#FiveDesiFaves: Sorayya Khan on the books to which she owes a substantial debt

Desi Books Ep 84 w/ Sorayya Khan Desi Books


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Hello and welcome to Episode 84 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.


SPONSORSHIP MESSAGE: This episode is sponsored by Vinod Busjeet, whose debut novel, Silent Winds, Dry Seas, was out in 2021. One of NPR’s Best Books of the Year, this novel explores the intimate struggle for independence and success of a young descendant of Indian indentured laborers in Mauritius, a small multiracial island in the Indian Ocean. Catch up with Busjeet on episode 32, where I discussed this book and late writing careers with him.


Today, in #FiveDesiFaves, we have Sorayya Khan, who has a new memoir out: We Take Our Cities With Us. She discusses the five desi books to which she owes a substantial debt. Spanning genres and generations, these are by Sara Suleri, Bapsi Sidhwa, Agha Shahid Ali, Urvashi Butalia, and Intizar Husain.

#FIVEDESIFAVES WITH SORAYYA KHANINTRODUCTION

Sorayya Khan is the author of We Take Our Cities With Us: A Memoir and three novels: Noor, Five Queen’s Road, and City of Spies, which won the Best International Fiction Book Award at the 2015 Sharjah International Book Fair. She was the recipient of a US Fulbright Scholar Award to conduct research in Pakistan and Bangladesh for a novel, and was awarded a Malahat Review Novella Prize. Her work has appeared in multiple publications including Guernica, Longreads, The Kenyon Review, North American Review, and Journal of Narrative Politics. She lives in New York with her family.

Even when we leave them, our cities never leave us. After her Dutch mother’s death, Sorayya Khan confronts her grief by revisiting their relationship, her parents’ lives, and her own Pakistani-Dutch heritage in a multicultural memoir that unfolds over seven cities and three continents. We Take Our Cities with Us ushers us from Khan’s childhood independence forged at her grandparents’ home in Lahore; to her adolescence in Pakistan’s new capital, Islamabad; to Syracuse and Ithaca, New York, where Khan finds her footing as the mother of young, brown sons in post-9/11 America; to her birthplace, Vienna, where her parents die; and finally to Amsterdam and Maastricht, the cities of her mother’s conflicted youth. In Khan’s gripping telling of her immigrant experience, she shows us what it is to raise children and lose parents in worlds other than your own. Drawing on family history, geopolitics, and art in this stunning story of loss, identity, and rediscovery, Khan beautifully illuminates the complexities of our evolving global world and its most important constant: love.

On a personal note, Sorayya Khan is one of the few authors I’ve been able to meet this year as in-person events have started back up in the US. She is just as thoughtful, insightful, and generous in real life as she sounds in this episode. I encourage you all to get this new memoir and, indeed, her earlier books too.

The transcript of this episode with all the books mentioned is also up on the website at desibooks.co.

And now, here’s Sorayya Khan with her #FiveDesiFaves.

Sorayya Khan’s memoir, We Take Our Cities With Us, is about family, love, loss, identity, and rediscovery. Spanning cities across Pakistan, the US, Austria, and the Netherlands, it illuminates the complexities of our global world. #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


#FIVEDESIFAVES WITH SORAYYA KHAN

I sometimes think I came to literature through the back door, slipping in while no one was looking. But really, it was always part of my life. My mother was an avid reader who always had a book nearby, and my childhood bedroom, littered with Enid Blyton books, also contained a long, white bookshelf with her favorites. The top shelf included James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone and Han Suyin’s many novels. I always knew that literature moved me more than anything else, and although I went to graduate school to prepare myself to work for the UN, my heart was always devoted to stories, which is where I eventually turned. 

My first novel was published when I was forty-one, so I’d done plenty of reading by then! My journey as a reader was eclectic and I read across genres—both of which are still true. I approach someone else’s pages with the idea that I have something to learn from them, but there are certain books to which I owe a substantial debt. These books have stayed with me. I’ve returned to them over the years—sometimes for solace, often for courage, frequently for example. 

I’m so excited to share some of them with you now.


Sorayya Khan on Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days: “I would not be a writer without this book.” #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks

I would not be a writer without this book. I read it first in Syracuse, New York in May of 1989, about the same time I was beginning to write. 

It was the first book that made me think it was possible to render my world, my places, on the page. Sara Suleri had a Pakistani father and a Welsh mother and she writes about her family and Lahore as if Lahore is the magnet that holds her world together. Even the photograph on the book cover was familiar and now I study it as if I can recognize where her sister is standing in Lahore on her wedding day.

Although I was only a beginning writer, I recognized that her book was a lesson in language and craft. She wrote connected essays that read like stories and made a whole. I knew nothing about memoir or making wholes out of writing, but I saw the enormity of what she’d done.

Meatless Days is an elegiac book and, in the shadow of death, it is as much about how memory works as the lives it tries to capture. Memory pieces things together later when mothers and sisters are dead. Sara Suleri taught me that memory is story and there are different ways to put what we remember on the page.

Meatless Days is the book that I kept within reach while I wrote We Take Our Cities with Us. For example and for courage. We all need books like that.


Sorayya Khan: “[Ice Candy Man by Bapsi Sidhwa] taught me that humor helps and I need to use more of it in my writing.” #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks

The copy of Ice Candy Man that sits on my shelves is my mother’s. Inside the cover, she has written her name and Murree, May 1988 which makes me think that she and my father were at the hill station to celebrate his birthday. The novel is one of my favorites because it tells a story of a massive political event in a child’s voice. It is more honest and, certainly, funnier than almost anything we might read from an adult’s perspective. 

It may be Partition in Lahore and Lenny’s world may be falling apart, but ayah has a slew of admirers who congregate with her in Queen’s Park, Lahore. Ice candy man is one of them and a description of his ingenuous toe darting beneath Ayah’s sari still makes me laugh. Humor is woven into difficult, complex subject matter. Partition may have booted out the British, but it is also defined by the largest mass migration in history, with twelve million people crossing borders. The brilliance of the book is Bapsi Sidhwa’s ability to convey the madness in a pitch-perfect child’s voice. Here’s her description of how the subcontinent was divvied up:

Playing British gods under the ceiling fans of the Falettis Hotel – behind Queen Victoria’s gardened skirt – the Radcliff Commission deals out Indian cities like a pack of cards. Lahore is dealt to Pakistan, Amritsar to India, Sialkot to Pakistan. Pathankot to India.

Bapsi Sidhwa, The Ice Candy Man (Heinemann, 1988) then as Cracking India (Milkweed, 2006)

I don’t know if I was struck by deals out cities like a pack of cards then, but I am now. Cities made small enough to be held in your hand and dealt across the table! Lenny is trying to make sense of her world, just like the rest of us. Bapsi Sidhwa taught me that humor helps and I need to use more of it in my writing.


Sorayya Khan on what she loves most about Agha Shahid Ali’s Rooms Are Never Finished: “[its] ability to connect continents in the depths of grief . . .” #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks

I was introduced to Agha Shahid Ali early on in his short career. My mother came across one of his earlier poetry collections, The Half-Inch Himalayas. She made a photocopy of it in Islamabad and sent it to me in Syracuse where, after receiving it, I checked it out of the library so I could hold the book in my hands. Now, Agha Shahid Ali’s Country Without a Post Office sits near my desk while I write. I’ve used lines from his poem, “Farewell,” as an epigraph. “Your history gets in the way of my memory,” he wrote. 

Rooms are Never Finished was a National Book Award finalist, published in 2001, the year Agha Shahid Ali died. The poems are about the devastation of Kashmir, as his poems often were, but they are also about the devastation of losing his mother and the god-awful journey of taking her body back from Amherst, Massachusetts to Srinigar, Kashmir.

…Mother,
they asked me, So how’s the writing? I answered My mother
is my poem. What did they expect? For no verse
sufficed except the promise, fading, of Kashmir
and the cries that reached you from the cliffs of Kashmir
(across fifteen centuries) in the hospital. Kashmir,
she’s dying! How her breathing drowns out the universe
as she sleeps in Amherst.

Agha Shahid Ali, Rooms Are Never Finished (W. W. Norton, 2001)

This book found its way back into my life after I’d finished We Take Our Cities with Us, as if what it contained was too magnificent to behold while I worked through the minutiae of my own grief. But I want to imagine that when I first read his book, my writerly self learned something—even if it was tiny—from Agha Shahid Ali’s ability to connect continents in the depths of grief, even if his cities are not the same as mine. At least I wish it so.


Sorayya Khan discusses why Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence remains one of the most important books about Partition. #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks

I draw my tools as a writer from many different forms of writing, not only fiction. I went to graduate school in International Studies and understanding how and why the world comes together continues to help me think about my characters’ relationship to their worlds. 

I no longer remember how I came upon The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India by Urvashi Butalia. But at the time, I was embarking on my own research for Noor, my novel around 1971, and my plan (as much as one can have a plan without knowing what awaits) was to conduct interviews, both among soldiers who’d fought during the war and those who’d experienced the violence. Initially, I turned to The Other Side of Silence for direction—looking for a how-to—but quickly became absorbed in the power of the stories, which include Butalia’s personal Partition story as well. 

I think now that what I most took away from the book is her belief in memory, even as it tends to shift and is not necessarily reliable. How do people remember history? is the question that guides her book. And this question is also fodder for much fiction, right? What do we choose to remember and forget and why? And in memoir, such concerns are primary, as I discovered as I wrote mine. The Other Side of Silence remains one of the most important books about Partition and how we construct ourselves in the face of history, and regardless of our genre, we can learn much from it.


Sorayya Khan discusses how the first line of Intizar Husain’s Basti (tr. Frances Pritchett) became the primary theme of her new memoir. #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks

This innovative novel has its own style—part plot, part memory, part dream, part mythology. Although its backdrop is Partition, the novel is extraordinary in its rendering of what I think of as “waiting for war.” The historical moment is 1971 and the brutal war out of which Bangladesh was born.

Basti is a story of place, from Lahore, Delhi, Dhaka, and others to Rupnagar and Vyaspur, imagined villages central to the sorrows of this story. The story moves from one location to the next, as it does from the present to moments in the past. We travel over the page the way we do in our mind, without regard for physical location or temporal reality. 

The book is translated from Intizar Husain’s Urdu by Frances Pritchett who says, “I want the reader to have an agreeable double experience: to realize through the semitransparent medium of English that people from a different culture are living their own lives, not ours. While the sentences swim in Urdu like fish in a sea, in English I want them at least to swim like fish in a well-designed aquarium.”

Even in translation, the story is transportative, capturing a rhythm of different worlds and different times, but presenting a familiar melancholy of loss and loneliness and more.

There are several gorgeous passages, one in particular that comes to my mind as I write this.

They had left their cities, but they carried their cities with them, as a trust, on their shoulders. That’s how it usually is. Even when cities are left behind, they don’t stay behind. They seize on you even more. When the earth slips out from under your feet, that’s when it really surrounds you . . .

Intizar Husain, Basti, tr. by Frances W Pritchett (New York Review of Books, 2012)

I used Husain’s first line above as an epigraph for my last novel, City of Spies, which is set in Islamabad. The sentiment echoes how Pakistan’s capital came with me wherever I went, it hung over me and my life, like the sky. At the time, I didn’t know I’d write a memoir or that Intizar Husain’s sentiment—We carry our cities with us—would be a primary theme. That’s what great books have in common. They live inside our mind long after we finish the last sentence—and continue to help us make sense of our world. And if that’s not the point of literature, then what is?


I hope I’ve convinced you to pick up one or two or ALL of my #FiveDesiFaves. And while you’re at it, take a look at We Take Our Cities with Us: A Memoir. I’d love to hear what you think!

Sorayya Khan’s memoir, We Take Our Cities With Us, is about family, love, loss, identity, and rediscovery. Spanning cities across Pakistan, the US, Austria, and the Netherlands, it illuminates the complexities of our global world. #FiveDesiFaves @DesiBooks


You’ve been listening to episode 84 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in. We’ve just been listening to #FiveDesiFaves with Sorayya Khan, who has a new memoir out: We Take Our Cities With Us. She discusses the five desi books to which she owes a substantial debt. Spanning genres and generations, these are by Sara Suleri, Bapsi Sidhwa, Agha Shahid Ali, Urvashi Butalia, and Intizar Husain.


SPONSORSHIP MESSAGE: This episode is sponsored by Vinod Busjeet, whose debut novel, Silent Winds, Dry Seas, was out in 2021. One of NPR’s Best Books of the Year, this novel explores the intimate struggle for independence and success of a young descendant of Indian indentured laborers in Mauritius, a small multiracial island in the Indian Ocean. Catch up with Busjeet on episode 32, where I discussed this book and late writing careers with him.


Episode 85 will be up shortly. Follow on Twitter @desibooks, Instagram @desi.books, Facebook @desibooksfb. Please tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. Go to the website if you’d like to sign up for the free, weekly newsletter. You’ll get all the updates you might have missed as well as some new stuff. And please share this via social media if you enjoyed listening or reading. Help raise the tide of South Asian literature.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.


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