The new essay, which gives the book its title, is central to understanding Khakpour’s oblique offering. The collection comprises perfectly crafted performances, slightly out-of-focus subjects, moments of unvarnished expression. Generally, the writer is framed by the imagination of others. In “Thirteen Ways of Being an Immigrant” she recalls: “They call you American Express, that group of boys you slept with. You’re amazed they call you American”. In the final essay, however, she speaks without equivocation: “Let the record state that, during Trump’s America, I became broken”. The assertion casts a cool new light across the earlier essays, and the impulses behind them.
Khakpour writes in the highly subjective style popularised by the New Journalism of the 1960s and 70s and currently much in vogue – an influence acknowledged in the collection’s title, with its nod to Joan Didion’s White Album of 1979. This mode of writing – anecdotal, fragmentary, at times quasi-therapeutic – has its limitations. For a more conventional and scholarly survey of the book’s terrain, readers might prefer The Limits of Whiteness by the sociologist Neda Maghbouleh. But Khakpour’s reminiscences are compellingly candid, and yield some illuminating psychological insights. In one essay, she remembers being cajoled into riding a camel during a family visit to LA Zoo in 1986. Her father thought it would be a fun treat, but the young Khakpour was reluctant: acutely conscious that racist Americans called Middle Easterners “camel jockeys”, she was mortified at the the prospect of conforming to stereotype.