Identity Is a Flexible Category: A Conversation with Sorayya Khan
By Torsa GhosalNovember 7, 2022
We Take Our Cities with Us by Sorayya Khan
Sorayya Khan’s new memoir, We Take Our Cities with Us, opens with the author recalling the harrowing experiences in the post-9/11 era that racialized her sons in a particular way. She then proceeds to reflect upon the intricate web that connects global political upheavals and her familial history. Born in Vienna to a Pakistani father and a Dutch mother, Khan has lived in Lahore, Islamabad, Ithaca, and Solvay, among other places. Her mother survived the horrors of the Second World War, and her father’s family witnessed the tragic consequences of the partition of India. During her childhood in Islamabad, Khan remembers seeing houses left abandoned in the aftermath of the Bangladesh Liberation War. Bits and pieces of these experiences appear in altered, fictional guise in Khan’s three novels — Noor (2003), Five Queen’s Road (2009), and City of Spies (2015), winner of the Best International Fiction Book Award at the Sharjah International Book Fair. But with the passing of her mother, Khan finds herself tracing the deep, loving, and complex relationship they shared across space and time. The result is a deftly constructed and moving memoir, an elegy with a sweeping scope, encompassing broad stretches of Khan’s and her mother’s transnational experiences.
Probing memories, family photographs, letters, and public records, We Take Our Cities with Us shows how the world simultaneously changes and yet, in certain respects, stubbornly endures through epochs. I was acquainted with Khan’s novels, as well as the essays she had published in Guernica and Longreads, before I met her for the first time on a rainy summer afternoon in Ithaca four years ago. I was on the board of a South Asian literary magazine called Papercuts that Khan was guest-editing at the time. After discussing editorial matters over coffee, I asked her what she was currently writing, and she mentioned that she was working on an essay collection. That collection eventually turned into this new memoir, and on the eve of its publication in October by Mad Creek Books, I interviewed her by email.
TORSA GHOSAL: Since We Take Our Cities with Us is your first nonfiction book, I am eager to know if its publication feels any different from the experience of publishing fiction. In the book, you offer amusing descriptions of times when your mother conflated your novels with your family’s actual experiences. She did not always appreciate what she assumed you wrote about her. Now that you have written a memoir, do you worry about how readers — family members as well as strangers — will respond to the work any more than you would if this were fiction?
SORAYYA KHAN: Having a memoir out in the world is terrifying in a way a novel is not. The writing process required a vulnerability, an exposing of self that isn’t necessary in fiction. And yet … Is a novel that different? Novels are slices of a writer’s interiority, which makes works of fiction intimate renderings as well. At least that’s what I tell myself when I imagine my memoir in the hands of strangers. I worry less about their responses than the fact that people I don’t know can see inside me, but I’m hopeful that the memoir, as a story of grief, will resonate, regardless of my particulars, because in the end, grief is a constant with which we all wrestle.
I couldn’t have written this story while my parents, especially my mother, were alive. My mother believed that personal life was private, a border I clearly transgress with my book. On the other hand, she might have enjoyed my interest in her life and family, and because of her love of literature, she might have been amused that I make of them (and us) a story. Because the subject matter belongs to all of us, I gave the final draft of my manuscript to my husband, children, brother, and sister to read, in case they had any objections, but they did not.
Identity is an important preoccupation of the book. You explore how myriad social and political processes constitute identities over time. It made me wonder if the act of writing this book was in any way triggered by the treatment of identities as simple, unchanging categories in contemporary public discourse?
I’ve wondered about the timing of my book. Why now? Obviously, I wouldn’t have written this book if my mother hadn’t died. But a contributing factor was our current moment, when borders are being erected everywhere in the world and categories of identity have become intransigent, as if we are limited to a single identity and do not contain others. Our times made me contemplate the heady post–World War II moment that shaped my parents and made possible a marriage across the vast divides of Pakistan and the Netherlands. In recent years, living in this country has felt more precarious than ever for many people, including immigrants. Perhaps it’s a bit ironic, then, that my topic of investigation is my mother’s history, which is the white half of me. But I wanted to explore how my mother, a child of World War II in Europe, came to leave her world for another, and the ways in which my parents’ leap of faith required expanding themselves. Given my heritage and the fact that our world feels more constricted than ever, I am interested in identity as a more flexible category, one that can change over time and according to circumstance.
You mourn your mother’s death in the memoir, but the book is also an elegy for the many vanishing sites across which your family’s history sprawls. I am thinking, for instance, of Five Queen’s Road in Lahore, Pakistan, where your family once lived. I am also thinking of your great-grandmother’s grave in Begraafplaats Buitenveldert near Amsterdam. When you began working on the memoir, did you already know you would structure the narrative around these sites?
I knew that cities would be the backbone of the narrative, but the structure changed over time. In my initial drafts, the book was divided into chapters that were each named for a different city. The memoir didn’t lend itself to that tidy structure, and reframing it instead (for the most part) on the trajectory of my mother’s life allowed the cities to better live alongside each other.
In the memoir, I’m interested in the relationship between place and character, which is a preoccupation of my novels. But I didn’t set out knowing the importance of some locations like Begraafplaats Buitenveldert, where my great-grandmother was buried, or the Bonbonierre, where my grandparents married. Such places were touchstones and helped map the cities for me.
In terms of the variety of cities, I remember being most surprised to discover the role of Solvay, New York, a place I was not much interested in when we were residents and my husband taught at Syracuse University. We began our family there and spent hours with our babies walking Solvay’s streets and visiting its spectacular library, ignoring that the history or geography could be meaningful to me.
Of the cities shaping the memoir, Islamabad comes up most frequently, which seems logical since you grew up there. Vienna, the city of your birth, comes a close second. Given that there was a period in your life when you avoided visiting Vienna, were you surprised by the amount of space the city ended up taking?
Very, and I still am!
At what point did you decide to include not only your recollections of living in or visiting certain places but also their researched histories?
I never imagined that place and history could be separable, which meant that the researched histories of specific cities found their way naturally into my book. This extended to particular places as well, as if my history were informed by the history of a Viennese summer palace or a Maastricht event venue.
We Take Our Cities with Us also has a strong ekphrastic quality. You vividly describe photographs and art collected by your family members. Can you talk about your experience of depending on images as raw materials to know and synthesize certain aspects of the past? Was the experience distinct from sifting through other sorts of documents, like your parents’ letters?
Images have always been an important part of my creative process. When I wrote Noor, I kept on my desk a photograph I’d taken on a research trip to Dhaka, Bangladesh. It was of a stack of different colored oil drums against a brick wall. The oil drums had nothing to do with my novel, but the shades of color, the flaking brick wall, and the trampled ground evoked a whole world in my imagination. Often, if I was stuck writing, I’d glance at the photograph to help me imagine a tactile detail, the smoke from burning newspapers outside the frame or the bell on a water buffalo loping about. The image of the oil drums helped ground me in a different world, which is the role images have played in my writing life.
When I sensed that I was writing about my mother as much as about our cities or myself, I turned to her old photo albums to help me see her as she’d been before I knew her. The albums were also the first materials I’d inherited from her that I could bear to look at. Seeing her as a child and student helped remind me that she had been someone else before she fell ill — which is how she was then fixed in my mind. Finding photographs of her father brought him to the fore of my mind and onto the page. It was as if the ghost around which family myth was centered suddenly had a face and a name, and took up space on the page, as he had in my mother’s life. His photographs in particular had the effect of bringing my mother and that time period into focus.
Documents worked on me differently. Finding the “Extract from the Register of Marriage Consents,” which my mother required from her father in order to marry under Dutch law, was jolting because it substantiated a vague tale of seeking her father’s permission. The correspondence between my parents was transformative because there I glimpsed them suspended in time and was witness to their conversations and who they’d been — an intimate gift. But the letters, a tiny slice of my family’s history, made me think of history slightly differently, about who writes what on the page and how preserving those words can result in unexpected voices being recovered. History felt close, all around, which is where it lives anyway if you’re paying attention.
I was struck by how you look back at a conversation you had with your parents about visiting Five Queen’s Road for the last time in the 1980s and observe, “I didn’t yet know how memory worked, that things you think you’ll never forget are gone one day, and mundane ones, like the sound of the gas water heater coming on in 5 Queen’s Road, never leave you.” Writing a memoir, I imagine, inspires reflections on the nature of memory. Did this book give you any new insights into why memory works the way it does?
Writing a memoir taught me some hard lessons, mainly that memory is often not reliable. I wasn’t new to this. One instance stands out while researching a novel: I interviewed several people in order to pinpoint the description of a bus that was used while evacuating Americans from Islamabad, and each offered a different description. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the fickleness of memory — my memory. In an early published excerpt of the memoir, I recounted a family story without having done the requisite research. I was horrified when my mistakes were brought to my attention. The peculiar thing was that I’d done the research decades earlier, and if I’d consulted taped interviews or if my memory had been accurate, I would not have made those errors. Later, after I returned to those interviews and heard myself summarize facts that I’d since forgotten, I was left to believe that, over time, my memory had been usurped by the story I wanted to tell. It was a frightening moment that made me reconsider my approach to family history. Research became paramount in writing the memoir.
I don’t know why memory works the way it does, why we remember certain things and forget others. The process of writing this book leads me to think that we remember what we want to — what helps us make sense of our world, what confirms the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. I suspect that if someone else had exactly the same facts as I do at her disposal, she would tell a different story. And that leads me to think of the relationship between memoir and fiction and that perhaps they are not so different from each other.
Has writing this memoir changed the way you think of novels? Do you think you will carry any stylistic or thematic traces of the memoir into your future fictions?
I’m too early along in my next project to know. But being a novelist influenced my memoir. When I recognized that the structure of my memoir wasn’t working, returning to the material with a novelist’s eye saved the book. It gave me the distance I needed to contemplate the memoir as a story above all. I asked myself questions I’ve wrestled with as a novelist: What are the threads that weave the story together, and how can I do it better? What’s the narrative arc, and why must it be so? Turning to the material as a novelist freed me, and that’s when the book came together.
Although I’ve yet to complete a new novel, my memoir research, much of which I didn’t use, made a home in my imagination that I sometimes find myself returning to. I don’t know if that’s any different from the way our writing follows us into new projects — but we will see!
Torsa Ghosal is the author of a book of literary criticism, Out of Mind (Ohio State University Press, 2021), and an experimental novella, Open Couplets (Yoda Press, India, 2017). She is an assistant professor of English at California State University, Sacramento.
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