Hasanthika & Ahsan
Hasanthika Sirisena talked to Ahsan Butt about “The Installation” over WhatsApp.
Hasanthika: Your story is about spiritual limbo in multiple forms. There’s the limbo of the being in the car suspended between places. The pilgrimage to the installation. The radio broadcast. Zayna’s flight from her parents and her dying (or already dead?) child. Can you reflect a bit on the importance of the faith, and perhaps connection, and apostasy in story?
Ahsan: I write a lot about the dynamic between grief and faith (or lack of faith). Kamil told us to keep this light, right?
Hasanthika: Ha, Yes. I had to remember that too!
Ahsan: Cool cool. When I was five, my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I knew from early on it was a possibility that she would die soon. No one told me that, but I overheard things, noticed how serious everyone was—even as a child, you figure it out. And through this, my family remained very faithful. When mom did die, almost three decades later, just a few years ago, it was in a difficult, protracted way. So I’m interested in how faith does or doesn’t help a person trudge through despair.
In this story, Zayna’s mom can’t listen to anyone say they know Azhi is okay somewhere with God. She refuses to hear what she feels are platitudes from people who can’t know anything for certain. So Zayna steals away, heads to the installation, risking her own spiritual life, holding her faith tight, all in a hope that she’ll come out with evidence of...something. Some certainty she can give her mom.
So yes, faith is the story’s ground zero, as is the loss of connection with those we love.
Hasanthika: I also thought of this story as being, on many levels, a ghost story. Were you conscious about this possibility as you wrote and if so what drew you to that form?
Ahsan: All my stories tend to be ghost stories at some level. My preoccupations—grief, trauma, mortality—these are hauntings. Also, I love fiction that speculates about what’s just beyond our perception—what may be haunting the reality we construct.
I did want the feeling that Zayna had left her world and the elements of her life were phantoms here, whether through the radio, her phone, or even her memory, which acts strangely. The horror or eerie fiction that I love refuses to respect the internal vs. external dichotomy, or it at least complicates it. What’s interior becomes exteriorized and vice-versa until no one can make sense of the difference and that’s when fiction feels truer than real life, because it’s this maximalist expression of something that’s usually subtle or hidden behind politeness or repressed.
All that’s to say—I’m really pleased with your read of it as a ghost story! By the way, have you thought of your piece as a ghost story as well?
Hasanthika: Definitely. In the sense that ghost stories are ultimately about hauntings, and the presence and continuation of memory. Where did you get the inspiration for you story and all your Lajiristan stories? Are you imagining this as part of a collection of linked pieces?
Ahsan: Well, Kamil told me the theme was road trips and I immediately thought I wanted to do horror (which I didn’t) or something strange (which I did). Whatever the case, definitely a night-time drive. Brainstorming that night, I was listening to Portishead, thinking about the eeriness of the most recent Twin Peaks, thinking about Brian Evenson’s work, Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Taiga Syndrome—and I woke up the next day with the idea of the installation. I conceived of it as this blurring of art, mysticism, and magic, and that had enough charge for me to get started. From there I spent the first draft riffing on the initial elements I laid down (the road, the radio, the dark), just iterating on what I had.
Beyond that, I knew the road trip would be between two cities in Lajiristan, because everything I’m doing right now is about Lajiristan. This project is, yes, a collection of linked stories. Lajiristan started as a sandbox for various ideas I had—a news twitter account from a parallel world, a mess of a play I wrote for a mad deadline, then at last, some short fiction. Once I started writing the stories, Lajiristan developed into a really generative framework for me to get into my web of obsessions—politics, journalism, theater, film, the eerie, bits of theology, the grief-trauma-faith dynamic...aliens. I haven’t written that story yet, but when I was in my early teens I was terrified of being abducted by aliens while I slept. I blame Unsolved Mysteries and the trailer for the (based on real events!) film Fire in the Sky.
Hasanthika: Speaking of all these images, what was it like working with Nazish, an abstract artist, for your story?
Ahsan: Nazish is incredible. Period. Kamil started our dialogue off by sending samples of her art and I immediately knew she was operating on a level on which I was only going to get in the way of with my pedestrian ideas. So my approach was to let her know what I was thinking about when I wrote the piece, specifically my visual inspirations. I sent her clips from the third season of Twin Peaks (fellow Peaksies out there, you know the one...Gotta Light?...but also THE BOX!), also some vague Jeffeh inspirations...but really I think she was already in some other dimension. I loved hearing about her process as an abstract artist. Beyond the technical skill of making visual elements look the way you want them to on a canvas (which is incredible in of itself), the craft of using geometry to express concepts, themes, and even lines from the text—is bonkers to me. The expression is abstract and yet, the charge of it all comes through. I don't know how she does that. And because it's abstract, there's another level of engagement that makes the experience even richer. Given how strange things get in the story, expressing the space and time of the installation through Nazish's work felt like a perfect match. I think I was taken aback by how much she was able to tap my own feeling of the text. What a honor to have your work interpreted by such skill!
Hasanthika: Do you consider yourself a desi writer and what does that mean to you? What traditions do you see yourself writing in? Who are some of your influences and what contemporary desi writers have you been reading lately that you’re enjoyed?
Ahsan: Do I consider myself desi? Absolutely. Do I consider myself a desi writer? The context matters. If my writing appears in a white context, then I have no qualms regarding myself as a desi writer, a Muslim writer. Whether or not the white writers regard their whiteness as being a thing, I’m happy to claim desi as an identity.
In the context of an all-desi issue—it gets more complicated. Kamil made the observation to me that he felt native and diasporic desis approach certain questions or issues—whether artistic or political—differently, and while obviously neither native desis or the diaspora are a monolith, I think it’s worth recognizing these differences and celebrating them. It’s useful to have an umbrella term for all the writers in this issue, and I’m grateful to fall under it with all these amazing writers, but it also somewhat flattens us out in this context.
What tradition I write in is hard for me to say. Maybe if I had a novel under my belt, it’d be easier to see? But each story feels like a different own process than my others and each seems to develop into its own thing. Even the Lajiristan collection is structured to strike very different notes.
What’s clearer is who and whose work I carry with me. Like most writers, I think, I’m influenced by a range of writers—Hanya Yanagihara, Yuri Herrera, Han Kang, Tana French, Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, John Keene, Ted Chiang, Jeff VanderMeer, Brian Evenson Kafka, and other. Truly though, my love of reading and the idea of writing began in my early teens with Stephen King.
As far as contemporary desi writers, beyond the ones in this issue (when Kamil finally revealed the contributors, my jaw hit the floor)—Usman Malik’s horror is fun; really dig K Anis Ahmed’s stuff; Farah Ali’s work is incredible (still thinking about her story “Foreigners” in Ecotone) ; always interested in whatever Haris Durrani is up to; and of course, if Arundhati Roy drops a novel, I’m there for it.
Kamil: Okay, I’m so curious, I want to ask you a million questions myself, hah! Okay, so while you do identify strongly as desi and Muslim, it feels like you haven't totally settled what South Asian traditions and influences you may have had. I've long started feeling—long before this issue—that expecting "desi" writers to have singularly South Asian influences is massively constraining. Do you feel constrained by that expectation?
Ahsan: Honestly, no one has ever insisted that, deep down, I must have South Asian influences. The expectation has been the other way around, so this assumption is actually refreshing. I’ll take the opportunity to think aloud...The first thoughts that come to mind are of, interestingly, Nusrat Fateh Ali and Abda Parveen. My parents would play their marathon performances on VHS and I never thought much of it when I was young, other than resenting that the living room was being monopolized. When I was older I realized how deeply I associated them two with Pakistan, and how strong a signal of a rich Pakistani artistic and mystic impulse they gave. I absolutely love how powerful that intersection of the spiritual and artistic is, definitely something I take as a lofty ideal. My recent flash piece, “Moon”, revolves around an ecstatic religious experience, although the language of the piece itself isn’t attempting to achieve anything like that necessarily. It’s exploring that kind of experience. So that’s...a connection I hadn’t made until now. Great question. I’m going to go contemplate my life now.
Oh! And I got to choose a song to go along with that flash piece, and I chose Kate Bush’s Big Sky because it has a similar ecstatic kind of energy.....which is super ironic because Kate Bush is super white (and/but awesome). But to be fair, I have a deep connection to her music through my parents as well. My mom used to love her song with Peter Gabriel, Don’t Give Up, which I know my mom took to be spiritual. I can’t hear that song now without crying. So the influences truly came from everywhere, but I love that we excavated the Pakistani side here.
Kamil: I think Peter Gabriel, for some reason, is definitely something a lot of people I knew growing up had heard—because of the Nusrat connection :) Also, I adore Kate Bush too!
Ahsan: We definitely had the Peter Gabriel Mast Qalander cassette tape bumping in the car lol.
Kamil: How do you feel like you've parsed your identity as a Canadian-Pakistani as opposed to an American-Pakistan? Where'd you grow up? Did you feel connected to the South Asian community where you grew up, and was it "South Asian" as opposed to specifically Pakistani?
Ahsan: My hometown, Brampton, just west of Toronto, is majority South Asian (~40% to ~25% European). Very Punjabi. Very suburban sprawl. Though no one there would agree, and I wouldn’t have when I was a kid, it’s a fascinating place (and the desi food is world-class). It grew more and more desi as white people left and we kept coming in. It’s exactly what people are afraid of in this country. But regardless, Brampton was normal to me. That’s what Canada is to me (though obviously, the big cities are a distortion of overall demographics). When I moved to Seattle after college, the lack of us made it hard to relax. I didn’t notice it myself, but my wife told me one time when we crossed into Vancouver, it was like a weight came off my shoulders.
But it’s also worth me remembering that my generation in Brampton grew up with tension. In elementary school, the cool kids were still white (not wholly true, but it felt like they had a nasty power that no one else had or chose to use). They saw what was happening demographically and we knew any misstep could get us called “Paki” or “Ref”, which was just so dreaded and humiliating that we’d fling those terms at each other too, almost to numb ourselves to them.
Kamil: Ref? That's a new one! I've never even heard of that slur before!
Ahsan: Oh yeah. Heard "ref" more than "paki" because it differentiated between "cool" brown kids and uncool ones. Within us Brown kids—we had our own mini-affinities. Depending on the room, we’d cluster and identify at different granularities. Brown, Pakistani, Muslim. It was all possible because there were many of us. That said, Brown worked as a unifying label most the time.
Kamil: I feel like I know too much about your craft already, but anyway: It does feel to me like you created a world that has just...wasted away, and I think part of that is just how desperate Zayna feels, and the connection to the "outside world", if that's what it is, feels so tenuous and almost an imaginary construct of her own, it reads that way to me, but what world precisely do you feel like this is happening?
Ahsan: That’s a really interesting read. I definitely agree that Zayna is desperate. Her house is grieving, and worse, feels broken. The “outside world”, meaning the world outside her car and back up the road to Jeffeh, is meant to feel tenuous, but perhaps for different reasons than the one you’re giving (in my opinion, at least). You’re suggesting that Jeffeh, or Lajiristan itself, is wasted away, perhaps war torn? In the timeline in my head, it’s not. The outside world is as tenuous to Zayna as it would be to anyone who’s left their home in the middle of the night. Okay, it’s more tenuous because there’s also the issue of the installation, how it works—and when she’s actually entered it.
As for the world....it’s like our world except there’s a Lajiristan in it. And in 1994, Lajiristan went to the moon. And I have more, but that’s for the short story collection I need to write before I kill my buzz explaining it away!
Kamil: I want to talk about the radio: who Zayna is hearing, because I remember in the edits this was something we want back-and-forth on and we wanted the sheer imaginary possibility to open up: could she perhaps be talking to herself, and just deluding herself that her mother or father are on the other end? The other part of this is abandonment: If I accept the premise that Zayna's parents are alive, which, I dunno, is arguable, given how I see this world—is Zayna's despair not just borne from the loss of Azhi or the promise of reprieve held out that she hasn't realized, but actual guilt that she left her parents behind in a sense?
Ahsan: For me the radio is integral to the installation. In the way that the installation intuits the first moments of your death, it also tunes the radio. Personally, and the text is purposely ambiguous, I think the voices serve to fill an absence. Zayna’s father is captured on the voicemail, but her mother, who has emotionally shut herself off from the family, is conjured by the callers on the call-in show. The radio, though, is more than just the call-in show. It’s a voice-over in a museum exhibit. It guides and brings to bear whatever is needed.
I think because you and I conceive of the outside world differently, it affects this question of guilt. I don’t think Zayna feels a guilt born from leaving them behind in a dangerous world. Possible, just not my interpretation. She’s doing this to heal her mother, and give herself some solace too. She’s braving the installation, and it’s a remarkable show of will. I would hope her mother would be proud.
Kamil: I really need to know—is Zayna dead? Is The Installation a metaphor for death? Or is there something fantastically new about this space she's entered that renders her "materially alive but spiritually dead"? Or...neither?
Ahsan: Okay, I won’t answer this cleanly. I think it’d be silly to write this story and not have us in the installation at all. So...at some point, Zayna is in the installation and it’s arguable at what point that began. So then, is Zayna dead? Depends on what you think the installation is. Is it mystical? Is it purely art? Is it somehow hallucinogenic? Or is the story all an abstract exercise? I think she tastes death and then whatever you think happens at the end of the story happens. Is there enough in the text to make a judgment on her spiritual fate (if in fact, the rumors are true)? I think how one goes about making that judgment for his or herself is a really interesting thing to know about oneself. Apparently, I’d rather be extremely annoying than answer this question.
Kamil: As I think was very clear in the edits, what I really felt about this story was that the plot is almost incidental—a side-show compared to the fact that you've basically built a philosophy off this world you're creating. For one, we know almost nothing about Jeffeh—and why is that?
Ahsan: Rather than trying to world-build, I wanted Zayna’s dislocation to be felt. At most I wanted a few impressionistic details (even that you had to prod me for). The memory of Jeffeh is “tenuous,” as are the other facts of Zayna’s life. In that way, I agree that the plot is almost incidental...
Kamil: For another, it feels like both Zayna and her mother are, or at least were, essentially subscribers to a very Stoic philosophy. But that's all in flux right? “Zayna, like Ammi, prefers restraint. But out here, taste seems fickle. Truth is subtle until it isn’t, or it isn’t and then it is. What one thinks of the truth seems to determine everything. Would the walking condemned suddenly have a taste for melodrama? And what of the faithful who have tasted certainty—perhaps they know mercy to be subtle, thus subtlety divine? Perhaps even this isn’t simple.”
Personally, I'm partial to philosophies premised on skepticism—is this a philosophy of doubt? I remember reading the literary scholar Julia Kristeva who wrote that "the literary word is an intersection of textual surfaces," which is I've always thought of as another way of saying that no text exists in a vacuum, its historically contingent—and we take this as a given, of course—but we forget that this also means the texts are philosophically premised, which is interesting because writers don't really go and check their reference books to see if their work is evoking Kierkegaard or Wittgenstein, right? (Although, maybe we should! Maybe we'd never write if we went down that rabbit hole, but still). Regardless, is what we see—a world premised on a profound failure, and the inevitability of failure because Zayna thinks she'll never live up to her mother—just Zayna's particular worldview, or is it something the story actually endorses in a more self-aware way?
Ahsan: So I really like this philosophical lens. I think it’s true that texts are philosophically premised, regardless of whether they’re conceived as such.
The taste passage, for me, is exploring how our aesthetic biases may mirror our perception of what’s true. Sometimes an excessive taste for subtlety and minimalism prevents us from accepting big truths. Sometimes the truth isn’t grey, or somewhere in between. Atrocities do happen, and there’s nothing in between about them. Beautiful things too (but the negative example is likely more persuasive for related reasons).
I don’t think the text is putting forth a philosophy of doubt, because I don’t read Zayna’s situation or the world constructed in the story as premised on a profound or inevitable failure. But I don’t mind that the text supports that reading. To me, the plot is somewhat incidental—but incidental to the installation. The installation is a speculation on the mechanics of death. And I do think the text puts forth a specific articulation of these mechanics. How these mechanics work and are experienced is necessarily subjective. The process of dying is at least, in part, a negotiation between the subjective reality we’ve constructed and an underlying, objective one. In other words, it might be a mess to read about and I’m sorry.
Kamil: No it’s not!