The Body As a Vehicle Traversing Circumstance: On Reading Porochista Khakpour’s Sick


Image by Naoki Takano

by Janice Lee

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.
— Susan Sontag, “Illness as Metaphor”

Because my illness at this stage has no cure, I can forever own this discomfort of the body. I can always say this was all a mistake. To find a home in my body is to tell a story that doesn’t exist. I am a foreigner, but in ways that go much deeper than I thought, under the epidermis and into the blood cells. I have started to consider that I will never be at home, perhaps not even in death.
— Porochista Khakpour, Sick

Sick: A Memoir,
by Porochista Khakpour,
Harper Perennial, 272 pp.

This morning I am thinking about how intimacy often manifests itself through absence. That is, I learned more about the similarities I shared with my mother after she died, recalling specific details like how to fold towels properly and how to scoop rice. More than anything though, she taught me about my body, the arbitrariness of the body we are born in, the ways in which our bodies are tied to success and opportunity, the ways in which we learn to care for them only after cycles of rebellion and abuse. I learned more about love and dependence by examining the ways in which my body reacted to the absence of certain lovers, the empty space in my bed in the morning as a catalyst for either relief or anxiety.

I think back often to this phrase, coined by writer and friend Gabriela Torres Olivares: “the body as a vehicle traversing circumstance.” I think of all the ways in which our bodies fail us, not just in sickness or bad health, but in all the ways in which our bodies are the physical manifestation of the vehicles that carry us from birth to death. I think about Schopenhauer’s famous declaration, “The world is my representation.” Of course, what we see is inextricably tied to how we see, which depends so much on the body through which we are seeing.

While reading Sick, I felt so often that the author was writing to me, for me, a strange telepathic and phantasmic thread that, beyond the narrative of sickness and of the compromised body, also encompassed the intimate relationship with her dog, the cycle of relationships and heartbreak, navigating this country as a woman of color, the dream of being a female author, the misery and necessity of writing, the escape of stories, and the effects of childhood and inherited trauma.This is the gift she imparts through this book. As Eileen Myles puts it, “This is a book that throws me into the time of my own being. I experience Porochista Khakpour’s Sick as an act of radical friendship because nobody should know this much about anybody else unless they love each other.”

Often I felt I was being taken to task for my own decisions, forced to remember my own mistakes and regrets, relationships gone bad, the trajectory of my life and the ways in which I have divided up the periods of my life. Khakpour writes, “I realized that for years now, every stage of my life had been calibrated by romantic relationships–including the measurements of health and wellness.” I realized that I divided my life similarly, the period before my mother’s death, the period after; the Jeff period, the Sal period, the unstable period, etc. I can recall who I was and how comfortable I felt in my body in relation to who I was with, these strange anchors around which my own body seemed to rotate, and though dates often me, the tipping points between ex-boyfriends become the markers on my personal timeline, as much as I want to pretend that they don’t.

At one point in the book, Khakpour laments the loneliness of not having a significant other to put down as an emergency contact. I admit, I had to put the book down and cry softly while holding my own dog Benny. There was something about that specific and knowable stage of being completely untethered that produced a visceral reaction.Throughout my relationships, both the good and the terrible, it was always that feeling of being anchored that I missed most when an era would come to a close.

In another instance, Khakpour writes, “I’d call people at the oddest hours and want words from them. Please just stay on the phone; please tell me a story, any story,” – a desire I also knew well. In my own struggles with depression, the comfort of knowing that I could call my friend, many time zones away at any hour of the night, was what kept me alive many nights, kept me alive until morning when I would cry into my pillow, get up, and somehow do it all again. I imagine the loneliness of losing that kind of support network, and it’s almost too much to take.

Beyond the narrative of sickness, I see this as a book about the intense vulnerability of being human, how sickness can exaggerate both the miseries and failures of life, but also the beauties and small moments of honesty. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Porochista Khakpour is one of the most honest people I know. Her writing illuminates a willingness to articulate all of the failed gestures, impulses, second thoughts and other cracks through which our perception is constantly mediated. I’ve had to learn the necessity of this kind of honesty as well, through falling in and out of love over and over again until finally encountering that kind of impossible and difficult relationship that is unfathomable but somehow worth it. It is in the face of intense difficulty, emotional and physical, that we learn to look deeper, past the obvious facts of truth and into the face of death itself. It is there, when looking death square in the eyes, one might finally be able to learn something about what it is to live courageously, compassionately, under the looming shadow of uncertainty.

Writing isn’t just about articulation. It’s also how we come to understand, not a byproduct of understanding, but the process itself, narrative as the web that represents a body’s longing, its desires, possibilities, and failures. Khakpour’s impossible task is to face the body that she has never felt home in as her own, as the only one she has, to persist through the constant uncertainty of death, because life is a story that only ends one way. It is, of course, the passageway between the polarities that constitutes who we are, all that we make and leave behind that lasts beyond the deterioration of our bodies. Narrative is the ghost speaking on the threshold of life and death itself. How do you move forward when the ghost you are haunted by is your very own?

About the Author:

Janice Lee is the author of KEROTAKIS (Dog Horn Press, 2010), Daughter (Jaded Ibis, 2011), Damnation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013), Reconsolidation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2015), and The Sky Isn’t Blue (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016). She writes about the filmic long take, slowness, interspecies communication, the apocalypse, and asks the question, how do we hold space open while maintaining intimacy? She is Founder & Executive Editor of Entropy, Co-Publisher at Civil Coping Mechanisms, and Contributing Editor at Fanzine. After living for over 30 years in California, she recently moved from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon where she is an Assistant Professor of Fiction at Portland State University.