#DesiBooks10QA: Usman T. Malik on fable, fantasy, and the limitless imagination

About the author:

Usman T. Malik’s fiction has been reprinted in several annual anthologies, including The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy series. He has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the Nebula Award and has won the Bram Stoker Award and the British Fantasy Award. Malik’s debut collection Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan has garnered praise from Aamer Hussain, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Paul Tremblay, Karen Joy Fowler, and Kelly Link among others. It is available through his website at www.usmanmalik.org, where you can also find his social media links.

About the book:

With a meticulously designed cover and beautiful black-and-white illustrations by seven different Pakistani artists, Midnight Doorways is a unique community project highlighting the range of speculative art and literature in Pakistan. From ghostly lovers set adrift in rising floodwaters in Old Lahore to an enchanted city that appears over Shalamar Bagh; from unearthly visitants in an orphanage for girls to the crusade of a marginalized Karachi boy who can necromance dead flesh—here are stories of ruin and love and terrible wonder told by characters who live in the streets and mohallas of a haunted Pakistan.

With a meticulously designed cover and beautiful black-and-white illustrations by seven Pakistani artists, Midnight Doorways is a unique community project highlighting the range of Pakistani speculative art and literature. #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

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

Not one particular book, but series of children’s books published by Ferozesons in Pakistan. These included translated myths and fables from all over the world such as the Alif Laila, Greek and Roman legends, as well as original books featuring the trickster, Amar Ayyar, and his friend, the courageous warrior, Amir Hamza.

I devoured these “penny dreadfuls” by the dozens. I carried around a satchel filled with these books and read them over and over until I’d memorized most of them. The original Amir Hamza and the rip-offs. I read, also, magazines like Bachhon ki Duniya, Bachhon Ka Bagh, Jugnoo, etc. It was those fantastic and magical stories that sparked my imagination, not the morally superior, teaching-filled, realist children’s stories in magazines.

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

Not one book. However, a couple of my stories certainly converse with Naiyer Masud’s style and thematics.

Masud is a master of strange or sideways stories. My story, ‘The Fortune of Sparrows’, was written while I was immersed in Masud’s stories. And, in some ways, it’s a response to his narrative structures. Masud loves creating physical and psychic mazes in his stories through which his characters lead his readers to stranger worlds. He, like many surrealist or uncanny artists, also likes juxtaposing death and dream sequences in hopes of triggering sensory pathways that may elude the logic of daily living. ‘The Fortune of Sparrows’, I think, does that too in some ways and subverts a story about a subcontinental trope (female orphans and their manifest destiny) we’ve all become desensitized to into something different. At least, that’s what I hope it does.

“[The desi book that changed my life is] a series of children’s books […] myths and fables from all over […] books featuring the trickster, Amar Ayyar, and his friend, the courageous warrior, Amir Hamza.” ~Usman T. Malik #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

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

The Thoroughly Exhaustive Compendium of Mythological Creatures of South Asia.

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

Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I have been meaning to read Roy for a while. For one reason or another, I haven’t gotten to her yet. I read the first chapter of Ministry and found it compelling. I’m also well aware of her activist work and she strikes me as an egregiously honest writer, someone who has let herself be maligned for the causes she believes in. Why would one not want to read such a writer?

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

The Collected Stories by Naiyer Masud.

Masud’s name is rarely mentioned on most popular lists of great desi writers. Reading Masud is like taking a masterclass in craft from one of the masters of the short story form. What he does is staggering from a technical point of view and his themes, his electric concision when exploring them, haven’t really been explored that well. He should be mentioned in the same breath as Kafka, Gogol, and Borges. But he’s been relegated to the category of “too abstruse”—which is a mistake, in my opinion.

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

“You were sent here to give voice to your own astonishment.” ~Annie Dillard

I first heard this from Ted Chiang and then read the Dillard essay that it’s excerpted from. It really speaks to me in terms of what attracts me most in a story: wild imagination and uniqueness of ideas.

“(When I get writer’s block), I lower my writing standards.” ~Stephen Graham Jones

I read this in an interview with Jones and have used this on the dark days when the words just won’t come. It has often helped me tunnel through the block even when it’s most dense.

#WritingTip from Usman T. Malik: “Follow Dillard’s advice to give voice to our own astonishment and Jones’ advice to lower our writing standards when dealing with a block.” #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

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

Publishing an illustrated collection in Pakistan wasn’t easy. I had to commission the art and oversee the entire publication process myself. On top of that, trade closure between India and Pakistan meant that a huge market for the book was closed. I countered this by focusing on the Pakistani market and getting them excited about the book. The strategy worked and the book sold very well, not just in Pakistan, but in the US and UK as well.

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

Readers are reading and enjoying the book. Some of them tell me they’ve never read fantastika of this sort set in Pakistan before. That’s success enough.

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

Midnight Doorways was a hybrid project published by Kitab Publishing but funded by me. Designing, printing, marketing etc. was all pretty much left to me and my team. I relied on the efforts of other writers to shape my own idea of how the book was to be organized and illustrated. I was able to call on friends and other writers for blurbs and encouragement when I feared the book wouldn’t sell. Had it not for been for their kindness in talking about the book and allowing me to quote them, it likely would not have sold as well as it did. The entire first run sold out in less than six months, which is rather phenomenal for a Pakistan-published story collection.

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

Beyond these stars, lie other worlds;
Beyond these trials, other tribulations of love.

The imaginative scope of our stories, our fictions, is limitless. I’d like them to experience that IRL, as the cool kids say.

Editor’s note: the original by the great Urdu poet, Allama Iqbal, is beautiful:
sitāroñ se aage jahāñ aur bhī haiñ
abhī ishq ke imtihāñ aur bhī haiñ

“Beyond these stars, lie other worlds; / Beyond these trials, other tribulations of love.” The imaginative scope of our stories is limitless. I’d like for readers to experience that…” ~Usman T. Malik on Midnight Doorways #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

Usman T. Malik’s Midnight Doorways is out now. More on his website.

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