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Nonfiction

Interview: Usman T. Malik

Usman T. Malik is a Pakistani-American writer and doctor. His fiction has been reprinted in several years’ best anthologies, including the Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy series, and has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, the Million Writers Award, and twice for the Nebula. He has won the Bram Stoker and the British Fantasy Awards. He is a co-founder of the Salam Award for Imaginative Fiction, which seeks to nurture science fiction writers of Pakistani origin.

Usman’s debut collection, Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan, has garnered praise from writers such as Aamer Hussein, Brian Evenson, Joe Hill, Paul Tremblay, and Man Booker finalist Karen Joy Fowler. The book will be out in early 2021. You can find Usman on Twitter at @usmantm.

You’ve won the Bram Stoker and British Fantasy Awards. What’s it feel like to have your debut short story collection, Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan, on the brink of making its grand entrance?

When I began writing seriously in 2012, I thought I’d have a book ready for prime time in a year. I’d write the Great Pakistani-American novel, sell a million copies, and settle into a life of literary splendor with coffee and croissants in the morning and speaking engagements and movie deals at night. That fanciful bubble burst pretty quickly, and I busied myself with trying to actually learn how to write. I’m lucky that my readers have accompanied this journeyman writer since that time and am grateful that I finally have something they can put on their shelf.

Nine Pakistani artists and designers were commissioned to illustrate your collection. Tell us a little about why you wanted to have each story illustrated.

When I was a child, some of my favorite books were illustrated editions of Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. Sketch art and color plates by Arthur Rackham, Harry Clarke, Edward Gorey, and Gustave Doré would send my imagination soaring. This was much before I realized I was a colonial experiment—a middle-class mule with dreams and riches dangled before him as he trots along with a hundred million others. The mule’s been trained to dream a certain way, to crave the carrot and thrill at the whiplash until he thinks those are things he wants. Perhaps—or sometimes—we grow up and realize we want subversion but on our terms, not on the terms of masters past or present.

I wanted those stories illustrated my way. I wanted the Old and New Worlds to meet but at a crossroads of my choosing, at the terms of my people. That is also one reason I opted to bring out my debut collection in Pakistan rather than elsewhere.

How did you go about finding the artists? What was your process like?

I put out a call on social media and was flooded by the most dazzling portfolios in the world. The sheer quality of Pakistani speculative art is breathtaking. The artists were variegated and visionary. A few approached me by email, and friends referred others. Two of my favorite pieces in the book are by folks who aren’t well known, but whose work grabbed my attention immediately; I even knew which stories they’d be most suited for. In each case, I wanted the artist to work freely and ferociously. And they really did. I will also add that if you throw in cover art and book design, we have a total of nine visual and design artists who’ve worked on the book, and eight of those nine are women.

The subtitle of your collection is Fables from Pakistan. Tell us why you call these short stories fables.

The short story as a literary form is a modern construct. We had myths, legends, parables, folktales, allegories, and fables first. The characters in my stories and the author of those characters have been struggling under the burden of a past so vast and mysterious that the term short story didn’t seem true to me, especially since the modern Pakistani or Pakistani diaspora short story has mostly been rooted in the “real.” The single most important writer of the modern Urdu story, Naiyer Masud, works a crystalline prose that has the paradoxical effect of accentuating the impenetrability of his uncanny stories. If fables are lies that narrate useful truths, no writer has crafted better subcontinental fables than Masud. I hope some of my fables will aspire to a similar level.

Fables, by definition, dramatize a moral lesson. Though I prefer how you put it: fables being lies that narrate useful truths. What are your thoughts on horror and weird fiction as genres for conveying moral lessons?

Reducing art (or the world) to questions of morality will often render it worthless. For me, a fable quintessentially is about capturing and sharpening the edges of truth. Horror and weird fiction bend the rays of human conscious and subconscious like gravity bends light: they warp the human condition till it is rendered simultaneously less as well as more recognizable. How tolerable the result may be depends on the observer.

How did you decide on which stories to put in the collection? You mentioned that you had an idea of which ones you wanted specific artists to illustrate.

I wanted to put in stories spanning the extent of my decidedly minor literary career. They couldn’t just be sequential; they should show the range of what I like to do as a writer. Therefore, you have a couple science fiction stories bookended by ghost and cosmic horror tales. And yes, I wanted certain illustrators for certain pieces. I knew before I’d even talked to him that Omar Gilani would be a great choice for “The Wandering City;” same with the choice of Emil Hasnain as the artist for “In the Ruins of Mohenjo-Daro.”

You’ve talked previously about childhood as one of the recurring themes in most of these stories. It looks like metamorphosis is another one you’ve explored. I’m thinking of the ending of “The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family;” the serpentine menace in “Dead Lovers on Each Blade, Hung;” Daoud bringing the dead to life in “Resurrection Points.” Would you say that metamorphosis is a way for you to comment on or address the fears and social anxieties present in these stories, like political unrest and the threat of suicide bombers?

I hate change. I always have. I’m afraid of it. It is very likely I have an attachment disorder in the Buddhist sense: my attachment to things and perceived safety is pathologic. This may be why, during the creative act, transformation, often irrevocable, moors my stories. Perhaps I enact the transformative act in the fictive space precisely because it sustains my illusion of safety. If so, the metamorphoses in these stories address my personal demons more than societal demons. Perhaps, in the end, there is no difference.

While we’re on the topic of societal demons, here’s one thing I noticed about the end of “Vaporization Enthalpy.” The dedication reads: “For the 145 innocents of the 16/12 Peshawar terrorist attack and countless known and unknown before.” What’s the story behind the dedication?

On the 16th of December 2014, six terrorists entered a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, and gunned down nearly 150 people; 132 were middle-school children. I was visiting Pakistan at that time, and the televised sight of those little coffins being lifted was so dreadful that I wept for days. “Vaporization Enthalpy” was originally written in protest against drone killings conducted by American forces in Pakistan and Afghanistan; after the 16/12 massacre, I changed my dedication. “Vaporization Enthalpy” is a violent story against violence, a eulogy to innocence and love. It is unashamedly sentimental, and I’m proud of it for doing what it does.

“The Wandering City” is the newest story, published this year in Us in Flux. This one’s about a full-sized Enchanted City that lands mysteriously in Lahore, unleashing a variety of reactions from a collective cast of characters rather than a central protagonist. How did the premise come together for you?

As a child, I loved fairy tales, perhaps more than I loved horror (although I recall that as time went on, my favorite issues of the Pakistani kid mags, Bachon ki Dunya, Bachon ka Bagh, Jugnoon, etc., would recurrently be the “special horror number” issues). Yet I wasn’t drawn to fairy tale retellings until I went to Sycamore Hill and engaged with Karen Joy Fowler and Kelly Link on the subject of fairy tale and fairy tale-adjacent stories; they both did such perfect retellings that my jaw dropped. I realized I’d moved away from my childhood more decisively than I intended. As a writer, I like stories that consistently manage to evoke a sense of awe—whether that was marvel at a writer’s use of language or literary advice or astonishment at their reimagining of symbols. Fairy tales tend to do all that. Thus began my return to fairy tales, and where better to start than with the Alif Laila Wa Lail, also known as A Thousand and One Nights?

“The Wandering City” was born in that context: What would happen, I wondered, if the mythical City of Brass appeared a block from where I lived? How would Lahore react to it? Would our wonder or our bravery win? Like the reduced homo sapiens of J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned Giant, would we sell the magic to the highest bidder? Thus a story about a culture and a society I knew quite well came into being.

In one scene, a call to prayer from the Enchanted City’s mosque triggers a character’s atrial fibrillation. How much do you pull directly from your experiences and insight as a healthcare professional for the details in these stories? In other examples, there are characters living with illness, like Ammi who has cancer and Parveen who has polio in “Ishq.” Hakim Shafi is a doctor who uses medicinal snake venom to cure the narrator of his heroin addiction in “Dead Lovers.” Even metaphorical language and imagery in “In the Ruins of Mohenjo-Daro” is flavored with medical references.

I don’t know if I consciously pull from my experiences as a health professional. When I write, a different part of my brain seems to be at work. Yet, knowing the jargon of medicine, the vocabulary of pathos and pathology, does help when I’m creating the language of the story. It’s like borrowing from a second, secret language that only you have access to. It can be helpful; it can also be frightening. Samuel R. Delany told me his favorite contemporary writer at one time was the American doctor Ethan Canin, and perhaps Canin’s Emperor of the Air was so good because he could only write in very short periods of time due to his then-day job as a physician. I don’t know if medicine fuels my creative side as much as it seems to have fueled Ethan Canin’s, but it must do something, or else I might have quit it altogether.

Reading your stories, I detected an alternate sense of rhythm and flow to plot, anticipation, etc. I especially felt it in “The Fortune of Sparrows,” “Dead Lovers,” and “Vaporization Enthalpy” and got a real kick out of it. What are some of the structural or storytelling devices you use? How do you experiment with Western fiction conventions?

I have always wanted to be a writer who works in different modes. I get certain ideas, and to fully execute those ideas, I need particular tools. Sometimes the tool comes from Robert Aickman, and sometimes Thomas Ligotti. Sometimes it’s the musicality of the Punjabi mystic verse that does the trick; the aery quality of a Kelly Link story; or the flourish and fall and rise of Philip Roth that helps create a particular effect. I trust my instincts when I’m writing that first draft, and while they have misled me at times, often I’m guided clearly and lovingly. At the end of the day, every story wants its own voice and impetus, and my job, really, is to figure that out and then let the story flow.

Cosmic horror is one such mode you work in. Your novelette “In the Ruins of Mohenjo-Daro” appeared first in The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu: New Lovecraftian Fiction, edited by Paula Guran. “Dead Lovers” flirts with cosmic horror, too. H.P. Lovecraft’s xenophobia and racism need no discussion or introduction here, but I’m curious about how you, as a Pakistani-American and Muslim writer, feel about making the genre yours with your aesthetic and sensibilities.

Cosmic horror didn’t begin with HPL, you know; he himself took a lot from Lord Dunsany and Arthur Machen. While I devoured pretty much all of Lovecraft in my late teens and early twenties, I’m not much of a Lovecraftian mythos reader anymore. Instead, I tend to get my fix from writers who do feverish work from original sources and new fears and don’t worry about HPL’s monsters and monstrous geographies, several of which were taken from religious or mystical texts to begin with. I don’t find most Lovecraftian anthologies intriguing: the stories become pastiches quite quickly. This is why when Paula Guran asked me to consider linking “In the Ruins” with Shub-Niggurath, HPL’s Goat of a Thousand Young, I declined. This was my cosmic horror story with mythos from my part of the world; Lovecraft had naught to do with it.

Having said that, I encourage young horror writers to cut their teeth on HPL, Kipling, Poe, and other problematic figures. Take freely from their toolboxes and become your own iconoclast. Smash their clay feet with the hammers of your vision and subversion.

I hope young horror writers take your advice, because as you’ve observed, horror lags behind the rest of the speculative field with regard to representation and diversity of characters. It doesn’t have the same sort of representation that science fiction does. But when you cross into dark fantasy, where there’s a lot of overlap, you can find the diverse representation there. Why would you say that is?

Science fiction, by dint of its very nature, flourishes on curiosity and sense of wonder as nutrients. Horror, especially western mainstream (read: suburban or white man horror), tends to be conservative and eschews new forms and people. I could write an essay on why I think horror has lagged behind but I believe that is changing, and the change is very welcome. I’ll leave it at that.

I see your fiction as part of the change that’s happening. Your collection is coming out at a time when horror and dark fantasy with socially relevant themes and socio-historical awareness are getting a lot of attention and coming to the fore. In recent years, we’ve seen Victor LaValle comment on police brutality and anti-Black racism in The Ballad of Black Tom. Stephen Graham Jones comments on the legacy of settler colonialism in The Only Good Indians. And of course, there’s Lovecraft Country and HBO’s TV adaptation of it. Do you see your fiction as part of this moment and do you see it bringing an international scope?

I don’t think of my collection as a horror or dark fantasy collection, although several of my stories have elements of both. Instead, as I said earlier, I tend to see these stories as fables that tell the truth of my childhood, my life, my financial, migratory, spiritual, and physical struggles. I see these stories as the narrative thrust of a country that for too long has existed identity-less and on the margins. But also, I am not a Pakistani anymore. I am a Pakistani-American, and that brings with it more layers of distress, displacement, and disillusionment. My fiction is, of necessity, fractured, and I hope those jagged edges render it all the more dangerous.

And we want more of it! What upcoming and dangerous writing projects do you have coming up that you can tell us about?

I am supposed to be writing a few stories: an SF story and two horror ones. They are for anthologies. I’m most excited about trying my hand at a Raj story in the M. R. James mode and seeing what I can do with it. I also have a novel idea I’ve been meaning to return to. Soon, I hope.

Anything else you’d like your readers to know about Midnight Doorways?

It is the culmination of a decade of quiet and passionate work. I hope it reaches an avid young reader somewhere in Pakistan (or anywhere, really) and shows them flashes of familiarity that they had longed for but didn’t quite know they needed. I hope it makes a difference.

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Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.