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"Tehrangeles" Explores the Complexities of Iranian Life in America

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Decades ago, author Porochista Khakpour was a Beverly Hills shop girl. And there were times a certain kind of customer would walk into her store - a wealthy Iranian who may have shared her blood and culture, but who inhabited a totally different world from her own.

POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR: They were the most impeccably dressed people you could imagine. I mean, all black, gold. Armani seemed to be the favorite.

CHANG: (Laughter).

KHAKPOUR: I mean, I would know the minute they walked in that they were...

CHANG: Boom. Here we go.

KHAKPOUR: ...One of my people, yeah.

CHANG: Yeah.

KHAKPOUR: And so not one of my people.

CHANG: These people are now the main characters of her new novel called "Tehrangeles." It zeros in on an Iranian American family whose massive wealth springs from a snack food empire. They're poised to star in a reality TV show, which is understandable given that they're one of the very richest families in California and a total hot mess. And somehow the narcissism, materialism and phobias of these four daughters and their parents offer us a moving version of the Iranian American story. Porochista Khakpour joins us now. Welcome.

KHAKPOUR: Thank you so much for having me.

CHANG: So let me ask you, when you were working at that store on Rodeo Drive, how much resentment versus envy did you feel for these obscenely wealthy Iranian customers who would walk in?

KHAKPOUR: Well, first of all, I wasn't allowed to express anything in that store. We were Rodeo Drive shop girls, so we had to be very - you know, we were wearing all black, very pleasant, almost scripted. But I would always initiate the conversation with these Iranians because I always had this bit of sort of naive hope that maybe we could have a nice conversation. I'd always be excited to see Iranian Americans. So I would often, you know, introduce myself, or say (speaking Persian), which is Persian for, excuse me, do you speak Farsi? Do you speak Persian? And their reaction was often where things would go wrong.

CHANG: What do you mean?

KHAKPOUR: Because they were not very happy to realize that I was Iranian. I mean, they were used to Iranians on one side of the counter, and I was on the wrong side of the counter.

CHANG: I see. You know, this feeling that you're describing - like, I'm not like those Iranians - you write that feeling, actually, into one of the sisters in this novel, Roxanna, who literally tells people she is Italian, not Iranian. Like, Roxie, she's the influencer, probably the messiest hot mess of all of them. What was Roxanna trying to avoid, you think, by denying her Iranian-ness?

KHAKPOUR: Well, on one hand, I think Roxanna did something that's very relatable. I think almost every Iranian American I know at some time, almost for their safety, has paused when around someone who's very xenophobic or racist, you know, people who are talking about terrorists or trying to tie Iranians to 9/11 or something silly like that. You know, we've had a moment where we're like, OK, how do we hide? Are we Italian? Are we Greek? What can we be at this moment to veil ourselves, you know? But like you said, Roxanna is the hot messiest of all messes. I mean, she was so hard for me to write 'cause she would just drive me crazy. I had such a love-hate thing with her.

CHANG: And even her longtime boyfriend Damon, who is Italian, totally believes that she is Italian. But, you know, it all made me think about, what does it mean to be white in this country anyway? Because even Haylee, the youngest sister, is pointing at her skin...

KHAKPOUR: Right.

CHANG: ...At one point and saying, we are white. Look at our skin. And haven't Iranians been classified automatically by the U.S. government as white in the census for, like, decades, which is going to change in 2030? But, yeah, what do you think whiteness means in this country, like, how malleable this concept of whiteness is?

KHAKPOUR: Yeah, so this is a big issue of mine that I've written about so much in my book "Brown Album." And I think about this all the time. I mean, I grew up with a father that told me at a young age that we are brown and to be proud of that. And so I never had this conflict, even though, you know, my skin is pale olive skin. I do have times where I have the privilege of passing and things like that, the double-edged privilege of passing, of course.

But there was a point where Iranians were not just saying they're white, but that was what the government saw us at. And yet there was this disconnect because Iranians weren't treated, often, like they were white, you know? It was very different on the day-to-day level. And also, you know, I mean, there were many times where there were lots of reminders that we were not white and that we would never be white.

CHANG: Yeah, but you know, not only does this book make me think about what is white, this book also made me think a lot about, well, what is American? Like, Al, the patriarch, he is so utterly American in classic ways, like his love for money and ostentatiousness. His success is literally built on this, like, microwaveable snack food that's like Cinnabon but it's pizza. And, you know, in so many ways, Al achieved the American dream as this immigrant from Iran in the most American way, right?

KHAKPOUR: Absolutely.

CHANG: And yet he never feels fully American.

KHAKPOUR: Absolutely. I mean, Al was obsessed with assimilation at any cost. So for him, being American was what gave his life meaning.

CHANG: Yeah.

KHAKPOUR: So there's a purity in that. I mean, he comes from Iran. He's trying to establish himself. He has these humble roots, working at a pizza shop. He's trying his best. But I also found him so frustrating, you know, because I felt like he was a very absent father even while he was around. But for him, he was just on this absolute other journey to become American. And I think a lot of Iranian Americans, when they come to America, they don't get a chance to be the perfect dad, the perfect mom. They're still in that sort of stunted development of, like, coming of age, no matter when they came to the U.S., 'cause it's like you have to come of age all over again but as an American.

CHANG: Yeah. What does Tehrangeles represent to you? Like, when people talk about the idea of a Tehrangeles in Los Angeles, what do you think they really mean? And how much does it bother you?

KHAKPOUR: Well, I think a lot of people think of Tehrangeles as flash and trash and a sort of cheap, easy, glitzy glamour. And they see Iranians in their white BMWs or G-Wagens and, you know, there's this, like, surface aesthetic. But I would argue - and I don't really get to in this book - is that I'm a Tehrangelen, you know? I lived in the San Gabriel Valley, not that far away. You know, there's people like me...

CHANG: Respect.

KHAKPOUR: (Laughter) Right. There's tons of us Iranian Americans in LA, but we never really got much visibility. And, you know, in my other books, I've addressed that. But in this book, I thought, let me just dive headfirst into the most visible, into the stereotype and see, what can we do with that?

CHANG: Yeah.

KHAKPOUR: You know, what can we humanize and even say, OK, is there even a common ground? Is there even a point at which a really natural, organic empathy can come out of me and I can understand it? And I think, you know, it actually took the pandemic as a setting for this book for me to get to that.

CHANG: Porochista Khakpour's new novel is called "Tehrangeles." So great talking to you, Porochista. Thank you so much for being here.

KHAKPOUR: Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF LANA DEL REY SONG, "BORN TO DIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.