"Literature and the American Dream" An Interview with Farooz Rather
At the end of the day you're just trying to tell a story...that is what makes literature so wonderful and important.
The following is a conversation between Farooz Rather, Assistant Professor, NTT, Department of Literature and Writing at Simmons University, and Taylor Eubanks, graduate student in the Gender and Cultural Studies program. Professor Rather discusses his current manuscript, a novel titled The Derby Shoe.
What is your project?
Farooz Rather: I'm working on my second novel, tentatively titled The Derby Shoe, and in this novel I follow a Kashmiri flâneur who is adrift in New Delhi. I want to explore his character—he comes from Kashmir and he's a gossip columnist in a local newspaper. There is a past to him from which he is psychologically scarred because he has witnessed some horrific violence while growing up. So that will be a big part of his character.
But he happens to go to a publishing party, which is full of people from Europe and America, as publishing parties could be in New Delhi. He hits it off with an ultra liberal poet from California, where he would later go to find love. And in that process, I want to explore the idea of the American dream.
I have two lenses: one is the lens of immigration and all the enthusiasm to be a part of the American dream; the second is the resistance to immigration that comes from America's political provincialism. I did my MFA in the central valley of California, in Fresno, and I had an idea that California is all very liberal, but there are very conservative pockets and I got to see some of that political conservatism.
So there is (white) resistance to the idea of the American dream being inviting and welcoming to immigrants.
Do you find yourself putting your own experiences into what your main character goes through?
Farooz Rather: Oh yes. I think that is the wonderful thing about fiction. You are constantly improvising, or you have a little bit of memory and you're recreating other aspects of that memory. I think every novel is autobiographical in some way. But I'm also interested in exploring, fictionalizing, and recreating memory.
What do you mean by "recreating memory"?
Farooz Rather: I think there can be many layers if you're looking at a memory. Let's say something happened to you at the age of five, and you're looking at the memory from the point of view of a 15-year-old, and then you look at the same memory from the point of view of a thirty-year-old. Before it appears onthe page it becomes a matter of interpretation or what the consciousness filters—it would be a different memory through each point of view.
"There is (white) resistance to the idea of the American dream being inviting and welcoming to immigrants"
The narrator is from Kashmir and he's had a certain kind of upbringing. That does inform his point of view, but going out into the larger world he meets [the ultra liberal poet] Suzy, who is the other main character. Meeting her informs him and changes his world view, so I'm interested in exploring how our memories can take many different shapes because of our evolving views and experiences.
Is Suzy based on an actual person, or is she an amalgamation of people that you've encountered in California?
Farooz Rather: Yes, an amalgamation. Suzy is not just based on one person. It is more about what she represents. She is an ultra liberal poet from California who has spent time in New York City and on the east coast, so she is fairly alienated with the late capitalist American society.
Here also the contemplation on the writing process. When you find yourself surrounded with that suburban American malaise and feel overwhelmed by it, what does that mean? What does it mean to write poetry? I suppose the question becomes how much value can we put into poetry?
What kind of value do you think we put into poetry?
Farooz Rather: That is some of what I'm researching and looking into. My sense is that it is going to be extremely challenging to make that space for poetry as technology and capitalism penetrate more and more into society.
I'm thinking about, for instance, how big corporations are infiltrating our private space and so easily penetrate and erase a sphere of privacy—and what that means. Because ultimately, poetry is a way to exert your individuality, to preserve your individuality.
We have reached a technological stage where we either need to redefine what privacy means, and the consequence of that in redefining poetry, or we need to fight really hard to retain our privacy, our individuality, and our use of poetry to exert those things.
Why do you think this project is important?
Farooz Rather: I read somewhere [the late author] Doris Lessing said of writing a novel about a non-Western setting, to use novels to report on this new area that isn't yet in the global consciousness. Thisparticular case, with The Derby Shoe, happens to be Kashmir. A lot of things have been happening in Kashmir for the last thirty years, but in addition to that I want to realize my vision.
"You write a character, and realize the different things you've experienced yourself in them."
There are many journalistic accounts about Kashmir that do a good job of reporting to the world what's happening, but I think what's even more important for me is to make an attempt to realize my own novelistic vision through this character's journey. It'll be great if that creates a conversation about what's happening politically in Kashmir.
A lot is happening in the United States and the American political landscape is changing in terms of the rise of the right, especially what we hear in conversations about globalism, localism and the provinciality of American politics. Well something similar is happening in India as well, so this novel I suppose with a non-Western setting, creates an interface for those kinds of conversations.
But to be honest, when I sit down to write I'm not thinking about these things. I'm just trying to tell a story but I don't know what I want to engage with when I start. You try to pay attention to things in the world, but at the end of the day you're just trying to tell a story. I guess that is what makes literature so wonderful and important.
You write a character, and realize the different things you've experienced yourself in them. And there are many different kinds of readings— anthropologists will see one thing, as will biologists, sociologists and historians. But I'm just telling a story.
Edited for length and clarity. Photo provided by MaxPixel.net.