In Monday’s feature on Daniyal Mueenuddin, Nicki Leone looks at his debut short story collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. The quotes below tell some of his side of the story—his genesis as a writer, how he returned to Pakistan in his 20s to manage his father’s farm, and how it influenced his craft.
“My mother was very smart, she said, ‘You want to go to Dartmouth, you’re not going to get in on your grades ’cause you’ve got Cs, so you’re going to have to write one hell of an essay.’ So she basically locked me up for all of Christmas vacation, and I literally spent three weeks writing my application essay. And she didn’t help me with it, but she kept saying, ‘Look, it’s not good enough.’ I seriously think she’s the only reason I got into Dartmouth. That and my ethnic thing. That always helps, being from Pakistan. In those days, there were fewer of us.”—“Stranded Gentry,” interview with Elizabeth Rubin in Bidoun, 2009.
“Sent away at thirteen, from my home in Pakistan to an American boarding school, then to Dartmouth, I knew one thing in my senior year, as I fished away at an honors thesis on the obscurities of James Merrill’s poems: I needed more time, time to gain experience to read and finally to write the deathless poems that bubbled up almost within reach of my consciousness and which I then believed would inscribe my name in the skies. As graduation loomed, in New Hampshire, my father had been sending by every post letters suggesting and hinting that I return to Pakistan, where he would unfold his plans for me. There I knew I would have leisure, would find subjects, color, conflict. If I was serious about becoming a writer, it seemed the best way forward.”—“Sameer and the Samosas”—Personal History essay in the New Yorker, 2012.
“In both cases, either in the West or in Pakistan, people always view me as being somebody slightly from the outside. And I think I view myself as being from the outside. And that is something that can be aggravating and painful but also liberating and fun.”—“Pakistani-American Writer Bridges Two Worlds,” NPR Books, 2006.
“My God, how penny-bright and clueless I was, arriving at the farm that day in 1987, to be met by the managers—the Committee, as I came to think of them…. They should have been standing there in order of size as my jeep chugged up the drive: tall, volatile, vicious Shakil at one end of the line—in a cartoon, he would be the slavering Doberman, no brains but lots of bad muscle between the ears—and, at the other end, dumpy, lame Shafik, the accountant, born to be a sidekick to some rogue, who spent the next four or five years trotting around me in circles as I struggled to understand the double-entry bookkeeping system he had devised expressly to be intelligible only to him. In lore and reality, these managers are a type as well defined as the English butler, but of a very different temper. Every absentee landowner has them, and most believe that theirs alone are honest.”—“Sameer and the Samosas”
“As I am trying to have a business conversation with someone who is trying to rip me off in some fabulous and hilarious way, there is always a little figure on my shoulder saying, ‘Calm down, calm down, because this is going to be in your book.’”—“Pakistani-American Writer Bridges Two Worlds.”
“The next evening, when I drove through the gate of my house, a sagging wooden affair once painted green, once perhaps in colonial days a swing for little English children, I found an old man standing by the portico with the timeless patience of peasants and old servants, as if he had been standing there all day. He wore a battered white skullcap, soiled clothes, a sleeveless sweater, and shoes with crepe rubber soles, worn down on one side, which gave each foot a peculiar tilt. The deep lines on his face ran in no rational order, no order corresponding to musculature or to the emotions through which his expressions might pass, but spread from numerous points. The oversized head had settled heavily onto the shoulders, like sand castle on the beach after the sea has run in over it.”—“About a Burning Girl,” from In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
“I love [Tolstoy]. I’m living his life, it’s very conscious. I reread Anna Karenina constantly—I’ve probably read it, like, ten times. And Chekhov is someone I’m reading all the time, as well. The books I read again and again are Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Ulysses, and the Chekhov stories. These are always in the rotation.”—“Stranded Gentry”
Elizabeth Rubin: Do you have a home anywhere else?
Daniyal Mueenuddin: In the world? Well, My mother has this farm in Wisconsin, which I run for her, actually. I just rent the land out to Amish people, which is a lot of fun. So that’s a retreat if we need one. But I would teach or something, I suppose. All these other lives I can imagine. I’m starting to think I’d better start imagining hard, since imagination might need to become reality pretty quick. I think you know, Pakistan is not just on the brink of the precipice, it’s probably fallen off the precipice, and is accelerating on its way down.—“Stranded Gentry”
“The movement of these stories is always toward affirmation. Just by describing the life force of the characters … Life affirms because life goes on.”—“Pakistani-American Writer Bridges Two Worlds.”
Click here to read Nicki Leone’s feature piece on Daniyal Mueenuddin.
Author photo credit: Cecilie Brenden