Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local women artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2017. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
Even after 25 years in the Bay Area, it’s Laleh Khadivi’s experience of growing up all over the world that shapes her work. Born in Esfahan, Iran, she moved with her parents to the United States when she was five. Over the years her family lived in Los Angeles, Atlanta, London and other locations abroad, before her parents eventually settled in Orange County, south of Los Angeles.
That’s the setting for Khadivi’s latest novel, A Good Country, which tells the story of Rez, a Muslim-American teen who goes from stoner Laguna Beach high-school student to radicalized youth. The book is part of Khadivi’s Kurdish trilogy, following 2009’s The Age of Orphans and 2012’s The Walking.
Not content to work within just one medium, Khadivi is also a lauded filmmaker. 900 Women, her documentary of life at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, premiered at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and on A&E in 2001. Themes of borders, identity and migration run through much of her work.
How have your experiences as an immigrant and an Iranian-American informed your work?
The experience of moving gave me an insight into what it is to be transient on this planet. And the ways in which leaving a community, and entering a community, can give you a sense of the ways in which human beings make community. They are different and the same.
Your latest novel is about the radicalization of a youth in Orange County. How does your work fit into the current “state of the union” and issues like the travel ban?
I think about the idea of borders a lot. What they are for and how they work. A Good Country is about a young man who decides to leave the United States. He’s supposed to be going to college and fulfilling the American dream. Instead he gets on a plane and goes to Turkey so he can go to Syria. He’s not entering the U.S. to create violence.
In that way, the ban looks ridiculous. It’s unproven and untested. The United States has been defined by having porous borders for its entire history, by the people allowed in. And by the ways in which it offers opportunities that do and do not pan out. But it provides a fluid entry and exit — more than some places. To close those doors you are making another definition for the U.S., one that’s more exclusive. We are just seeing the very beginning of that right now.
Do you have any advice for women to stay on the writing path? How do you stay inspired and motivated to work?
I’m motivated by the need to tell these stories. This trilogy began more than ten years ago, to track the lives of three generations of men, and to try to understand how the world shapes a person versus how a person thinks they shape the world. These philosophical questions push me. I’m also — to be perfectly honest — driven by a boring, daily need, both financial and professional, to work.
I don’t think being a writer is some sort of mystical calling. I write books for the expression of the story, the communication of myself, and also to make money. That pushes a story out of me at a much faster rate than my own artistic desire. I don’t have the kind of life where I can sit around and dabble. I come to a project, I commit to it, it makes my life very difficult for a period of a year and a half, and I finish it.
For women especially, if you want to be an artist, it’s important to take yourself seriously and think of yourself as a businessperson. Respect that. Don’t be embarrassed about it. Recognize that there is a business element, a hustle, to it. You have to chase it.
What local places trigger your creativity?
I spent a lot of time — before I had children — hiking all over the Bay: Marin, the Oakland Hills, Tilden Park. I spent probably the entirety of writing the second book hiking around Bernal because I was living in the city at the time. The Bay Area has some of the most beautiful walking paths in the world. You are always close to a forest or a view. Within a half hour, you can be in the trees or in a field. That is such artistic, emotional, and spiritual solace to me.
I’m also a fan and devotee of City Lights. I spend a lot of time getting inspired by the musicians that play at Yoshi’s in Jack London Square. And finally, it’s not necessarily an inspiration, but this weird marine layer weather pattern, the opposite of joyous summer. It’s freezing outside, and it’s July. Instead of being outside and swimming in pools and throwing frisbees, I’m inside complaining about the fog, but I then read books and write more.
What does your ideal future look like for women artists in the Bay Area?
1. Fully subsidized child care.
2. Platforms for public appearances or presentations of women’s artwork that are high-caliber, integrated with the work of men, and presented in a way that does not fetishize femininity.
3. Access to a national and international microphone — some system, organization or community, that gets women’s work out of the neighborhood, out of the Bay Area, and into conversations in New York, Paris or Shanghai.
Curious about who else made the list? Check out the Women to Watch series page, including photo galleries, interviews, and videos.