There are many things that make Daniyal Mueenuddin‘s collection of short stories In Other Rooms, Other Wonders [Norton 2009] something of a marvel. His are beautiful stories of men and women who are creatures of the rules of where they live– a modern yet feudal Pakistan, where to survive, one has to negotiate with whatever they have- their lands, their bodies, their sugarcane crop. His female characters negotiate choices Scarlet O’Hara-like, their wiles often their only defense against the dominion of men, usually the owners of land. The specificity of his characters consistently astonish.
Mueenuddin’s language stands out in how it bridges the efficient with the lyrical. His prose is not the overwhelming buffet of sensual experiences that has become the hallmark of so many writers from the Indian subcontinent, yet subtle poetry is never far. Neither does he, like many other Pakistani writers of his generation, follow the tried and perhaps more saleable mark of the post-911 narrative. His stories exist in classical times, in spaces that shield its inhabitants from current news, but never from the real and human dangers, that are far older.
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Awards. In addition, it was selected among TIME magazine’s top ten books of the year, Publishers Weekly’s top ten books of 2009, The Economist’s top ten fiction books of 2009, The Guardian’s best books of the year, The New Statesman’s best books of the year, and The New York Times’ hundred best books of the year. It is also a finalist for The Story Prize.
The following interview was from his recent visit to Boston.
Q. Why did you choose the specific stories in the book?
DM. I actually started writing late in life, in 2002. I have written about 20 stories. My agent and I sat down and moved them around until it made sense, and we chose the seven that we thought we would put in this book. I wrote an eighth – ‘Lily’ about an Islamabad party girl, because my agent thought we needed a bit of ‘spice'[laughs].
Q. Interesting to see the role of strong patriarchal figures playing in the stories. Having seen both cultures very intimately, what would you say are the most significant similarities between Pakistani society and US.
DM. That could be a PhD thesis![laughs] It’s a lot hotter over there. I guess, one thing I found very strongly as I have moved back and forth between the two places(America and Pakistan). In Pakistan, so many people are connected to each other in so many complex ways. No one dies alone and are found eaten by their chihuahua. That doesn’t happen in Pakistan. When I go to Pakistan, at first its lovely, I love the bath of connections, but six months or so later, I am overwhelmed and just want to be left alone. Whereas here, people really spend their lives connected in that same way to three or four people. They live their lives in these little boxes that occasionally rubs against each other. That is one significant difference, the texture of lives in each culture.
Q. What short story writers have you been influenced by? People have mentioned Turgenev and RK Narayan.
DM. Who are my influences? I have such boring conventional tastes. I like the Russians, like everyone else. I am constantly reading Chekov. I am never not reading Chekov.
Q. Does Kipling figure amongst your influences, in spite of his politics?
DM. I have no objection to Kipling’s politics, I don’t share them, but those wouldn’t be the grounds for me to judge his writing. I believe he is writing about the same place as I am. Writing about Pakistan or India, publishing for a western audience. But I don’t see the world the way he does. When I read Kipling, he rubs against me a little bit wrong. His style is fine, but I don’t share his style or his sensibility.
Q. How much of the strata of Pakistani audience does your writing touch? How much of who you are writing about will read your book.
DM. I think I know all the people in Pakistan who read my book- they are called friends and family[laughs]. It’s pretty limited. I always find it amusing that the people who read my stuff in Pakistan are like the people who read it here – people with western sensibilities. The people who I am writing about don’t read my stuff. My publishers wanted to translate my book to Urdu and I was and am very reluctant, my agent said, ‘They’ll give you money. What do you care? ‘ My response was that in Pakistan it’s not very smart to be prominent without being powerful. I would like to keep as a low profile as possible.
Q. Do you have an audience in mind when you write?
DM. My mother was a short story writer and amongst the people I think of when I am getting close to finishing a story, and there were a few others I would write for. In the process of writing, when I am getting close to being finished, I start to think about who this will appeal to. Its sort of the ‘cringe test’ – if I showed it to this person, I immediately realize they would cringe. It’s only when you show the story to people, do you realize how much parts of it stink. Of course, you sort of like the stink when you are writing it, but when you hand it over, you quickly realize what you know in your heart all along, that you need to take out the sword and lop off that gangrenous limb.
Q. You’ve said how stratified society is over there. Do you have personal experience with the different strata.
DM. If you live in the cities, you are much more likely to mingle with people like yourself. But I have mostly lived out on a farm in the middle of nowhere. There were certainly nobody who had been educated abroad. So by necessity I met all sorts of people. I manage a farm where I’ve come across all sorts of characters.
Q. What do you grow
DM. Sugarcane, cotton, mangoes, vegetables
Q. Some aspects of Pakistani life that would be hard for American audiences to understand. What were some aspects that were challenging to write about for your American audience? Be it dowry or arranged marriages or even greeting someone with your left hand.
DM. As much as possible, I try to finesse those issues. I don’t want to be identified as a Pakistani writer, but as a writer. I am not an anthropologist trying to tell you that these are the marriage of the Pakistanis, but as much as possible, I try to finesse the cultural differences into the human part of the story. But you try to duck a lot of that. Cheating. Smoke and mirrors. So as much as I can I try to finesse those moments.
Q. I felt great empathy for your characters. How do you build this quality, do you want the readers to develop empathy for your characters?
DM. Ah, the trade secrets? Chekov says in one of his letters, the point is to be empathetic is to be your fingers . If you the writer, start judging the character, you will be hopelessly lost, the point is to let the characters judge themselves. I am not even sure even the readers should judge them. The author’s duty is to present to the characters in all their reality and humanity. I don’t know how consciously I do that, but part of the duties of the writer is to go far inside the characters so you are no longer in a position to judge. That part of the process of getting into the story.
Q. What are you working on now?
DM. I am working on a novel that’s set in the 70’s in Pakistan. It’s about a love triangle. My agent told me to write about love[laughs]. No I am joking, he didn’t actually, but it is about a love triangle. An American woman married to a Pakistani and a Pakistani lover. Very much in its initial phases.
Q. The character of KK Harouni, figures large and small as he interweaves through the stories. An absentee landlord under whose distant auspices, most of the stories take place. He seems to have certain supernatural resonances. Reminiscent of the grand ‘God figure’ in Nagib Mahfouz’s Children of Jebelawi. What is he about?
DM. Loosely based on my father who was quite old when I was born. He was from a generation of elderly, dignified but harmless gentlemen. By birth with a lot of power, but not particularly significant. Good breeding, good manners. Representative of the fading Lahori land-owning class.
Q. Another great creation is Mian Sarkar.
DM. He is much more a product of my imagination. His physical appearance came from a secretary of my father’s friend who took care of his business.
Q. Will we see this world of KK Harouni in future work?
DM. Very much. Part of my plan is to go back to these same characters. To continue to create on a smaller scale something similar to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, which is to create a unified whole in my book.
Q. The choice of the mold of the story. It seems that one could loosely categorize the short story form into the basic ‘New Yorker’ type versus the more classical ‘Chekov’ styles as a couple of strong examples of the form. You seem to break some of those molds a little bit. If you look at the ending to Nawabuddin Electrician, it is harsh, logical and yet it works very satisfactorily. Please comment on your choices in your choices of arcs in your stories. They sometimes seem very epic in scope.
DM. The process of writing for me is finding that arc. These are stories, I find as I go through. I may have a vague idea of the story’s ending but rarely how to get there. Its about playing with the form and style.
Q. Another seeming choice in your stories, given your American-Pakistani background is that of the immigrant story. In a way, I am glad you have not written yet another book about transplantation between cultures. Is there a tension between wanting to write the immigrant story given your background?
DM. I am not really an immigrant. My mother is American and father is Pakistani. I have traveled between the cultures, but I have never been an immigrant. I suppose that’s not a story I know very well. I am writing about places I know really well.
Q. I recently read this article in the New York Times, that challenges the notion of ‘write what you know’ and said something like, we don’t know anything so why write what we know? Do you think there is any validity to that?
DM. I don’t believe that. I do think there are some things you do know and some things you know very well. I think ‘write what you know’ is very sensible.
Q. I find that many writers will often fall too heavily on this maxim and end up writing very pedestrian prose, describing it with names like ‘quiet’ when in fact it verges on the banal. Do you think there is a danger in following this rule too close?
DM. Well rules are made to be broken. I mean, Gregor Samsa, the cockroach- Kafka was never a cockroach. These rules are to made to be broken but by experts, but until then, it is a good place to start.
Q. Lets talk about process. In terms of writing these stories, what role did community play in your writing, things like workshops and gatherings. There is that romantic notion of locking yourself up and writing alone.
DM. I did an MFA at the University of Arizona at Tucson. That was where I started to write these stories. I had a fellowship in Provincetown and I worked on them there as well and many other places. Basically these are places where I found time to write. One thing about these writing programs, they give you time to write that you are entitled to write. That is important.
Q. What is your routine?
DM. I write about 300 words a day. Which is not a lot and can always be done. I try not to worry if I don’t write more than that, but I work on at least 300 words a day which is easy enough to do.
Q. Do you use any planning tools for your work. Now that you are working on a novel.
DM. I am not someone who writes with any major planning tools. I write in a circular process, incrementally forward and then finding that I’ve gone to the wrong place and then back up. It’s an organic process of growth. At some point in writing short stories, I find that I know the ending and that’s a significant moment and everything sort of falls into place after that point. I don’t work off any plans and that’s just a personal tick, there’s no right or wrong way to do it.
Q. Talking about your characters. They are wonderfully specific, have real ticks and they are amazingly consistent. It feels like you are reporting on people. Do you know their foibles before you write them?
DM. Its layering. I start out with little bits of things I ‘ve seen. How they walk. Then I will add something to that. I will keep adding and adding. As I revise, I will keep adding bits to that. I get inside the characters through a process of accretion. It never springs out fully formed.
With that, thanks for your time, it was an honor and a pleasure. I look forward to your next book.