you don’t fit into one of them, there’s an existential confusion where they’re confused and I’m amused.
porochista: Especially now that they feel that they know the Middle East. It’s even worse, because they think, oh, we know where that is. That’s in that bad place where the bad things happen. People tell me I should be a proud American, you know, because I’ve done so well in America. Or that I should abandon the hyphen and just be an American. “American” is supposed to include the whole world, you know, but I really don’t feel that way. I just think these certain types of patriotic Americans or whatever they are, they’re so diluted. But again, it’s a really young country. We come from ancient cultures, and we’re in a place that’s only three hundred years old
rawan: Okay, let’s move on: What about your ongoing battle with Lyme disease? How does that impact your day-to-day, traveling for readings?
porochista: It’s funny to ask me that during the holiday season because I throw out so many of the rules then. I’m trying to temper those instincts a little bit right now because last winter I did have a really bad relapse.
It was right before my book was coming out, and I was really sick for much of January, February, and March. So I’m trying not to do that this time. Ideally I should be eating a very clean diet, and exercising. I hate exercising. I mean I like hiking in beautiful places. But a gym is so grim, though I do it. So the great news is I know when I do have a relapse what my protocol is. It usually involves flying to New Mexico, to this amazing doctor I have who is out in the middle of nowhere. And he does a lot of experimental practices that are usually only available in Europe. So I do these really crazy, amazing IV therapies. You know, a lot of Ozone, and UV luminescence therapy, where they put UV in your Ozone IV. Like your blood is basically turned hot-pink. It’s crazy.
And then I also do bee-venom therapy, or Ho Shin as my teacher calls it. It’s an ancient tradition from Japan. She gives me live bee stings. She literally puts bees against my skin, sometimes a few at a time. And then I’ll get stung like fifty times. I do a lot of different alternative therapies, and that’s been remarkable for Lyme. It’s been life changing.
rawan: That’s awesome, since allopathic medical practices are somewhat useless when it comes to Lyme.
porochista: Awful. They just give you antibiotics. And you know, with me they give a really high dose, really strong antibiotics. It’s really rough, but sometimes you have to take it. I’m not against it, but you need to do other things, too.
rawan: What’s going on with your most recent bought of harassment by Edward Champion? I mean I think you’ve had some time to think about it, so what happened exactly? Following it online, it’s very difficult to understand a clear timeline of what happened.
porochista: Well, this is someone who had interviewed me twice for both books, and was legitimately a great interviewer. He’s interviewed every big author there is; he’s really very good. And somewhere along the line we became friends, but not good friends. You know, like a work colleague–type friends. He’d come to my apartment before. He’d met my dog and all that with his partner, who I really liked. And at some point in recent months I knew he had been going through some stuff. You know, he did this whole essay before my incident with Emily Gould and the Middling Millennials. It was a shit show, and then he threatened to commit suicide. So then I realized he was more unhinged than I had thought up until at that point.
And I was kind of horrified, but he only chose to attack me when he had made a comment on my Facebook page about another writer, a really awful comment about Dan Kois at Slate. Because Slate had decided to do a prize for second novels based on a tweet that I had written, saying that people should think about second novels too instead of just debuts. And Ed had some bone to pick with Dan Kois, so he posted a negative comment about Dan on my wall, and I really think Dan is lovely so I deleted it. And Ed got very angry.
And so all that week I had an angry back-and-forth with Ed, and it was really terrifying. So I started to feel really nervous, and I just wrote a tweet saying, oh, no, now it’s happening to me and I’m a little nervous. That was all I said. And that made him even more crazy. And he knew one thing about my personal life, an ex who’d taken nude photos of me without my permission. I had always refused to send him any photos, and he had taken them while I was sleeping or after sex, a really invasive horrible person. I had a few weeks prior to this tweeted about him without revealing who he was, just saying that one day I would deal with this. It was really upsetting, you know, the lawyers had contacted me and told me that that was a felony, and that I should get the guy busted.
Anyway, Ed guessed who it was. And he decided he was going to extort me online and say he was going to release the name of the person who had the photos of me. Which was a really weird thing. Some people thought that Ed had photos of me, which he never did, of course. But what was really sinister about what he did was that it was like a double abuse. Because he knew that he was getting me in trouble with another guy who had also wronged me. So it was kind of genius in a way. It put me in a panic because I wasn’t ready to deal with that person, and that person is kind of in my community.
So that really was scary. Because now he was going to ruin someone else, and I’m thinking, why are you bringing all these people down with you? And you know, all his final tweets were all about, fuck you publishing. It was like we were just sacrificial lambs. He had this larger problem with publishing. So I feel like I got caught in it, and then it got worse and worse. The next morning he tried to commit suicide from the Manhattan Bridge. People thought it was a terrorist attack, all these trains were evacuated. It was a big deal during rush hour on the Manhattan Bridge. And then you know, he ended up going to Bellevue. So I had to get a police report for harassment, and there is—
rawan: Does that go anywhere though, when you file that kind of report?
porochista: Well, it gives you a paper trail. But I also had some good talks with a really great detective who was on my case, and he took it really seriously. He said that a few years ago, they didn’t know how to deal with cyber harassment, but now it’s a big deal. So I was really heartened by the detective at my local precinct, who spent a lot of time on the phone with me. So it’s kind of ongoing. I mean right now, this week, all the literary parties have started. And I’m constantly a little bit nervous. I don’t think he’d get in anywhere because everyone knows about it, and I don’t think he’d even try. But he’s back online a little bit right now. And he’s saying things that do refer to me, and some other people.
rawan: So he just stopped after you called him out?
porochista: He got suspended from Twitter. He’s still not back on Twitter, but he’s on Facebook and Ello. An amazing underground feminist army got him kicked off of Twitter. I was not in the mindset to write a note to Twitter to say get him off here. But a bunch of women all around the country and maybe even outside the country, all orchestrated it. And it was the most amazing thing. I mean now I’m like really good friends with feminist Twitter. Some of these causes come to you the way 9/11 kind of became a subject for me; now this has become kind of a subject for me too, unfortunately. But I think it’s a really important one to talk about, because it’s just so common.
rawan: And most people end up staying quiet because they don’t want to make it worse.
porochista: Right, I’m so against that now. It used to be that silence was always seen as graceful and elegant. And I think these people depend on our silence. So I’m all about the old rape-whistle man. Just blow that thing as loud as you can. Yell fire. Men have, for ages, depended on women to be silent about lots of injustices and imbalances.
rawan: Yeah, absolutely. But let’s end on a lighter note—your hair is black now, but 2014 has definitely been a colorful year for you. You were even in Elle magazine, where your photo is shot in connection with iconic blondes of the past. Back then your hair was lavender.
porochista: I love that one. With our skin tones, it’s really good. But it destroys your hair.
rawan: Yeah I have moments of pining for lavender hair but couldn’t deal with the damage. Anyway, why are you back to black now?
porochista: Well, I went from black to super platinum with one of New York’s platinum experts. I mean, she basically is known for taking people from black to white in an eight-hour day. I was doing research on my third novel, which has a lot of bottle blondes in it. I wanted to do like a 30-page meditation in the middle of that book on blondeness. But I didn’t really know what it would entail, and I thought it would be interesting if I tried it myself. I thought I would only do it for one month, and then dye it back to black. But actually, I kind of loved it. I mean, I didn’t feel beautiful, and I definitely didn’t feel sexy. Like all those things that like are associated with blondeness, I didn’t feel. I felt very punk rock, and really edgy and avant garde.
And one day she was like, “You want to just do purple?” So we did the purple, which ended up being a really pretty lavender. The next month we tried pink, then I went back to purple. It was a lot of fun, but I knew it would have to end. You know, at some point it wasn’t going to be free anymore. With my hair now, you know, my natural hair, I never comb it. I don’t brush it. I don’t put anything in it, and I think it looks better on me, so two months ago I went back to just black. I was a little sad because I thought, oh I look so normal now. It’s just me again, but I think I do look better.
rawan: You had beautiful long hair when I first met you.
porochista: Yeah, well I had to cut it because [the length] damages your hair so much. I have always felt like a weirder person than I looked. And people would I think sometimes look at me like they look at my mom, who is just a very like classic Disney-eyed pretty girl. And I was always really uncomfortable with how feminine even my features were. Even when I have dark hair, I always have to have it kind of bedhead-y and messy. I get really upset when it’s too perfect.
rawan: I’m the same way. I spend time getting it to look messy.
porochista: Yeah exactly, I hate the overly polished. But that again it is so prevalent among Middle Eastern women. They want to look so perfect and polished. Why? I’ve never seen my mother without makeup.
rawan: Oh wow.
rawan: Yeah, that’s…wow. But I completely understand. My mom isn’t big on the makeup, but my hair is the bane of her existence.
porochista: Yeah, my mom is like that too. She’s very upset I don’t brush my hair. She thinks that’s the most scandalous thing. I think that is a rebellion against being Iranian for sure though. Because there is no scruffiness. It’s kind of funny, to be in the era of the Kardashians and to be having this conversation. I think people forget that they’re Armenian, and so culturally close to Middle Easterners. I mean they are, they are, it’s basically the same. And so it’s just very funny, because as an aesthetic, to Americans it’s so scandalous. But it’s an aesthetic that we’re so familiar with. The way they dress, I’m just like, yeah, yeah.
rawan: That’s my cousin, right? [Laughs] Yeah it’s all very classic.
porochista: When I watch their things, it feels crazy to me because—
rawan: Even the voice.
porochista: Yeah, the voice.
rawan: All of my friends in high school talked on the phone like that to their boyfriends. Like all of them.
porochista: All of them, you’re right.
rawan: And I didn’t, clearly I didn’t. But they all did, and you know, they still do. Some of them I think got married with that voice.
porochista: Yeah, exactly, I know. She’s like a typical Middle Eastern girl.
porochista: Kim especially out of all of them—her softness. I don’t know about the full-frontal nudity, that’s where she—
rawan: But that’s recent…
porochista: I was shocked with the full-frontal, but you know what, she looks great, I don’t know.
rawan: She looks great. The smile on her face got to me more than the full-frontal. It was the combination of what she was doing with it. The smile is just so—I mean, it’s not naughty. It’s more like, “I know what I’m doing. I know what you’re thinking, and here I am, so there you go. This is Kim Kardashian.”
porochista: That’s the genius of the shot, is her expression. Absolutely. I think that’s true, you’re right. Because so often the women have to look sultry, or sexy. And she does that all the time. She does that sultry, sexy face often, but in this one she let go of that. It’s so refreshing, and yeah it’s like actually you see her in a different way. I mean, she has a sex tape, we saw that. But yeah I’ve never quite seen that expression on her. And so I thought that was kind of great. So you see real American puritanical fervor with things like this. It’s like Helen of Troy will sink ships, you know. I mean I couldn’t believe the comments. I’m just really shocked by how upset Americans get over things like this. It’s really weird to me.
rawan: It is very puritanical, and it’s amazing because all of this stuff is produced here. But it’s literally only produced here to shock here. The rest of the world—I don’t think anyone in France cares very much.
porochista: Exactly, I know. Can you imagine in France anybody being like, oh my god, Kim Kardashian.
rawan: And on both sides, it’s on both sides you know, whether it’s feminists applauding her, or people hating on her, or critiquing the photographer. All of it is very, break the Internet. I guess that was the point.
porochista: I used to work at Paper for years. I was like a bar columnist there, and I also did some cover stories for them, so it’s my old magazine family. And I thought, good for them. I mean why wouldn’t they?