Khashayar J. Khabushani's 'I Will Greet the Sun Again' - an engaging debut novel

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday July 2, 2024
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Author Khashayar J. Shabushani
Author Khashayar J. Shabushani

A gut-wrenching novel of survival you won't soon forget animates the searing debut of local Iranian-American author Khashayar J. Khabushani's "I Will Greet the Sun Again," just released in paperback. Set at a low-income home in California's San Fernando Valley, it's narrated by an unraveling gay son of Iranian immigrants, trying to survive and figure out a better future in a broken, violent world with which he cannot connect.

A finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Fiction, it's a lyrical two-tiered tale of resistance, sexually and culturally, of a youth developing his voice despite aching sadness and isolation.

Author Khashayar J. Shabushani at a book event at City Lights in 2023.  

Family ties
K is the youngest of three Muslim brothers, age nine, when the novel opens, all born in LA. Early on he reconciles his American ways with his Iranian background. His parent's fractured use of Farsi words reminds him constantly of this struggle. He's named after a king, but with the exception of his father — because it's a difficult to pronounce Persian name — he's called K. He shares a close, warm dynamic relationship with his brothers. K is his domineering father Baba's favorite.

Baba left Iran with his wife Maman to seek the American Dream. He studied engineering at Columbia, calling himself the "best engineer in all of America," yet won't work for someone else. Instead, he steals Maman's hardworking earnings as a nurse's aide and gambles it, even after losing the family house.

They are barely surviving to the point that when he and his sons go to McDonald's, he divides a single burger for the four of them to eat. Baba has suffered his own heartaches and betrayals. He's physically and emotionally abusive to his family, crushing their hopes, yet his sons look up to him as a model parent, not knowing any better.

K's brothers seek excellence in the classroom, on the basketball court, and in their girlfriends. K is fixated on his best friend Johnny whom he met on the basketball court. He recognizes he's attracted to men, once their fleeting secret sex affair begins.

He describes what entices him erotically in the mosque's prayer room: "I like being this close, the smell of damp bears and freshly washed skin, so close that when the men bend over, placing their hands on their knees before kneeling to the floor, I'm the only one who gets to look, since everyone else, Baba included, is focusing on God."

Then the unthinkable happens, when furious at Maman studying at a college so she can obtain a better paying job, Baba secretly abducts his three sons back to Iran to live in their ancestral home owned by his father Haji Agha. Baba tells his sons that he never should've brought Maman to the U.S. because it has corrupted her. "And when Maman realizes how much she misses us, Baba promises, she'll come join us."

Initially they're in culture shock, especially with such foreign understandings of masculinity. But K and his brothers become friends with two neighbor boys who help them adapt, as do their other Iranian family members.

Then K suffers an unspeakable brutal assault. He's rescued by his Aunt Khaleh, Maman's sister, who introduces him to the Iranian feminist poet/filmmaker, Forough Farrokhzad. Her poem, "I Will Greet the Sun Again," not only provides the novel's title, but helps K realize he can overcome his obstacles (including handling his sexuality) and inspires him to pursue writing: "When I'm older I'll get to write how I want to write... I want to write my own rules."

Khaleh will help K and his brothers return to America without Baba, who has no future in the U.S. or in the family. When he returns, K must reconcile the impact Iran has had on his character and identity.

Phobia and fears
The 9/11 attacks bring shock, horror, and Islamophobia, compelling his older brother Justin to enlist in the military. Seeing Justin's full Iranian name on his duffel bag, K worries whether other soldiers will think he's a terrorist. But in addition to grief inspired by 9/11, K must confront his desires for Johnny and decide whether Johnny can or will reciprocate those same feelings, especially once he joins a gang.

A key moment in the book is a conversation between K and Maman:

"I want Maman to know she doesn't have to be quiet anymore, that it'd be better. That way I'd get to know who she actually is. She'd get to know me, too. But she repeats it again, how for her being quiet has worked, even at the hospital, nobody bothers her because she keeps to herself."

Like many immigrant women, her hope lives through her children's successes. It's also easy to equate her quiet with K trapped in his closet so no one will 'bother' him.

With Farrokhzad's poetry as an undercurrent, this novel is about survival, echoing K's Aunt Khaleh's observation, "No matter how much they take from us... we find a way to enjoy life."

K must work through his trauma so without sacrificing any part of who he is, he can fulfill his aunt's philosophical assertion. This can only happen when K reconciles his connection to Iran with his sense of belonging to the U.S., as well as heal from the pain engendered by his family. Despite all the anguish K endures, he doesn't let it stop him from experiencing joy or rob his future away from him.

In this open-hearted poetic saga of both cultural, religious, and sexual awakening amidst displacement and resilience, Khabushani excels in intertwining all these areas of transformation, revealing how development is interdependent, not separate tracts of growth. He accomplishes this feat always with sensitivity and compassion not only with K, but the rich supporting characters, not all of whom are laudatory.

Despite all the disorientation K experiences, he's able to unify these conflicting strands, enabling him to find his place in the world and attain a kind of liberation. With this auspicious novel, Khabushani achieves elevated stature in current queer literature.

'I Will Greet the Sun Again' by Khashayar J. Shabushani. Hogarth/Random House, $17.

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