Anis Shivani in The Next Big Thing

To continue the series of self-interviews in “The Next Big Thing” (see others below), here is the entry from writer Anis Shivani.


Thanks to Chad Prevost, the publisher of my book The Fifth Lash and Other Stories, for tagging me for this self-interview, and thanks to Harvey Hix for hosting this on his blog. I wonder though, if everyone is talking about the next big thing, then is there such a thing as the next big thing? So I’d like to offer this as my contribution to the next small thing. My other book that just came out is My Tranquil War and Other Poems. That’s a very big thing for me, although it’s not quite next, it just happened. But at least it’s a thing.

Q. What is your working title?

A. The title of the book is The Fifth Lash and Other Stories. I’d thought of naming it after another story in the collection, “Alienation, Jihad, Burqa, Apostasy.” And also “The Rug Seller’s Daughter and Other Stories.” And also “The Abscess of the World.” The last, though it’s the title of a story in the book which Gina Frangello published in Other Voices, sounds like dental surgery might be immediately needed. I’m so glad my editors, Chad and Ryan and Jamie, dissuaded me from using any of those titles. “The Fifth Lash” is a long story told from the point of view of an imagined ultra-loyal retainer of the Bhutto family, around the time of the elder Bhutto’s hanging by the dictator Zia-ul-Haq. It happens to be my favorite story in the collection.

Q: Where did the idea come from for the book?

A: Although the stories included here were mostly written in the early part of the 2000s, the impulse really came from an earlier part of my life, the 1990s, when issues of multicultural identity were being played out on a grand scale across the country, particularly on college campuses. The start of the war on terror apparently put that discourse in suspension, as the very idea became suspect, but the concept is so overarching by now as an organizing principle for cultural and political discourse that there’s no getting away from it. That’s the abstract answer to the question. The other way to answer is to say that I encountered some of the events and characters in the book close enough to render them with some degree of authenticity, and it felt very urgent to do so.


Q: What genre does your book fall under?


A: Story collection.


Q: Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

A: Mira Nair can make the movie of this book any day, and she can decide which actors to cast. Irfan Khan would be great as Bhutto’s assistant in the title story, and Kal Penn can be the crazy fundamentalist guy in the “Alienation” story. It just occurred to me how a number of the stories, such as the one where the Princeton undergraduate visits Pakistan to study Islamic law, the one about the Columbia art history student trying to engineer a way out of her arranged marriage, the one about the recently divorced engineer in New Jersey suffering delusions of persecution in the aftermath of 9/11, and the one about the grandiose Middle Eastern history professor clueless about his wife’s affair, are all moments in the same narrative arc, vignettes from a larger whole, and would make a terrific collage film. Ah, writers’ delusions, please don’t feed them anymore than is necessary.

Q: What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A: A diverse set of intelligent, sometimes hyper-conscious Pakistanis, in their country and in the U.S., confront the big bad postmodern world with everything they’ve got, sometimes fucking themselves up and others around them, sometimes coming off endearingly. I don’t know, “Grow Up, Pakistanis!”

Q: Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

A: I think you mean not “self-published” but published without the help of an agent, which is how most books with reputable independent presses get published, and which is how this book was published as well.

Q: How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

A: I worked on and off for about a year or so on these stories. In those days I would write a good story in about a week or two, even a long one. It wasn’t immediately clear to me that this was a collection but by the time I was getting done it became obvious that they were all stabs at the same basic issues, and, after the fact, they easily tied together as a coherent collection. In my second story collection, Anatolia and Other Stories, which was actually published first, I was conscious from the beginning that it was going to be a collection, but with The Fifth Lash it only happened after I was done and realized what I had on my hands. These were the first good stories I ever wrote and so they’re dear to my heart.

Q: What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

A: Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist would be a good comparison. There’s a story in here about an Ivy League undergraduate who turns to fundamentalism and wreaks havoc on his own psyche and on those intimate with him. Also, in a strange way, some of the newer books that have come out about the impact of globalization and modernity on contemporary Indian urbanites, books like Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India and Akash Kapur’s India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India. I think also some of Aamer Hussein’s stories—to the extent that they deal with very articulate and intelligent Muslim immigrants—might be comparable. Ali Eteraz’s memoir, Children of Dust: A Portrait of a Muslim as a Young Man, also deals with some of the same phenomena. In a perverse way also Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories—that is, if you reverse the psychologies of the characters, so that instead of progressing along the path of meritocracy and finding ways to normal “adjustment” and belonging, you move toward the opposite fate. I deal with some very messed-up people here, antithetical to the idea of the “successful immigrant.”

Q: Who or what inspired you to write this book?

A: As I said before, these were the kinds of issues—having to define one’s identity to conform with expectations set up by multiculturalism, or alternatively, to rebel against them and chart one’s own independent identity—that used to intrigue me early on. Freedom is scary. A whole lot of freedom is very scary to most people. I noticed, starting in the 1990s—and certainly it’s true today as well—a lot of people running away from freedom, hiding behind convenient group labels and personality screens. If every individual masses around such cliques, pretty soon you have total lack of comprehension in society, and no one seems to be able to talk to each other. That seems about where we’ve ended up. Liberty is difficult to hold on to, the most difficult thing to retain, in fact. This book came out of my deep frustration at observing this perverse human desire to want to be not free. It still bothers me more than just about any other social phenomenon.

Q: What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

A: Have you ever wondered about the sexual mores of Islamic fundamentalists? There’s a lot of weird sex in this book—voyeurism, masturbation, sadism, masochism, incest, it’s all there. An editor of a well-known literary journal once told me about one of the stories, “Jealousy,” “Anis, I can’t publish this, this is a family magazine, after all.” I understand now what he was talking about. Aside from the perverse sex, the reader will find herself caught up in some truly bizarre worlds of near-psychosis, mass hallucination, and labyrinthine layers of self-imposed tyranny. I think we went through a period of collective madness in the early part of the last decade. This book tries to capture that zeitgeist.


Writers tagged are: Dave Brinks, Thaisa Frank, Karyna McGlynn, Anisse Gross, Janine Joseph, Jessica Wilbanks.

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