Ahsan & Aatif
Ahsan Butt and Aatif Rashid spoke about “Grand Tour,” and Aatif’s debut novel Portrait of Sebastian Khan in person.
Ahsan: Hi! So, ah, I’m going to just jump in.
Aatif: Sounds good. Let’s do it.
Ahsan: In both your story and in your novel, Portrait of Sebastian Khan, you’re deconstructing a particular kind of masculinity—in particular, brown men with fetishes for whiteness.
Ahsan: Both cases these men kind of have aspirational relationships to empire…
Aatif: Oh that’s a good way to put it, I like that.
Ahsan: …so I’m wondering what prompted you to write about that, why is this your project so far?
Aatif: Yeah, well that’s a good question. I wrote these around the same time. I wrote the novel from 2015 to 2016, and then the story was sometime in 2015 as well, I think, the original draft, and I have been editing it since then as well so I think the fact that both of them have a similar kind of protagonist and themes and ideas probably reflects the fact that I was thinking about both of those things at the time. I guess I was sort of interested in…there are several ways to tell the story of the sort of heterosexual brown man in a white society, right? I guess the thing where it’s, like, oh, the romance of the white woman is sort of his, ah, you know he’s a good person and the romance of the white woman is sort of like his attempt to be accepted, and maybe there’s some, you know, implicit, racism or racial biases that comes from her, right? Ah, and certainly you know I’ve experienced a little of that when I was growing up, and I think a lot of brown men probably did, right? But I was also interested in the flip side. That story that doesn’t get told as much, which is that sometimes we ourselves—brown men—have these racial biases in terms of what we’re interested in, and I wanted to sort of explore that to complicate the traditional story of that kind of relationship. And I guess it turned out in both of these instances, the men are very interested in these white women as symbols having “made it”, right? In Sebastian’s case, in the novel, he’s part-white so he can sort of pass as white. In the short story, he’s not. He’s Pakistani-American, but he’s also interested in putting on this affectation of this British aristocrat, going on this “grand tour.” I feel like I knew quite a few people like that and I think, I myself was probably a little bit like that when I studied abroad in the UK for a year or so. I definitely understand the desire to be not even just white but British because there’s that specific, a certain cultural whiteness. And sometimes it’s interesting to imagine a character who idealizes that and who wants to be like that but in a weird way ends up reenacting these problematic tropes about relationships to women, and thinking of himself like Columbus!
Ahsan: Well yeah, so I was interested in how both protagonists use symbols to talk about these women—dehumanizing women in both cases. In the book, they are these romantic images, women from Romantic era paintings, and in the story…they’re bodies of land. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Aatif: Yeah, in the novel, I was interested in writing about art history, and my own interest in western art history, and things like that…
Ahsan: That’s your background, right?
Aatif: I actually didn’t study it, I didn’t but—
Ahsan: Wow, you’re pretty convincing!
Aatif: Oh, thank you! Yeah no, I actually just studied history. I was always really interested in painting and art so I did a lot of research and it was a passion of mine.
Ahsan: I have to emphasize: wow.
Aatif: Thank you! [laughs] It was a lot of fun. There’s a lot of overlap between history and art history, in some history classes you look at history through the lens of paintings. So I was interested in the angle of Western art paintings and using that as the lens for romance, this sort of love story, and his interest and obsessions. And then in the short story, I had originally started writing this story without much thought about where it would go. It was kind of like alright, I’m gonna just write about—I want to write about Barcelona, because I had been there once, and I had also been studying in the UK, and I was interested in the whole idea of the grand tour, and this guy traveling to these places, and then I sort of combined it with the ideas of failed romances from past things. I just starting writing it, and I remembered the Columbus statue, that column, I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Barcelona, but right on the waterfront, there’s that Columbus column and it was always a landmark for tourists to say “oh meet me by that Columbus column.” Back then, I didn’t have a smart phone. So then as I was writing it I was like, “oh wait, this Columbus column is an interesting symbol that could be very significant.” Just starting at the column sort of made Columbus permeate the scene. And then I realized, after I finished and started going back for a second draft, that I had essentially written a story about this guy who was interested in, like, conquest, right?
Aatif: So I went back and brought out some of those Columbus themes and looked for places where I could draw out the Columbus moments.
Ahsan: I love how when you start riffing on something… you have some element…
Ahsan: …and then you’re like, “ohhh it works!”
Aatif: Mhmm, yeah, yeah exactly! [laughs]
Ahsan: One thing I think you’re incredibly skilled at is creating spaces that are extensions of characters. The stuffy restaurant and the hotel room for Lauren and the flirty hipster tapas bar for Masood. And you do it so well throughout Sebastian Khan, but it’s interesting because this identification of space and person actually comes from the superficiality of the protagonist. It’s out of his subjectivity.
Ahsan: And so, two questions related to this. Can you talk about how you approach space and sensory detail, because you’re so good at it. And can you talk about your own relationship to space given – you went to Berkeley, right?
Ahsan: So Pakistani kid at Berkeley, also in very white literary spaces—do you feel super comfortable or do you have those moments of strangeness?
Aatif: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think as far as the details go…when I was learning to write I took a class with this professor at UCLA extension, Lou Matthews. He’s been teaching there for like 25 years, and he is very “back-to-basics fundamentals”, like sensory detail, use the five senses, right in-scene. From that class I learned to write with a lot of detail, all the time, and then part of my evolution was realizing okay, how do you then not have this just overloaded detail? Sometimes when I first start I’ll just describe the setting and get so obsessed with describing the setting that I just include every detail, you know. It’ll be like, “oh the coffee shop” and I’ll start describing the things and then I realize there’s too much detail and it doesn’t necessarily fit with the emotion, so in a weird way sometimes when I go back and edit, I pare back some of the details to be, like, “okay, actually—in this scene I want to emphasize Masood feeling uncomfortable,” or in this scene, “I want to emphasize Lauren’s discomfort with this superficially hipster kind of like bar that seems also equally, in a different way, out of place from Barcelona.”
The superficiality of it is an interesting angle. I think in the story in particular I was thinking about, all these different spaces that they go to are in some way not a sort of authentic Barcelona experience, right, whatever that means. But they go to this restaurant and it reminds them of the restaurant in California, and they order California wine because she’s trying to relive these California moments and then he goes back to this bar, which is basically just this generic hipster bar where young people hang out, right? Because he’s interested in, you know, just flirting with English girls, right, he’s not really interested in… it reflects their superficial tendencies…
Ahsan: And also, umm, the tendency—maybe I’m reading too much into Sebastian Khan—he does identify people with a space, he flattens them out as being that space. And just in the experience of reading it, these people get flattened into whatever ambient effects, so that’s what I also meant by this identification being part of his superficiality…
Aatif: That’s true, yeah. And I think in Sebastian Khan, in particular, it’s because when I started each chapter I wanted to start with an image that’s almost like a painting, right? Like this tableau, a still image, of usually a woman right, that he’s interested in, standing there in some landscape looking pretty, or viewing this, so yeah, he filters all the world through paintings, right? And I think flattening in a good way because obviously the painting is literally two-dimensional. You don’t get the sort of human side of the woman and so as a result he yeah he sees it in that flat way, and so with Sebastian Khan, especially the way I described the details, was more heavy emphasis on visual details and color, how he sees color contrast. Taking the time to describe a tableau of a woman standing there or the homeless man sitting there or whatever that tableau is, and that was a good way to get into every scene, where I was like, all right, how do I start the chapter? If I’m ever stuck, I’m like, let’s just start with the image of the woman who he is going to be interested in in this chapter, and let’s just start with a portrait basically, right? In a way, finding that helped me get into every new chapter. I was like okay, then I’ll start with that sort of still portrait again. Does that make sense?
Ahsan: Yeah totally. Um and then the…
Aatif: And then what was the second question?
Ahsan: You in Berkeley and white spaces.
Aatif: Oh, that’s right, yeah.
Ahsan: Your relationship to space.
Aatif: Yeah, I’m trying to think now. I think—I think at times I felt out of place. When I studied in the UK I think more than in Berkeley.
Ahsan: Was that undergrad?
Aatif: That was actually in grad school. I took a year to do grad school at Oxford, which was fun but it was very—not very serious, is how I felt. I was thinking about doing a PhD in history, but I just did a Masters degree, and I decided not to continue with a PhD there, but it was like very , um, yeah it was very different. I think that was actually in a weird way where I felt consciously like, oh, there was a difference between me as like a Californian or an American in some way versus me in this other space. I think I see myself almost more as Californian or American as far as identity goes, if that makes sense, it’s like how Sebastian Khan fits in with Berkeley in a way. He finds it his home, right? And leaving it and leaving college, therefore, makes him feel anxious. And he doesn’t like that. I think even with Masood, even though he thinks of himself as this British aristocrat going on a grand tour, he also has this attachment to California that he can’t get rid of. He remembers being with Lauren, being outside of San Francisco in the suburb—he flashes back to those moments and he’s drawn back there. And the ending scene, of course, takes place back there so I guess—yeah—my relationship to space, I’ve always felt California, maybe especially Berkeley, northern California—those areas are more home maybe, if that makes sense.
Ahsan: Do you identify or see yourself as Desi?
Ahsan: Is that something you would even think to call yourself?
Aatif: That’s a really good question, actually. And especially given that this is a Desi issue, that’s a really interesting question. You know, I don’t think I would have identified myself with that word, with Desi, because I—I mean, I’m not, like, against identifying myself with that word, because I do find that it’s important to sort of expand our definition of what these labels represent. It’s kind of like someone who is—someone who has more connections back to Pakistan, right? Visits more frequently, has relatives there, has a greater connection to Pakistan is Desi in the same way than maybe I am. Or—maybe not in the same way, maybe that person is a Desi but then so am I, even though I’ve only been to Pakistan twice, once when I was seven and once when I was really little, um, and you know my parents have a closer connection to it obviously. They were both born there, but I was born here in California, and it’s sort of like my connection there is really only through them and through family. But not really to Pakistan as a place.
Ahsan: When you’re writing these Pakistani characters, Pakistani-American characters, who does your audience include? Is it primarily Americans, are you thinking of Pakistanis growing up in America? Are you thinking about white audiences’ relations to brown men?
Aatif: I don’t know if I necessarily think of specific audiences, but I like to think they can have something to say to different groups, right? So to a white audience, they can be like, “oh whoa, Sebastian Khan is not what I expected when I read a description of a story of a Muslim-American art history student and his romantic life.” You might get one idea and then the novel’s actually quite different than what you expect, maybe? Whereas to someone who is more connected to Pakistan in some way he’s a character who to them it might be “oh, this is someone who is so eager to assimilate that he is sort of running from certain aspects of his heritage, or his sort of ethnic identity,” whatever that is. What’s interesting about the identity question though is I don’t think I identify myself as much as…in various times I have identified as Pakistani-American or South Asian-American or Desi-American, but I think the one that has been the most consistent, interestingly, has been Muslim-American even though I don’t, you know I don’t always fast. And it’s Ramadan now—I really don’t think I’m a believer. But in a way that—there’s this article—it was written by someone named, uh, he’s a writer, most prominent for writing for Jacobin and other leftist magazines…yeah, Shuja Haider!
Aatif: He wrote this piece for Jewish Current called “Culturally Muslim” which is really interesting, and he talks about how in a weird way reading Phillip Roth, and Portnoy’s Complaint specifically, made him understand his own relationship to his Muslim identity, so just as like Portnoy in that novel will, you know, eat non-Kosher meat and definitely not practice Judaism and even run from it in ways—in many ways the point of the novel is he is definitely Jewish in all these ways or Jewish-American.
Ahsan: That’s kind of the Rothian argument, am I right?
Aatif: Yeah, I think so, yeah. And I think Roth is definitely an inspiration for a lot of my work, especially these kinds of things. I think I apply that sometimes to the Muslim-American thing where I think I felt—and maybe it’s because identity is formed through certain—I never went to any sort of Pakistani cultural whatever when I was growing up, but I did go to Islamic school every, well, most, Sundays throughout the year, and so there was this mechanism through which that side of my identity was formed. And I remember one of the teachers once even said, he was giving advice to parents where he said to my parents, your children probably won’t—he was talking to first-generation parents whose children were born here—he said your children will probably not be as Pakistani as you hope for. But his argument was they can still be—they will still consider themselves Muslim, because that’s like an identity that they can cultivate here as well. That was interesting.
Ahsan: So I want to ask you about writing tradition, but I want to jump back for a second. One thing I’d like to…both your story and your book, they both have so much…audacity! [laughs] You allow yourself to depict really cruel things!
Aatif: Mhmm! [laughs]
Ahsan: I’m thinking of this one line in the short story where Lauren is described as—when Masood sees Lauren after a few years, it says—“she appeared faded like an old fresco or a poorly chosen Instagram filter.” …brutal. [Aatif laughs] And in Sebastian Khan, the birthday scene with Fatima…
Aatif: Oh yeah, yeah.
Ahsan: That hurt, man. That really hurt. So I was just wondering can you talk about artistically why you think it’s worth it to go there?
Aatif: I think in Sebastian Khan, with that scene, I was interested in going there because yeah there’s a lot of—what’s the right word—body-shaming, by Sebastian in that scene and then, certainly, judgments on her skin color. I wanted him to be always be sort of, like, focusing on the fact that she’s not a white woman, that he’s trying to—
Ahsan: But it’s just aesthetics—
Aatif: Yeah, it’s aesthetics! Of course! Yeah, of course [laughs] and, yeah to dramatize this character being—and I’ve felt this as a brown person: how is what we consider attractive shaped by these cultural forces that maybe we don’t realize? So that what I was going for was just the sadness of that scene, that here’s this character who—sure, he might be brown, half-Pakistani-American, half-Muslim-American—and yet he can’t not see this other woman who is also Pakistani-American and brown and Muslim, outside the lens of her skin color and her body and not judge her in this way. In that scene, he’s still unaware that he’s doing it at all, but I wanted the audience to start to realize it, and be quite devastated to watch him do this to someone. And this is a character, who up to this point looks at women in very specific sexual ways, but he can’t with his own girlfriend.
Ahsan: And with Lauren is it to just establish that this guy is purely—
Aatif: I think so, yeah. I think to sort of establish that he is superficial and maybe also that he’s living in this past moment where he can see a photo of her that might be staged and find himself attracted to that photo. Where he can feel attracted to a memory of her. But her in person, he can’t. And then the metaphor—the old fresco and the poorly chosen Instagram filter. He can’t deal with her as a real person.
Ahsan: Oh, that reminds me…there’s a moment in the story wherein Lauren’s been disrespected. She may or may not be crying, but she turns to Masood and her eyes are “clear and determined”, and she says, “Do you want to see my hotel room?” Can you unpack that? Especially the determined part? What is she determined about?
Aatif: I was thinking about the word determined, where it’s like she—I was thinking a lot as I was writing this, even though we’re not going to necessarily see the motivation, what is her motivation, right? I think for her she wants to rekindle this relationship with Masood, who she felt something for in the past, and she wants to see him again and maybe see where it goes, and up to that point she’s been somewhat rebuffed. That might be one word for it, but with the incident with the girl in the bar she sees him in a different way. So in my mind, that moment was her thinking “okay, let’s just push on with this.” And in a way, maybe she’s thinking, let’s push to where even Masood wants this to go. This is where we are trying to build up to anyway, so let’s just push to that moment. And then, of course, when they go back to the room it doesn’t work for other reasons.
Ahsan: So the determination to proceed?
Aatif: That’s how I thought of it. I think I used the word determined a second time earlier—maybe later—when he’s flashing back to her kissing him, and I wanted to portray her as the determined one, she’s actually kind of the confident one, And he’s the one who lacks that confidence, and yet he portrays himself, or we see him in the present moment, as cocky and confident yet then when we get to the flashback, we realize, he’s the insecure one, and she’s maybe the one who’s more confident about that.
Ahsan: It is interesting that you have the flashback you’re talking about in their hometown—that moment is more vulnerable and awkward, and it kind of does give him a bit of dimensionality. You see this young kid crying over the girl that he really likes. And it creates a stark contrast, it makes you wonder—I mean, well, the whole thing is kind of laying out how he got to here.
Aatif: Yeah, I wanted to go with that kind of surprise moment. Here’s this person who we think of in this way up to this point in the story as a particularly cocky asshole, right? But then even these assholes have these vulnerable moments in the past right, something that maybe shaped them or—
Ahsan: Well, the insecurity has to come from somewhere.
Aatif: –yes! With Sebastian Khan, I don’t think I ever went too far in a direction. With Masood I actually went to his insecurity a lot more. With Sebastian Khan I didn’t, except perhaps the scene with his mother, or where he’s thinking about his mother so it’s slightly different. Maybe it’s because in a short story you just have to get those moments be starker and sharper to sort of have that effect, you know?
Ahsan: Yeah, definitely more of a spasm.
Aatif: Especially the 2000-word ones, right? Most of my short stories are like 7000 words so this one was, ah, a rarer, kind of short version [laughs].
Ahsan: I haven't seen the art for your piece and I'm extremely curious! Given your art obsession, what were you most excited about with respect to the artwork? What was the collaboration process like? Was there anything surprising about how Senna interpreted the work, and what'd you think about the end result?
Aatif: Working with Senna was great! I wanted to just let her interpret the story without giving too much guidance, and she came up with the idea of the eyes as a way to reference Masood's male-gaziness, which I thought was wonderful. And I loved her detailed drawings of these specific locations in Barcelona that Masood visits in the story. Plus the map she found and used was perfect—old fashioned, great colors, that ship on the bottom. I felt like she really nailed what the story was about, all the Columbus themes and Masood's gaze—the eyes are sinister but also kind of humanizing in an interesting way, which I really like. And also, the way the map sort of gets covered over by the places he visits, which suggests that his "Grand Tour" isn't just visiting these historic cities but sort of layering his own personal emotional experiences over these cities, and as in this case with Barcelona obscuring them with his own emotional issues.
Ahsan: Having read some of your blog entries—are you still doing the Kenyon Review blog?
Aatif: Still doing it. I’m doing it less frequently now, but I’m trying to do two a month, basically.
Ahsan: Okay cool. So it’s clear you’re very well read. What tradition do you see yourself writing in?
Aatif: Mmm. I mean we talked about Phillip Roth earlier; I think he is definitely an influence. Like there’s a – and even later I realized that Columbus stuff has a Roth connection. I don’t know if you’ve read Goodbye Columbus? It’s his first novella that he wrote in, oh, I want to say nineteen fifty-something. He was 24, 23, very young and, in that case, Columbus is the town Columbus, Ohio but also meant to signify Columbus the explorer, as a symbol for Americanness. The character in that is very similar I think to Masood. He’s pursuing this woman, who for him represents this kind of access to whiteness and Americanness that he craves. I was definitely thinking of that Philip Roth tradition, and I think because what I liked about Phillip Roth was that he was willing to kind of go there with his protagonists. He wrote what we might call, ah, not a great label but ethnic fiction, like fiction about a minority character and his experience in this world—but Roth was willing to allow his protagonist to be jerk, an asshole, wrong, and I always felt like that made them a lot more human, right?
Ahsan: Absolutely. Treating immigrants or refugees as perfect human beings—it’s limiting. In the eyes of people who aren’t immigrants or refugees, when reality hits them and immigrants and others are more human, I think their empathy faculty fails, because perfect is all they’ve had sympathy for.
Aatif: Actually refugees are an interesting observation, because I feel like there’s always the argument of various people in Europe or here that refugees are creating a crime wave in Europe, Sweden is beset by all these Middle Easterners committing crimes and oftentimes they will cite crimes that people do commit and these people do happen to be refugees and I think expanding our representation of these characters will allow us, in a way, empathize— we’re not going to put the burden of being perfect on these groups of people. We can acknowledge that it’s bad that this person committed this crime while also acknowledging that letting refugees into your country is not a bad thing. This person doesn’t have to represent the entire ethnic group. Phillip Roth did a good job with that for Jews in America and Jewish-Americans in a really interesting way. I think that’s one of the traditions I was building on.
Ahsan: That’s pretty illuminating in terms of your material…
Aatif: Yeah, especially this book and the story [laughs].
Ahsan: So what are you doing next?
Aatif: What am I doing, yeah...
Ahsan More eff-ed up brown men?
Aatif: For now I’m probably moving away from this type of story. Maybe creating characters who are less autobiographical, at least less in this vein. One of the things I’m working on—I have this collection of short stories that are historical fiction. They’re all different time periods and civilizations in the Islamic world, basically, that goes all the way back to the 600s to the present. Have you read Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing? Where she goes back to the 1700s? In that, the stories are all related, this like one family. In mine, it’s not one family, but it’s a similar structure, different short stories about different moments, some significant like the burning of the library in Bagdad by the Mongols, some smaller that exemplify something else. But in order to sort of—I guess give a broader, more complicated picture of what the Muslim world is, Islamic history as well. So that’s the project I worked on for a while and I’m finished with that, and now I’m querying but there might be some more edits I need to do. But otherwise I’m writing a novel that’s set in Los Angeles that is a comedy in the same vein—well not in the same vein as Sebastian Khan— maybe more slapsticky. My dad loves P.G. Wodehouse, he still loves P.G. Wodehouse, and he introduced me to him when I was little, and I loved that weird comic style, and I was rereading an old P.G. Wodehouse book, and there’s something about his satire of upper-class England that I felt weirdly really applies today. The rich people today in some way. And I was thought this could really work! So the idea is to retell a P.G. Wodehouse novel in 2018 Los Angeles, from the perspective of two characters of color. The main character is a woman—in the P.G. Wodehouse novels, there’s two characters and the main character is the man, so I wanted to flip that. I’m getting into race and gender and class in 2018, but through a comedic P.G. Wodehouse lens. So we’ll see if it works. I’m having a lot of fun with it but I’m wondering if it will all come together and land in the end.
Aatif: Yeah. [laughs]
Ahsan: Great! That’s all I had!