“Sick: A Memoir” by Porochista Khakpour is the distinguished Iranian-born writer and creative writing professor’s memoir of her struggle with trauma, drug addiction, mental illness, and late-stage Lyme disease.
Physical and mental pain had always defined Khakpour’s life. A child of the Iranian Revolution, her earliest memories were of “pure anxiety.” She survived the trauma of living in a war zone and moved from Tehran to Los Angeles. As she grew into adolescence, she writes, “everything about my body felt wrong,” and her feelings of dysmorphia remained one of the constants in an often chaotic life. In college, Khakpour, who had long been fascinated by the “altered states” that drugs could produce, began a “casual (long-term) relationship” with cocaine and cultivated the “heroin chic” look fashionable during the 1990s. In addition to her experimentation with drugs, the author endured harrowing experiences with sexual assault and depression. Khakpour’s post-collegiate life brought with it a series of difficult, sometimes-abusive relationships, graduate school at Johns Hopkins, psychotropic drugs to control anxiety, insomnia and mood disorders, severe health problems initially diagnosed as autoimmune disorders, and “a seesaw of struggling to survive in New York and then running home to LA and then escaping back to New York.” Her life stabilized for a short time after she accepted a temporary position at Bucknell University. When her health began to fail again, she sought treatment in the New Age “healing vortex” of Santa Fe; but soon after she left, she once again became a prescription pill “drug addict.” It was not until she returned temporarily to California that a doctor officially diagnosed her with a case of late-stage Lyme disease, which would mean permanent recurrences of the breakdowns she had fought to overcome. Lucid, eloquent and unflinchingly honest, Khakpour’s book is not just about a woman’s relationship to illness, but also a remarkably trenchant reflection on personal and human frailty.
“Sick” is a courageously intimate memoir about living within a body that has “never felt at ease.”
Identity as a multifaceted landscape
Tommy Orange’s debut novel, “There There,” offers a kaleidoscopic look at Native American life in Oakland, Calif., through the experiences and perspectives of 12 characters.
An aspiring documentary filmmaker, a young man who has taught himself traditional dance by watching YouTube, another lost in the bulk of his enormous body — these are just a few of the point-of-view characters in this astonishingly wide-ranging book, which culminates with an event called the Big Oakland Powwow. Orange, who grew up in the East Bay, knows the territory, but this is no work of social anthropology; rather, it is a deep dive into the fractured diaspora of a community that remains, in many ways, invisible to many outside of it. “We made powwows because we needed a place to be together,” he writes. “Something intertribal, something old, something to make us money, something we could work toward, for our jewelry, our songs, our dances, our drum.” The plot of the book is almost impossible to encapsulate, but that’s part of its power. At the same time, the narrative moves forward with propulsive force. The stakes are high: For Jacquie Red Feather, on her way to meet her three grandsons for the first time, there is nothing as conditional as sobriety: “She was sober again,” Orange tells us, “and ten days is the same as a year when you want to drink all the time.” For Daniel Gonzales, creating plastic guns on a 3-D printer, the only lifeline is his dead brother, Manny, to whom he writes at a ghostly Gmail account. In its portrayal of so-called Urban Indians, the novel recalls David Treuer’s “The Hiawatha,” but the range, the vision, is all its own. What Orange is saying is that, like all people, Native Americans don’t share a single identity; theirs is a multifaceted landscape, made more so by the sins, the weight, of history. That some of these sins belong to the characters alone should go without saying, a point Orange makes explicit in the novel’s stunning, brutal denouement. “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them,” James Baldwin wrote in a line Orange borrows as an epigraph to one of the book’s sections; this is the inescapable fate of every individual here.
In this vivid and moving book, Orange articulates the challenges and complexities not only of Native Americans, but also of America itself.