Wednesday, February 28

Taymour Soomro: ‘I want to challenge reductionist narratives about Pakistan’ | fiction

TAymour Soomro was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and read law at Cambridge University and Stanford. After a brief career as a solicitor in London and Milan, and an even briefer stint in fashion, he began to write fiction. At first he wrote short stories – his work by him has been published in the new yorker and the Southern Reviewand has now published his first novel, Other Names for Love. The book tells of a young man, Fahad, from an influential Pakistani family who travels with his father to visit the ancestral home of him in the fictional region of Abad. It comes garlanded with praise, including from the writers Yiyun Li and Garth Greenwell. Soomro is the co-editor, with Deepa Anappara, of a creative writing handbook on fiction, race and culture, which will be published in 2023.

How did your return to Pakistan after many years away provide the blueprint for the book?
About 15 years ago, I wrote a novel so terrible and unpublishable that no one will ever see it. Having failed as a writer, I didn’t really know what to do. I wanted to run and hide and so I ran home to Pakistan and hid there with my family. But I also wanted to be useful and productive. Our farm has been in the family for generations. When I returned, my grandfather was managing it. He had been doing this for 40 years alongside his career first as a civil servant and later as a politician. I was curious about farming, about how it was done, about how it might be done better; though my grandfather was keen for me to restart my legal career, he taught me the logistics of seeds and tractors, harvests, threshing and crop-sharing.

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… which fed into Fahad’s experience in Other Names for Love?
And it is. I encountered reluctance and prejudice at first but learned so much in the process, not only about farming, but also about myself, people – about how little I really knew about anything at all.

It’s a novel with a subplot about queer desire. Can you speak about the tension involved in writing about this in a country where homosexuality is punishable by death?
It was important to me to write about queerness in Pakistan for so many reasons, including making visible experiences like my own in Pakistan, and challenging reductive narratives about the country – narratives about Muslim barbarism and homophobia. Homophobia was a Victorian export to South Asia during the empire, that’s when these laws date from. And like so much law in Pakistan, it does not always correspond to custom, certainly not neatly. When I returned to live in Pakistan in my 20s, I returned with prejudices I had learned in England. But when I traveled around the countryside in Sindh, I was surprised to discover how inaccurate they were: people spoke to me about men they knew with male lovers without a great deal of judgment or stigma. That isn’t to say that there isn’t stigma, that there isn’t very real harm or suffering – only that responses and experiences are as various and complex as they are anywhere.

You studied law. How does the writer in you connect with the lawyer?
It’s interesting for me to imagine the kind of writer I would have been had I not studied law. I was a very brief and terrible lawyer, but I taught law in Pakistan and wrote a legal textbook, so there is a way in which the law has remained with me. When I started as a law student, we were taught to remove ourselves completely from the text, that there should be no emotion, and when I came to writing fiction, so often the feedback I got was that “we don’t know how these characters feel”. So, learning how to be a writer was in some ways unlearning how to be a lawyer.

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The book is separated into three distinct parts …
I had been writing a lot of short fiction. I shifted to writing the novel as part of a PhD, and my supervisor kept reading the chapters and telling me that they felt like short stories. Her argument, which I still don’t know I completely agree with, is that the energy of a sentence in a short story is different to the energy of a sentence in a novel – that, somehow, the sense of imminent foreclosure in a short story feeds down even to the level of a sentence. I thought, why don’t I separate the novel into parts so they feel like novellas? It also engaged with the way I wanted to tell the story. I wanted to show these men at very different stages of power in their lives.

What books are on your bedside table?
fathers and sons by Turgenev. I’m rereading that. I’m also reading From Heaven Lake by Vikram Seth. It’s so beautiful. Extraordinary for its descriptions of landscape.

How do you organize your books?
At home in London I’m in an apartment where we have all of the family books – my parents’ books and my sister’s books. We all read a ton. The joy of that is that the bookshelves are full of books that I haven’t read. My father’s books tend to be a lot of nonfiction and biography, whereas my mother and sister read fiction. It’s very stereotypically gendered. A few of the authors whose titles we have several of are grouped together – all the Ishiguros are together – but otherwise it’s chaos.

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Where do you write?
I have had all sorts of superstitions about writing and am trying to be less precious about it now, but I find it difficult to write around friends and family. Or perhaps that was my particular struggle with Other Names for Love, which is a very personal novel. I wrote the first part of the novel during a dreamy month I spent in Seville, and then wrote the second and final part during six months I spent as a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. So now my writing superstition is that I need to travel to write. I’ll be a fellow at the Institute for Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin in Madison for the next academic year and am hoping to write my second novel there.

Other Names for Love by Taymour Soomro is published by Vintage (£14.99) on 7 July. To support the Guardian and observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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