Daniyal Mueenuddin | Interview
Daniyal Mueenuddin’s poem ‘Trying Tripe’ is printed in Granta 112: Pakistan. Here he speaks to Emily Greenhouse about writing what you know, the experience of writing poems compared to short stories and the rarity of great translations.
EG:Your contribution to Granta: Pakistan – ‘Trying Tripe’ – is the first poem you have ever published. Is this for lack of trying?
DM: More or less, less than more. I sent a few poems out, on a few occasions, over the course of twenty years – and was greeted with a resounding silence. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but rather from a sense that the poems weren’t good enough; or rather, that I was not enough of a poet – I was living in Pakistan, had no community, and was not writing poems fluently enough to believe that I could really be that miraculous beast, a Poet. A lot of the poems that I wrote during those years were flawed, as I recognized even then – sometimes I just couldn’t close the deal, couldn’t make the poem stand up and shake itself and start walking around autonomously – especially in the early years. My poems got better, or at least became more approachable, when I became a narrative rather than lyric poet. At the same time, there’s a part of me that believes in those early lyric poems, though I would need to prune them if they were to be finished – at this point, it could only be pruning – it’s impossible to rewrite a poem so many years after the original inspiration has faded.
Which poets do you turn to for inspiration?
There are so many – Lowell, Berryman, Auden, Rilke, Cavafy, Merrill, Frost, and many others, the canon. While cooking, which is one of my hobbies, I listen to poets reading their work. Right now on my iPod, I have Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Eliot, Yeats and Merwin. Derek Walcott reads wonderfully. I just bought Heaney reading his collected works, everything he has written – 15 CDs.
I’ve just finished the Collected Poems of Milosz, who is a great narrative poet – he reminds me sometimes of Arthur Waley’s Chinese translations.
The title of my book is drawn from Elizabeth Bishop – Varick Street – and she is certainly another of my favorites. The title came to me in the middle of the night, when I didn’t have the poem at hand, and I thought that I had drawn the phrase ‘In other rooms, other wonders’ directly from the poem. As it turns out, I had misremembered the line:
On certain floors
Pale dirty light,
some captured iceberg
being prevented from melting.
See the mechanical moons,
sick, being made
to wax and wane
at somebody’s instigation.
And I shall sell you sell you
sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me.
My title is drawn from the first two lines of this second stanza; and the poem as a whole captures many of the themes of my book.
How does conceiving and writing a poem compare to conceiving and writing a short story?
The two activities are dissimilar, only related in that both are exercises in making verbal artefacts, ‘saying what is beautiful and true.’
There is, however, one great similarity between the two activities, of writing a poem, or writing a short story – I sit down at a desk with the intention of creating the piece. For an author to sit down alone in a room with the intention of writing a poem or a story, which will be read by the whole world – in a dream, in a dream! – is a radical act, an act of belief in his powers, and in his individuality, and in the importance of his images and their coherence.
Once a story is begun, it follows a logical progression – Bob and Betty meet, there are obstacles to their love, they do or don’t surmount them, and then they absorb the blow, good or bad. A poem is wilder, less rational, and driven by language rather than by narrative. Poems are sound devices, image devices, with the narrative very much subordinate. Think of an opera, where the recitative must be poetically true, and true as a narrative – but where the music carries the day.
Recently, you said that you’re not certain translation really works – especially not for poetry, that most delicate of written crafts. Do you feel, then, that an Urdu speaker could not really grasp the meaning of your stories, or your poetry?
Translation is impossible, in a strict sense, simply because most words in any given language do not have an exact correlative in another language. Nuance is always lost.
The surest proof of this axiom, for me, is that when translating Urdu or Punjabi speech into English, as I sometimes do when writing dialogue, I find it necessary entirely to rework what is being said.
Great translations are much rarer than great works of fiction or poetry. Off the top of my head, as examples of great translations into English – confining myself to poetry – I can recall only Swinburne’s translations of Villon, Pound’s Cathay, Arthur Waley’s life work, and portions of the King James Bible, especially the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. It is, very evidently, extremely rare for the right translator to meet the right text.
Some fiction writers are much more susceptible to translation than others, in part because their effects are achieved by means of character representation and narrative complexity and vibrancy rather than by the musical qualities of the language, cadence and so on. Tolstoy, for example, comes across very well in English, whereas I can’t imagine a translation of Ulysses that would do justice to the novel’s lip-smacking language.
I fondly believe that the music of my book is central to its meaning, and that, unless I were lucky enough to find a great translator, a significant portion of its merit would be lost in translation; but then, I suppose most writers think that of their darlings, and many are wrong.
You graduated from some of America’s most elite institutions: Groton boarding school, Dartmouth College, Yale Law School. Do you see your ‘day job’ as a farmer as a rejection of any of the elitist values ascribed to these schools? Do you agree with the ‘conventional wisdom’ that law is an inherently un-artistic, uncreative field?
I’m not sure what you mean by elitist values. If the pursuit of excellence is elitist, then please sign me up; if you mean graduates of these schools standing around reflecting upon their superiority to the unwashed masses, who live on blancmange and have never said anything witty, then of course I reject the label. I try very hard to run my farm according to principle and in pursuit of profit, and both impulses were impressed upon me at these institutions.
As for law being un-artistic or uncreative, that depends on the practitioner. I learned a lot about the greasy pole and about the devices by which the world is run while practising law, and this knowledge has proven extremely useful to me as a writer. As a lawyer I also learned about clarity and succinctness in writing, and equally important, about writing quickly. Lawyers are never ‘blocked’, or if they are, they don’t last long in the profession.
Albert Camus once wrote that ‘a man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.’ What are your two or three images?
There were certain evenings in my childhood, when the crows beat homeward over the old colonial polo fields in Lahore, and the dust from the wheeling horses reddened the air; and certain mornings when the sun rose over marshes where I sat in reeds waiting for flighting ducks. But I don’t agree with Camus – nostalgia is much more varied, and reflects upon many more objects than the handful that he allows.
Your stories are filled with violence, corruption, and scheming – especially by your female characters – but you make little explicit mention of terrorism. Is this intentional?
‘Write what you know’ means write about your experiences. Like most people, my experience of terrorism is limited to what I read over my morning egg and butter.
Salman Rushdie included your short story ‘Nawabdin Electrician’ in Best American Short Stories 2008. How did this affect your career?
Of course it introduced me to a much larger audience; and helped me to hold my head higher when people asked me what I did for a living. When you tell people that you are a writer, they generally cock their head with disbelief, or with the pitying belief that you must be a failure, a scribbler, a loafer, if not worse.
In that vein, do ‘best of’ lists, or anthologies themed to a nation (such as Granta’s), make you bristle?
I am delighted when I find my name high up on the list; and gnash my teeth and stamp my foot when I do not.
With Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom just out, talk of a Zola-esque ‘social’ or ‘realist’ novel is on everyone’s lips. Uncomfortably or not, do you feel responsible for capturing the human comedy and tragedy of contemporary Pakistan in your work? The Harouni family and all its employees, as represented in your linked story collection, certainly shows a heterogeneous microcosm of a kind.
Zola! Who reads Zola anymore? Come on, raise your hands!
I like the idea of working on a large canvas – and of presenting a more-or-less comprehensive portrait of a time and place. The stories illuminate each other.
As for responsibility, I acknowledge none whatsoever. I do what I please, that is one of the writer’s great privileges.
If you do not – do you resent your art being construed as representative of a whole nation, as political? Does art have an obligation to be political?
Politics and art do not play well together, except in satire. Writers who indulge in politics are pandering to those who happen to agree with them. These fellow travellers will hoist them on their shoulders and cry Hosannah. But politics are as much subject to fashion as hats and boots, and when the fashion for a particular ideology passes, the writer goes into decline. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s . . .