Porochista Khakpour: Portrait of the Artist as a Debut Novelist
On Debt, Depression, and the Many Ways a Name Can Be Misprounounced
When I was about eleven, I wrote my first novel, an epic about “a Victorian girl.” Translation: a girl from a faraway time and place where human women wore big fancy dresses and sat around sulking. That lifestyle was so appealing to me. I was a sad kid, and the only excuse I could come up with was that I had been born in the wrong place at the wrong time.
My heroine happened to be eleven, with hair “the color of stallions” (translation: black) and skin of “pale wheat” (white or brown, depending on which Iranian you asked), and her name was knotty and yet “magnificent”: Contessa Van Prgkhjiollzshdiyyiani.
Contessa VP was indoorsy and prone to fainting, her pockets weighed down with smelling salts. She was always perched gingerly on her windowsill, gazing at the outside world with mixed feelings. She eschewed friends—bores who mocked her “grand name” and her “odd secret beauty.” But she had two distinguishing characteristics: melancholy and genius.
I can be fansy.
I can be tall.
I can ware hi heel shoos when I grow up. Who am I?
Answer: A GIRL AWTHOR!
–My first documented riddle, 1983.
On Thursday, May 2, 2006, it’s official. I am a girl author. I get a book deal.
It doesn’t feel real—not for the obvious reasons, but because I am sleep-deprived, destroyed by crying and crying and crying about a nonliterary tragedy. The night before, I had seen a college friend at an East Village café that neither of us could really a afford. We bonded over the sheer awkwardness of being nannies with master’s degrees, liberal arts graduates with some of the most expensive educations in the world. At some point during dinner, a text came in from an old friend in Chicago. Just three words: a good friend’s name—misspelled—“died” and “sorry.” I called to clarify, but our chaotic voices canceled each other out. We had no vocabulary for this.
He had been a buddy of the most unlikely kind: the charming young ex-con, with tattoos from the edges of his face to his knuckles, who had a passion for bespoke menswear, obscure wines, and even more obscure books. He and his wife had adopted me because I was an Iranian to his Iraqi—old enemies, he’d laugh. He was also an unrehabilitated junkie on a downward path.
The night I learn of his death is the first night of pure, dead-black insomnia I have ever experienced. I spend the next day in a defeated fetal-squat. I hover over my laptop for hours, bawling and trying to write a eulogy, when my agent calls and leaves a message. “I have good news,” she says.
By now, I have learned never to answer when my agent calls. I let her leave messages and then I throw my depressed fits in private. Before I call her back, versions of myself in jobs I’ve held since beginning work on my novel catwalk through my head with forced smiles and exhausted stomps: now, hostess; now, adjunct; now, tutor; now, hair model; now, bar reviewer; now, babysitter; now, nanny; now, shopgirl!
Yet here it is: good news, a book deal. Here it is: everything, ever, answered.
Unicorns exist! Santa is not my parents! The world is just, Contessa! I have never broken $25,000 a year, and now some validation, hell, salvation has come. On the worst day, here it is, the happiest story of all time, a story so joyous I would have never written it.
THE VERY BAD SUMMER
There is a season where it seems like maybe I won’t make it.
I spend much of the summer finishing the novel, in the midst of serious anxiety, panic, depression, chronic fatigue, gastritis, carpal tunnel, God knows what else, all the shattered states in the nightmare nation of chronic insomnia. Any normal person would assume I am on drugs, and I am. At any given time, it’s a combination of two to five types of pills, prescribed by people who don’t know about each other, given to me by my second general practitioner, all three of my psychiatrists, the ER internist from my third summer visit to the ER, and a gastroenterologist. I am sedated at all times yet so introspective I am paralyzed.
I turn the novel in. I go out to a celebration dinner with a very normal guy I have somehow fallen into dating. I pick at a whole fish and order dessert. I make bathroom visits devoted solely to dropping benzodiazepine crumbs under my tongue, licking any residue off my finger.
The novel made it, but I didn’t.
Back at home, my parents’ home, which was to be my summer editing and writing retreat, I look at the box of pills. is isn’t me—Ambien, Ativan, Klonopin, Celexa, Trazodone. They are like names for weapons, an army of futuristic knives, jagged and unforgiving. They will get me a few hours of sleep that will keep me alive. I am terrified. My whole life is doctors and ERs and shrinks, and they all shake their heads when they hear the answer to their question, “Has anything traumatic happened in the last few months?”
Yes, I tell them.
“Traumatic means bad,” one doctor informs me.
They seem skeptical when I say I have a novel on the way, like
A washboard-stomached woman complaining about third trimester pains—just another part of the crazy talk, they must think. All they can recommend is shrinks, and I have four. I pay for the visits without insurance, in cash or with plastic gold. I collect cards, any card.
I have gone to post-book deal hell and all I got was this serious debt. But it’s an okay place to be. There are no surprises in debt.
The novel is out of my hands and in purgatory before entering the world. I love that phase: the middle of the road trip, someone else driving, seeing a world outside pass by, deftly escaping resignation to thoughts, assignment to words.
AN ACTUAL PORTRAIT OF THE YOUNG ARTIST
Spring 2007: I am in New York, taking my author photo. I have known the photographer for more than half my life. He asks to see what I’ve got. I open my bag and out comes dress after dress, silk organza, crêpe de chine, satin, Italian wool, all impeccably tailored black dresses, fit for a modern Contessa VP.
Dollar signs flap their wings through the photographer’s studio.
I wave them away. Not what it looks like, I tell him. Just dating a fashion designer.
Just! He groans, rolling his eyes.
I go to the bathroom to put on makeup, a lot. The second I meet my eyes in the mirror, the world starts to go black, and my vision is full of those psychedelic pulses that the world calls “stars.”
August 2007: My publisher tells me the New York Times is going to review my book, and it’s tentatively slated for a date in September. I will lazily say that it is impossible to describe just how exciting that is, but it is also stressful, when there is a whole month to kill until the judgment.
Suddenly, there is time. Time has a way of injecting herself into the picture when there is waiting to be done. I remember this from childhood Christmases, a holiday we should have never celebrated in the first place. But there we were, my brother and I, with lists in hand and our eyes glued to the small department-store plastic tree and its ribboned droppings. Time kept on and on, like the cheapest toilet paper.
This time, though, because I am in it alone, the waiting is unbearable. It must be filled. I try yoga, massage, acupuncture, more therapy, but there is only one thing that does the trick.
Crank calls. This is a truth, sadly.
Even worse is this truth: I have a long history with this sort of thing. In elementary school with friends, calling an old man and telling him we were leggy blond Playboy models and being certain the joke was on him. International calls to Kenya, the globe seeming so surreal to me, a kid who was lonely in school and at home, never quite an American, never quite an Iranian. In college, I went through a phase of calling my parents at odd hours and saying I was with the IRS or the FBI or CIA or the local police, whatever could get struggling immigrants on political asylum really going.
But this time, I began crank-calling my friends. I created characters. I called famous people, professional contacts. Some never found out who it was. Some did. To this day, I have not patched up things with about half a dozen victims of the Great NYTBR Waiting Period. The review was good in the end, but I lost friends I’d had for more than twenty years. What do you say? How do you explain it?
There are very few people going through what I’m going through, you imagine telling them. Very few people ever have, you know?
STARS, PART II
Still August 2007: Panicking a bit about my finances—the final trickle of my advance doomed to coincide with my impending book tour—I apply for a job at a university in Long Island and am called back for an interview.
Just weeks before the launch of my book, on the day of the interview, I am what they call “all nerves.” But in a good way, unlike the summer before. This time, I have hope. I assume all the gods are on my team, since I haven’t been notified otherwise.
So far, a few blogs have said some nice things. I joined a gym I can’t afford, but I have joined a gym.
Iran is in the news daily. I am eating and sleeping. I have an uncanny knack for looking at clocks at exactly 9:11.
I take everything as an omen, omens that could go either way.
I am at a Starbucks in Park Slope, reviewing my teaching philosophy, which sounds miserably fake even though I love to teach. When I stand up, there they are again, the stars—not Park Slope literary luminaries, but again the hypoglycemia-diabetes-cancer-AIDS-godknowswhatIhave kind. I panic. I don’t have much time before I miss the train to the interview. I am worrying about this as my vision wipes out in the aggressive sunshine beaming over the brownstone rooftops.
Fade in, and I’m slumped on the street quite indelicately, with some young hippie chick asking me you okay you okay you okay. Her eyes go back and forth from my squinting eyes to my hair that is partially bleached white.
You passed out, she says, and points to the left. Let’s go to the hospital.
Evidence that nonfiction settings are sometimes less believable than fiction, the hospital happens to be across the street.
Not a chance, I tell her.
She protests, this girl I don’t even know. Eventually, I tell her the truth.
She nods sympathetically. I don’t have health insurance either. But still.
I fall four more times that day, but I get the job, the only job that will put up with my book-tour schedule.
Back at home, I watch my unsteady hands at the keyboard hit and miss over and over. During the spring before that very bad summer, a psychic told me too much anxiety surrounding the novel would breed disaster.
PORTRAIT OF THE STARVING ARTIST
October 2007: It is a fact that even a NYTBR-approved novelist can still find herself in highly undignified positions at certain times. Two months later, I am sitting Indian-style on the dirty linoleum floor at the JFK Delta baggage claim, hugging my carry-on like it’s a pillow and trying to sob subtly into my cell phone.
I’m crying about money, something I have a negative amount of, according to a robot at my bank. I have some change in my jacket, but it is not even enough to get a cookie from the concession stand in front of me and I am starving.
I haven’t had money for weeks. My paperwork from the new university job has not gone through. My publisher has paid for some flights and hotels, but I have not had more than what a struggling boyfriend could spare. I have a million fancy dresses to wear and a lot of good face to put on, but all I’ve been doing is eyeing the prices on every menu and pretending cookies and chips are my food of choice, that Subway is my adorably ironic passion, that the McDonald’s breakfast menu is my kitschy little crush.
But the most disturbing part of being overdrawn is that it results from a certain check, made out in the summer, that I have no memory of. It is a three-figure check, written out to . . . my psychic.
I call people, but I don’t want to ask for help. I want them to think of it as a humorous anecdote but not that it’s real, that my life is that difficult. After all, certain friends who are not involved in publishing think I am rich and famous. Why burst that bubble?
In the end, I borrow money from a friend of my boyfriend and take that walk of shame to a yellow cab, when I know there are buses and shuttles and subways and all sorts of only semi-impossible ways to get back to Brooklyn.
Later, when my publicist finds out, she is shocked. Why didn’t you call us?!
I give her some gloss-over answer, but I want to say, I don’t know whom to call, when to call, why to call. I am learning everything over again. I have become what the publishing world and media suspect of a debut novelist—suddenly, I am new to the universe, not just to being a novelist. I suddenly don’t know what the hell I’m doing.
Weeks later, I discover during another bad moment—as the value of the dollar plummets and oil is sky-high—that gold is at its peak. I sell what is left of family heirlooms to an old Iranian man in the Diamond District, who listens to a fraction of my story, gives me a decent deal, and tells me, “My boy in medical university; my girl, married and with baby. Your fault for being a starver of an artist, daughter.”
PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST WITH A CRAZY NAME AND ALSO CRAZY HAIR
There is the issue of my name, of course. To everyone who is not Dr. or Mrs. Khakpour, it is insurmountable—the ultimate hyper-ethnic polysyllabic foreign name, even foreign to “my people,” who rarely recognize its Zoroastrian origin, the name of Zarathustra’s daughter: Pourucista. My last name is the same as a famous Iranian soccer player—Mohammad, no relation—so people can handle it. It means of the earth, literally dirt-full.
No one can say it, and I even say it differently, depending on the person. In Farsi, it is best uttered in a low purr: Poe-roh-chis-TAWH KHAK-pur. (Americans—unless they speak Hebrew—are often disappointed to find out this is indeed the guttural kh, requiring more gut than a German ich.)
My name is such a mess of issues that it has been swept under the Iranian-American carpet, over and over and over, until I have forgotten it’s there.
Until publication season, that is. Then I start really hearing and seeing my name again. It bends into its old bizarre forms: Porchista, Prochista, Parochista, Kahkpour, Kkakpour, Khapour, plus some I have never heard. People make fun of it like they did in elementary school; my book party gets linked on Gawker, and one of the first comments is the easiest on me: “Khakpour. I made that sound this morning before my first cigarette and coughed up last night’s tequila binge.”
Before my NPR interview, Kurt Andersen asks me how to pronounce my name, and I tell him. When we’re on the air, he does the opposite of those who fumble it, who say it quietly and quickly, almost under their breath, like a bad thought they want to go away soon. He belts it! My first name is on target—go, Kurt, go!—but my last name is KHHHHAWK-por, which exactly rhymes with, say, “rock whore.” Reading series hosts all fumble, and one even christens me Chalkpore. And, of course, many opt for what is still the general consensus among my closest hometown friends: Hawkpurr.
I do not change my name and never will. But one way I have battled the drama of a bad name is with other distractions. I’ve had piercings, tattoos, hair of every shade, cuts from nearly shaved to ass-length braided extensions. Just before my literary shit hits the fan, I go to my salon in SoHo and tell my skinny, scowling stylist to “ugly me up” and show him a sketch.
“Tough,” he responds, racing both tattooed hands through my thick, black, disgustingly pretty hair.
“Totally fucked up,” I elaborate. “A little badass, kinda burly. Y’know?”
“Sick,” he shoots back. His face never changes, but he makes an approving squirm in his skin-tight black jeans. We have communicated.
Five hours later I walk out with randomly arranged chunks of white in my hair—paper-white—like some Persian-Californian Cruella de Ville in training in flip-flops and a sundress, instead of the razor-sharp stilettos and excessive furs of the Disney villainess.
People notice. Style.com applauds my “skunk-style highlights” and my “deliberately down-market look.” A writer for Pars Arts, a young Iranian arts site, declares “my fascination with her as an author is slowly being overcome by a fascination with her hair.” The name disappears a bit.
After my readings I generally get some people who just want to talk. This is fine with me. I like most comp lit students, and I can stomach the occasional misled housewife who wonders if I’ve ever read this book called The Kite Runner, by a guy whose name she “forgets” (i.e., can’t say), which she read to know more about “us.”
The other group is not as easy—they appear to be average middle-aged white males, but that’s just their Clark Kent cover. They are really conspiracy-theory superheroes! They have seen the shadow of the World Trade Center in front of my novel and know I am Middle Eastern, and they have their own ideas about my religion, and so they want to share with me “the truth about 9/11.” I politely decline going down that road every time, and still they carry on. Eventually, I excuse myself to visit the bathroom and put on my own superhero getup, my Invisible Snakegirl tube suit, which allows me to slither away undetected.
FOR A LIMITED TIME ONLY: MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD INCLUDED IN THE PORTRAIT
On the afternoon of September 24, 2007, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, en route to addressing the UN General Assembly, gave a speech at Columbia University. It was a big deal.
Less of a big deal to the world, but a kinda big deal to me, was the next day: my technical publication date. One day later, my first book club appearance; three days later, the first day of my book tour. In all my interactions, the theme is Ahmadinejad.
One woman at a reading whispers in my ear, “Iran is hot— lucky you!”
Other people just want to hear something from some vaguely related horse’s mouth. At almost every reading, someone inevitably raises her hand and utters, So, Ahmadinejad . . . ?
For a few weeks, I smile and nod. Yes, Mah-moooood Ah-madeeeee-nezhaad—deep Farsi phonetics—my homeland’s president. Well . . . Every reading provides a challenge to say something comforting yet not bland, aware yet not activist, polished but not sharp. It gets old quick. I start wanting to ask people: Can’t we talk about anything else? 9/11, anyone?!
At readings later that autumn I become what Iranians call a bacheyeh powrooh, which translates as “kid full of spirit,” or a rather rude child. So I quip, “What about him?”
“Well,” says the nervously smiling American, looking down at her sneakers. “What do you think of all this?”
In my imagination, I am Picasso declaring “I don’t” when asked what he thought of the man on the moon. But in real life, humor—this time with a flushed face—is the only route I can take.
“I never dated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and therefore have no insight into what he’s like, what he’s thinking.”
PORTRAIT, AFTERMATH, 2008
After all I’ve been through, I give up and dye my hair black, my natural color.
After a few months of this old black, as fake now as it was real then, they come in bunches not unlike streaks. Not one, not two, but many and counting, the early and yet expected outcome, perfectly white hairs.
From Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living. Used with permission of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2017 by Manjula Martin.