The Making of a Teenage Radical: Talking with Laleh Khadivi About “A Good Country”

But when it comes to actually maturing spiritually and emotionally and intellectually, that period is becoming longer. It is not attached to anything, and therefore you cannot appeal to it. I learned a lot about what it would be like to be a teenage boy of privilege in a rich neighborhood in the United States. I grew up in this country as an Iranian American, and I get it. But if you have, the connection with the grandfather and the father, who Rez does not have a connection to, which I think is very true of many immigrant kids, will add to the wealth of your imagination. There is a lot of drugs and sex. I had to learn — and I don’t think I’ve learned it all the way — what belief was. And by American I mean, how do you get to be comfortable here? If you take that writ large and have a bunch of people in your society who do not think their lives on this earth, in this realm, are as valuable as they could be in heaven, there is an implicit danger there. I can’t predict what it is going to do. How does A Good Country stand on its own, and how are the three books connected as a trilogy? That’s scary to people, not just Americans. When a person chooses the unknown or chooses violence it is interesting, because the United States is built largely on notions of defensiveness and comfort. Radicalization is a word that’s come into the vernacular in the last few years, and it has been associated with suicide bombers and with children of immigrants of color who have disavowed their lives and their allegiances to the countries that they were raised in. Shakespeare, basically. I didn’t know how that worked, and I wanted to investigate it. Because it’s dangerous. By night, he retreats to the insular life of the child of immigrants. Is that why you wrote from the perspective of a teenage boy? ¤
JENNIFER KAPLAN: In your first novel, The Age of Orphans, we meet a Kurdish boy who goes from child slave to soldier of the regime that massacred his family. There was always a sense that there was a ceiling for who I could be. There’s no pretending that there’s fairness. Jealousy, euphoria, ecstasy, fear. When you take a word to its base it then opens. Why do you think we Americans are so interested in radicalization? As he attempts to manage the expectations his family and society place on him, Rez searches for meaning in his life. As he seeks answers, we are privy to the insidious, somewhat mundane process of radicalization upon which he embarks. Masculinity is more interesting in this regard, because when you write about men the rules are very obvious. The idea that you can’t belong unless you fit all these bills and there’s a different way in other cultures. He wants other things too, like community and belonging. They were very interesting, really smart, and pushing boundaries. That’s the opposite of what the radical does. But that’s not the truth. I did a lot of research on people who had had religious conversion experiences. How do you get to be comfortable in your skin? Everything is happening. Born in Esfahan, Iran, Khadivi is the recipient of a Whiting Award for Fiction, a Pushcart Prize, and a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts Grant. Now, in your new book, A Good Country, we meet the third generation, Rez, a typical, privileged Southern California teenager, a son of Iranian immigrants, as he comes of age and becomes radicalized. Do you think Rez’s experience was purely damaging, or did it yield anything positive in his life? What it meant to go from not believing in anything to believing that there was value to religion and religion was going to lead you to make decisions to leave your life and your family. It’s scary. Because there’s a way in which American culture encourages loneliness and ostracization. I’m interested in language. The experience of mass shootings in the United States — the white American men who punish others with their darkness — is another kind of radicalization. My job is to remove how we now think and allow the reader to feel the original intention of the language. I read Ecstatic Confessions by Martin Buber and found the idea that a character can go suddenly from godless to godful. For me, writing is about the words. But in my first book, I wanted to write about a certain change of human dynamic that happens when people start leaving their tribes and belonging to state nations. Men will be honored at the higher rate, have access to more wealth, more power, whereas there is sparseness around the topic of women. You start high school as one thing and you end as something else. That was what brought me close, the question of: How do you get to be American? For a lot of people it’s about the story, but I’m not that interested in the story. The United States rewards its immigrants for not being devout, for coming to the god of capitalism. With your hair and your face and your name? A Good Country stands alone in that it’s a book that takes place today, or maybe five years ago, and captures a phenomenon in the West that is recognizable: the radicalization of the children of immigrants. You would have to be a deeply devout American to think that the system works for everybody, that it’s all good. It’s all the same. It was in my house, it was in my parents’ lives, but it wasn’t a pillar that we were gathered around. Rez’s father inherits the damage, the ways in which men are made vulnerable by nationalism and by that kind of citizenship and that kind of desire for belonging to a nation. I wanted Rez’s desire to move back to the Middle East to be a kind of circle, a return. Rez feels the need to find his origins and to be in a place where his persona is not questioned or discriminated against. I wanted people to be able to enter into any of the books and feel a completeness without having to be tied to the other books. When did you first start thinking about Rez? What was the most interesting thing you learned while writing A Good Country? Some of them were doing it quietly, and some of them were doing it loudly, and some of them were staying and being violent on European soil as part of a radicalization that had taken place online. The students were very alive in a volatile way, really crazy. What he seeks is a brotherhood with other people, in a community where he can offer his services and in return be accepted. Not just financially comfortable. But there’s something in religion that is enchanting, and he gets that, because it hasn’t been in the rest of his life. There’s a way in which the distance between youth and adulthood is becoming very, very small, especially when it comes to drugs and sex and that sort of pushing the body. I began thinking about children of immigrants in Europe and their families, who had moved there to raise them as Europeans in the supposed blissful light of European democracies. The process of conversion was the most difficult to conjure, because I couldn’t get it wrong. And a lot about what it would be like to be a boy who’s both accepted and not accepted at the same time. It wasn’t allowed. If you haven’t read the other books, you won’t notice. There is something very threatening about switching teams mid-game. Physically, emotionally, trying to figure out where you belong. If I think about how humans have been trying to communicate a notion for a long time, the notion becomes very small and crisp and tight. The ancestors of the main character Rez, his parents, and his grandparents, are very faintly mentioned. This robbing of a person’s sense of belonging and identity is the first scar. I think Rez is moving toward becoming a better version of himself, something that doesn’t have anything to do with getting a good degree from a nice university or having a fancy job or living a good upper-middle-class life. That’s the journey I feel a lot of people make when they convert, and when these kids radicalize. My editor thinks that I am a boy, which I find hilarious and convenient for him. I think there was positive. I thought about Rez as a kid who wanted to buy into that system, who wanted more than anything to be American. There’s a lot of drugs and sex in the book. Through lyrical and unflinching prose, we are drawn into Rez’s all-too-human journey, and A Good Country becomes a timely and extraordinary story of how the American Dream can be corrupted. Have you been a teenager? I wanted to show how he’s inherited the trauma of landlessness and not belonging. The free radical. By day, he deals with the typical stuff of upper-class adolescence: weed, girls, and navigating the machismo of male friendships. I don’t know. Rez doesn’t go all the way. I couldn’t get them to the places I needed them to go, so I started to write from a man’s perspective, and I could go wherever I wanted. It starts to mean everything. The radical engages, provokes, is willing to forgo comfort and security, and is willing to be offensive rather than defensive. I looked at how the word came to us from science, from unpredictability and a kind of chaos. In the second, The Walking, we follow a next-generation son during the Islamic Revolution. LALEH KHADIVI: The trilogy is very loose. That’s what adolescence is. For me to see the ways in which — over generations, especially through generations of men — a sort of tragedy plays out was very important. If I got it wrong, then the whole thing would sink. She recently sat down with me in Berkeley one evening after she’d put her two young sons to bed. Some are out for the guns and the blood, but some are out for something different. It’s scary to humans. You belong regardless. I was teaching at Oakland School of the Arts while writing this book, and I thought, This is interesting. And, who doesn’t want to write teenagers? NOVEMBER 23, 2017

IN LALEH KHADIVI’S third novel, A Good Country, the year is 2010 and the protagonist, 14-year-old Alireza Courdee, is just trying to fit in at his Laguna Beach, California, public school. Their families left Turkey, left Iraq, left Afghanistan, left Syria, left India, and now these young people were rebelling and going back. I think that’s what’s going on, and Americans are fascinated by it because it is completely foreign to them. ¤
Jennifer Kaplan is a freelance writer who is working on a memoir about her mother, sex therapist Helen Singer Kaplan. I kept on trying with these female characters, and I couldn’t do it because the females couldn’t leave the house. You include three epitaphs, three definitions of the word “radical.” What are you trying to say? That said, the idea of the trilogy is really important to me, to be able to place Rez in a historical context. That’s really interesting to me. They can wake up one morning as a Christian and go to bed as a Jew or a Muslim. There’s something that makes me want to understand how we as humans are connected to all the people who came before us. If I had to describe the learning process as a hundred steps, this book took me on the first five or 10. The word “radical” comes from somewhere, it wasn’t just invented yesterday. In the Middle East at that time (the 1920s), if you were a woman you couldn’t just traipse down to the square and have a conversation. The biggest knot that I had to untangle was the ideas around conversion, because I am not a practicing religious person, and because I was raised in the shadow of Islam. They’re very fecund for narrative. If I think about a word and how it originated, why humans have evolved to use it, then my imagination turns on. There is this idea of masculinity.