INTERVIEW: Anis Shivani
To open by listing author Anis Shivani’s many accomplishments — the prestigious journals where his work has appeared, the awards, the accolades — would be to take up half my column-space. Suffice it to say that Shivani, who writes short fiction, poetry, criticism, and has his first novel coming out this fall, has been humbly sharpening his craft here, in his adopted home, since the mid-90s.
What brought you to Houston? From where did you come?
By the mid-1990s I felt like I needed to get away from the New England/New York bubble if I was ever going to become a “real” writer. The decision to move to Houston, or any culturally less-sophisticated place (which Houston was then, but is less so now), extracted a heavy toll in terms of alienation, but it was a price worth paying.
I wrote a tremendous amount of crap in the late 1990s, making every literary mistake possible, but it’s an unavoidable process. I must have written a million terrible words of fiction before anything good came out. I had to overcome a tendency toward didacticism, because I’d done a fair amount of journalism, and I also had to get past the scholarly attitude and instead think like a writer. That started happening when I cut myself off from academic ties, and tried to make sense of writing from many different time periods and genres, as someone in the 1920s or 1930s might have done in some bohemian enclave in New York or Paris without the institutional support and grant money which is the staple of the artistic life today. I acted as though the structural mechanisms of writing didn’t exist, so I could discover my own style without any pressure to conform. My writing would have been utterly different had I not followed this idiosyncratic path. In the early years I socialized very little, lived in a miserable ghetto, and spent all day every day at the library; I couldn’t exert a fraction of that sort of inhuman discipline if I wanted to now.
The conservatism of the South was a shock; I’d never encountered such belief in faith, family, and homeland before, but I did appreciate that the people seemed more “real” than the theory-besotted pseudo-intellectuals in our bohemian capitals. I still appreciate that.
What do you think of the local literary scene? How do you fit in (or not)? In other words, what is your place in the local literary “scene?”?
The local literary scene is becoming more diverse by the day. Different aesthetics can now flourish on their own without being pushed by competing tendencies. The growing interaction of the broader arts community with the literary community is an exceptional development. The geographical concentration of artistic and literary activity in a single district is also great, because such density is helpful for organic evolution. Lately I’ve become worried though about the accelerated gentrification of the arts district, which can damage the critical mass that’s already developed. The neighborhood has barely had time to take off before the vultures have swept in.
All kinds of fiction and poetry are being written here; you can always start a group or movement to suit your tendency. I love what Fran Sanders does with Houston Public Poetry, and I’m happy to be part of it. It’s great exposure for KUHF’s Front Row to interview poets reading in that series! The Mongoose vs. Cobra series run by Shafer Hall brings in diverse voices from around the country; Houstonians should go out of their way to support it. I’m thrilled to be reading at Kaboom Books soon, as part of Steven Wolfe’s LitFuse series. There’s some interesting literary event or other always going on. Brazos Bookstore brings exciting writers almost every day. Poet Kevin Prufer has started a series bringing in readers from far away. The Inprint reading series has its all-time most impressive lineup this year, including Mohsin Hamid in March, so all credit to Rich Levy. It’s exciting that a major poet like Fady Joudah, who just won the Griffin Prize, lives in our midst. Being part of this scene is very rewarding.
My one big reservation is the dominance of the UH creative writing program, but I hope we’ve created enough of a base that their hegemony is less threatening. It’s never healthy when a city has a well-known MFA program that monopolizes every outlet and establishes an exclusivist sense of hierarchy, based on the necessity of supporting members of the in-group alone. This still happens-for example, the UH clique’s tendency not to attend readings by anyone else outside their own group-but there’s so much else going on that we can safely ignore them.
I would love to see even more interaction between the arts and literary communities. It would be nice to have more discussions, not just readings of one’s own work, but this goes against the MFA aesthetic of reciting one’s musings as though they were revelations from on high, not susceptible to critical analysis. It’s time to take it to the next level in Houston by becoming more collaborative and sophisticated. The emergence of more informal salons, rather than the usual established venues, would be welcome. This will all happen over time. Much of what one experiences as “readings” hardly ascends to the level of art, it is simply confessional/memoiristic outpouring little touched by the subtleties of technique, but in a dynamic environment there are ways to get past that.
Sometimes you use non-English words which may not be familiar to all your readers (murshid, pehelwan, parathas, tamasha, lathis, etc). Why do you do this? What is gained by this, and is it worth it to risk alienating some readers to this end? (I also do this, but I will refrain from sharing my reasons unless you want to know.)
Some literary agents have wondered about that in the past, and I haven’t liked it. I always provide enough context within the narrative to make sense of the unfamiliar vocabulary. It’s the lazy reader not willing to invest in the concreteness of the world I’m creating who gets so easily alienated. It’s a dead giveaway of someone who comes to my work with a preconceived bias. The other common ones are, “Your female characters are too strong” (a prominent agent on the west coast told me that about Anatolia), or that “Your work is too real” (a top editor felt that way about Karachi Raj).
Certain ethnic communities have long been used to sprinkling “foreign” words in their fiction, but when they do it, it’s considered a mark of authenticity and they’re admired for it. If you yield a little, the richness of the sound will provoke you. Language wants to be made over in the image of the writer. Wait another few years, and you’ll see how the rising countries of the world have their way with English. The novel I’m writing now, Abruzzi, 1936, is set at the peak of fascism, and here again the context should always make clear what the unfamiliar vocabulary is getting at. It’s a neat way to enrich the reading experience.
What is up with the cover on The Fifth Lash? I realize you may not have had any say in its selection, but it might set up some readers to expect gay s&m erotica. What is the relationship between pain and eroticism?
The gay part isn’t in that book-that was going to be my Bangladesh novel-but the s&m erotica is there, sort of, in a story like “Jealousy” or “Alienation, Jihad, Burqa, Apostasy.” I had everything to do with the selection of that cover, which has been true for my other books too. The cover of My Tranquil War is a painting by George Grosz, which I always wanted even before the book was finished. The Fifth Lash’s cover is by the well-known Pakistani photographer Tapu Javeri; it’s called Ghulam, which means slave. Slave to what kind of desire, is the question that keeps recurring throughout The Fifth Lash, which often traffics in thwarted, repressed, perverse sexuality. It is a reflection of coming to terms with sexuality, which is true of any writer at the early stages. The cover reflects how things seem upside-down when it comes to the East interpreting the West, and vice versa, truer after 9/11 than ever before. It evokes pain and exorcism, which are necessary to get past one’s dinosaur identities and evolve into something more human and global and catholic. It suggests an overwhelming narcissism, which is often true of the characters in The Fifth Lash. In other fiction my characters have been more self-aware, exercising more agency, but that’s not true of The Fifth Lash, where fate plays a greater role. There’s a section in Karachi Raj actually involving gay s&m erotica, including stuff happening at Data Darbar! The Fifth Lash cover may well be pointing to my future. But there is enough disturbing sex-or non-sex-in The Fifth Lash as it is to keep anyone stimulated.
Some of your characters are Muslim Zionists. (“His older brother used to mock him for daring to plunge his tiny body into the melee, like tiny Israel in the the middle of the vast Arab lands, inviting certain destruction. Of course, Israel had thrived, while the Arabs languished…” and “In my opinion, there’s only one democracy in that part of the world, and the only one in the foreseeable future: Israel. The rest can only be shams.”) You have been commended, in print, for your ability to depict a broad Muslim diaspora-are you choosing to depict Zionist Muslim characters as another way to show the breadth of Muslims’ political opinions, or is there something else at work here?
I’ve thought about this after the book came out. The first quote is from “What It’s Like to Be a Stranger In Your Own Home,” about an Egyptian engineer named Mo(hammed) in New Jersey, caught in a web of suspicion right after 9/11. A lot of the paranoia is of his own making, as is typical when such hysterias take hold of any society. Mo wants desperately to belong, to the extent that when he’s fired from his job, he imagines a letter to his father in Egypt about how well he’s been treated by his former employer, how he’s never lacked for dignity and respect. It’s illusion, insupportable rhetoric meant to convince himself of his musings about Israel versus the Arabs.
The same applies to the second excerpt, from the story called “Growing Up Blind, in a Hotly Contested State,” where Safdar, a South Asian professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Mt. Holyoke College, is in utter denial about his marital situation, while his wife lives away from him in a Boston apartment and is having an affair. Safdar is proud of his lineage from the Prophet, but is eager not to be seen as being too closely allied to Islam, despite his scholarly interest in Islamic constitutionalism. He mocks the Syrians, Algerians, Egyptians, and other Arabs who hold democracy panels at his elite university. Safdar’s reactions can be interpreted very differently in the changing periods of turmoil that overcame the Arab world in the early 1990s, the early 2000s, and in the aftermath of the recent “revolutions.”
Obeisance to Israel may be a form of identity marker, a shortcut to belonging where perhaps one may never belong.
Your first novel is coming out soon. What do you want to tell Free Press readers about that?
Karachi Raj will wash you of any impurities you might have accumulated during the watching of Slumdog Millionaire. For a long time I’d called it The Slums of Karachi, but that didn’t capture the totality of the book, which extends far beyond the slums, though that is a major setting. I came up with the current title during a brainstorming session at Cafe Brasil, as is true of the titles of my other books.
Karachi Raj is based on the actual slum called Orangi Pilot Project, founded by a major South Asian NGO leader, Akhtar Hameed Khan, who started his efforts in what used to be East Pakistan, and then brought it to West Pakistan after the 1971 war between the two parts of the country. Khan believed that slum dwellers could improve their lot by not relying on others, but by taking the initiative to make their environment conducive to health and prosperity. Self-improvement ties in with micro-lending, which has become very popular. Karachi Raj describes the efforts of a brother and sister to transcend their situation, and while things look good for the young woman, because she takes advantage of a university scholarship, they don’t look as good for her brother, who starts off in a menial job and ends up in an even more subservient situation. The third leading character is an anthropologist from Boston University, Claire, who’s doing fieldwork for a year, staying in the slum and interacting with an assortment of characters, Pakistani and foreign.
I wanted to present a panoramic view of Karachi, such as has not been offered before in English fiction, and to connect the meanings of spaces, public and private, with the enormous economic and social transformation countries like Pakistan are experiencing as they race to make the most of globalization. How things are different from the received image of Pakistan in the wake of changes in class and gender relations, and how they’re still the same, is what I tried to address. It’s not straightforwardly realistic-I’m probably constitutionally incapable of writing in that vein-because it has a fair amount of absurdity built into it. Karachi emerges as perhaps the dominant character, and the phantasmagoric descriptions of the city, as it goes about its ruthless business as any major commercial city does, are, I hope, fresh and illuminating. And the book is funny. I really did not want to write a serious, earnest, politically correct book about poverty and misery in South Asia, so that’s not the style of the book at all. It’s not explicitly political, there are no terrorists, no family secrets, and the women come out very well against the men, so there you have it, I’ve written precisely the wrong kind of novel for the New York mafia.
Very few writers work in multiple forms, but you have published award-winning fiction and poetry (and criticism). Why do you work in these two forms, or why do you choose one form over the other? In other words, when you choose to write on a subject, what determines whether you’ll approach it in prose or poetry? And how are the processes different?
Poetry is simply an intensification of what I already bring to any form of writing. Even my critical pieces tend to be organic, dense, and allusive, not journalistic. My fiction is becoming more lyrical and poetical, so there’s that convergence. When something is really difficult to express I turn to poetry, whereas ideas that are more clear are conducive to fiction, and ideas that are clearest of all probably find expression in critical prose. I go to poetry when I’m least sure of what’s going on in my head, and I want to be surprised by what emerges. In fiction there has to be a sense of beginning, middle, and end, or I would get lost and never finish.
The novel requires mastery of all other forms-poetry, drama, essay-so there is that convergence too, but obviously the novel is conceived on a much bigger scale. Poetry is often my gateway to prose, it gives me a tentative grasp before I take things further. I recently became very emotionally invested in a book of 100 sonnets, Soraya, by far the most pleasurable thing I’ve ever written; the genre was dictated by the idea, which involved a tense struggle with my inscrutable muse. I could have written lyrical essays on the subject, but the baroque density of the conflict, which simultaneously charms and alienates, is perfect for poetry.
My next book of poetry is called Empire, where I take four instances-the British Raj, the Han dynasty, Spain in Mexico, and America in Vietnam-to explore correspondences in the administration of empire, letting both rulers and ruled speak in ways that justify their behavior to themselves. This will be more narrative, expansive, descriptive poetry than I’ve ever written before, but because I want to get at the ineffable nature of empire, poetry seems best. If I wanted to write a treatise on a specific aspect of empire, and I’d done all my research and knew precisely what I wanted to say, then a social science tract might be best, not poetry.
Criticism functions as the great equilibrium-setter for me. I always dream of a time when I won’t have to write any criticism, but it serves some essential need in letting me advance from style to style, so that I don’t get stuck in a rut. Criticism lets me keep my own work at a distance so I don’t start thinking of it as untouchable gospel. All writing is provisional and unsanctified, incomplete and apologetic, and criticism anchors me in that skepticism.
Shivani will be reading at Kaboom! Books’s LitFuse reading series on November 14. In the meantime, his short story collections The Fifth Lash and Anatolia, his poetry collection My Tranquil War, and his book of criticism Against the Workshop, are available at Kaboom!, Brazos Bookstore, and other local independent bookstores and libraries. His debut novel, Karachi Raj, will be published this fall.