Letters to a Writer of Color
On Origin Stories
I collect stories about con artists. Often the stories stress what is purely, willfully manipulative in the con and its pursuit of simple financial gain, but what interests me more is the desire for a disguise, its art and effects.
Tom MacMaster, a cis-het white American, blogged as a Syrian lesbian. Sophie Hingst posed as the relative of Auschwitz survivors and sent “testimonies” to Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial of people who had never existed. Belle Gibson, a wellness guru, claimed to have survived various cancers. Hargobind Tahilramani masqueraded as film studio executive Amy Pascal. And there’s Rachel Dolezal, Anna Delvey, and Dan Mallory too. There is a public fascination with uncovering these cons, with unmasking a “true” identity underneath, with pathologizing these acts as sickness or crime.
But I feel a kind of affinity, perhaps even an uneasy kinship, with these actors. My identity seems to me unavoidably a performance and a disguise, not only because it seeks to constrain me in one persona when I am constantly in flux but also because there has always been a conflict between who I think I am at any given moment and who others think I am, so that my reflection flickers endlessly in a mirror. One of the features that distinguishes good fiction for me is that it captures this shiftiness of self, so that Anna Karenina or Rahel Ipe or Sethe cannot be constrained within a fixed identity, cannot easily be reduced to a set of character traits. I wonder then at the relationship between the stories I tell about myself and the stories I write. Where is the con and where is the truth?
These questions recur in Nabokov’s formulation on fiction: “Literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him. . . . Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.” For him, fiction is a commitment to untruth rather than truth. It is the ultimate, unimpeachable con.
When I left my job at a corporate law firm to write a novel, my greatest preoccupation was not that I would fail but that my fiction would unmask me. I was living a sort of double life at the time: queer in London but not in Karachi, desi in Karachi but as English as possible in London. This kind of life—of multiple selves, of one person in my head and another outside, of one person in one place and another elsewhere—was familiar to me. It was how I’d always been, but my ability to police these selves, to keep them separate, to keep separate the communities that knew me as one person and those that knew me as another, had become more difficult, once I left home at eighteen for university and began to live these lives rather than just to imagine them.
So when I sat down to write, I determined to write as far away from these selves as I could, “as though tossing a grenade,” as the protagonist of my novel Other Names for Love
says. To support myself, I tutored the children of wealthy Londoners. One of these was a young woman who had enrolled in a graduate program. First, I guided her through the writing process for a thesis on beauty myths and, when she did well on that, through the writing process for a subsequent thesis on the ethics of face transplantation.
My student preferred that we should read and make notes together and, as this was on the clock, it suited me. I spent hours in her Knightsbridge basement apartment reading aloud to her from articles and textbooks, dictating notes, interrupted occasionally by her mother, who would turn up with wads of fifty-pound notes to pay me, and her handsome Cypriot boyfriend, who, when he wasn’t napping, drifted in and out of the living room in a short toweling robe which promised at any moment, if I paid sufficient attention, to reveal a glimpse of the inside of his thigh.
I was in search of a protagonist and a plot for my novel. My student, with her ennui, anxiety, and careless wealth, seemed like a character I could imagine piloting the kind of novels I’d read, and the subject matter of her thesis seemed topical and arbitrary enough that none of it could say anything about me at all: the perfect Keyser Söze. Over the two years that I taught her, I wrote, polishing and repolishing the first part of the manuscript. I bought that year’s edition of a guidebook called The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook
, which included an alphabetical list of British agents with brief descriptions, and sent three chapters and a cover letter to a selection of nine agents, who, within a couple of months, rejected the material in standard form.
Thinking back, I can’t imagine there could have been any other outcome, but at the time it was startling, so humiliating I couldn’t speak of it or think of it or write anymore, ever again. I left London for the safety and security of my parents’ home in Karachi. And then, at a loss for what to do and desperate to feel useful, I took over the family farm. I grappled with who I was and who I wanted to be and finally, after coming out to my parents, integrated more coherently the separate selves I had constructed—so that I no longer had to make such careful and fearful decisions about which self I’d be in any given context. I moved back to London. A little humbler, with lower expectations, I thought I’d try writing again. I enrolled in a writing program. I wrote more freely than before, as close to myself as I wanted, no longer throwing a grenade. I began to publish my work, which now frequently featured queer brown characters doing things in Pakistan.
On a recent occasion, I found myself telling this story to a group of students. You see, I told them, I could write truthfully once I lived truthfully. But it’s fiction, one of the students said. Yes, I said. It’s fiction, but fiction has to be truthful, and once I was true to myself, I could write truthfully, and I realized as I said all this, repeating true and truthful again and again, trying with the repetition to persuade all of us, that this relationship between truth and fiction didn’t really make sense. This origin story, though it had satisfied me and seemed to satisfy others, though it articulated a voguish value system, by celebrating identity, coming out, self-love, self-actualization, though it provided a teachable moment, a craft lesson, was a con, was a wolf shimmering in the tall grass.
Where had it come from? And what was it doing?
It celebrated a particular way of being, of being a good queer, a good immigrant; worse, by endorsing a true identity for me, by drawing a link between that true identity and craft, it suggested in a sly way that my identity is the story I should tell, that queer immigrant is the lane my fiction belongs in.
The fiction of mine that has been most successful with industry gatekeepers is fiction that stays in my lane. But on my writing program, I studied with three cis-het white men for whom there seemed to be no lane at all, none that constrained them at least. One of them was writing a novel with a Japanese protagonist, another with an Iraqi, a third a Chinese. Their novels were published soon after we finished our degrees. Their writing and their success unsettled, even irritated me. Was it jealousy? It was a kind of jealousy, that they were allowed to, that they had the audacity to tell any story they wanted, as far from their lives, with protagonists as different from themselves as they could possibly be.
It made me wonder whether the power a writer has over their fiction is a power the writer has over their person. The imperative to stay in your lane, to write what you know, these are forces I think many writers must guard against, though some—those who are queer, those who are racialized—seem to be more vulnerable and more sensitive to its effects. The gatekeepers and the readers are not so easily conned by us, so that Elena Ferrante is presumed to be Lenù in her Neapolitan Quartet, so that Monica Ali is presumed to write well only when she writes about Bangladeshi immigrants.
By writing freely, each of the three men I studied with reminded me I had less power than he did, that his fiction, his person was not constrained in the way that I was.
So, if my origin story is a con, are there are other stories I can tell about my origins as a writer? Or, if fiction is a con, are there other cons that can tell more about how and why I write?