Stick-to-itiveness. Laleh Khadivi ’98 tapes ideas for her books on the wall of her apartment.
Photo by Ariel Zambelich
Laleh’s books are, at bottom, inventions. They’re the impassioned work of a young writer groping to make sense of the blood coursing within her, and they were born, arguably, in Hum 110. “I’m a person of color,” she says, “and I didn’t want to read the dead white males. But I’m glad I did; that stuff is the foundation of all literature and film that follows it. You can’t understand narrative without it.”
And narrative soon became Laleh’s calling. In June 1998, just a month out of Reed, she met filmmaker Jonathan Stack at a cocktail party in Manhattan. Stack had just shot The Farm, a sympathetic documentary about inmates at Angola prison, in Louisiana. He hired Laleh to raise money so he could screen his film for police crews, and for correction officers and judges. And as she immersed herself in Stack’s project, she also worked on her own prison documentary. 900 Women, released in 2000, sensitively tracks the daily lives of six women at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women. It played at festivals nationwide.
But Laleh was dismayed by the film’s reception. “Online,” she explains, “people were saying catty things about the women in the film—you know, ‘her hair looks stupid.’ I’d gotten those women to trust me, and I wasn’t serving them. And I couldn’t deal with the split life of a documentary filmmaker—you go into some prison on the bayou, and then you come back to an art opening in New York, to raise money.”
A careful, pragmatic person might have reconciled with the need to glad-hand every now and again. But Laleh elected instead to flee New York and travel cross-country. She interviewed her relatives. She says she had “no agenda other than learning where I came from.” But, she recorded the interviews, and later, in San Francisco, reading Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment, it struck her that novels could reach people in ways that film could not. “You can get inside a character,” she says, “and you tell your story to one person at a time, and you’re using language and poetry, rather than facts. That’s a seductive way to reach people.”
She wrote in her spirals. She imagined Iran, and she wrote about men, she says, “because that way I could write about history and power.” In 2003, she became serious enough about fiction to embark on the standard fine artist’s apprenticeship odyssey. She enrolled in a MFA writing program at Mills College in Oakland, landed a fellowship at the University of Wisconsin, and another at Emory University in Atlanta. In 2008, she won a $50,000 Whiting Award, given each year to a handful of emerging writers “of exceptional talent and promise.”
Along the way, she came to recognize, as all writers do, that good fiction is never simply a digest of prosaic everyday life; it is instead a response to all the great books that have come before. “You’re in dialogue with other writers,” says Laleh before dwelling on her own literary obsession. “William Faulkner read Shakespeare, the Greeks, the Bible, and Moby Dick,” she says.
Naturally, Laleh read these same books herself, plus most of Faulkner’s dense gothic works. She read the entire Old Testament one winter while living alone by a lake in Wisconsin. “I didn’t want to leave the house—it’s such a great narrative,” she says. “It’s beautiful and terrible, and filled with incantations and questions of faith. And the Book of Job—that fucked me up for a while. Here was this regular dude who just kept getting punished. Job was so relentlessly hard.”
Faulkner was more influential, though, and Laleh is especially worshipful of As I Lay Dying, a fractured 1930 novel that relies on 15 narrators to capture one woman’s slow death and the spirit of her loving but complicated family. In writing The Age of Orphans, she essentially stole Faulkner’s structure, employing numerous narrators—the protagonist’s father, a sapling, a soldier in the Shah’s army, a flock of birds—to tell Reza’s story. She homed in on Faulkner’s language, too—on his unbridled assertions (“I feel like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth”) and on his driving, run-on constructions: “love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice” is a phrase he intoned once, describing the themes that a writer must explore.
“If you’re going to talk about difficult, complicated things like race and history, you’re going to have to break down language as Faulkner did,” Laleh says. “All those ‘ands’ he used—the sharpness of the writing goes away, and you just start following the narrative. You let it carry you to those interstitial places where most writers can’t take you.”
In writing her books, she tried to reach those places, too. “You have to get low,” she says. “You have to get into your writing. In Wisconsin, my diet consisted of espresso and whisky. I wrote all day, and then at around 10 at night I’d go out and walk on the frozen lakes for one or two hours. It was like walking on the shell of an egg. It was desolate, and so cold that my eyeballs froze. When I got home, I’d edit.”
In time, she was able to place The Age of Orphans on a shelf beside As I Lay Dying. But then something unexpected took place. The prize, the attention, and the success almost killed her writing. “I started taking myself seriously,” she says, with regret.
As she worked on her sequel, she tried to channel the spirit of Chilean novelist Robert Bolaño, whose deadpan sentences about grisly subjects—murder, for instance—chill by virtue of drubbing repetition. The shoe didn’t fit. “Over three years, I wrote an entire book,” she says, “and it was awful, flat. It just didn’t . . . vibrate.” She threw the manuscript out.
Last year, she remembered another novel of migration—The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck—and looked closely at the book’s structure. In evoking the flight of westward émigrés from their drought-stricken Oklahoma farms in the 1930s, Steinbeck alternates between chapters that zero in on one family and shorter, more piquant interludes in which the entire Okie flock speaks as “we.”
This was the literary model she’d been looking for. She sat down in her writing studio. The room was impeccably ordered, with books in neat stacks on the floor. The walls bore straight rows of small yellow Post-It notes bearing prominent dates in Iranian history. Amid all the chronologies was a circa 1915 photo of gun-wielding Kurdish chieftains, and in the front row, barely visible, was her grandfather, a small, barefoot boy. She thought, “I descend from those people.” She thought, “For all my life, I’ve wanted to belong to something, and now I’m creating that connection. I’m easing out of that discontent: Even among the dead, I have company.”
She wrote almost without stopping for six months. In April she emailed me to say she’d finished the draft the previous evening. Over the ensuing months, she would nitpick over the manuscript, but mostly she’d just tighten up the odd sentence. The new version works: Bloomsbury is about to print several thousand copies.
How on earth does a young writer absorb such resounding affirmation? The standard response is flecked with the narcissism that drives all art: the author comes to believe more and more in the power of words, and in the alchemic magic of the writing process. She may not adorn her office door with the label that haughty James Joyce coined for himself—“priest of the eternal imagination”—but, still, she begins to think of herself as the cat’s pajamas, as a prophetic “human condition” expert.
Almost necessarily, Laleh has a little bravado. In San Francisco, when we meet at her house, on a hilly street in the Mission District, she makes several sweeping pronouncements as we sit in the sparely appointed living room drinking whisky and beer: “John Updike never won the Nobel Prize because he wasn’t in dialogue with the human condition—he was in dialogue with the New England condition. . . . There’s never been a single great novel written about low self-esteem.”
“What about The Great Gatsby?” I interject.
“That was about low self-confidence.”
Desultory comments aside, Laleh is harnessing her energy for numerous projects. She is training for her first-ever half marathon, bringing to the enterprise the same monastic discipline she’s invoked in writing: on her kitchen calendar, in small script, she’s tallying her daily mileage. Meanwhile, she’s hoping to make a feature film on immigrant sex workers and also contemplating other, more distant possibilities. “I’d like to open a school for artists trying to complete projects. The Finishing School, it’d be called. It could be anywhere, except that I don’t want to leave the country. My parents are here, and I want to take care of them. I’m kind of a traditionalist in that way.”
Soon, she pours a shot of whisky, and then slugs it down, as prelude. It’s 9 p.m. now, and she has evening plans. “I don’t want to write novels all the time,” she says, heading outside. “I’d go crazy—you’re in your own universe, not beholden to anyone. I want to do other things, make other kinds of art. It’ll inform my writing, I’m sure.”
Eventually, we step through her iron gate, onto the sidewalk, and then she lopes down the hill, towards the glittering lights in the valley below.