Fiction that blends 9/11 with magic

My newest podcast is about a book that takes a fabulist twist on a story about the months leading up to 9/11. As interesting at the book itself is its author, Porochista Khakpour, who has written candidly not only about her experience being a Middle Eastern immigrant to the U.S. in a post-9/11 world but also about her struggle with both physical illness and depression. Below is my write up about the podcast for the New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy web site:

Porochista Khakpour moved to an apartment with large picture windows in downtown Manhattan shortly before September 11, 2001, giving her a painfully perfect view of the terrorist attacks.

“The big event of my life was of course 9/11,” Khakpour says. “I experienced a lot of post traumatic stress from it and think about it constantly.”

It’s no surprise that the assault on the Twin Towers features prominently in her writing. Through non-fiction essays and two novels, the Iranian-born writer has tried to understand the tragedy’s impact on her, the nation, and the world.

But while her essays are rooted in facts, her fiction takes flight. In The Last Illusion there are, in fact, multiple references to flight. The main character, an albino man named Zal, is raised by his abusive mother in a cage among a balcony full of birds. Although he cannot fly, he yearns to. Rescued by an American and brought to New York in the years before 9/11, he tries to unlearn his feral ways and finds himself drawn to visionaries–an artist who claims to see the future and a famous magician who aspires, in a feat of illusionist virtuosity, to make the then still-standing World Trade Center disappear.

The character of Zal is based on a Persian myth and Khakpour infuses the story with fabulous twists and turns.

“My biggest challenge was doing a mythic retelling of a summer before 9/11 and not just any summer but Y2K to the summer before 9/11… Luckily, what was great about the realism was that the realism was quite surreal. If you look at the Y2K narrative, not to mention the 9/11 narrative, it’s full of the magical, full of the fabulist, full of the kind of impossible.”

In her New Books interview, Khakpour discusses the impact of 9/11 on “everyone”:

“I’m kind of amazed when I meet people who think it didn’t really affect them or the event wasn’t that big a deal in their life. Maybe the actual day wasn’t but their lives have completely been altered, even just economically. Anyone who has a job today has been affected by it.”

She speculates about the trepidation publishers might have had about a book that uses myth and fantasy modes to tell a story about 9/11:

“It took over two and half years to sell this book whereas my first book only took a few months…. If I’d done a purely realistic take from say a Middle Eastern woman’s perspective, my guess is it would have sold faster but this idea that I was using a fabulous mode, a sort of speculative mode, and addressing this sensitive world event and then add to the fact that here I am, you know, a brown person addressing this–that caused I think some complications.

About her connection to her protagonist Zal, who, like her is an Iranian-born immigrant:

“I don’t think I’ve ever written a character that I’ve identified with more.”

Related links:

  • Khakpour’s magician in The Last Illusion was inspired by the real life example of David Copperfield, who made the Statue of Liberty “disappear” in a television special in the 1970s. Here’s a clip on YouTube.
  • Follow Porochista Khakpour on Twitter.
  • Follow host Rob Wolf on his blog or on Twitter @RobWolfBooks.

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