At first 2011 was a good year for me purely because of the spirit of revolution and risk-taking rippling throughout the world. On a personal level, it had been trying: I left a stable job, my grandfather passed away, a dog I had just rescued had to be put down, and I moved more than I could handle. Still, with all the Arab Springing and Occupying, I felt like I finally lived in the world I had always dreamed of: communities propelled by heart and hope and vision, populated by citizens who were willing to risk all.
In the midst of all this, I applied for an NEA and quickly forced myself to forget about it -- what my many flings with First Time Applications had programmed me to do.
So when months later, on a chilly November evening in Prague, I finally checked my e-mail and saw messages red-alerting CALL NEA BACK ASAP. It did not occur to me that this was the good news I didn't have the guts to imagine. My first thought: How did I mess up the application?! I don't win things, I kept insisting, and this novel doesn't win things. After all, it was the sophomore effort -- curse-y! -- and the very idea of it had unsettled those who expected a repeat performance of Novel #1. But I wrote the novel I always wanted to read, I'd say -- yes, this semi-fabulist, myth-obsessed, magical-thinking-themed adventure story, full of feral children and illusionists and 9/11 and Y2K, was that.
This award is the greatest honor of my life. It gives me not just the means but the courage to finish this book. Already on tough days I lean on the very idea of it and think, somebody believed in your little risks -- these things happen too . . .
Excerpt from Sky Falling
They said it was Hendricks's love alone that had caused the miracle, the very miracle of his son's endurance of and into life, another life, this time a real one, and while no one would call it a recovery, per se, they would call it advancements of a magnitude that were so unheralded Hendricks courted skeptics from around the world -- the skeptics who doubted a feral child could grow into a functional human, not to mention those who questioned just how feral he had been to begin with.
There were times Hendricks also wondered to what degree Khanoom really did come in contact with him. Was it possible it was more than Zari had said on film? Was he really fully feral? Was it more than the doctors wanted to believe? To what degree had their imaginations filled the holes and to what degree did his reality challenge them?
There were some things they would never know. Ask Zal about Khanoom and he would look blank, blinking neutrally. He would not recognize the name, not even understand the reference. Sometimes not knowing and not understanding would make him scared. Hendricks would simply hold him and let him know that it did not make him any different than many people, people like himself even, who had in some ways also been raised without a parent.
You are all right, son, Hendricks would always tell him, over and over, as all right as any of us.
Little by little, Zal began to surprise them. They said language would not come to him, never come to him; by the time Zal was 15 he could speak and read on the level of a 10-year-old.
I am all right, he eventually said, back, and eventually even fully understood.
They said his body would forever remain deformed -- but nine surgeries later, Zal went from a walker to standing upright on his own, with aches and pains and inflammations not so different than someone with a case of MS.
They said he would not be capable of experiencing human emotions, but Hendricks witnessed them all; the embrace out of nowhere he once or twice got, the welling of tears during frustrated episodes, the fear the fear the fear. True, there was no laughter, there was no smile, but that required a time machine to fix. The thing Hendricks and ultimately the therapist he entrusted Zal to -- his colleague, the eminent child psychologist Gerald Rhodes -- were most grateful for was the obvious: that Zal, in his "adulthood," had lost his association with birds, that he did not and would not and really could not consider himself a bird, that birds and their natures were about as foreign to him as unicorns and griffins.
The last one was not true. Only Zal knew this.
So unlike his infinitely masculine namesake he did not resemble a cypress, he was not capturing beauty queens, he was not saving the world, but if you looked at him for the first time, you'd have to be awfully tipped off to find something amiss. Here stood, Zal of just over two decades, a man, finally a man, Hendricks thought, nevermind how badly circumstances had distorted his age. He was 5'7", not horribly short, though they all assumed even getting to such height meant that if he had grown up under normal conditions he'd be well over 6'2" at the very least. He was thin but not emaciated, definitely too-thin, but not in a way that disgusted. His skin was pale and was prone to irritations -- burns, eczema, acne, the works -- but nothing so much different than the usual blemishy human. And his hair was still fair, still blond, but the white blond had, thanks to sun exposure, jaundiced a bit more into a dull brass. His eyes were black and still huge, still like Nilou's wonderful dreamer eyes, though they revealed nothing -- and were in some ways better than hers, in that strangely sincere blankness.
Hendricks imagined he was what some wandering poet girl, some eccentric artist with a romantic edginess, might consider good looking.
Zal himself never saw his own reflection for too long -- this was one of the traits he shared with all feral children, that and the inability to smile and laugh. But what he had seen of his looks, he did not object to. He was, he simply was, and Hendricks and Rhodes and scores of other people in his life had told him that was something to be proud of, considering. Always, considering, but still. He was.
I am a boy, he told himself, and then, I am a man, he reminded himself. He was just that and that alone, he thought over and over and over, until it all sounded meaningless as well.
But he had to. And eventually he learned to keep the bird in him, any bird in him, so deep within himself it resurfaced only rarely. Let it out and he'd be back to the world of doctors and scientists, make it flutter before him and enter camera crews and a million more glossy and newsprint updates on the miracle Bird Boy of Tehran, uncage it once and for all, and break his father's, his one and only's, heart. He knew enough of humankind by then to know you did not do a thing like that, not now. The parts of him that they could not get to were best kept to himself.
Porochista Khakpour was born in Tehran in 1978 and raised in South Pasadena, California. Her critically acclaimed novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove Press, 2008) received the California Book Award in First Fiction. She has been awarded fellowships from the Johns Hopkins University, Northwestern University, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Sewanee Writers' Conference, Ucross, Djerassi, and Yaddo. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Daily Beast, and Salon, among others. She wrote the introduction to the 2010 English edition of the Iranian novel The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat. Khakpour was also the guest-editor and curator of Guernica's first Iranian-American issue (2011). She is currently the Picador Guest Professor at the University of Leipzig in Germany and a member of the faculty of Fairfield University's low-residency MFA.
Photo by Calli Ray