Moving Beyond the Trappings of Multilingualism: Farah Ali interviews Dur e Aziz Amna

 

DUR e AZIZ AMNA is the author of American Fever, a coming-of-age story replete with warmth, poeticism, and wit. It is a story about home and homeland and refuses to settle for easy definitions of either. The Guardian calls American Fever “a subversive debut” and the Los Angeles Review of Books calls it “a quiet triumph.” Over a series of emails, FARAH ALI and Dur e discussed how Dur e avoided sketching reductive pictures of Pakistan and America, illness as a vehicle for revealing uncomfortable truths, and the ways certain ideas are shattered after leaving home.

Farah Ali: The novel talks about the myth that leaving the homeland—Pakistan—is better, but Hira is a skeptical protagonist. Where did your idea of Hira come from?

Dur e Aziz Amna: Like Hira, I did an exchange program in high school that took me from urban Pakistan—Rawalpindi—to the rural Pacific Northwest of the US. I wanted to use that experience but give Hira a certain anger and tendency to judge that I don’t remember having or at least publicly exercising. 

FA: What made you decide to use the frame of Hira’s tuberculosis, especially the kind of sickness that she had? Did it serve to highlight some differences in people’s attitudes toward serious illness in the two countries? 

DA: So, I read Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor after selling American Fever, and I was quite stunned because it felt like such an interesting contrast with my own book. Sontag talks about tuberculosis as this romantic disease plaguing literary figures throughout Europe, a disease that was considered almost spiritual. At the same time, it is also a disease of poverty, of close quarters, of urban filth. Given that it’s such an ancient illness, there is so much mythology and metaphor associated with it. And here is Hira, this sheltered teenager from a good family, and suddenly she has this disease. It makes her a pariah of sorts in the rural American community she is in, where no one knows anything about it and very much thinks that she brought it over from her home country. The disease felt to me like a good way to highlight Hira’s position as an outsider.

 

A lot of the consolation and happiness in life comes from things like memory, poetry, and language.”

 

FA: You said in an interview with Jamil Jan Kochai that Faiz was the first poet you read with intention, and his words have had a lifelong impact on you. I love that Faiz is also the first poet for Hira. How does that affect her coming-of-age?

DA: Hira’s introduction to the poet comes at a critical time, at a time when she is at her loneliest and most isolated in the US. The poetry feels like a homecoming to language, and it also reminds her that after that initial loss of innocence that coming of age entails, a lot of the consolation and happiness in life come from things like memory, poetry, and language. 

FA: So much can be said about whether leaving a place means leaving a language. Do you think writing deeply about a place can transcend the chosen, non-native language it’s been written in?

DA: It’s funny you ask this because I’ve been thinking so much about it. Actually, I’m always thinking about this. My views on language, particularly the fact of being multilingual and writing in English, are constantly shifting, and have shifted tremendously since writing American Fever. In some ways, I still think that there is an inherent rupture. You were raised in one language; you write in another; the reason you do is colonialism, which is a violent act. So, surely, there is a severance there, one that feels insurmountable. It is a pet peeve of mine to see writers who simply do not acknowledge this. But at the same time, we know that historically, this kind of multilingualism, of there being one official language used for writing and communication, alongside vernacular languages spoken within communities and families, was actually very common. Perhaps the desire for the purity of one language, any one language, is what is strange and unnatural. Sometimes, I tire of these questions. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be a monoglot like most of the Anglosphere? I’m being facetious, but I am at a point where I want to move beyond the trappings of multilingualism and its attendant paradigms, or at least think about them in very different ways.

FA: I feel that there is definite joy in the fact of language itself. You talk about the beauty of intertextuality in an essay “The Joys of Influence: In Praise of Intertextuality,” and maybe one can extrapolate that to a multilinguist weaving between their spoken and written languages. You brought that sense into your writing—a sentiment that is local to Pakistan, which you do not “translate,” but which works so well with the overall tone of the text. What were some of the more challenging aspects of writing this book?

DA: The tussle between the youthfulness, in some cases childishness, of Hira at the time the story happens, and the retrospective wisdom of the older narrator was one that was proving to be difficult. The trick was, how to shade in that retrospection, which is frequently more interesting than the knee-jerk responses of a teenager adrift in a foreign land, without making the story entirely about that older narrator.

 

You were raised in one language; you write in another; the reason you do is colonialism, which is a violent act.”

 

FA: In writing, sometimes we’re surprised by the decisions our characters make. Did any of your characters behave in unexpected ways?

DA: On my agent’s insistence, I added a final scene with Hira’s aloof host sister, Amy, and it ended up becoming one of my favorite scenes in the book. It’s one in which both the girls, so different in most ways, find a moment of precious common ground, and realize that they both share a certain intelligence that makes the world around them feel small and limited to them. 

FA: One of the most deftly handled aspects in American Fever is the movement between the now-voice and the teenage voice; neither of them feels forced. The humor as well. At times, reading the book felt like you were sharing an inside joke that those who have grown up in Pakistan at a certain time, with the effects of US foreign policies and imperialism seeping into daily lives very early on, could understand.

DA: Thank you. I feel that I was cognizant—if anything, a tad too cognizant—of that original audience of my work, the people who have read me from the start.

FA: I also love that toward the end, though some of Hira’s thoughts have become solidified, there are new things she is left to reckon with, such as the impact of her loved ones’ experiences on her life. Do you feel as if Hira’s story is something you could explore again in the future?

DA: I am working right now on a novel about which I don’t want to say much, except that it is about a young woman who we meet just as she is turning Hira’s age, and then continue with her as she grows older, becomes a mother, and so on. She is completely different from Hira, and her story is entirely unrelated, but I feel ready to explore someone who, as you said, has solidified herself in a certain way that Hira only does towards the end. In Frantumaglia, Elena Ferrante says, “A story, to take shape, needs to pass through many filters. Often we begin to write too soon and the pages are too cold.” I feel that only now when I have just turned 30 myself, can I start writing about women older than Hira.

It’s been such a pleasure to converse with you, and I cannot wait to have the world read and discuss your own brilliant novel, The River, The Town, soon.

 

Dur e Aziz Amna is from Rawalpindi, Pakistan, and now lives in Newark, USA. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Financial Times, and Al Jazeera, among others. She was selected as Forbes 30 Under 30 in 2022 and won the 2019 Financial Times / Bodley Head Essay Prize. She is a graduate of Yale College and the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. Her debut novel, American Fever, won the 2023 APALA Award for Literature.

Farah Ali is the writer of the short-story collection People Want to Live. Her work has been anthologized in Best Small Fictions and the Pushcart Prize where it has also received special mention. Her stories have appeared in Shenandoah, Kenyon Review, Ecotone, and elsewhere. Her debut novel, The River, The Town, is forthcoming in 2023.

Moving Beyond the Trappings of Multilingualism: Farah Ali interviews Dur e Aziz Amna

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