After tragedy, Porochista Khakpour develops fanciful fiction

Johns Hopkins University graduate Porochista Khakpour reads from her new novel, “The Last Illusion” on May 19 at Friends School of Baltimore.
Johns Hopkins University graduate Porochista Khakpour reads from her new novel, “The Last Illusion” on May 19 at Friends School of Baltimore. (Darcy Rogers / Handout, Baltimore Sun)

The author Porochista Khakpour's earliest memory is of being terrified by anti-aircraft missiles dropping near her Tehran home during the Iran-Iraq f War.

Her shell-shocked family relocated to Los Angeles in the 1980s — and she had barely entered her teens when the 1992 Rodney King riots erupted.


Nine years later, Khakpour was living half of a mile from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. From the living room window of her 25th-floor apartment, she watched the twin towers collapse.

No wonder her two novels imagine a world on the brink of apocalypse.


"I've had so many personal disasters in my life that I always felt anything could happen," says Khakpour, 36, who received a master's degree in 2003 from the Johns Hopkins University's Writing Seminars. (An edited transcript of her conversation with The Baltimore Sun appears below.)

And yet Khakpour's new novel, "The Last Illusion," is more fanciful than grim. The author channels her preoccupations into the tale of Zal from the epic Persian "Book of Kings."

In place of the mythical albino Iranian boy who was rescued and raised by a giant bird, Khakpour imagines Zal as a fair-skinned Iranian boy kept confined to a bird cage by his deranged mother. He's adopted by a kind behavioral therapist at age 10 and moves to New York, but can't shake his appetite for insects or obsession with flying.

He meets Bran Silber, a Las Vegas magician who's planning a career-capping illusion for the new millennium — making the World Trade Center disappear.


Khakpour will read from "The Last Illusion" on Monday at the Friends School. She'll be joined by her fellow New York author Julia Fierro, reading from her debut novel, "Cutting Teeth."

What was the inspiration for "The Last Illusion"?

When I was a child, my father would read me stories from the Persian "Book of Kings." I really connected strongly with the story of Zal, the bird boy.

He was basically an outcast, and the story resonated with me at a time when I was feeling extremely alienated, not only from American but also Iranian culture.

I was just learning English when I was suddenly thrust into the school system. I couldn't understand American culture since my home life was so incredibly different from what I saw on TV. My family was still talking all the time about returning to Iran. We felt that we were very temporarily in a sort of exile.

You've written that "The Book of Kings" progress forward in time from myth to a heroic tale to a historic record. "The Last Illusion" does the same thing. Was that intentional?

Huh. No, but I love that idea.

The Persian "Book of Kings" goes from ancient Persian history in the 10th century B.C. to 651 A.D. and the Islamic conquest of Iran. It ends with a very stern reality — the end of Persia, basically. While the beginnings of it are very suspended in myth and fantasy, by the end it becomes an almost documentary-style historical account.

I didn't think about that when I was writing my novel, but I wonder if I just naturally went there.

Birds play a pivotal role in both your books. What's their meaning for you?

Avian life has always terrified me. My parents and I think it goes back to my first memory is of anti-aircraft missiles in the air around midnight around the time of the Iran-Iraq War. My family was gathered outside around our bomb shelter right around midnight. I looked up into the night sky and I remember these pink lights. My mom was saying prayers and crying, and I was in her arms shaking.

By the time we got to the U.S., I had severe [post-traumatic stress disorder]. Anything in the air seemed very sinister to me. Every time I would see helicopters or even hot air balloons, I would have hysterical fits.

I also had a lot of nightmares about birds as a child. A bird is a beautiful thing, with feathers. But, there also are sharp claws and beaks on that beautiful object.

Your sense of dread about things that can fly must have been heightened when you saw the towers get hit by two planes.

My family had left Iran so we could be safe here, so I have this hypersensitivity to things going wrong on American soil.

On 9/11, I was living in lower Manhattan with my journalist boyfriend. Our window had a perfect view of the twin towers. We saw the second plane hit, and we saw both buildings come down.

It was an unspeakable tragedy, but in a sense, I'd been prepared my whole life for something like this. I'm very good in emergency mode. We were out of the city within the hour.

One of the weirdest memories from that day is from when we finally got downstairs to the street level. All these people were covered with powder and debris. I noticed that some of the people who were the most covered in debris were cheering and laughing and embracing each other.

I didn't understand how anyone could be happy.

And then I realized that those people were right in the heart of the event. They were the survivors, the people who by some incredible miracle managed to get out in time.

Let's talk about the [book's] ending. Other novels have imagined fictional people affected by 9/11. But your novel goes a step further by altering the real-life events of that day. Are you concerned that this could strike a nerve?

I obscured the ending because I'm trying to convey the feeling that 9/11 actually had, that confusion. The next day we kept asking each other, "Did that really happen?" That sense of unreality went on for months.

It took almost two years to sell this book. During that time, I got feedback from people who loved the writing but who were scared at the risk of writing about 9/11. I wondered if I should change it.

But I'd always come back to, no, don't give into that, because that's the same attitude of fear and paranoia that consumed all of us after the event. I really fought against that attitude and decided to go with risk.

About the Book: "The Last Illusion" was released Tuesday by Bloomsbury Publishing. 336 pages, $26.

If you go: Authors Porochista Khakpour and Julia Fierro will read from their novels at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Friends School Alumni Center, 5114 N. Charles St. Free. For reservations, contact Khaliah Williams at kwilliams@friendsbalt.org or call 410-649-3200.