Writer Daniyal Mueenuddin on Pakistan, Fame

Writer Daniyal Mueenuddin on Pakistan, Fame

Writer Daniyal Mueenuddin estimates he's made the flight between Pakistan and the U.S. at least 50 times. His father, a Pakistani civil servant, and his mother, an American journalist from Wisconsin, met in Washington, D.C., and moved to Lahore, Pakistan, after they married. Mueenuddin's maternal grandfather, a surgeon, insisted his daughter return to the States to give birth after he visited a Pakistan hospital and saw a cat having kittens in the operating room, which is how the writer came to be born in Los Angeles. He returned to Lahore when he was just a few months old, then moved back to America as a teen, attending Groton and Dartmouth. Over the next decade he continued zigzagging between the two countries. Today, he lives in Pakistan, running the family farm and writing stories about the country he sees with both an outsider's sense of marvel (cats in the operating room!) and a native's sense of place. In 2008, his story "Nawabdin, Electrician" was selected by Salman Rushdie for inclusion in the 2008 edition of The Best American Short Stories, and his debut collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, was published earlier this year. Jennie Yabroff spoke with Mueenuddin about Pakistani fiction, the downside of popularity and the true meaning of home.

Yabroff: Pakistani fiction is quite popular in the West right now, with novels by Mohammed Hanif ( A Case of Exploding Mangoes ) and Mohsin Hamid ( The Reluctant Fundamentalist ) getting a lot of attention, as did your story collection. Most of these writers either live outside Pakistan or have spent significant amounts of time in the West. Do you think it's necessary to get outside the country to write about it?
Mueenuddin: I think it is remarkable that so many of these writers who are getting prominence do have this perspective from the West. One explanation is that we're writing for Western audiences, mostly, and it's like translation: you have to know the language you're translating into perfectly. It's obviously very useful to understand the audience you're writing for. This becomes most relevant in my writing when I'm writing dialogue. I intuit what the characters would say, and then put it in a way that feels like real speech in English. My task is both complicated and enriched by the fact [that] my readers don't know a damn thing about the world I'm describing. With the story "Nawabdin, Electrician," I had to make the audience understand why this guy is having 13 children. For example, a man who works in my house here had a son a year ago who died. Yesterday I sent his wife to have an ultrasound. This evening the man came to give me dinner, and he had a huge smile. Normally this is a pretty dour man. He showed me the ultrasound, which showed his wife is carrying twins. For him, this was wonderful news. That has a weight here that Westerners cannot understand. In the West, it might be like, "Twins; oh no, what are we going to do?" There's a view of fertility here that the Westerner doesn't have, so you have to subtly explain things like that. I can't assume that the reader understands.

You've spoken before about feeling very grateful for the current interest in Pakistani fiction, in that it's brought you a big readership, but is there any downside to its popularity?
One feels limited by it. I'd like to be identified as a writer, not a Pakistani writer. Sometimes I feel like if I'd been from Botswana, no one would give a damn about my writing, and that undermines my confidence. Perhaps in the minds of readers, they think, "Oh, this guy got lucky. He happened to be mining Pakistan when everybody wants to be reading about Pakistan."

In your story "A Spoiled Man," the character Sonya, an American woman married to a Pakistani man, says Pakistan is "like a drug." She goes on to say, "I think I miss the States so much—and I do—and then after a month there I'm completely bored. Pakistan makes everything else seem washed out. This is my place now." Do you relate to Sonya's feelings about going between the two countries?
That emotion is very much my own. Pakistan is so extreme in so many ways. It's so vivid and violent. When I am here, I am so connected to everyone on my farm, and I have so many responsibilities. After living here for a while, I feel like, "No more of that." Then I go to America and everything is breezy, life is ordered. In New York, for example, you don't even know who your neighbors are, and you don't really want to know. After a while, though, I feel like, "Where's the beef?" Going back and forth like that, one ends up being a citizen of both places, and neither. For a writer, that's a very rich thing. I joke with people that I am like the IDPs [internally displaced people] in Pakistan you read about in the news, but for me it's really internal—I'm displaced within myself.

Home, in the most literal sense, is very significant to several of the characters in your stories, such as the character in "A Spoiled Man," who travels with a little hut he sets up wherever he settles. And in the story that is running on NEWSWEEK, you describe the room where the beggar lives in such vivid detail. Are these structures you've actually seen people living in?
The structure in which the man in "A Spoiled Man" lives actually exists. Many years ago, a man came to my father when we were living in Lahore. He was a carpenter, a terrible carpenter, as it turned out. He said, "I'd like to live in your servants' quarters." My father said he didn't have any room, and the man said, "I'll bring my own quarters with me if you just let me park it there," so that's where I got that idea. Then, I took six months off from college in the 1980s and was living in Greece. I was hitchhiking in the Peloponnese, and I walked through this depressed little town, and I saw this room and this man was sitting there. He had the door open and the windows open, and he was sitting there, chewing his gums. His whole life was there to see, tidily arranged. The room was painted this lurid red. It was sort of womblike. It struck me very strongly.

What about symbolically, the importance of the idea of home to these characters? Is that something that you want to investigate because you've spent so much of your life going back and forth between two homes?
There's a line in the poem "Lilith," by George MacDonald, where he says home is the only place you can out of and go back into. [Editor's note: The full quotation is "for home, as you may or may not know, is the only place where you can go out and in. There are places you can go into, and places you can go out of; but the one place, if you do but find it, where you may go out and in both, is home."] There are two homes in the world that when I leave them, I say goodbye. One is this farm, and the other is the farm my mother owns in Wisconsin. When I leave those places, I say goodbye, and I know I'll be back.

Do any of the people who know you as a farmer read your stories?
They don't. The people who work here think I'm off my rocker for spending hours every day typing away on my computer. Recently, Pakistani TV has talked about my writing a little bit, so the people here have become a little aware. There have been several newspapers that have published photographs where I'm standing next to one of the people who work here, and they're always delighted to see the pictures. After Wallace Stevens died, they asked some buddy of his who also worked at the life insurance company [where Stevens worked] to say a few words about him. The man said he couldn't make heads or tails of Stevens' poetry, but he was a hell of an insurance salesman. So you never know what you'll be remembered for.

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