Pakistani author and farm-owner Mueenuddin's first collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, follows the travails of a complex web of relations surrounding a Lahore landowner.
Where did you grow up, and when did you come to the States?
My father, a Pakistani civil servant, was in Washington in the mid-'50s when he met my American mother, a young Washington Post reporter. Four years later they married and returned to Pakistan, eventually to Lahore, where I went to the American School. At 13 my parents sent me to boarding school in Massachusetts—cue massive culture shock—then Dartmouth College, where I haunted the stacks and dreamed of being a poet.
What is your relationship to the different languages you speak?
I'm fluent in English but like other bilinguals, I have two fairly distinct personalities, one the bookish Anglophone, liberal, moderate, and then the Punjabi-speaking farm manager, countering the shrewd invective of cotton buyers and light-fingered revenue officials. I cannot discuss anything abstract in Urdu or Punjabi, and yet, when writing, I often reach for a phrase and come up with something in Urdu or Punjabi, meaty, witty, perhaps slightly crude.
Do you consider yourself more a farmer or a writer now?
Writing isn't really an occupation—at least the way I practice the art, which is as a storyteller. A writer needs a correlative for whatever it is he's trying to say—something to write about. In my case, much of that life has been taken up with farming. Having said that, I could stop farming tomorrow without breaking my spirit, though I would miss it tremendously. I can't imagine giving up writing.
How did your work came to the attention of American publishers?
Three or four years ago I started sending stories to magazines and received several rather cutting notes of dismissal. One summer day I found an acceptance from Zoetrope. There's a picture of me, taken just at that moment, in which I look poleaxed and goofy and overwhelmingly happy. Soon after the story came out, an editor at Penguin asked to see more of my work. That brought me to an agent, who auctioned the book.
And will you be writing more stories or a novel?
I'm writing a novel, set in Pakistan just after September 11—a romantic triangle, with an American woman as the protagonist. A number of the characters who appear in In Other Rooms, Other Wonders will reappear in the novel — for example, the character Husna, whom we last see being driven from the house of her protector, humiliated and broken. I imagine her apotheosized, like Proust's Madame Verdurin, whom we encounter in Time Regained as the Princesse de Guermantes. That's a form of justice, I suppose—whatever comes in Part II.