Nur & Abeer
Nur Nasreen Ibrahim and Abeer Hoque spoke about Abeer’s story, “Fuck All Gall” over the phone.
Nur: Is “Fuck All Gall” deliberately set in Galway to sort of play on the word?
Abeer: When I first wrote the story, I was writing a series of stories that had to do with place and also had to do with sex, two things that I really like writing about. I knew I wanted to have a story set in Galway and I had a character who has these moments where she gains courage and does certain things. I used the word “gall” and I thought “Oh wait, that’s actually the name of this town as well!” So it just fit unexpectedly. Maybe even a little too cheesily :)
Nur: I kind of like when these things happen unexpectedly, it did feel natural and only in my second reading did i think, wait “Gall, Galway?” It fits so well. My first impression of this story is how sexy and titillating it is. There is also a wonderful lead up, or anticipation which doesn’t include the actual sex itself. So my question is, how easy or difficult is it to write such scenes? I’ve read some erotica and after a while, a lot of it gets repetitive, yet you keep it interesting. How did you do that?
Abeer: It is really hard! This story is actually a scaled down version because the original story is 5000 words and this is like 2000. The actual erotic bits are not there anymore. They’ve been cut out. Those are really graphic, and it’s true, it's really hard to come up with ways to talk about this stuff. And the words themselves: do you use slang words or biological terms? How do you make it not repetitive and not trite and not pornographic, but still have it be sexy and interesting? It’s really challenging.
I wrote one of the first stories in this collection for a friend who had commissioned it for an anthology of erotic stories. I sent her a first draft, and she wrote back saying, “You just stop before anything happens! You can’t just write, And they woke up the next morning,” which is what I had done. [laughs] So I had to go back and write what happened in those scenes, which is so hard! What I’ve done in this story [for Barrelhouse] is the opposite—I pulled out the scenes to make it shorter, more online friendly, and frankly, for my own comfort. I’ve actually stopped writing this collection, because I’ve become afraid of how [certain conservative] people would see it or see me. Even though I *know* there is great interest in reading smart, sexy stories, especially if they feature people of color. I mean *I* would love to read a book of stories which feature people of color and smart sexy writing. There’s not enough of it out there, in my opinion.
Nur: I wouldn’t want my parents to read anything erotic I wrote! Did you think about that?
Abeer: I just can’t think about who might read something I write while I’m writing it! Way too stifling and paralyzing. But actually that is one of the reasons I stopped writing this collection, because I started thinking about who might read this crazy sex stuff, my parents, my relatives, and so on, and it just got to be too much. I wholly support writers of erotica, and it was a real struggle to let go of this project. Publishing this story (even in its scaled down form) is a bit of concession. Who knows, maybe I will go back to writing this collection!
Nur: Earlier you said that you like to build up to a sex scene and then jump away. But in this story, you go all in: Her first act of gall is getting fingered by a guy in a car (with his girlfriend present!) until she orgasms. (By the way, I am looking forward to this interview being published and this conversation about fingering making it out into the world).
Abeer: One of the things I wanted to emphasize in this story is the female perspective. It’s really important to me. Her pleasure is of paramount importance. Too often, the love and sex we see either in movies or books centers the man, and his orgasm or pleasure. I wanted this to be *her* story. I’m working with a really wonderful artist for the art for this particular story and one of the initial ideas that came up (which we didn’t go with, by the way) showed two people in a car with the woman’s hand on the man’s crotch. And I thought, no, that’s about him! And in that car scene, it’s about her getting off and he is doing it for her.
Nur: Then at her moment of arousal, she projects her experience to the world, the sky, the cliffs around you. The setting becomes a part of the erotic experience. How did your process work in combining all those elements? How did you make that decision to merge the place with the experience?
Abeer: I chose to set the story in Galway and the Cliffs of Moher because that part of Ireland is a visually stunning and unusual place. I travelled a lot in my 30s, like for seven years, to probably over 30 countries. I kept a travel blog at the time and had written maybe 50 or 60 blog entries. My initial idea for the collection was to write stories set in wild and weird places, off the beaten track, and rely heavily on my blog entries for the landscape. Of course, I had entries from London and Paris and New York. But I didn’t want those landscapes. I wanted stories set in Bolivia, Bhutan, Bangladesh. In this case, Galway, not even Dublin.
Including the Cliffs of Moher wasn’t even that organic in my writing process. I had actually written a bunch of Galway story already, and I realized I had forgotten to include the Cliffs, which to me are such an important part of the landscape in that part of the country. They are a little outside Galway and I wondered, how do I get her out there? So I thought I’d have a flashback scene and inserted it in the story, so I could describe the space. Now I think it’s one of the more powerful visual elements of the story. During the edits, Kamil was like: “Bring back the cliffs!”
Nur: From a character perspective, it is ultimately about a woman building up courage inside her. The main character underplays herself, compares herself to her beautiful friend, but she still manages to be very self-confident. She’ll feel one thing about herself, but will go and be daring. That aspect of her character is interesting, how did you get to build that contradiction in her?
Abeer: I wanted somebody who had maybe more of the wallflower in her, but someone who every now and then does something brave or outrageous. In the longer story, there are these anecdotes where her friend ends up getting the guy and she is the one who just goes home. Because I had to shorten the story, and pick and choose scenes to include, it ended up feeling a little bit contradictory, because she is thinking one thing and doing something else! But I did want somebody who forces herself into situations sometimes.
Nur: I actually agree with the choice to remove those scenes because I think we are essentially contradictory beings. As women, we feel very differently from the way we are perceived, and the choice to build up her courage very subtly, without a big “Yay, empowerment!” moment where she is coming out of a very “sad” situation was very real. The reality involves incremental changes within oneself and I appreciated that as someone who can relate to how she felt, and I am sure lots of others can relate to her.
Abeer: I wanted her to be very relatable and I think for the most part, women are the ones who don’t feel like they are getting it all.
Nur: I think she did “get it” all, quite literally at the end of this very satisfying story. [both laugh]
I saw Sure as a dream-like character, sort of a wish-fulfilment for her. But at the same time, he still felt very whole. He still reflects the “outsider,” while Aislin is technically the insider. He is “far from home”, a guy who is clearly a foreigner. But both find themselves when they are outside their usual surroundings. Her road trip pushes her to be more daring. He seems more comfortable in his skin in Galway than with his family in Bangladesh. What is it about the journey, that helps these characters? That forces one to step out of their shells and find something positive within themselves?
Abeer: I wanted the person she hooked up with to be an outsider, and not necessarily the traditional hero, though he is also a hero character. He’s super full of himself, very confident, and thinks he is all that! As a brown man, a very dark skinned person in Ireland, he won’t necessarily be the one everybody looks at with desire. I wanted both of the things, that he was from elsewhere but is still confident and sexy. That was important to me, to have a brown male character who was sexy! You hardly see that in mixed race love in media. Sexy brown women are slightly more common, but not so much sexy brown men.
Nur: And he wasn’t exoticized either. The narrator is a white woman, it would’ve been very easy for her to exoticize him.
Abeer: I wanted to objectify him a bit but not exoticize him! [laughs]
Nur: It’s a very fine line, but it works.
Abeer: I am not sure I entirely accomplished it! I wanted him to be a dreamboat and have these foreigner elements. But somehow I also wanted him to find himself in this place that was so far from home. Even his name, Sure, I chose very intentionally. I love the name because the English meaning fits his personality, but it’s actually also a Bangla name which means music or melody. You don’t have to know that it’s a Bangla name. And it’s kind of a weird English name—not a normal name, almost like a nickname. I chose it for all those reasons.
Nur: It builds up like a fantasy. He seems to respond the way she wants him to respond which is...a brown man actually getting it or listening is...
Abeer: It’s a little bit of a stretch, I know! [both laugh]
Nur: Not to make a cliché comparison, but I think the point of fiction like this is a sort of wish fulfilment. Jane Austen tried to do this with her happy endings and Mr. Darcy. Sure is a kind of projection who exists in this happy, erotic moment, and I was waiting for something to go wrong and it didn’t. They feel satisfied and fulfilled by the end. I don’t read many stories where hookups end well. It is so happy! How did you get to that conclusion?
Abeer: It is a romcom. I basically wrote a romcom! But I think in all the stories, the 5 or 6 that I’ve written, even if they don’t end well romantically (although this one ends well romantically), they always end well orgasmically . They are always getting off. Or at least, the woman is always getting off!
Nur: I love it! At the end, she isn’t dreaming of their distant future together, which I like a lot. With the exception of the one very important switch to the past, the story is limited to a couple of intimate encounters. It is very tightly structured. It’s like a pearl that survives on its own as a story, very durable in that sense! Did you imagine it being this focused and not a more expansive story?
Abeer: It is a story about sex, and sex is about these focused moments. It lends itself to the present, the immediate. I think in all the stories I’ve written [for this collection], it has been in the moment. Plus the landscape is also easier to write about in the present. When I got to the end of this story, I wondered myself, is he gonna leave? Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. Maybe I make it unclear? Maybe I don’t. I ended up writing what I didn’t expect, which is he doesn’t leave. It doesn’t take away the possibility of him leaving though! That’s still in the mix, as it would be in real life.
Nur: How would a sex scene like this, or a romantic meeting like this play out in a Bangladeshi setting?
Abeer: The Bangladesh story I’ve written is actually a lesbian love story about two women who fall in love in Dhaka. Another story is about a gay couple and is set in Beirut. One of my goals in the collection was to write about many different kinds of experiences, gay, lesbian, hetero, interracial… One was going to feature just one character and be about masturbation! The problem is in a lot of these countries, the love stories, especially the non-hetero ones, end up being transgressive, which is too bad. They have to be transgressive in some sense because of the places they are in, where those characters wouldn’t be able to just be themselves at work or even at home. That part bothers me. Maybe I would have to make the stories more speculative fiction—if I wanted to take out the transgressive elements, at least in terms of sexual orientation.
Nur: Because you can’t separate the culture from the romance itself.
Abeer: Not without it sounding or feeling awfully weird! What I did do was in those stories, even though there was a transgressive element, try to make those characters as powerful as possible, really owning who they were, as much as they could in those spaces.
Nur: I have rarely read brown writers writing really good sex scenes. I do recall Mohsin Hamid’s very strange depiction of a penis. Did you read anything that inspired you in writing this kind of story?
Abeer: There are two anthologies I recommend, Electric Feather and Alchemy—both collections of Desi sex stories. And then there’s two queer erotic anthologies that are also great: Close, Too Close (which is South Asian) and Sanctuary (which is pan-Asian). They’re all available online. I really like reading sex stories but I rarely find brown people in them. So I don’t really go to certain writers to get good sex scenes. It’s happenstance if I come across something good and sexy. And sex scenes are an intense thing. They can sort of take over stories! Maybe that’s why a lot of people move away from them?
Nur: You’re right, it is very easy for sex scenes to substitute for plot or action. Sex scenes can become the easy way out to make a plot exciting. But in your story every scene is deliberate and has purpose to it. It doesn’t feel extraneous. There isn’t a single wasted sentence or word, which is so wonderful in a story. Was it a challenge?
Abeer: In my other work, I’ve never written in sex just for the sake of it. But for these stories, the sex is the point of the story! The sex does take over where the plot would be but that’s ok. It has taught me, a little bit anyway, not be afraid to write sex in. But it’s a lot more hit and run, hints and clues. You can’t spend tons of time on it, unlike descriptions of landscape. [laughs]
Nur: Why shouldn’t sex scenes also be merged with descriptions of landscape?
Abeer: They should be, right?! But I’m just not used to seeing sex written like landscape is written, so I’m just toeing a line with that.
Nur: I know we can’t choose our readers. But did you imagine writing this for someone/or some people specifically? If so, who?
Abeer: Not anyone in particular. I definitely didn’t think I was writing it for a brown audience, by that I mean, my Bangladeshi family. I think maybe my audience would skew younger? i.e. I wouldn’t be writing it for my parents’ generation!
Nur: This story is filled with a kind of joy, a reverence for moments of pleasure which is rare. So much of it is inside the head of a character who is both insecure and confident, a mess of contradictions. Things come easy to her, even though she doesn’t think they will. I get the sense that you like this girl, that you want to be friends with her. Tell me what you enjoyed about her?
Abeer: I know you don’t have to like your characters, but I really like this one! She’s sweet and vulnerable and likeable. And it made sense for me to like her because in these stories, I wanted my characters to get some. I wanted to be part of their pleasure. That’s often how I write characters—I get into their heads and then write what happens. And I totally looove Sure. I wrote him as a man I would want as a hero. Or at least, one kind of hero.
Nur: You said sometimes you are scared of having these stories out there. We are supposedly writing stories that are not conventional, crossing genres. I am curious if you think brown writing can be more sexy, are there writers pushing for it more, do we have the readers for it? It’s a tough question…
Abeer: I think there are definitely readers out there! And there are erotica writers out there for sure. I know some personally from the anthologies I mentioned before.
Nur: From my perspective reading Urdu, there are tons of romantic stories out there, not many words describing sex but plenty of stories describing sex in the context of violence (i.e. rape in Partition). But Ismat Chughtai is the biggest example of writing a story about two women and implying what went on between them in The Quilt. All of that came with social stuff attached to it. Like an awareness of what you are doing is taboo! She was obviously writing in and for her time. But there haven’t been stories (that I’ve seen) that just let a woman orgasm, that focus on her pleasure. I wonder what the descendents of Chughtai’s school of writing would do now? Have you read anything in Bangla or other languages?
Abeer: I’d be interested in learning about that too! I don’t have access to Bangla erotica because I don’t read Bangla well enough. I’ve talked to some Bangali friends about it, and it seems much of the erotica out there is probably male dominated and depicts the male gaze, how men see women. I am not sure how much of it is happening from the female gaze point of view but it’d be great to see more!
Nur: What was it like working with Anum for the artwork by the way?
Abeer: I loved working with the multi-talented artist Anum Awan for the cover image. Their work spans so many visual art forms including digital mediums and collage. I sent them a photograph of the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, one of the landscapes featured in my story, and they transformed the image to fabulous effect (fully in keeping with the climactic scene—pun intended). They were very generous with the often discordant commentary from me and Kamil. We went a few rounds too many, especially considering we ended up going back to a gorgeously textured and dramatic image Anum had produced early on in the process. In the end, I think we landed up with a piece of art that we're all thrilled about, and I'm so happy to know Anum is out there making art.
Nur: This was so much fun, Abeer!
Kamil: Quick question about the artwork. Anum said they loved your hand-made typography, which you also did for your memoir right? It’s wonderful!
Abeer: I did! I mean it’s just my handwriting with a sharpie. Thanks to years of colonial-educated penmanship, I had a lot of practice.
Kamil: Thanks 💙