Tamim Ansary is the author of West of Kabul, East of New York and the forthcoming book Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes. He is also the facilitator of the San Francisco Writers Workshop, the oldest continuous free writers’ workshop in the country.
Parayno: I need to record you so you’re not able to retract anything later.
Ansaray: That’s okay, I’m not running for office anytime soon.
Parayno: What was it like being of mixed race in Afghanistan? I know in the Philippines, children of mixed race are often looked down upon, but it’s complicated because they’re also admired for their beauty – lighter skin, eyes and hair.
Ansaray: Well, I don’t think we were more attractive (laughs). It’s true that being of mixed race over there was a very distinct experience. I was not an Afghan, I was not an American either. There was never a time when I didn’t know it. When I say not ever a time, I mean not one second.
I remember one time the religion teacher said to the class, “Afghans are very tough and foreigners not so much. Here, I’ll give you a demonstration.” He asked me to come up to the front, and then said to the class, “I’ll beat this guy and you’ll see he’s going to cry.” So he beat me and I cried. Then he sent for my cousin, the son of an Afghan general, and beat him, but he didn’t cry.
Parayno: Was there any advantage to being of mixed race?
Ansaray: Personally, there was a huge advantage. Intellectually it’s a really good thing to have access to the knowledge that all truth is relative. That’s an inheritance when you’re growing up across two cultures. I think this idea makes people uncomfortable; it’s certainly a lot more comforting and easy to live in a culture that is homogenous and amongst a society of people who are sure about things, so that you can feel like there’s a rock you’re standing on. The trouble is, there is no rock that any of us is actually standing on.
Parayno: Did you want to go to boarding school in America or did your parents ship you off at sixteen?
Ansaray: No, I wanted to go, I arranged that myself. I applied for a scholarship and then told my parents what I’d done. I was always very conscious of the fact that if you’re an Afghan in world terms you’re so poor that you can’t do anything. My father had a big, responsible position in the government, and I was told that his salary was something like forty dollars a month at that time. And my mother taught in the American school, so she was paid two hundred dollars a month. She earned five times what my father made simply because she was working at the lowest possible American wage scale. So I just felt like, if you’re an Afghan, you just can’t get out. There’s no way.
Ansaray: The biggest shock was dealing with sexuality. There is just no such thing as dating in Afghanistan. When I was a senior in high school, and I’d been here for two years, I thought I had a girlfriend. We were both in this modern dance class and we did a performance together. We spent a lot of time together, and I was in love. I ran into her thirty years later, and she said that after several marriages had broken up, she had met a guy that was in our class and they had fallen in love and were going to get married. She said he was her boyfriend when we graduated from Rocky Mountain. And I was like, he was? At the time I thought you were my girlfriend, you had a boyfriend?
After high school, I transferred from Carlton College to Reed College because it had a reputation for being this wild place. I got wild and I got crazy. After that I ended up in the hippy world of Portland, but I still didn’t have any experience with normal American dating customs. I’d never asked a girl out. We just ended up in the same place and had sex. I never picked a girl up or said, “I’ll meet you at 8 pm and we’ll go to dinner.” We were hippies. We didn’t have money, we didn’t go to dinner. We went to the hot springs with peyote and got naked.
Parayno: Are you carrying any drugs on you right now, such as LSD in your wallet?
Ansaray: Well, I used to when I was a college student. You never know when you might need to be enlightened.
Parayno: You talk about the difficulty of returning to Afghan culture, what you’d have to give up in order to do so, namely individualism, the sense that each person has charge of their life. In Afghan culture, there’s a sense of being a part of a larger group, a tribal connection that’s difficult to break. People spend more time building and strengthening social networks than focusing on their own personal productivity and growth. Do you think Americans give up too much for freedom?
Ansaray: I don’t know if we have a choice. When I think about those aspects of Afghan culture that you just called out there, I’m really talking about a culture that still had possession of its norms, but that was destroyed in the last quarter of a century. I think it’s very up in the air as to what the culture of Afghanistan is like now. When you take a country that consists of interrelated stable networks of tribes and clans and families and you randomly drop bombs everywhere, so that every possible connection is broken by bloodshed, people run and hide, some run across the border, some go back in and fight, then you’ve got this world in which all the old mechanisms for how someone becomes a leader and becomes respected are gone.
In a culture that’s been destroyed like that, pure military strength and savagery count for a lot — the ability to get at least ten or twelve guys to obey and follow you, or the ability to suck up to some foreign person that will give you money and guns. New kinds of strengths and skills are favored by the circumstances, so then when the smoke cleared of that, there was a whole new kind of level of leaders and authority figures that didn’t have that much to do with the old days.
A society like ours consists of individuals making their way within certain frameworks of rules. It’s a very flexible, creative society that is absolutely adaptable and really strong. You know, all these older societies with conditions, customs and traditions, where everyone has to follow their rules — our society will just come in and smash it. So I think our only hope is to start from here and say, “How do we get beyond this to more values, to find a new way to have a connection with that which is permanent?”
Parayno: You talk about going back to authentic memory when writing, and not imposing on the journey of the memory, but allowing associations to happen so one memory triggers another.
Ansaray: This idea of just capturing memory came from a guy named Don Anderson who came to our workshop. He was writing his memoir about his life before he was six years old, and had amazing details of an otherwise completely average childhood. The clarity of his details reminded most of us, including me, who grew up in Afghanistan, of our childhood. So one time I said to him, “These are really great; at some point, you’re going to want to organize it and figure out your theme.” And he said, “No, I’m not really interested in doing that. I’m just interested in remembering.”
So when I started working on what would eventually become West of Kabul, it was just remembering. That’s all I was trying to do. One thing led to another, and there were things I didn’t include in the book, like memories of various Afghan friends of my father and moments of childhood memory like walking in from the snow and seeing my grandmother, who was four feet tall when she stood up (but rarely stood up), sitting in a corner, puffing away at her hookah.
But what I was reminded of when you asked that question was, after I had written about some of these memories that didn’t appear in the book, I tried to remember a trip to North Africa, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. Finally I realized I wasn’t actually trying to remember. I was actually trying to write the narrative that fixed itself in my mind. I was stuck on the narrative, and I wasn’t bursting through to the raw material of events. So I managed to figure out a way to just let go, and when I did that, I’d remembered something I hadn’t ever thought of since then: when I was in Paris on my way to all this excitement going on in the Muslim world, I walked into a shop and the guy was an Afghan. I was completely astounded. In those days you hardly ever saw Afghans anywhere. So I introduced myself and we fell into a conversation, and he said, “Oh, you’re so and so, why I knew your father, I knew your uncle.” He asked questions about my family in such a way that I felt pretty plumped up. I come from a pretty eminent family and this stranger in Paris knew all about them. It made me feel pretty good about myself. And it was only when I re-remembered that moment in that authentic way, that I realized he was doing something that I was supposed do, the complimentary thing to, but instead, I just sat there soaking up his words. It’s a seriously rude thing. Many years later retrospectively, I felt embarrassed. That’s the mark of an authentic memory — when you feel emotions appropriate to the event that you didn’t even feel at the time.
Parayno: In an article in The Atlantic a few years ago, Rick Moody compares the creative writing workshop to a focus group or a test screening of a film because of the “checklist” of broad questions often used to rate aspects of a film. He also discusses the ways in which teachers and students alike agree upon a predictable formula for critique that promotes mediocre writing. What are the alternatives to the writing workshop?
Ansaray: I think what he’s saying applies to workshops that have a stable membership and a recurring group that feeds back to each other, which is all MFA workshops. One thing that makes our workshop different is that there are different people all the time; it changes every single session, and it’s instant critique. Nobody gets to ponder anyone’s stuff for two weeks and give them their considered opinions. So it’s kind of like an open mic in a way.
I really think of a writer’s workshop as being mostly a social thing. Writing is the loneliest profession. It’s really great to get out and knock about with some other writers. But I think the big danger of the workshop is when you think people are telling you how good your stuff is, whether it’s working or not. That’s not true at all. Whoever is there has an opinion, but their opinion is nothing exalted. If you think that you’re getting advice on what to do, that’s ridiculous. Nobody knows that. If you don’t know, then you shouldn’t be writing. The critiquer’s job is to say “ouch” when you hit them, but they can’t tell you how to load your gun, fire, or aim it.
Parayno: When someone in workshop is reading from their piece, I notice you look around at other people, stare up at the ceiling, squirm in your seat a bit, adjust your glasses. It appears that you’re not paying attention at all, but then you emerge with such precise observations and insights. Are you just fidgety?
Ansaray: Those seats are hard. Who can help but fidget in those seats? It’s true that I find it very interesting to listen to and to think about writing that’s not good as well as writing that is good. For me, it’s very interesting to think about what a piece would be doing if it were working, and why didn’t it have that affect. And yet when something is not working, I can’t help but fidget when I’m listening to it, it’s true. There’s no screening to attend this workshop; nobody has to pass a test to be part of the group. The only criterion is that they have to think they’re a writer, and, the truth is, not everyone that thinks this is correct in their assessment. But somehow I think it works.
What’s interesting is that some people who come in aren’t writing anything I can really find myself able to listen to, and then later something happens and they write really good stuff. They come because they’re pregnant. And then eventually they have their baby, and some have false pregnancies (laughs). And there are also people who seem pretty good, their stuff is interesting, but then it gets less interesting as time goes on.
Parayno: Kind of like dating.
Ansaray: Yes, I guess it is. Now I’m trying to think back – did that happen or did I always get dumped before I ever found that out?
Parayno: What do you think the common pitfalls are of beginning writers?
Ansaray: Writing can fail for a lot of different reasons. My personal little bug-a-boo is writing that has great language, but it’s disguising the fact that’s it’s not doing anything else. But I feel that about much published and much praised writing.
Vikram Seth is my favorite modern writer. And he said something about how he wants to draw people down into this world and not have them notice the language. Obviously language is the medium of writing, so it has to be good, but my thought is, what is good language? Good language is only good if it serves something. So what is that something?
Parayno: At the pub after every workshop, you have a slice of cherry pie. Why do you like cherry pie so much?
Ansaray: I like cherry pie cause it’s delicious! The fact is, my mother made cherry pie when I was a kid. It was one of her standard things, maybe that’s why. She made lemon meringue pie, too. I make it once a year. I really perfected that one.
Parayno: Tell me about your new book Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes. Who’s your audience and what do you want them to take away from it?
Ansaray: My audience is largely American, non-Muslim readers who don’t have a clue or have only a vague idea of what the context of today’s political events are for most Muslims. But I also think about my friends in the Afghan community. They know many things about Islam, but there are many things they don’t know. I think they’ll find it interesting because it’s all there. I wrote this book because I think that most of us in the West have an unconscious narrative of world history. I think it’s interesting and important to explore that other story line. The events are the same, we’re all in them, but I’m telling the story that leads to today’s events through a whole different landscape. And I’m trying to do it in the way that if you and I were sitting in a bar and you said, “Hey, you’re from that part of the world, is there a whole other idea of history there?” I’d say, “Yeah – bartender, bring me a couple more.”
Parayno: After you finish each book, you head straight to the movie theater to watch whatever is playing at that moment. What did you watch after you finished Destiny Disrupted?
Ansaray: There was some movie about Robert De Niro being a movie producer, and I don’t remember much of that because I fell asleep. And then the next day, I realized I had been editing two different versions of the book, and when I sent it to my editor, it had some correct changes but many were incorrect, so I wasn’t done at all. Later, I saw The Day the Earth Stood Still. That was the punctuation mark that ended the project.
Parayno: I think I speak on behalf of workshop attendees when I say thank you very much for having given up every Tuesday for the past ten years to facilitate the workshop, and for your service for many Tuesdays to come.
Ansaray: As long as my strengths hold out.