“Telling Stories That Feel True”: A Conversation with Dur e Aziz Amna




IN HIRA, the protagonist of her debut novel American Fever, Dur e Aziz Amna has written an unashamedly female, Pakistani, Muslim character. But she didn’t set out to do so. Hira is part her, part other women she’s met and been influenced by. “She’s me, but perhaps angrier, less diplomatic, hopefully less mature,” she says. The author is strongly convinced that “all good literature is moral, but breaking stereotypes feels like an uninspired corrective to aim for, yet another way in which certain kinds of writing and writers are infantilized.”

Indeed, nothing in the novel seems forced or contrived. Amna writes about memory and migration, language and loss, tradition and translation, racism and Islamophobia, the United States and Pakistan, with ease and elegance, intelligence and irreverence, warmth and wisdom, humor and heart. She is an astute observer and storyteller of the world we live in — the world young girls of color come into and move through. While she tells a coming-of-age, coming-to-America story, she does so with a voice that is very much her own. American Fever is one for fans of Daphne Palasi Andreades’s Brown Girls and NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names.

In this interview, the Forbes 30 Under 30” nominee talks about the distinction between identifying as an immigrant or an emigrant, the cultural and logistical connections between language and knowledge, and how so much of her work starts and ends with Faiz Ahmad Faiz.

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SANA GOYAL: Hira is such a fully realized and assured protagonist. Where did American Fever begin — was it a scene, a specific landscape, an emotion?

DUR e AZIZ AMNA: The premise of the novel — a young woman’s departure from urban Pakistan to rural America on an exchange program — is rooted in autobiography. I did a similar exchange year during high school, back in 2008. When I decided to commit to my first novel in 2018, I knew I wanted to write about that experience, partly because it felt so strange and different from the rest of my life, and partly because 10 years had gone by, and I felt that it had sufficiently congealed in my mind to be turned into fiction.

Can you talk about your writing process? The good and bad writing days?

This process is now a thing of the past, because I recently had my second kid, and I can only work in precious, snatched minutes here and there, but the novel was written before I was a mother, and it was written in very productive sprints. I would not write for half a year and then suddenly devote an entire month, morning till night, every single day, to it. Since the premise and plot were clear to me from the start, I don’t remember having too many bad writing days, or perhaps I have repressed the memory. I do remember when I finished the New York chapter, probably my favorite one from the book, and I left my desk tingly with adrenaline and happiness, one of those times when you know you delivered the words you had promised yourself.

You approach “the immigrant story” through a unique perspective — through someone who is on the cusp of adolescence, on a study abroad program. Can you talk about this intervention and disruption in what is otherwise arguably such an overtold, oversold story? 

On the one hand, migration is, abstractly put, the story of everyone’s life. On the other hand, there are certain movements, mostly westward, specifically to the Anglosphere, that are “overtold, oversold,” as you said. It felt very intimidating, and perhaps that was one of the main points of anxiety for me while writing the book, that I was contributing to that very well-stocked category of fiction. Hira’s specific circumstances — her liminality as an exchange student, with one foot back home in Pakistan — gave me odd comfort, because that allowed her to have a uniquely skewed perspective.

Early on in the book, you write: “Ammi […] said girls grew up bolder, louder, and uncaged when not in the shadow of men.” On the following page, you write: “It’s one of the ways in which older women punish younger ones for what the world has done to them. If it was this way for us, they think, why not for them as well?” Can you talk more about that idea of women punishing women, across generations, and what the difference between the two statements is? 

We talk a lot about solidarity, and I think it’s important to keep in mind that solidarity is often not a natural, organic thing that exists between similarly oppressed peoples but one that must be actively worked towards. Growing up in Pakistan, for instance, one very familiar dynamic was the relationship between women and their mothers-in-law, because so many couples live in joint family systems, and it is very common for the mother-in-law to be unforgiving, often cruel, to her son’s wife. And at face value, it is shocking that a woman would do that to another woman, especially if she faced the same problems earlier in life, but that incredulity is naïve. In a deeply patriarchal society, what is her incentive to treat her daughter-in-law differently?

When Hira is in America, she says:

In the coming days, it would strike me as an oddity, even a lack of imagination, how often my points of reference flitted to that other continent. I would tell myself to be more present, that not everything was a slanted version of the thing I remembered from home. I took it to be a frustrating sign of my newness in America, and not for what it was — the forever condition of anyone living away from the city, town, street she had known to be the world.

Can you talk about memory, movement, and remembering home through fiction? 

A friend of mine once made the distinction between identifying as an immigrant — defining yourself in relation to the point of arrival — or an emigrant — defining yourself in relation to the point of departure, the place you left. And I think that so much of moving to another place is a constant tussle between these two identities, which can almost feel like time travel. You are a person who left; you are a person who came. You are a person who knows nothing; you are a person who remembers everything.

There’s a stunning sentence in the final passage of Colm Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn; it’s from the scene where — spoiler alert! — Eilis is on a ship back to America, having decided to leave behind the Irishman who is courting her and return to her husband in America, a decision that “would come to mean less and less to the [Irishman] and would come to mean more and more to herself.” I remember how time and space melted away for a while when I read this sentence, because it so powerfully encapsulates my feelings about my own move to the United States — it’s a decision that will mean less and less to others, but for me, it will be a “forever condition,” as Hira puts it.

Your criticisms spare neither America nor Pakistan: you indict the former’s violence and excess and the latter’s outdated notions of femininity and respectability. Without drawing sharp binaries, can you unpack this a little — and say why you chose fiction as the vessel for your criticisms? 

Hira is a very skeptical person, unforgiving and brash in ways that might suit a teenager but would look terrible on an adult. So, a lot of the unsparing critique comes from her, and is not necessarily a reflection of my views on either country. To me, the novel is the story of a young person coming of age in today’s world. Novels about foreigners in America are often held up by well-meaning readers as testimonies about America itself, but I didn’t write the novel as a rehabilitation program for either country.

In terms of Hira’s relationship with America, she says: “[W]e talked incessantly about the gap between here and there. With each articulated difference, we flattened ourselves and let America define us. We were only ever what it was not.” Can you talk about this difference and lack and the articulation of identity? 

This is while Hira is describing conversations between herself and the two other exchange students at the American high school, and it’s partly inspired by my own experience of what it is like to be outsiders together. When I attended college in the United States, it was common for the international students to hang out together and speak of “the Americans” in a hushed, conspiratorial manner. I remember the day “the Americans” were going to descend on the campus at the end of the international student orientation; it felt like an invasion. It was quite amusing.

Of course, as the book talks about at some other point, being outsiders together can be its own kind of camaraderie, and it can create communities that would not have been possible without migration. And yet, I think it’s good to be suspicious of these alliances too, because they ignore all that you were before the point of departure and also because they can obfuscate very real differences of class that exist between different sets of migrants.

There are several moments when Hira feels “straightjacketed by English.” There’s a lot here about translatability — between Urdu and English, between cultures and continents. Can you talk about your relationship to language?  

Because I’ve written so extensively about this elsewhere, I feel the need to mention this essay, which speaks in detail about my relationship with language. Like so much of the world outside of the Anglosphere, I grew up in multiple languages — the local dialect of Punjabi that my parents spoke, the more widely spoken Punjabi of the province, and Urdu. Most of our schooling was in English, which led to all the classic schisms of identity that postcolonial literature is rife with, some of which are interesting and some of which, I’ve come to realize, are not. What remains true, however, is that so many thoughts come to me in both Urdu and English. When I’m being sarcastic with my children, I revert to Punjabi phrases I don’t even realize my tongue possesses. So, at this point, I feel less of what Hira felt, “straightjacketed” because she is constrained to only English, although I remember that feeling quite well.

The other thing that you astutely point out is the connection between language and knowledge, be it cultural or logistical. Hira feels lost in her early days in America not only because she is not comfortable speaking exclusively in English, but also because she does not know how things work there, which is a more practical way of looking at the language dilemma. Immigrants don’t feel unmoored by language because of angst, or at least most of them don’t. They quite literally don’t know the names of things.

And, to follow, you write about the long imperial shadow of English: “[W]e are taught to peg our worth to how well we know the language.” You also leave Urdu words and phrases untranslated in the novel. Can you talk about this act of resistance — if you would call it that — against English? 

You know, what I remember is that, in the first draft of the novel, I had every non-English word italicized, and it was an American literary agent, a really brilliant woman whom I never ended up working with, who read the draft and told me to get rid of the italics. And I did, feeling very intrepid honestly, and now I look back at it and it feels like such low-hanging fruit. Even the untranslated words — which, by the way, don’t always feel untranslated to me, because a big part of my imagined audience is people who understand Urdu and Punjabi. But none of this is enough. Is a writer’s idiom reflecting the influence of all the languages she claims to know and cherish? Do poetry and cadence and folklore make their way across the linguistic barrier? Is she influenced by writers writing in different languages? Is she telling stories that feel true, not warped? These are the things that matter.

Around the halfway mark, you write, with self-awareness,

[that] there’s a strain of story this could fall into. The foreigner trying to fit in, hindered by accent and Fahrenheit and the Imperial system. The intelligent immigrant turned hapless by America. The outsider on the periphery of America. The entranced documenter of America.

The truth — I was bloody bored.

I thought this was so refreshing to read — to see a coming-of-age, coming-to-America story through the eyes of a young person. Can you talk about writing from this perspective, and avoiding “falling into” that other strain? 

It’s interesting that you link Hira’s boredom with her age, because of course that’s truer than I realized while writing it. Teenagers are perpetually bored. But I think it is also a common state for a lot of people who move from a place they know well to one they don’t. Newness is not interesting. It’s ironic because, for a lot of migrants, their move is perhaps the most significant act of their life, and yet, so much of the act itself — the documentation, the travel, the misunderstandings, the silence, God, the silence — is tedium. It’s only interesting in story.

Which writers inspire and inform your practice? Who were you reading while writing this book? 

So much of my work starts and ends with Faiz; very literally, the first epigraph in the novel is one of his most famous quatrains, and he is evoked again towards the end of the novel. Other, wider influences include a lot of memoirists, including Ibn-e-Insha, Joan Didion, Hisham Matar, and Binyavanga Wainaina. In the past couple of years, I’ve also been grateful for brilliant thinkers like Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Aijaz Ahmad, Minae Mizumura, and Aamir Mufti, who have challenged a lot of my ideas about language and culture.

While writing and editing the novel, I was also reading broadly within the genre of strangers-in-a-new-land: Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, among others.

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Sana Goyal is deputy and reviews editor at Wasafiri magazine and marketing and outreach officer at Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Poetry London, PBLJ, Brixton Review of Books, Wasafiri, Vogue India, and elsewhere. She lives between Birmingham, and Bombay, and tweets @SansyG.

 

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