Sarah & Palvashay
Sarah Thankam Mathews and Palvashay Sethi talked about “Barri Ammi” over WhatsApp.
Sarah: Why hello there! How are you?
Palvashay: Hey Sarah! Sorry for the delay. I was just trying to set up Web WhatsApp. I'm good! just swamped in a glut of grading. Congratulations on graduating, by the way! 💜
Sarah: I didn't know Web WhatsApp was a thing until approximately 4 seconds ago. And just switched to it. This is going to be life-changing for my extended family WhatsApp sessions—I hate typing on phones. And ahhh, thank you! I too am in the mire of grading.
Palvashay: It's both a curse and a thing of wonder. Productivity tends to plummet! By the way, before we begin with any formal questions, I love your story!
Sarah: Thank you!! So much. I love your story. It was a total delight to read and left me thinking about approximately 100 things which I'm very excited to talk to you about.
Palvashay: No, but wait, let me gush a little bit…
Palvashay: …because the use of dashes for dialogue (so old school but it needs a revival—I'm obsessed with punctuation). And then this beautiful characterization by way of juxtaposition:
“Gentle but inexorable, obsessive, maddening. Preening, self-righteous. Disappointed and stoic. Disappointed and unable to let go. A woman who lives only for other people, cannot imagine life spent otherwise. Rigid, upright. Beautiful and smart and underestimated. A woman who has seen some shit. A woman who turned to her husband in their bed and said: poaam, let’s leave for the States, what is here for us?
Nitpicker. Compulsive cleaner. A stupid old woman. A conspiracy theorist. A Fox News watcher. A snake oil buyer. The lifelong prettiest girl in the room. My mother who bathed me when a child. My mother who rubbed oil into my skin every day when a child. My mother who rubbed my back when I vomited. My mother who, the day my father died, did not cry. My mother who fell down when doing puja after his cremation, shattering the murtis, making me rush her to the hospital to get stitched up. My mother who said, under her breath, thinking I did not hear: why couldn’t I have died instead of him. My mother, who never spoke of this after.”
Like, wah, wah, wah! But anyway. Sorry. I'll stop blabbering.
Sarah: Ahhhhh you're making me blush madly from 8000 miles away, how did you manage that? Thank you, thank you.
Before we jump into your beautiful, inventive, barbed and thoughtful piece, I'd be chuffed to know more about you. I know you're based in Karachi—were you born there? What drew you to writing? What do you do when you're not writing? And what was the last thing you read that you really were struck by?
Palvashay: Well, I was born and raised in Islamabad, which people who are not native to Islamabad adore. Personally, I find it to be an incestuous cesspool, and basically a center of power; what I mean by that is that it is inundated with bureaucrats, diplomats, development sector types, and of course GHQ (the home base for the army isn't too far away).
Sarah: Sounds a lot like Washington DC (where I spent the 4 years before my grad program in the Midwest) in some respects, haha.
Palvashay: Yes, very much like DC! So I moved to Karachi to teach and I think the city, which is not without its problems, is more in keeping with my temperament. It has a frantic energy that I adore and am infuriated by. As for how I got into writing, it was always intuitive. I was a voracious reader—terrible at pretty much every subject at school—and I suppose as I grew older the only way to make sense of the world was to write about it. I know this veers on the Romantic notion of the artist as conduit but that at least felt true in my experience. I don't know how I would survive if I didn't write. It’s just an itch that I can’t help but scratch!
Sarah: That makes sense. What do you teach?
Palvashay: Well, English Literature and Language but I mostly get saddled with academic writing courses that I abhor because there is so much to be said about rethinking how academic writing is done. but I tell my students that until there's a radical pedagogical shift (which is long overdue) you have to learn the protocols before you can upend them.
Sarah: I loved this line from your piece: “I was thinking about everything that was happening in a state of delirium and vigilance that characterizes the experience of walking in Karachi.” Just, gold.
Palvashay: Aw, thanks! Walking around Karachi is like that. It’s an assault to the senses. Like a surplus of stimuli.
Sarah: I was born in Bangalore and yeah that's how it feels to me too, a little.
Palvashay: So you were born and raised there?
Sarah: I was born in Bangalore, spent my toddling years between there, Kolkata, and Kerala (which is where I'm from), then spent the next 14 years in Muscat, Oman, then the family immigrated to North America when I was 16-17. A roving life almost forces you to become a writer I think.
Palvashay: That's a lot of moving around. You know, prior to Modi—and I hope you don't mind politics—I was keen on at least going back and forth between India because you guys, by way of better governance, have a reading public who would understand the context from which my writing emerges. Laiqin, true to the form of two squabbling siblings fighting over inheritance I do not see that happening in the foreseeable future.
Sarah: I definitively don't mind politics, and said with resignation and despair believe me, I understand where you're coming from. So onto your story. So much I loved here, Palvashay! The formal inventiveness, the emotional texture, the seesawing subject matter that when juxtaposed creates a new whole—it made me think of mixing colors. I think there's something very interesting happening here with subject-object relationships, treatment of history, and also the nature of photography itself. And on a personal note—my own grandmother passed before I was born and I know her only through stories and photographs, so I found the piece quite moving. I'm always interested in the genesis of pieces, so let's begin at the beginning. What was the very first kernel of Barri Ammi, for you?
Palvashay: Well, this is actually the first piece of writing I've done under a deadline and with a prompt. I'm a slow, scattershot, and undisciplined writer in that I do not get up in the morning and write five hundred words every day. Which isn't to say that I don't revise fastidiously. Normally a story of mine can go through at least six or seven edits or iterations but this one was different. So, when Kamil mentioned the theme “Road Trips,” I was flummoxed because that always evokes something American for me.
Sarah: Right? Road trips are, in my mind, so Amreekan that I was at first like, "shit, I have nothing to say about those!"
Palvashay: Exactly! And then I was talking to a friend who mentioned well, Partition was a road trip of sorts. And that got me thinking: we have so much fiction, poetry, music, and movies about Partition. How or is it even possible to come at it in a way that doesn't reproduce stereotypes? But even the image of the train is so ubiquitous in Partition literature ke I was like how can we do this in a way that is new?
Sarah: And for you, what are the broken-record stereotypes of Partition/the ones you wanted to stay away from?
Palvashay: So the narratives of sacrifice, the incredible gendered violence on both sides of the damn Radcliffe line, or just the image of a woman in a white sari that is also so commonplace in Bollywood. and while it's not always connected to Partition violence, trains in South Asia will always have the specter of the British hovering about. So then my project became how can I rework this? Can we conceive of this as Partition Gothic?
Sarah: Right right right.
Palvashay: And that got me thinking about the figure or the trope of the churel. Because I've been wanting to write a story about a churel for ages and the image of a woman—either a femme fatale or damsel in distress—and a train are kind of linked in our collective imagination, within the subcontinent anyway.
Sarah: I'm obsessed by the phrase “Partition Gothic.” I was thinking about something the writer Carmen Maria Machado said in a recent interview for Electric Literature, which is: the Gothic can be conducive to “suppressed voices emerging, like in a haunted house. At its core, the Gothic is fundamentally about voiceless things—the dead, the past, the marginalized—gaining voices that cannot be ignored.”
Palvashay: She has articulated all my feelings in a far more eloquent manner. I'd thought of the phrase Partition Gothic as a genre that some scholar in one of my future stories would be researching or looking into just on a whim. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized there's a lot that can be done with that phrase alone.
Sarah: (Reminded once again what multitudes of languages and idiom and identity exist within the word “desi”)
Sarah: Yes I feel all excited just hearing that phrase alone. So let's talk about the churel, because I want to make sure I have the trope right. It's a bhoot right? Like the ghost of a woman, or pregnant woman? Sad or malevolent typically?
Palvashay: So, I am far from an expert on this, but the etymology for churel—and let me just check my notes—or rather the legend of the churel originated in Persia. and then there's a distinction to be made between a pichalperi (whose feet are backwards) and just a regular churel. But the idea is that she returns to haunt the living out of a sense of revenge. I think the term bhoot, which also means ghost, is more gender-neutral because churels are women.
Sarah: Got it got it. What made you think of arranging the text in your story in the unconventional, radical way you did? It makes me think of overlapping photographs, or sheets of looseleaf paper. It gives the reader options to disrupt the static, linear reading left-to-write, down the page.
Palvashay: All my stories tend to look pretty wonky. It defies belief and constantly irritates the fuck out of me—can I say that?—that prose (short stories and novels) are so staid, bland, and boring when it comes to thinking about…
Sarah: Haha of course you can say that. It's frequently true. I'm interested, though, in what kind of effect you're trying to engineer, what the precise intention is, with this piece
Palvashay: When you have an entire blank space at your disposal, why would we restrict ourselves to left to right blocks of text that look utterly boring?! I think my aesthetic is informed by poetry and you have so many fantastic poets who play with form like Joshua Bennett, Momina Mela, and even short story writers like John Keene, who has possibly written the best witch story I've read and it is basically this rich, textured footnote!
Sarah: What's it called?? I want to read, always down for a great witch story.
Palvashay: The short story is Gloss on a History of Roman Catholics in the Early American Republic, 1790-1825; or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows.
Palvashay: I think one of the reasons that the story looks the way it does is because our understanding of Partition (as people who didn't witness it first hand) is both fragmented and informed by silences. Saidiya Hartman, whose academic work reads like literature, talks about this in in a very different historical context in Venus in Two Acts. I mean she’s talking about the Atlantic slave trade—and I am by no means making an equivalence between Partition and the aforementioned—but these lines really struck me: “Admittedly my own writing is unable to exceed the limits of the sayable dictated by the archive. It depends upon the legal records, surgeons’ journals, ledgers, ship manifests, and captains’ logs, and in this regard falters before the archive’s silence and reproduces it omissions.” We all have khalas, phupos, relatives who we deem “off”, or they were silent, and never quite spoke about what happened to them when Partition happened. and I think that could come from many sources of trauma but the mass sexual violence that took place had to have been the biggest source of unspeakable "shame." So the blank spaces in the story are meant to signify those silences and the very fragmented narratives of Partition that circulate and were passed down to us.
Sarah: Absolutely, that makes perfect sense. And it's striking to see silence represented in multiple ways within the piece—through blank space, trains of thought being cut off with a move to entirely different subjects, the use of figures like the churel etc.
Sarah: So later in the story, we have a meditation on the photograph of Barri Ammi (which I adore and want to come back to), and then the next section involves the narrator's meditation on the gendered murder of a B grade actress in the present.
Sarah: How does that sort of present-day violence tie in your mind to the historicized kind that took place with horrific, unthinkable frequency and scope during Partition?
Palvashay: I think violence against womxn—in all its nasty permutations—aap ko har jagga nazar ata hai. What I had been thinking about because I wrote this piece after the Aurat March in March of this year, was that misogyny has the nasty taint of being age-old, but we're now in a time when—by way of the internet, by way of social movements—there is more visibility and people, womxn in particular, have more avenues to speak out. A journalist called Sanam Maher who wrote the book on Qandeel Baloch—a social media star who was murdered by her brother—does a daily round up of newspapers through Insta-stories and just the sheer relentlessness and ubiquity of this violence; it's exhausting. Womxn are burnt, thrown acid on, raped, gang raped, electrocuted, pushed off buildings, I mean the list is endless. And I also don't want to push the narrative that this is exceptional to Pakistan. The wonderful—I'm being sarcastic—thing about misogyny is that it unites men of all nationalities, religions, political persuasions. So I suppose what I'm getting at is that the silence of womxn who experienced violence during Partition then becomes connected to the violence womxn experience when they do speak out now.
Sorry! Very rambly answer 🙈
Sarah: Oh, absolutely re: exception. What I found interesting in your juxtaposition was it made me think of different oppositional groups, in some ways, and how they both use gender violence. In the present day, men vs. women vying for societal power and the fragile volatile masculinity that that engenders. In the past of Partition, Hindus vs Muslims in intense sectarian conflict, and women's bodies violated again and again as an aggression of, a weapon of war. It's ubiquitous, as you said, and either case, women's bodies are the cost and collateral. It's unspeakable and exhausting.
Palvashay: Oh lord, the fragile and volatile masculinity! 🤦🏽♀ Kamil better let us keep these emojis.
Sarah: Why did you decide to never write the word Partition in the piece?
Palvashay: So I originally wanted to call the story Partition Gothic but given that I never use the word and refer to it as The Divide instead, that didn't really make any sense. The reason I didn't use the word Partition was because, again, I feel it's a word that has been flattened with overuse.
Sarah: Thinking about language and flattening through overuse always makes me think about audience. Who do you write for first and foremost?
Palvashay: Well, everyone, but particularly Pakistanis. the problem with putting pen to paper is that you've already lost a large chunk of your audience. This is why I'm incredibly interested in getting my stories translated into Urdu, Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi amongst other languages because I want Pakistanis to read what I have to say! I think established Pakistani writers have become part of this transnational literary circuit where they are forced to become cultural translators or arbiters on what is Pakistan. And I don't blame them. Everyone needs a day job. But at the same time I want Pakistanis to read or have access to my work.
Sarah: I love that. I have complicated feelings about my own citizenship vs my literary citizenship, and I think that's very thoughtful. Do you always write in English? And pardon the possible corny question, but what language do you find you dream your stories in before they're set down?
Palvashay: Look, I come from a privileged background, so I'm not positing myself as some daughter of the soil, and I think debates about authenticity are boring because Pakistan is so incredibly diverse. But I do think it's important to be mindful about audience, reception, and responsibility when you write. I'm supremely burger unfortunately—not sure if you're familiar with the term—so yes, I write in English. My father actually speaks Pashto, Hindko, Persian, Punjabi and a gamut of other languages, which I never learnt much to my dismay!
Sarah: Same re: multilingual fathers—my Appa speaks Malayalam, Hindi, Bengali, English, Arabic and a smattering of Italian—and I'm over here like 🙈. I'm not familiar with the term ‘burger’, tell me more about it. I'm inferring it might mean posh?
Palvashay: Yes, as opposed to a bun-kebab! 😂
Sarah: Hahahaha. I love that.
Palvashay: It can mean many things, and there have been rigorous debates on Pakistani twitter about this. So the first meaning can be private-school educated, perceived as “Westernized”, out-of-touch, elite, etc., a lot of this with regard to the Pakistani elite is also completely fair. The other context in which I've seen it being used is an aspirational sense. Where someone is trying to achieve class mobility and is perhaps mimicking what is thought of as “elite” and “Westernized.” I mean the whole burger/bun kebab back and forth is really about class and authenticity. The class critique is completely fair but the authenticity one not so much.
Palvashay: If you look at our founding father, one Mr. Jinnah, it doesn't get more burger than that! Lincoln's Inn, didn't speak Urdu, married a non-Muslim. Not saying that these are good or bad things but that by that definition Jinnah qualifies as Burger-e-Azam. I am going to get into so much trouble!
Sarah: Hahaha yes this is a Spicy Take but I love it. I saw online that Imran Khan was also called a burger, hain na?
Palvashay: Imran Khan is 100% burger and hopefully nobody ever reads this interview! But I think rather than taking offense it strikes me as more useful to interrogate these terms and the sentiment and class politics that prompt them.
Sarah: Ahh I see. So tell me more about your influences and literary lineage, within the Pakistani canon and without?
Palvashay: I'm not well-versed with Urdu literature even though I should be. I have fantastic students who keep me on my toes and recently introduced me to the work of this fantastic Pakistani poet called Sara Shagufta. I have a friend Haider Shahbaz who has recently translated an Urdu Surrealist novel by an author called Mirza Athar Baig, so I rely on the intelligence and kindness of others to keep abreast about what's happening or has happened in Urdu literature. In terms of what I read, well, Macaulay also hovers over the subcontinent, so I was raised on a diet of the canon and read my Brontë’s, Austen, Dickens, Wilde waghera but eventually grew out of that and now my reading list is far more diverse, this was when I much, much younger.
Sarah: What are some contemporary writers or writing zeitgeist you're either inspired by or in opposition to?
Palvashay: Well, so I discovered Bolaño a few years ago—I know; late to the party but I fell in love. I think a lot of the authors being published by Fitzcarraldo are doing some incredibly interesting work like Mathias Énard and Annie Ernaux. but I think a lot of my inspiration now comes from the radically interesting things happening in poetry. Work by—and I mentioned him earlier—Joshua Bennett, torrin. a. greathouse, Solmaz Sharif, Claudia Rankine. But a lot of my interest in writing also comes from pop culture, theory, and biography. I'm a complete tabloid junkie! Oh, and I've also recently been reading some stuff by Wendy Trevino who is also incredible!
Sarah: I love that a lot. Solmaz Sharif and Claudia Rankine are visionaries.
Palvashay: True, true visionaries. I love poetry Twitter. It gives me great joy.
Sarah: Right? Same here.
Palvashay: But I also want to tap into some of our traditions here in the subcontinent but currently lack the faculty to do so. My ambitions > skillset 😂
Sarah: Isn't that true of all of us, and probably the best way to be? Reach exceeding grasp etc. etc. :) Some of my favorite sections in Barri Ammi circle around the narrative device of the photograph. It's beautiful and moving to me, to imagine this irreverent, laughing relative of the narrator's, frozen in girlhood. I was thinking of these two different lines from Susan Sontag's “On Photography”:
“To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability… All photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
“There is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.”
Palvashay: Time's relentless melt...wah, wah, wah! Yes, absolutely.
Sarah: Right!! Chef's kiss! And I was wondering what your response to either of those would be? Like: what is the narrator possibly missing about her grandmother from the kind of interrogation and thinking she engages in?
Palvashay: I think, I'm not sure, and I am paraphrasing, but I think Mohammed Hanif said this about photographs about missing persons in Pakistan. At protests where their relatives congregate they have very specific pictures that they carry of them. They tend to be passport-size photographs with the subject having a very severe expression, and this is also true for pictures from the nineteenth century, when taking a photograph was an “occasion” that demanded a certain measure of solemnity. And with Barri Ammi kind of ruining the photograph the gravitas of the moment is completely obliterated. And, you know, I have many questions about the narrator myself 😂 but I'm not sure I have answers!
Sarah: That makes sense, and I find questions more interesting than answers in fiction, generally.
Palvashay: I only have questions; no answers!
Sarah: Let's talk, in ending, about the ending. It's such a raw, emotional texture that the piece closes on: "I am done, I am done, I am done." It's grieving, feverish. I always struggle with choices around endings in my writing. What does Barri Ammi's ending mean for you—what question were you writing toward in it?
Palvashay: This is a recurring motif in my writing of a texts, or texts unraveling. In this case it becomes a refusal to offer tidy narrative closure but there's something to be said about repetition and texts that have recursive qualities to them. I can't explain why I tend to do this—possibly because I am a repetitive person—but I just have an affinity towards a certain cadence that repetition offers. Wow. Writers sound terrible when they explain their work. Or I do anyway.
Sarah: You do not! This was lovely and illuminating! Was there anything you wanted to talk about with the story that I didn't ask about?
Palvashay: It was great talking to you! Tell me something quickly, because I noticed the photographs immediately in your kahani as well: where were you coming from with that?
Sarah: I think the photographs in mine are less thematically central and more narrative device—they allow me to skate over an entire past history from years in a few sentences. But also the narrator and her mother in my story are frozen in their pasts in different ways at story’s beginning. And photographs do speak to that. Freezing time’s relentless melt and so on.
Palvashay: Absolutely. I wonder what our relationship with photos will be like given the glut of them and all the pesky reminders on social media that you did XYZ 10 years ago.
Sarah: Yeah definitely! I wonder about that a lot, and just the general glut of visual digital content that washes over us daily. Writing helps me think and make sense of the world through all the overstimulation.
Palvashay: Exactly! Anyway, it was lovely talking to you!
Sarah: Lovely talking, and I’m excited for your piece to be out in the world soon!
Palvashay: As I am for yours!