Writing is a Way of Living

a conversation with author Daniyal Mueenuddin

Daniyal Mueenuddin is the author of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, a short story collection that depicts the family and servants of K.K. Harouni, a wealthy Punjabi landlord. The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Mueenuddin was brought up in Lahore, Pakistan, and Wisconsin. In this interview, conducted over a series of emails, he spoke of the influences on his writing, his newest work, and how his work captures life in both America and Pakistan, especially that touched by the feudal system.

***

What advice would you give to college students who are perhaps just starting to write creatively and aren’t all that confident about their work?

Writing is about finding an audience, but it is also about leading a particular kind of life. You write about your experiences. Some writers find a voice right away – Radiguet, who published Le Diable au Corps at twenty, and died in the same year – something close to a masterpiece. Others take much longer. I began writing fiction at 37, and didn’t publish anything until I was 44. You have to live your life as a writer, which means reading a lot, writing a lot, and living with the intention of developing a particular chosen sensibility. There are easier ways of becoming famous, if that’s what you want, and no matter how hard you try, there’s a good chance that you won’t succeed. It is essential for a writer to be ambitious, but she should be ambitious not about success but about doing good work.

Does writer’s block ever affect you? How do you combat it?

I keep a file containing stories I intend to write, which has ballooned to the extent that I’m sure I’ll never finish the lot. In the long run, I’m certain that I’ll keep writing, so long as I continue to enjoy the process. Sometimes I become paralyzed, because it seems to me that the work is no good, that I can’t write at the standard I aspire to. When that happens, I remind myself that in the end it doesn’t matter at all, that in a thousand years no one will speak my language – English as I know it will be dead. As I said above, writing is a way of living. The problem that we set ourselves: Having nothing at all to do, to do something, whether it’s writing code or saving the Antarctic or writing fiction.  

Are there any works of fiction or poetry which you re-read? What draws you to these works?

As it happens, in the past few days I’ve been rereading War & Peace. I first read – or rather, didn’t read–this novel at the age of eleven, when my mother offered me $50 for the job, which in those days and at that age constituted a fortune. I couldn’t keep all the characters straight, so she then agreed that I might read the abridged version. Still no dice. However, that’s when the book entered my consciousness. In the intervening years, I’ve read it eight or nine times. I do this, first of all, because it’s fun–I love the story, the grain, the sweep, the characters. Superb battle scenes. The wolf hunt alone is worth the hours of reading the surrounding material. I’m just today at the point in the novel where Natasha betrays Prince Andrei and attempts to elope with Anatole. Even though I know how it’s going to turn out – Prince Andrei in ruins, and Natasha much diminished (in the end, she becomes a bit of a frump) – I find the tension so great that I keep picking up the novel and then putting it down again. I have butterflies in my stomach because, this afternoon lying on an orange sofa with the sun streaming through the windows, I’m going to live through that.

In addition – I’ve been ambitious to be a writer most of my life. Since I was first exposed to Tolstoy I wanted to write the way that he does, with that clarity and authority. I chose him as one of my models very early – perhaps because I was shown his work early – and I’ve stuck to him.

Of course there are many other writers I revert to, some more often than others. I cook a lot, and listen to novels and poetry while I do it. Over the years I’ve heard all of Remembrance of Things Past – Neville Jason’s amazing performance reading the whole thing, 150 hours. I first read Proust in college, back in the 80s, and now keep him in the rotation, dropping in wherever my fancy strikes. Neville Jason’s rendition of the Baron de Charlus’s whinnying laugh is priceless, to mention just one detail.

You’ve spoken a lot about your long apprenticeship with poetry and how you still write it sometimes. Has the experience of writing poetry influenced your approach to fiction?

The finest thing of all for a writer is to be a poet. Fiction writers are pedestrians – while the poets soar above our heads. They tonally use the language best – the best ones do – and so of course anyone who uses language should study them. (Note that this includes anyone who speaks – only the mute are exempted from this prescription.) I imagine that there is no writer worth his salt who hasn’t got a cache of heartfelt adolescent poems tucked away in a drawer somewhere. All the great writers are attentive to the sound of their work.

Since so many of the stories of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders are set in rural Punjab, do you ever find yourself drawn to local art forms or media, such as music, to understand your work better?

Interesting question! The tangy Punjabi and Seraiki and Urdu of the people I know in Pakistan, and the local art – paintings on trucks and tongas, the English used in the newspapers, posters for movies and kabbadi matches – and most of all, the music, which is of a very high standard – all this is woven through my experience of the place. One night I had gone to dinner with a neighbor – in South Punjab, we include as neighbors anyone living within an hour’s driving distance. Returning, near my home I had a puncture. Shut off the car, got out. Beautiful spring night, two or three in the morning. We happened to be by a canal, water murmuring. No one about, deep countryside. Far away I heard a tractor plowing, playing on its incredibly loud and very tiny loudspeakers Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Musst Musst. I was reminded of a story that someone had told me, about a boy with whom I played in the village when I was five or six, and who had become a great lothario in the area, sleeping with everyone’s daughters and wives. Apparently one of these women fell so deeply in love with him that she would come out late at night for a rendezvous, and after their loving had finished, he would ask her to plow his fields for him on his tractor, while he snoozed nearby. I hope she was driving the tractor that was playing Nusrat so loudly that spring night.

Are you working on anything new?

I’ve just sold a novel to Norton. It’s set entirely in the US, all the characters are American. It describes the entire life of a woman from Wisconsin, starting when she’s eighteen and living in a small farming town known as Miller’s Prairie, until her death many years later as a New York lady. It’s about money and class, which are so much more freighted in America than they are in Pakistan. (Joke!) I’m working on the final edits of the book, with my editor standing by me and tapping her heel.

Your stories—the characters especially—have been described with a lot of sensitivity, even when their content borders on the brutal. Is this a conscious choice, and if so, could you speak a little about how you enforce it?

Violence is part of life, and much more overtly so in Pakistan in the countryside than in the West. Armed men there often settle their disputes with violence. The law is poorly administered. Drama is central to writing stories, so I make use of that – describe that violence – which is both dramatically useful and also is true to the place. Violence is, however, universal. People, especially men, are programmed to dominate each other, in the course of their competition for resources. Unfortunately, a man conquering kingdoms makes better copy than a man happily raising a happy family.     

In several interviews, you’ve mentioned how you write for a Western audience and can’t make any assumptions about what they know. How do you strike a balance between explaining and over-explaining certain concepts that aren’t readily apparent in Western society?

Did I say a Western audience? I write for Pakistanis, as well – and Turks and Japanese and whichever readership is enough interested in my work that someone will translate it for them.

But stories are all about translation, about translating a particular experience – mine – and giving it meaning that resonates with readers. We write about our commonalities. I’ve never climbed an 8,000 meter peak, and yet I found myself engrossed recently in Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna, about climbing that mountain. Because he tells the story in terms that I understand, I can experience the brutal effort required to climb in deep snow at altitude, throwing the dice, which means death if you lose.

That said, there are aspects of Pakistani culture that are not known to a wider audience – the biradri caste system, for example, which is not a caste system at all – there is no English word to describe it. In those cases, I try to explain enough so that any reader, a Croat today or a Brazilian in a hundred years, may understand. In general, a little is better than too much – I’d rather have my reader puzzled than bored.

In many parts of South Asia, people often speak a hybrid of their regional language and English, such as Urdu-English, or Hindi-English. I was curious whether you had ever thought to include such language in your work, especially if you are writing a piece set in the present age as people use it all the time colloquially and on social media?

The problem with using Hinglish or Engdu is that those (delicious! delicious!) compositions can only be understood by people conversant in both languages. My audience is limited enough by the fact that I occasionally use four syllable words –   I’m not sure I can afford (or my publishers can afford) for me to refine my audience further.

You have elaborated on how there is a shrine of a Sufi saint on your farm, and that people hang cradles on the trees next to it as offerings, and that part of your land was cordoned off by religious authorities. Will such manifestations of religion enter the lives of your characters on the farm? Perhaps not to make a political statement, because in your conversation with Reza Aslan, you mentioned how writing shouldn’t necessarily be motivated by political intentions, but in the same transparent, individualistic way as the other social and class structures that govern your characters?

I suppose so. If I’m writing a story in the future that requires me to speak of the character’s religious attitudes, then I will explore that. The people I know well are either not religious at all (people I know in the cities) or are religious in such a fundamental way that, while it colors their entire view of the world, they never think about it much – certainly not as an abstraction. When Chekhov writes about a man whose entire life is taken up with religious devotions (The Bishop) the story is not about religion at all.

Could you speak a little bit about Husna, the protagonist of the story In Other Rooms, Other Wonders? Even though she tries to curry favor with K.K. Harouni and transcend her social station, there seems to be something fundamentally different about her because she is Mr. Harouni’s distant relative.

I suppose that, because she is a distant relative, K.K. Harouni lets down his guard with her. For him to import a woman off the street into his house would be a betrayal of his principles. Her being a distant relative makes her slightly more halal.

Since your short stories show a fading feudal aristocracy, how do you think the third generation of this feudal class looks upon their heritage? For example, how would Sonya and Sohail’s son view his family farms?

I’ve been working on the same book, set in America, for six years now. In my present state, Pakistan is such a juicy subject. Once I slip the bonds of the novel, by turning it in to the publisher, I intend to clear my throat with a few short stories. One of these is about a third-generation member of that feudal aristocracy and his difficulties with his property. I invite you to read it (meh ap ko dawat dehta hoon) and there find the answer to your question!

But Sohail’s son is unlikely to be willing or able to lead the kind of life that includes managing a Pakistani property, under present conditions. I suppose he would either sell it or lose it to the machinations of some interesting character.

In the book, the elite Pakistani women, such as Rafia and K.K. Harouni’s daughters, are familiar with the West—they holiday in London, Paris, and Rome. However, they seem mildly suspicious of Helen and Sonya, both American. Could you speak a little about this dichotomy?

These types of Pakistanis have an odd relationship with Americans. They want to be like them, but they can’t help thinking of them as slightly ridiculous. The Pakistani government has been picking Uncle Sam’s pocket for the last fifty years. It’s hard to take seriously the victim of your repeated frauds, the partner whose moneybags you plunder.

Women like Rafia and Harouni’s daughters are, in any case, Pakistani to their core. They’re Westernized only to the extent that they go abroad and enjoy Western facilities. At bottom, they’re Punjabis.

In an interview with Asia Society, you spoke about how love in Pakistan is like a “forbidden secret,” and your collection depicts lots of sex, used mostly to disrupt the status quo. I was wondering how you make the distinction between love and lust in your work and if you think it is important at all?

My mother said that sex isn’t enough to make a marriage, but that without sex there is no marriage. I suppose there are lots of couples married these last four decades who would dispute this with her. Of course lust can exist without love, and generally does. The distinction between them is important.  Many people mistake lust for love, and in life as in fiction this is a very expensive confusion.

Could you speak a little about the interlinked nature of your short stories?

I began writing short stories when I entered the U of Arizona MFA program. Two or three stories in, I became aware that, with a bit of jimmying and shimmying and coordination of details, I could make the ones set in Pakistan or involving Pakistani characters into a coherent set. This coordination appealed to me – it adds richness to the collection – and so I began consciously working on those lines. Each story stands separately, I hope, but a collection of them is larger than the sum of the parts.

You mentioned that you’d originally written twenty-five short stories, out of which eight were selected for the collection. Will we ever get to read the others? Were they also interlinked?

I doubt that I will revise and publish the rest of those stories. I’m no longer the same person that I was those many years ago, nor do I have the same artistic sensibility. I would rather go forward than back.

Time functions differently in your short stories. For some of them, we get the whole life story of a particular character, such as in “Saleema,” or two very different accounts of a character’s life, such as Sohail’s in “Our Lady of Paris” and “A Spoiled Man.” Could you tell us a little more about your choices on time?

Time management is one of the most vexed aspects of writing fiction. Movement through time naturally offers all kinds of risks and rewards in terms of the pacing of a story. In general, my view is that it’s best to move quickly. Emerson says, In skating over thin ice, our safety is in our speed. Stories are illusion, which is thin ice indeed.

***

Ananya Shah ’17 is a staff writer for Post who concentrates in Literary Arts and Applied Math-Economics.