Friday, June 12, 2009

daniyal mueenuddin's 'in other rooms, other wonders

A Pakistani writer portrays his country in prizewinning prose
by Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette June 8 2009

Many people dream of changing the direction of their lives and becoming successful fiction writers, but very few manage to turn that dream into reality. One who has done so to extraordinary effect is the Pakistani-American lawyer Daniyal Mueenuddin who left his job at a large New York law firm some years back to pursue a career as a writer.

Today he is an acclaimed Pakistan-based author whose recently-published debut short story collection “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” has created much excitement in literary circles on both sides of the Atlantic. At the same time he manages the family farm in Khanpur, southern Punjab.

Late last month “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” won the Best International Book category at the glitzy annual Muslim Writers Awards ceremony, held at London’s Park Lane Hilton Hotel. The ceremony was a double triumph for Mueenuddin’s British publisher Bloomsbury; the award for Best Published Fiction was awarded to Bloomsbury’s Kamila Shamsie for her novel “Burnt Shadows”.

Mueenuddin and Shamsie are among several Pakistani fiction authors who have leapt to international prominence as part of a new wave of Pakistani writing in English. Among the others are Mohsin Hamid, Nadeem Aslam and Mohammed Hanif. Some commentators speak of a ‘renaissance’ in Pakistani writing, but at a recent reading and discussion in London with young British Muslims of mostly Pakistani origin, organized by City Circle, Mueenuddin played down this theory. “India has this amazing literary scene with these remarkable works produced, but that is because there was a long history of them,” he remarked. “We’ve broken from that history and we didn’t respect it; we lost it and it’s going to take a long time to rebuild – there’s been a tremendous break in Pakistani culture.”

He cautioned that it could be a long time before Pakistan makes its mark on the English language literary scene. “We are in for a long haul and I don’t see any renaissance any time soon. People talk about me and Nadeem, Kamila, Hanif, Mohsin and a few others as a renaissance, but we’re just a minor little eruption. It is going to be a while before we have a real literary culture,” he stated.

“In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” consists of eight loosely-connected stories, most of them linked with K.K. Harouni, an old landowner and retired civil servant from Lahore. Mueenuddin takes the reader deep into the overlapping worlds of feudal landlords, peasants, servants, clerks, judges, new industrialists and decadent gilded youth. The stories explore power relationships - often against a background of casual corruption. Mueenuddin delves, often with tenderness, into the emotional lives of those who are normally invisible and marginalized. As the dynamics of his stories are played out, they tend to have melancholy endings. Mueenuddin has a gift for conveying in a few words a powerful sense of a personality or place.

Mueenuddin is an adept storyteller, but the key to his writing is his love and practice of poetry, which he started writing at the age of ten. He still reads a great deal of poetry. “In terms of my language that (poetry) training, that practice, has shaped what I’ve done. I’m very concerned with cadence, and with repetition and with the length of lines.” He added that some very good writers “shoot their prose out”, but his writing is “built bit by bit”, particularly during the process of rewriting.

Although Mueenuddin writes in English, the language environment of Pakistan profoundly influences his work. Living on the farm, he would speak almost exclusively in Urdu and Punjabi (at least until the arrival of his Norwegian wife Cecilie, whom he first met when he visited Norway on a Fulbright scholarship). Urdu is very much present in his prose: “Urdu diction and Urdu images are like the raisins in the bread of my writing,” he revealed.

Mueenuddin was born in Los Angeles in 1963 to a Pakistani father and American mother. His late father, Ghulam Mueenuddin, served as Secretary of the Establishment Department in Pakistan, and later became the country’s chief election commissioner. Daniyal spent his childhood in Pakistan, and then went to Dartmouth College in the US. He later qualified in Law from Yale University.

Members of the audience at City Circle were curious as to why and how he made the transition from law to writing. He said that although he had found law school a lot of fun, “being a lawyer is extremely dull and you make rich people richer.” Writing short stories from 2002 onwards was “the beginning of an escape strategy” for him.

He subsequently enrolled in an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) course in Creative Writing at the University of Arizona, which he completed in 2006. In that year his first published story, “Our Lady of Paris” which appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, the short-fiction magazine founded by film director Francis Coppola. The story was nominated for a National Magazine Award.

Mueenuddin acquired a literary agent, Bill Clegg, who helped him to get three stories published in the New Yorker in 2007 and 2008. The first of these, “Nawabdin Electrician”, was selected for the 2008 edition of “The Best American Short Stories”, while another story “Provide, Provide” was published the UK magazine Granta. Mueenuddin also has a Hollywood agent who is promoting “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” to the film industry but Mueenuddin remarked that he would not wish to write a script himself because “there’s so much money involved that it’s not about language or plot, it’s about what sells. And I think that would be very frustrating.”

During the City Circle discussion, Mueenuddin was generally pessimistic about the current situation in Pakistan. “In Pakistan we are fighting for our lives, our house is on fire – how can we afford to allocate resources to developing art?” But he spoke with enthusiasm of an unusual literary initiative: a short story competition entitled “Life’s Too Short” launched by the Z Z & Zohra Ahmed Foundation in Lahore. Mueenuddin is one of the three judges, together with Kamila Shamsie and Mohammed Hanif. There is a first prize of 100,000 rupees (around $1,249), a second of 20,000 rupees and a third of 10,000 rupees. The ten best stories will be published as an anthology. Participants must be of Pakistani origin and enter stories in English of up to 5,000 words. The deadline is the end of this month and more information can be found at

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