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My critique of Pakistan comes from a place of tremendous love

Pakistani actor and writer Mira Sethi speaks about her debut collection of stories, code switching, and living and loving in Pakistan

A truck adorned with Indian actor Priyanka Chopra’s poster in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.
A truck adorned with Indian actor Priyanka Chopra’s poster in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. (Getty Images)

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Pakistani actor and writer Mira Sethi’s debut collection of stories, Are You Enjoying?, has been praised by writers like Mohsin Hamid and Amitav Ghosh, but Sethi says Kiran Desai understood her book the best—it’s about “the vulnerability of people caught in the contrasting currents of modernity and the past”, as Desai put it. Set all over Pakistan—in havelis and high-society, student campuses and the world of showbiz—and showcasing the socially mobile lives of those in liminal spaces or on society’s peripheries, the seven stories illuminate the identities of those in between. Playful and provocative, they crack open tired binaries and stereotypes and shine a light on a country and its people in prose that’s nuanced and no-holds-barred. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

In the story ‘Tomboy’, you write of Pakistan as “a country whose only identity is not being the neighbouring country (of India)”. Can you talk about the significance of doing this as a female South Asian writer?

A writer friend of mine gave me good advice. He said as a non-Western writer you have to ask yourself a question early on in your career: Above all, do I want to be a bridge maker? Above all, do I want to be accessible to the West? I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to be part of a bridge-making conversation at all—but never at the expense of the subjectivity, idiosyncrasy and authenticity of my characters.

My book is about lives lived between and around the rules. In a country where so much assertive self-expression is frowned upon, how do you be yourself? In non-Western societies, there are sometimes many different sets of rules: the rules mandated by the state, the oppressive imperatives of family and clan, and the new rules a young individual might create (smartphone in hand) to navigate the above-mentioned rules. In Pakistan, we often don’t have the luxury of “identity politics” in the way that folks in the US or UK are used to thinking about it. Our identities (“liberal,” “conservative,” “culturally Muslim”) crisscross, overlap and undercut one another in complicated ways.

Pakistani actor and writer Mira Sethi,
Pakistani actor and writer Mira Sethi, (Photo: Instagram@mira.sethi)

As any queer make-up artist on the set of a Pakistani drama serial knows, we communicate through code, innuendo, signal, so much of the time. It was important to me, as a South Asian woman, to show the rich, messy, compromised and creative ways in which we improvise identities in order to survive.

Also read | 'Growing up in Kashmir, we were scared of the light'

In your recent ‘Vogue’ essay, you write: “You can’t—you shouldn’t—teach yourself to fall out of love with a place. I dislike, for example, the growing dogmatism of Pakistani society; the polluted air; the patriarchal norms that provide cover for and justify all kinds of violence against women. I dislike, too, the anxious obsession with ‘showing a positive side of Pakistan in the West’. As in India—under the grip of a new authoritarian populism—critiquing Pakistan now amounts to a kind of treachery.” Can you unpack this love-hate relationship with one’s home country—and how critique can come from a place of concern and want for change? In this regard, why did you choose fiction as your vessel?

My critique of Pakistan comes from a place of tremendous love and yearning. One of the identities I do wear, and hold sacred, is that I am progressive, I am a feminist, and it breaks my heart to see young people policed by the state or a conservative society. A young woman recently proposed to her boyfriend on campus at The University of Lahore and they subsequently embraced. The university expelled them, saying they had acted “in violation of the university rules”. Public displays of affection are now culturally unacceptable? Stuff like this really gets under my skin.

Fiction is a good vessel because it can hold contradiction. One of the things I love most about fiction is that you use artifice—plot, narrative, the creation of Jack and Jane, or Jamil and Jameela—to get at a deeper truth. The God Of Small Things brought Kerala alive for me in a way that I doubt a travel book ever will. If done well, fiction enables you to navigate the dignity of characters and places.

Are You Enjoying? By Mira Sethi, Bloomsbury India, 208 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699.
Are You Enjoying? By Mira Sethi, Bloomsbury India, 208 pages, 699.

Why short fiction? Who are your favourite short-story writers?

Short stories enabled me to tell different but distinct stories about love, autonomy, transgression, class and sexuality in Pakistan. I love how, in a short story, the submerged energy of a piece is able to come out in subtle or unexpected ways at the end, slightly shifting our understanding of what came before in the narrative. Akhil Sharma, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Anton Chekhov and Jhumpa Lahiri are some favourites.

Also read | 'I found a key to open a new door': Jhumpa Lahiri

There’s a generous dose of Urdu words and phrases, albeit italicised. You have said that “speaking relentlessly in English (is like) communicating the clutter of my inner life in a language that houses my intellect more than my heart”. Can you say more about language, “foreignness”, authenticity—and writing for a reader of English?

Writing for a reader of English means, at some level, translating culture, sensibility, tone. You will see I used the phrase “mazaazi khuda” in Tomboy. I could have said “God-like husband” or “God in earthly form”. But no one who speaks Urdu would ever substitute that particular term in that way. An act of translation, in that moment, would have ruined the mood of the piece.

I recently read a novel in which the author has footnoted Urdu words. That’s their choice but I don’t want to write explanatory literature. If I did, I would have written a pamphlet. I am okay with things being a little hazy, if that inaccessibility means retaining a character’s subjectivity. At one point, Roshan, from Breezy Blessings, says, “Then I was relax.” Some American readers have been stumped by this: Is it a typo? Language is a way of telegraphing class and politics. I am interested in that.

I speak Urdu, Punjabi and English. English was the medium of instruction at school, therefore my intellectual life has always taken place in English. There’s a playfulness and intimacy in Urdu that I associate with some of my oldest and most enduring relationships—a kind of primal tug. In many ways, some of the emotions underneath the English-language sentences in my book are in Urdu. In the title story, Soni wonders about Asher: “She wondered how the thoughts in his head, forged in Urdu, were released so quickly and bizarrely into the English wild?” This could be a comment on my writing process too: I switch between Urdu and English and am constantly translating the different registers in my head.

Can you talk about the two, very different, book covers? What do you want your audiences to take away from this book?

The US cover hints at revelation, secrecy, intimacy. The brightness of the British cover is intended to appear as an ironic contrast with the title—are you enjoying, uttered in a state of ennui. In many ways, the book is a collection of secrets. What’s it like living and loving—often in secret—in Pakistan? In the absence of a healthy social contract with the state, what are the strange and maddening ways in which we improvise identities in order to survive?

Sana Goyal is pursuing a PhD in literary prizes at SOAS, London.

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