On Freaks, Geeks, and 9/11
A Conversation with Katherine Dunn and Porochista Khakpour
Katherine Dunn’s now-classic novel, Geek Love, came straight to mind when I read Porochista Khakpour’s The Last Illusion.
This was for very literal reasons: Olympia Binewski, the hunchbacked dwarf who recounts the humorously tragic story of Binewski’s Carnival Fabulon in Dunn’s novel, and Zal, the Iranian boy at the center of Khakpour’s book, who spends the first ten years of his life confined to a cage, are both albinos. And they are each surrounded by a cast of, to put it mildly, unusual characters. Born and bred for their oddities, Olympia’s siblings—Arturo, the flipper boy; Iphigenia and Electra, piano-virtuoso Siamese twins joined at the waist; and Chip, whose towheaded normal appearance belies his powerful telekinetic abilities—travel the country as the Fabulon’s star attractions. Zal ends up in New York City, where he enters into a bizarre love triangle with an artsy anorexic girl who can see the future and her morbidly obese, bedridden sister, and forms a strange relationship with a magician on the verge of retirement, a modern-day huckster working on one final, great illusion.
Despite their outlandishness, Dunn and Khakpour’s characters traverse familiar human terrain, seeking to find a home in a society that feels foreign or that fears them. Within personal, familial stories, the authors cast their thematic nets wide, Dunn addressing extremist cults and the dangerous lure of charismatic madmen, and Khakpour exploring the socialization of a feral child and coming of age amid turn-of-the-millennium paranoia.
On an early fall evening, I met Khakpour at her apartment in Harlem, where we spoke to Dunn by phone. The two authors are birds of a feather, and after the briefest of introductions I all but discarded my conversation prompts. The discussion that follows covers their passions, their childhood, and always, of course, their writing, which consists of fiction and journalism, too. Dunn has written about boxing since the early 1980s, and in 2009 published a collection of her pieces titled One Ring Circus: Dispatches from the World of Boxing. Khakpour has published essays and reviews in a variety of publications, from Granta to Elle, and also teaches at Wesleyan and Bard.
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Katherine Dunn: Porochista, it sounds as though you’ve done a lot of research into feral child syndrome. What kind of information did you come across?
Porochista Khakpour: There were two bits of research that were critical to writing The Last Illusion: feral children can’t smile, and they are generally scared of mirrors. That was enough to open a big imaginative universe for me. I didn’t want to know too much more; I wanted to fill in the blanks myself.
KD: I could feel that deep imagining. For a novelist, that’s a wonderful substitute for research. The most demanding form of imagination is to actually occupy a character, to walk around in their shoes, and you’ve done that superbly.
PK: Thank you! Zal is very close to me. I was able to invent his insect candy obsession because I’m kind of an obsessive-compulsive person with a highly addictive personality. I imagined that if I had grown up the way he did, I would have these weird, secret behaviors that would obsess me. I also have always been awkward with love interests, so it was easy for me to imagine how kissing, or having sex, might feel foreign to a person like Zal. I’ve felt like an outsider my whole life. I’m guessing that you must have felt the same way.
KD: The conclusion that I’ve come to after many years of feeling like an outsider is that everybody feels like an outsider.
Brian Gresko: Katherine, you’ve said that while you were writing Geek Love, friends told you no one would be interested in buying the novel. How did you deal with that? Was it hard to put out of your mind when writing?
KD: It was hard to hear, but I got quite accustomed to it. I figured I might end up photocopying the novel at Kinko’s and handing it out on street corners. Or, and this was a really optimistic fantasy at the time, that it might be published by some weird little paperback genre-house in a really cheesy form, where the paper isn’t quite glued to the back of the book and it falls apart on first reading!
The basic thing was: I didn’t give a rip. I wanted to do what I was doing. Also, I suppose some deep part of myself did think they were wrong, that there was something fundamentally interesting about a book that reverses the values of society. I believed that a tiny segment of the population, just as twisted and sick as I was, would be interested in reading it.
PK: I probably read Geek Love in 1996, not long after I started college at Sarah Lawrence, which was a super weird place. I was a scholarship kid from Pasadena, California, and really didn’t know where I had landed. A friend of mine from down the hall recommended Geek Love and said, “I think this is going to be your thing.” I read it in a weekend, feverishly.
I remember going up to him later and saying, “I feel like Katherine Dunn created the 90s.” I still feel that way. All these 90s icons—Jim Rose, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers—were huge fans of this book, which makes so much sense to me. The 90s were a great time. Being a freak and being different were celebrated. You’re the mother of the 90s!
KD: [Laughing] That’s very flattering! Geek Love came out at a time when a lot of stuff was congealing in the zeitgeist. Publishers were putting out memoirs like Jim Rose’s Freak Like Me and books about piercing and tattooing. Today those things seem almost passé, but at the time they were very transgressive and just beginning to gather steam. The publishing of my book happened to coincide with that atmosphere. There was a great deal going on in our culture prior to the appearance of Geek Love, and subsequently, that I had nothing to do with.
PK: It’s been sad to see that in the post-9/11 era our culture has gotten more conservative. I teach, and sometimes my students seem so obsessed with being “normal.” People are fearful.
BG: Porochista, did you ever have people tell you that The Last Illusion was not going to sell in this market?
PK: Yes. My first novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, took only a few months to sell. It came out in 2007, when there had been a lot of memoirs by Iranian-American women, so there was a lot of interest in my work. That book is more of a family story, and the writing is semi-experimental, the energy wild and weird. I got a lot of press for it, and won some awards.
I think The Last Illusion, which I finished a decade later, is a much better novel, but it took two and a half years to sell. Nobody wanted to touch it. I was told it was disturbing and disgusting, and it has been far less reviewed and talked about, because it freaks people out, I think. Part of that is 9/11, but I’ve also been criticized that everyone’s weird in the book, that it’s too dark, even though I thought I was celebrating the characters. Again, I don’t know if it’s the conservative times that we live in or what.
Feral children can’t smile, and they are generally scared of mirrors.
KD: There’s still a lot of risk-taking in literature. George Saunders immediately comes to mind, and Aimee Bender. Many years ago a reviewer in the New York Times said something to the effect of, Americans are not capable of writing magical realism. It’s beyond us. We are materialists.
Boy, had that critic not been paying attention! From Washington Irving to Mark Twain to you, Porochista, there’s a long tradition of fantasticism. Anything can happen in the American mind. I’m convinced of that.
We also have to recognize that there are multiple strains of influence in American letters. It’s a huge population with extremely different backgrounds and points of view. It would be surprising if we had a monolithic literary structure, which we don’t.
PK: You’re right. I’m a struggling writer, and that colors my take on things. I don’t make anything off my advances. I’ll never see a royalty check from my novels. I’m always on Twitter talking about how I basically live in poverty. Partly that’s because I choose to live in New York, and I’m a professor. Also, I have students who are into fraternities and sororities, and they all seem like they want to get married and become rich—things that my friends and I were never interested in, and sometimes it causes me to worry about our cultural values.
BG: You’ve both said that you’ve been contacted by people who were upset by your books. Porochista, you’ve said that you’ve heard from 9/11 conspiracy theorists, and Katherine, you’ve gotten letters from readers who find the characters in Geek Love to be shocking and sensationalistic. How do you feel upon getting these responses, and do you engage with those readers at all?
KD: People who are offended by Geek Love have a right to be offended. No book is right for everybody. No food, no drink, no oxygen saturation of the air is right for everybody. We’re an extremely varied species, and that’s part of our glory.
I respond to some of the nice letters I receive. Of course, others are quite vitriolic and negative, and I do not respond to those. Partly that’s because I’ve had a little trouble with stalkers.
PK: Same here! I’ve even had to go to the FBI for a female stalker. It was very upsetting. I wonder if, because we might seem to be sympathetic to freakish eccentrics, people think they can come close to us.
Very occasionally people write me angry notes in response to my work, but it’s more often anonymously, in comment sections on websites like Goodreads or Amazon. The most direct responses I receive are for my nonfiction essays. If it’s positive, I write back, especially if it’s from a student. I love hearing from students. But it does get weird sometimes, and so I’m careful. Sometimes you let someone in and then they turn into a stalker. They have an agenda.
Katherine, the copy of Geek Love that I read was a very early edition with a lot of blurbs and press on the cover. I noticed that the word audacious kept coming up, which is an adjective that has often been used to describe The Last Illusion. Do you think women get pegged as audacious if they’re doing something that’s unusual, or somewhat rude, or kind of crazy?
KD: I think your book is brave. When I say audacious, that’s what I mean—risk-taking. I don’t take that as a negative thing at all.
Now, I’ve never sat down to analyze the language used to describe male authors as opposed to that used to describe female authors. I suppose that might make an interesting study. Maybe if it were a man, they would say “gutsy” or “gritty.” You know, nice, manly words.
PK: If I asked my dad, who’s a good Persian dad, he would say audacity is a trait that a girl shouldn’t want, because it means you’re too brash. I’ve always been somewhat proud of that characteristic. It’s never been important to me to be polite.
I think there’s an element of surprise to us being women and writing this kind of work. For you it might even be more extreme, because you’ve chosen to write about boxing for all these years, which isn’t what a good female novelist does, right?
KD: Quite right. It’s a great advantage to be a woman in a totally male world, I can assure you. They don’t see you coming, for one thing. They think they can just pat you on the head and all will be well, so they’re unprepared when you spring the wolf trap. At least that’s the case when dealing with the older sportsmen—the managers, trainers, promoters. It’s less so with the younger generation. The advantage that women have had in dealing with men is dwindling at this point. We’re going to be cursed with equality whether we will it or no.
I would be dead without reading. Reading is my first love, and that’s why I became a writer.
PK: When writing about boxing, did you have to go extra lengths to prove yourself with the men?
KD: As with any particular field, you have to do your homework. What I ran across time and time again was a moment of hesitation, almost a visible flicker of the eyes, in which the man that I was interviewing would be telling himself, “Oh, my God, I’m talking boxing with a woman!” Then it would pass. Because when it comes right down to it, people who are really interested in what they’re doing—whether they’re into boxing, azaleas, art design, or microbiology—are willing to talk to anyone, as long as they know you can do the job. Having a legitimate, serious interest in their work overrides all prejudices and biases. It’s a wonderful thing. This is not to say that the moment that you screw up, that you insult them or say something they don’t like, or disagree with them, all those old prejudices won’t come out, usually in quite pithy ways. But you’ve crossed them, and so you should expect that.
PK: What made you interested in boxing?
KD: I grew up on the West Coast in the late 40s and early 50s, at a time when boxing, along with baseball, was a really important part of American culture. The men in my family were very interested in boxing. In those days, we listened to the radio. That was the way that everything came to us from the outside world. We’d listen to Friday Night Fights. That was a big part of my upbringing. Then, in the late 70s, I married a man who was a boxing fan. He took me to a live boxing match, and I was hooked.
As a sports fan, you turn to the newspaper every morning to find out what they’re saying about this or that match. I felt the local coverage was inadequate, which frustrated me. I told myself, “Well, if you think you’re a writer, and you want it written about better, then you should do it yourself.” So I did. It was addictive, intoxicating. Boxing distills so many elements of human activity. I subscribe to the notion that the microcosm reflects the macrocosm. Boxing is an excellent petri dish for examining the forces of the universe and all of human activity.
PK: Did you ever try boxing?
KD: Yes, I did. In 1993, the federal courts decided that women had to be allowed to participate in amateur boxing programs. Prior to that, as early as the 1920s, women could box professionally, but not as amateurs. This is the equivalent of saying, “Okay, when you’re 21 years old you can try out for the US Olympic swim team, but until that moment you’re not allowed in the water.” When the ruling came down, women began to flow into the boxing gym. Not great rivers of them, but a distinct trickle.
The trainers, many of whom I had been interviewing for 13 years at that point, were horrified. They were sure that women would ruin the sport, that boxing could not survive the presence of women, and they also feared that women could not survive boxing. They were under the impression that women were fragile creatures, and boxing was too rough for them. I saw it time and time again, in gym after gym, crusty old trainers would melt like butter in the sun the first time a 12-year-old girl walked through the door and outworked every boy in the place. Then they’d become rabid converts. It was really touching.
The first time a woman sparred, two things always happened. Number one, the woman would hit the man—and we always ended up sparring with men because there were never enough women to spar with other woman—and you’d finally land a good one and then you’d step back and say, “Oh, I’m sorry! Are you okay?” Absolute reflex. Happened every time. The guy, of course, would shrug and say, “What?” This was a big revelation for most women: that you can really slug somebody, and the world doesn’t come to an end. And then comes the second revelation: that you can be hit, really hard, and not break.
I went into the gym also, and began training. I was close to 50 at the time. I trained until 2007, when my coach decided to retire. I never competed, but it was instructive to experience at least some of the things I was writing about.
Porochista, you’ve written about extreme sports like skydiving. Did you actually skydive when you wrote about it?
PK: Yes. I was undercover for three months at a skydiving cult in rural Illinois. They had their own branch of Christianity, and also ran a drug operation. I don’t know how legal it was for me to be undercover. I was really young; it was a decade ago. There were a lot of deaths that were being covered up and not reported properly. Like you were saying, I became interested in it because I had read articles and could see that there were things missing, holes in the story that I wanted to fill.
The skydivers were just like surfers—and I had known some surfers, growing up in Los Angeles—so I adopted this other persona. By the end of the summer, they had gotten very suspicious of me. Here I was, pretending to be this cool skydiving chick, but I wasn’t skydiving, I was just hanging out with everyone. I needed to skydive to get my sources on my side again. The morning that I decided to do it, I received death threats on my cell phone. I thought they were going to drop me into an open grave! But when you’re working on a story, you find the courage to do all sorts of crazy things that you would never do in normal life.
KD: Was that the story luring you on?
PK: In order to write, I have to inhabit a sort of persona. I have to be my best self. This is the same with writing fiction too: I have to be a me that’s a little bit greater than my usual me. For example, I was debilitated by late-stage Lyme disease for many of the years I was writing The Last Illusion. At one point, I lost cognitive ability. When I found out that Bloomsbury had bought the book, I was strapped to an oxygen machine and an IV in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and didn’t know if I could even do edits! The story lured me on, definitely, but the persona that I inhabit when I’m in a fully imaginative realm forced me to become bigger than myself, and to objectify myself as a character, in a way. There’s a level to which I don’t feel mortal or limited by reality when I’m in the throes of a narrative.
BG: I want to return to the word “audacious.” Was this risk-taking attitude encouraged as a child?
PK: Yes, but it’s funny. My dad was an Iranian from Muslim parents and so somewhat conservative. He wanted me to be a lady and was scandalized when my mother started wearing jeans! But he was also enthralled by my tomboy spirit. He taught me chess at a young age, and I played competitively. At first my excelling at “guy things” seemed like a party trick, and he would show me off to his colleagues, many of whom were chess masters (he was a nuclear physicist). Then he became legitimately wowed. For instance, he thought my going undercover as a skydiver was very cool. He had never really met a girl like me, even though he created me.
KD: I grew up with an older brother and a younger brother, and I admired them enormously. I yearned for adventure and sought that from an early age, though I had always wanted to be a writer, even as a very small child.
My first published work was called “The Pigpen News.” It was a newspaper I created once a week out of the butcher paper wrapped around our dinner meat. I think I was six. We were living on a farm at the time, and the pigpen was long abandoned, so I took it over as my clubhouse and office. “The Pigpen News” was full of stories about the farm and the family, some of them fictitious. There was only one copy of each issue, of course.
PK: Was there a book that inspired you to be a writer, or was it your family?
KD: It was my family. I mean, sure, we were readers. My mother read to us constantly, and I could read well before I went to school. But more importantly, my family were storytellers. They were the kind of people who couldn’t go to the grocery store without coming back with some outrageous adventure, which had to be recounted at great length, with sound effects and different voices for each of the characters. We’d tell stories at the dinner table in the evening. There was a kind of unacknowledged competition, in which the ultimate aim of the story was to deliver the punch line at the precise moment when one of your siblings had a mouthful of milk, or in the case of parents, coffee. So that as they exploded in laughter, they would spew milk or coffee all the way across the dinner table. Any meal that managed to spew more than one mouthful of milk or coffee was considered a rousing success.
PK: Growing up, humor was essential in our household, too. Everyone had to be funny, and a prankster. I can’t fully write something that’s one hundred percent tragic; it’s not my worldview. I have to mix dark comedy with anything that I write—which obviously is the case for you, too, since you could’ve tackled some of the subjects in Geek Love from a tragic perspective.
KD: But that would have been a drag to write, and no fun to read at all, right? I decided a long time ago to never write anything that does not have hope or light in it. I refuse to represent nihilism. I refuse to allow that into my mind or onto the page that I’m responsible for.
PK: I especially love New Yorkers’ sense of humor. I even found humor in the city on 9/11. I was 23 years old and living in lower Manhattan. That morning, my instinct was to go toward the disaster and not run away from it. As I got closer, I saw people covered in powder and debris, and one of the things I remember the most was that they were laughing, smiling, and high-fiving one another.
Those were the survivors. They had seen the apocalypse happen—people dying, some they probably knew; buildings coming down; a disaster like no other. But, miraculously, they had made it out alive, and so they cheered. I was so moved by that.
We forget to celebrate those survivors. Every year on 9/11 they televise the reading of the names of the people who died. I wish they would honor the ones who lived through it, too. In some ways, their hell was greater, because they saw so much, and they surely felt guilt and God knows what afterward.
BG: Stylistically, both of your novels do these unorthodox, imaginative things over the course of the story—you include lists, or newspaper reports, or text messages and emails; you follow side characters for a few pages before returning to the protagonists. They are wild. When you were growing up, who were your literary heroes?
PK: I read Moby-Dick at a young age, which is a very experimental novel. I often compare it to the Old Testament, where you have all these crazy sections, some of which simply catalog things and measurements. Moby-Dick has that, and it has this great humor; it has a little bit of everything, really. To me, it was a revelation. I’ve always been a nonlinear thinker, and attracted to things that were a little experimental. With Moby-Dick, I found a type of literature that embraced those impulses. I didn’t relate much to what was fed to me as traditional girls’ literature. I hated Little Women! I’m actually writing a third novel based on Little Women, but it’s a subversion of it. I liked the character Jo, who was a writer, but found the rest so boring. Meanwhile, I loved Robinson Crusoe and stories of high-stakes adventure. My dad subscribed to National Geographic, and I read that the way some girls read magazines about pop stars or fashion. The first book that really killed me, though, was Moby-Dick.
KD: Moby-Dick was very important for me, too. It is absolutely experimental, and very funny. If you need proof, read the first page of the actual text, after the whale-opedia, aloud. I was a freshman or sophomore in high school when I encountered it. Before that, I read adventure books, and books about strange doings, whether they were scientific or not.
There were two other influential books I encountered in high school. One was Thoreau’s Walden, because of the connections he makes, the concept that if you examine anything closely you will see all the forces of the universe at work. And then I stumbled onto a book called The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary, a British novelist, which was made into a film starring Alec Guinness. It’s about an artist named Gulley Jimson, who’s utterly dedicated to what he’s doing and disinterested in everything else, and who causes trouble for everyone around him. The experimental style of the book, the language, the humor, and its vision of the artist were so powerful. The combination of those two books, Walden and The Horse’s Mouth, seemed to me to distill first a way of looking at the world, and then a way of interpreting it. They formed my way of seeing and thinking.
BG: You have both said that you’re slow writers, and that you sometimes take time away from the page. Do you put your novels completely aside during those times, or are you always thinking about them?
PK: I don’t write every day, and I don’t feel bad about that at all. The platitude many writing professors pass on to students is, “Write every day!” as if that’s the answer. I’d rather live every day. I don’t coop myself up in my room. I take walks. I talk to people. I participate in life. I think that’s an important part of being a writer.
I do read every day. I would be dead without reading. Reading is my first love, and that’s why I became a writer. But I don’t feel compelled to write creatively every day. When I do get the bug for something, then it’s feverish, and I work nonstop, but that comes and goes. I try not to care too much about my pacing, because authors like Melville wrote their best stuff when they were very old. The beauty of being a writer is that there’s no age limit on your excellence.
KD: For me, a project percolates and stews in the back of my head. It’s never really not there; it’s always present. The joys of the subconscious are very productive and beneficial for writers.
BG: Porochista, you’re active on social media, but Katherine, you don’t even have a website. Have you ever thought of having a web presence, or does that not interest you?
KD: I recommend that all writers, especially young writers just starting out, participate in social media and create a satisfying website and maybe a blog—that seems like a useful thing. But for me? I’m not interested. I applaud other people’s efforts in that regard, but it’s not my particular way of living my life.
PK: That makes you so much cooler than I could ever be! I’m just so deeply lonely, I don’t know how else to connect with people. It’s depressing. I actually hate a lot of it. There’s always some drama, and I think to myself, “Why am I doing this?”
KD: With all these new methods of communicating, don’t we gradually learn some kind of courtesy? When people first started using cell phones a couple of decades ago, people would shout into them in restaurants and drive us all nuts. They thought the ambient noise that was disturbing their hearing was going to communicate to the guy on the other end of the phone. People nowadays know that’s not the case, so in general they speak in reasonable, soft voices when talking on their cell phones. I think that’s the case with most technology. It takes us a while to work through its kinks. When you are relating to someone in a particular media format, you’re doing it in a way that works for you, or you’re figuring out what methods will be useful to you. Believe me, I understand your reluctance to engage in drama, but I don’t think you should throw out the baby with the bathwater. It’s such an amazing tool, but it’s an experimental one too.
This conversation appears in Slice Magazine’s Spring/Summer 2015 issue.