The hit 1995 teen movie "Clueless" might be known best for introducing Americans to Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd, but first-time novelist Porochista Khakpour remembers it for another reason: It injected Iranian Americans into the U.S. pop-cultural consciousness.
"There's that scene when (Silverstone's character) Cher says, 'And that's the Persian Mafia. You can't hang with them unless you own a BMW.' " Khakpour, 29, delivered the line in an authoritative teen-queen squeak. It was a "hideous" milestone for Iranian-born, South Pasadena-bred, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Khakpour, substituting for the stereotype of Iranians as veiled women and religious fanatics -- another unappealing notion -- of an excessively wealthy, insular immigrant community "in shoulder pads and gold jewelry." Khakpour's goal was to challenge both stereotypes in her first novel, "Sons and Other Flammable Objects," which was published this fall. Her main characters, like her own family, are resolutely middle class and are more Zoroastrian than Muslim. They reside in a kitschy Pasadena apartment complex, not a "Tehrangeles" mansion. There are no religious fanatics or veiled women save for those in the novel's deliberately overwrought dream sequences -- filled with what Khakpour calls "Middle East paraphernalia, from the perspective of an American."
Twelve years after "Clueless," books such as Khakpour's, including well-received works by first-time writer Dalia Sofer and established novelist Gina Nahai, are putting the immigrant culture more fully into the spotlight. While the politics of their native country fills the news, Iranian American writers have been finding enthusiastic audiences since 2003, when Azar Nafisi's wildly successful memoir "Reading Lolita in Tehran" and Marjane Satrapi's innovative graphic novel "Persepolis" hit bookstores.
These writers explore new genres and styles -- and tell the stories of a new generation of Iranian Americans, stories that don't necessarily start with the Iranian revolution.
"Iranian memoirs set the rules for Iranian fiction a little bit -- for what types of things do well and what gets published," Khakpour said in an interview, mentioning "Reading Lolita in Tehran." That story -- of a group of female students surreptitiously reading Western classics in post-revolutionary Iran -- has been on the New York Times best-seller list for more than 100 weeks.
Said Nafisi, "Because my book became successful, publishers do want to repeat that success. So memoirs are fashionable."
There are reasons why memoirs became the mode for so many Iranian writers -- and why most of the writers making waves in the United States are women.
For Iranians, Nafisi noted, personal stories seemed much more important after the revolution, when so many personal experiences were outlawed in the public sphere.
Women in particular were the ones hidden or even erased from public life -- which might explain why immigrating Iranian women felt more compelled to write about their experiences. Men, as in many immigrant cultures, were more pressured to pursue lucrative professional careers or, at least, write "serious" nonfiction.