Roohi Choudhry holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan and now teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Callaloo, Open City, and is forthcoming in CURA and the Normal School. She is currently working on a novel set in Durban, South Africa. An excerpt from her story “This Is What We Could Have Been” can be found here. The full essay appears in the Nov/Dec 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “This Is What We Could Have Been”? Was it inspired by a specific current event?
I tried hard to think of ways to sidestep this question because the truth is going to sound so hokey and maudlin: I dreamed this story. There, I’ve said it. Serious writers aren’t even supposed to write their character’s dreams, let alone their own. I was terribly afraid of writing this one, worrying it would turn out to be overly dramatic or sentimental. But there was a time, some years ago, when the headlines of violence and despair in Pakistan seemed to me omnipresent, and for the first time, inescapable. Even my dreams were filled with them. One morning, I woke from a particularly cinematic dream, complete in image and character, whose outlines I scribbled down immediately. I remembered that two people, a man and a woman, lived as neighbors in an apartment building. And their children were taken hostage in their school. But what I remembered most from the dream was the feeling of dread of the children being forever changed by this encounter. That was how I felt about Pakistan; that it had been taken hostage by others and could never be returned to us whole.
What is lost here feels like a moment that could have been a happy one, as a new family is created. What inspired you to write about people who are bound together after a loss or traumatic event?
For me, the children and their loss of innocence represent so many of the very precious aspects of my homeland that have been transformed by violence. And also, inhabiting memories of lost places, as my characters do, is inherently lonely. They seek commiseration in each other, but this is not a loss they can share. The isolation then becomes a loss, too. That feeling propelled me through drafting the story as well as the many, many rounds of revisions afterward. I recognize that others may interpret the loss differently, and I welcome that. It’s an honor for me if people are able to bring their own experiences and emotions to reading my story.
Can you tell us a bit more about the significance of the album that Farah loved—which Nadeem finally brings himself to listen to—the Iqbal Bano concert from 1985?
The quote that I use is from a very famous revolutionary poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. It’s one of my favorite Urdu poems. Its rendition in song by Iqbal Bano and the poem itself are closely associated with the movement against the authoritarian regime in Pakistan in the nineteen eighties. There are so many reasons I wanted to reference it. Primarily, it’s about how much of a focal point poetry and literature and art are to the Pakistan I knew, growing up, and how that place feels completely lost in the current news cycle. I wanted to give voice to that sorrow—that along with losing our homes, our sense of peace and well-being, we have also lost this identity to the violence. Our poetic identity.
I also wanted to reference the poem because it contains Faiz’s bold response to authoritarian Islam. I especially love the verse in which he alludes to the Sufi poet Mansur Al-Hallaj’s famous line, “I am Truth,” interpreted as “I am God” for which (among other statements), Al-Hallaj was accused of heresy and hanged. I’m intrigued by the different ideas of revolution that he explores in the same verse: that revolution of Al-Hallaj’s selfhood on the spiritual plane in one line, and the overthrow of a worldly political regime in the next. What does it mean to juxtapose the two? But I could talk about this poem all day.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
My story “The End of Coney Island Avenue” appeared earlier this year in the journal the Normal School, but I started writing it several years ago. It was the first story in which I felt I had begun to “find my material,” as they say. Before that, I’d written several short stories in which I tried to bring out the tension between personal and political lives, but I struggled with making my point, stating my opinion, without too heavy a hand. I haven’t stopped worrying about that, and I hope I never will because I always want to be cognizant of the danger. But the “Coney Island” story was the first one in which I started to find my way, because the story stays with my main character. In my previous work, my authorial voice came through too often and too forcefully, because I so badly wanted you, dear reader, to understand what I was saying. In writing that “Coney Island” story, I fell in love with my protagonist. I didn’t want to put my words in her mouth. I sincerely wanted to know who she was, what she wanted, what she thought about the world. In the same way, Nadeem and Zubaida are completely alive to me, I feel I’ve lived with them for years. It’s true that I had my own feelings about Pakistan and poetry and violence that I chose to express through writing fiction. But once Nadeem and Zubeida came into being, it was their experience and opinion of those themes that mattered, not mine.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Talking to people and asking them endless questions about their lives. I especially love talking to New York City cabbies. They have the best stories.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
Most of the best writing advice I’ve ever received has been from my thesis adviser at the University of Michigan, Eileen Pollack. That’s not to say I didn’t receive wonderful advice from my other writing teachers, craft books I’ve read, my colleagues, friends and students. But you know when you’ve found the right teacher for you. Somehow, Eileen’s tough-love style of dispensing wisdom penetrates my skull better! She gave me great advice on story endings. Often, when our characters are facing a decision or their crisis has come to its climax, there’s the binary choice between A or B. Will he get the girl or won’t he? Will she take the job or won’t she? The most complex and resonant endings often take a third path instead. After that advice, I started seeing those “third path” endings everywhere, in all my favorite stories and books.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’ve been working on my novel for a few years now, and am racing to finish it. It’s based in Durban, South Africa, and intertwines the narratives of two women: one, an Indian woman taken to South Africa as an indentured laborer in the late nineteenth century; the other, a contemporary Pakistani academic who travels to South Africa and uncovers the other woman’s story. Its working title, inspired by an Ursula K. Le Guin poem, is “The Land That Joins Them.”