In this mesmerizing conversation, Porochista Khakpour, author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects (2008), The Last Illusion (2015), and the forthcoming Sick, and Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh (2016), The Queen of the Night (2016), and How To Write An Autobiographical Novel: Essays (2018), talk about the haunting power of place and traveling. These two acclaimed writers take us into their past and share vulnerabilities and lessons that informed their work. They remind us that some travels continue to transport you elsewhere, long after you’ve arrived home.
Alexander Chee: I wonder about the connection between writing and travel and how travel has made us into the writers we are.
Porochista Khakpour: So much of my travel has had to do with exile, leaving revolution/war, and escaping other traumas through my life in that spirit.
AC: I took my first trans-Pacific flight at nine months [old], for example, to Seoul, and we moved so much in my first years that my life felt like a long trip. My father was following work at first, always, to Korea, then to Truk, Guam, Kauai, and then Maine, where we settled—which initially felt like a mistake. My parents believed travel was education, inherently, but also fun. I remember going to Mexico one summer on an exchange program to learn Spanish—something I wrote about in my new essay collection—and I remember feeling my world, my mind, my sense of self, all growing from the out-of-the-ordinary context in which I experienced myself. The value of travel, even if I was unhappy with where we were, was always clear to me.
PK: I once just walked out of my Chicago apartment, with everything still in there, never to return. I was that kind of mess. It also in recent years has been so much about connecting to my Muslim identity while traveling on book work to Indonesia or Palestine—the closest I can get to my home country of Iran.
AC: Your story of exile makes me wonder how we’re shaped by the trips we don’t get to choose. The first really “writerly” journey I took happened when I was just out of college. In the fall of 1990, I bought a ticket to Berlin and a return flight from London. I stayed 10 days in Berlin, traveled by train to the ferry to London, stayed a few days in London, and left for Edinburgh for a week. I went on a spontaneous trip up to Inverness with my brother, who was in Edinburgh at the time on a study-abroad program. It was the first time I was traveling while writing, something that would become a bigger part of my life. I was working on an essay during that trip—my first essay for publication—about the rise of Queer Nation. This was for a journal called OUT/LOOK, and I was faxing edits [to] my editor and I felt grown. I’d been an intern at the magazine when the writer for the issue failed to appear, and my editor asked if I could step up. I did. The essay appeared on the cover. I am having a poster of it framed for my office at Dartmouth.
But the trip also marked me and my imagination in so many ways I think I’m still sorting out. I arrived in Berlin on October 3, 1990—the day of the reunification [of East and West Germany]—entirely by accident. I can still see everything, from the queer punk squatters I fell in love with to the police surrounding falafel stands to protect them from racist violence. I bought a copy of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and read it on the train down to the ferry to London, and it confirmed the value of what I was doing: I was on this trip to see if I thought I could live anywhere besides the United States.
On the way to Edinburgh, I still remember the landscape out the train window—the stunning beauty of it—and then how Edinburgh itself was pretty much all enchantment. I went to a gay coffeehouse and met a journalist and a Tory prime minister who gave me a car tour of the city, telling me about the underground parts that were buried over during the Black Plague (that ended up in my first novel—titled, yes, Edinburgh), and taking me everywhere from Arthur’s Seat to the house where they filmed the adaptation of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The visions still find me at times—the afternoons biking through Inverness with my brother, the leaves floating in the wind, rainbows appearing along the loch, handsome windsurfers changing by the road. But part of why all of this is so vivid in my mind is that I had the feeling of being changed as I was changing. The trip marked me taking possession of my fate, my education, my life.
There’s some way that trips are actually about traveling inside, a journey you need to make in your own life that you can’t make if you stay in the place you live.
AC: Hilarious. I have been that professor. There’s some way that trips are actually about traveling inside, a journey you need to make in your own life that you can’t make if you stay in the place you live. The physical boundaries of our lives are also the emotional ones, and the contexts we live with become a shorthand for getting through. I sometimes think we mistake the container we choose for the person we are.
Between birth and age 6, we moved from Rhode Island to South Korea to Truk, Guam, Kauai, and Maine. A loop out from New England to Asia and the Pacific and back. I was no exile, but the world felt like some-thing passing by me. The idea that I belonged to someplace besides that sense of movement was—is—very hard for me to get used to. I didn’t know how to get a passport from Perpetual Movement then, but that was what I wanted. I had no patience for nationalism.
PK: I can imagine with both of us it’s hard to place where on earth we are from. We have the burdens and privileges of passing in many ways. Nationality becomes tricky that way: How does any American ever feel at ease with the United States and its troubled history that it constantly doubles down on, sometimes at the expense of our origins? I still have trouble feeling like I belong anywhere. Harlem has been the closest to home of any place I’ve lived, mainly because of how Muslim it is and how accepting of all types of Muslims. It is the only place I’ve lived in the United States where people regard Iran with respect and joy and actual interest, not fetish or fear.
I remember being on a plane to a book festival in Australia when I realized we were [in] Iranian airspace. This was not long after a story I was going to do with [the writer] Hanya Yanagihara for Condé Nast Traveler fell through—a homecoming trip to Iran, spanning three cities over a month. The risk of me being a dual national with a public profile made everyone so nervous it got canceled. I was gutted that I could not go back to Iran, and I found myself writing my editor things like, “I’m willing to go to Evin Prison for it!” I mean, I was deep in that sort of wild, mad desire, that longing for a place that would likely not even know what to do with me either.
Anyway, on the plane ride, I nearly threw myself over a passenger and said, “I have to see my home.” It was the closest I had physically been—I just cried over the big mountains and any sign of cities for hours. It could have been anywhere, but it was my home. On the flight back to the United States, I did the same. And at Dubai Airport, where I stopped over, I heard Farsi being spoken and tried to imagine myself living there. This spell ended the minute I went to the smoking lounge, in ripped jeans and an army jacket, tattoos visible, and several men, who of course knew I was Middle Eastern—I could not pass there—were like, “Hey sister, what are you doing here by yourself like that?” I noticed it was all men and one or two blond European women. No one had a problem with them, but they did with me. I was gutted all over again. In a sense, then, travel can feel so seemingly oppositional to home in good and bad ways. It is anchorlessness to me in a potentially positive way—so that, say, people like you and me, with many homes or no real home, can find our own anchors. The home within. The compartment you’re thinking of. We had to build it.