#DesiBooks10QA: Aamina Ahmad on how growing up around desi artist communities inspired her

About the author

Aamina Ahmad, a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, has received a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, a Pushcart Prize, and a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award. Her short fiction has appeared in One Story, The Southern Review, Ecotone, and elsewhere; she is also the author of a play, The Dishonored. She lives in Berkeley, CA.

About the book

Sent back to his birthplace—Lahore’s notorious red-light district—to hush up the murder of a girl, a man finds himself in an unexpected reckoning with his past.

Not since childhood has Faraz returned to the Mohalla, in Lahore’s walled inner city, where women continue to pass down the art of courtesan from mother to daughter. But he still remembers the day he was abducted from the home he shared with his mother and sister there, at the direction of his powerful father, who wanted to give him a chance at a respectable life. Now Wajid, once more dictating his fate from afar, has sent Faraz back to Lahore, installing him as head of the Mohalla police station and charging him with a mission: to cover up the violent death of a young girl.

It should be a simple assignment to carry out in a marginalized community, but for the first time in his career, Faraz finds himself unable to follow orders. As the city assails him with a jumble of memories, he cannot stop asking questions or winding through the walled city’s labyrinthine alleyways chasing the secrets—his family’s and his own—that risk shattering his precariously constructed existence.

Profoundly intimate and propulsive, The Return of Faraz Ali is a spellbindingly assured first novel that poses a timeless question: Whom do we choose to protect, and at what price?

The Return of Faraz Ali, Aamina Ahmad’s debut novel, is about a man’s journey back to his birthplace in Lahore’s notorious red-light district and poses a timeless question: whom do we choose to protect and at what price? #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

1. The desi book that made you want to be a writer (or changed your life.)

There isn’t a single book but rather many books and writers that shaped the way I felt about writing. But none more so than the writers I came across growing up, and there were many of them as my mother is a writer and translator and has always been deeply connected to an array of desi artist communities. Because of her work and the artists who were in and out of our household, the world of writing felt more within reach than it might to those with no ties to an artist community. I was however also aware of the struggles they faced as British Asian artists—sometimes marginalized or considered suspect by their own community for not quite conforming to expected, conservative norms, but also because the mainstream context in which they were working was one of disinterest, even hostility toward them and their stories. Their tenacity and insistence that their stories mattered, that they had value was inspiring as was the community they built and the way they supported and leaned on one another.

“Because of [my mothers’s] work and the artists who were in and out of our household, the world of writing felt more within reach… Their tenacity and insistence that their stories mattered… was inspiring…” ~Aamina Ahmad #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

2. The desi book that your own latest book is most in conversation with and why.

One of the most important writers I read early on was [Saadat Hasan] Manto; when I read his short stories, I was absolutely stunned by the transgressive nature of his work. He wrote about sex workers and their brokers, about desire, about madness, and although I was reading the stories in translation, the notion that they had been written in Urdu floored me. The world as I experienced it in Urdu was very limited, one of polite chais and drawing room conversations about weddings and relatives. But when I read stories like Bu, Kali Shalwar, and Toba Tek Singh, I had this sense of a writer who was invested in the complicated lives of those who live on the margins and I suppose that desire to investigate other worlds, the ones people don’t much want to talk about in their drawing rooms, is something that interests me. As a result, I ended up writing a book about people who similarly live and work outside the realm of ‘respectable’ society, for example, the sex workers in Lahore’s red-light district who feature in the book.

“…stunned by the transgressive nature of [Saadat Hasan Manto’s] work… sex workers and their brokers, about desire, about madness…” ~Aamina Ahmad on fiction that her novel, The Return of Faraz Ali is in conversation with. #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

3. The desi book that doesn’t exist (to your knowledge) but you’d love to read.

Given how many desi books exist outside of the Anglophone tradition that I haven’t read, I wonder if many of those books do, in fact, exist; likely, I just haven’t been able to access them in translation. But in terms of desi writing in English, I’m excited by the writers I see working across or in genre. Usman T. Malik’s work in speculative fiction is exciting to see. But certainly, one thing I haven’t seen much of in desi English literature is horror. There’s a strong tradition of desi horror films but I’d love to read a truly creepy spine tingler.

4. The desi book that you’re currently reading or planning to read soon.

I recently read Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian, which I loved. There are so many books that have described the desi migrant experience but Sathian’s book is radically unlike anything else I’ve read. It delves into these elements of forgotten California history which were exciting to discover but you also get the collision of a heist story (which is rollicking fun to read) with these ethereal elements of magical realism. Tonally, the South Asian migrant story has often tended towards the somber, leaning into ideas of loss but, in Sathian’s novel, there isn’t only loss, there’s also wit and humor and a refreshing irreverence.

I am also looking forward to reading Shaheen Akhtar’s Beloved Rongomala translated by Shabnam Nadiya. I read a wonderful extract a while back and can’t wait to read it in full.

5. The desi book that you believe should be read and known more and why.

Many of the works by diaspora women in the 1980s and 1990s have not garnered as much attention as they should have. There were a handful of high-profile diaspora writers working at that time—important writers like Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi, who were rightfully being recognized. But, as a result, the stories being written by desi women didn’t get as much airtime. It felt like the gatekeepers had decided that mainstream audiences had only so much bandwidth for South Asian stories and, once there were a few big names out there, there wasn’t room for anyone else. But Ravinder Randhawa, Rukhsana Ahmad (my mum!), Bapsi Sidhwa, Leena Dhingra, Farhana Sheikh among others, were all producing vibrant work, which was engaging, fiercely and imaginatively, with the world.

6. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

In the early stages of writing the novel, I kept stopping to polish pages, and after almost two years on the project, I had forty very tidy pages but I simply wasn’t making any more progress. One of my teachers told me that this approach was stopping me finishing the book and that I had to get to the end to figure out what I was writing and how it needed to work. She was right and, as soon as I started moving forwards (rather than looking over my shoulder all the time), I got closer to figuring out the story. And guess what? Many of those forty very polished pages never even made it into the book. Without that advice, I might still be moving around commas in those same pages.

“…that I had to get to the end to figure out what I was writing and how it needed to work… Without that advice, I might still be moving around commas in those same pages.” ~Aamina Ahmad’s #writingtips #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

7. While writing your latest book, how did you keep yourself motivated to keep going despite setbacks (if any)?

Community is critical—finding writer friends and colleagues whom you can support and who will support you, especially when it feels hard to keep going. One practical thing I did was find a writing buddy. My friend, the writer Jennifer Cornish, and I would write together once a week in a space set aside at the Berkeley Rep Theater for local writers. During periods when my day job was super-busy and I felt a bit despairing about my prospects of finishing the book, I would remind myself that I had that day, that it was coming around soon and I would plan what I needed to do in my head on my commute, even if I didn’t have time to write. The companionship, working alongside someone who got it, and being able to encourage and motivate one another (and complain together) did wonders when the going got tough.

8. With this latest book, what does “literary success” mean to you?

Like most writers, I do hope readers will find this book and find meaning in it. But if you’d said to me fifteen years ago, I would write a book, I would never have believed it. I was writing and had always written but when my husband first suggested I consider writing a novel, I’m not sure I saw myself as being capable of such a thing. My desk drawers were bulging with half-written up script ideas and projects that had gone nowhere. A novel seemed an impossible goal. That I have written a novel, that I got to the end, that during the process, I felt I experienced moments where I was deep inside the work, in the zone—at times, on the best writing days, almost in a state of haal, if you want to call it that—feels like more success than I could have hoped for when I began.

“…moments where I was deep inside the work, in the zone—at times, on the best writing days, almost in a state of haal, if you want to call it that—feels like more success…” ~Aamina Ahmad on writing The Return of Faraz Ali #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

9. How have larger literary citizenship efforts or the writing community helped you with this latest book?

The conversations that happen on social media have been great to listen in on; I’ve discovered new writers, lit mags, and craft resources through Twitter especially. But, more specifically to this book, I saw lots of writers sharing that they were having struggles similar to mine with their books. The resources and advice they shared were helpful, but also knowing I wasn’t the only one feeling lost helped. And, when you saw them come out the other side, you could feel surer that, eventually, you would too.

10. What would you most like readers to take away from this latest book?

I hope readers will see that the struggles of the characters are largely the result of enormous outside pressures brought about by the part that class, caste, and gender play in the world. But I also hope that these characters’ desires—for love and home and connection—will feel just as real and recognizable to them.

“…the part that class, caste, and gender play in the world… characters’ desires for love and home and connection will feel real and recognizable…” ~Aamina Ahmad on reader takeaways from her novel, The Return of Faraz Ali #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

Aamina Ahmad has a debut novel out, The Return of Faraz Ali. More details at her website.

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