Belonging across multiple places: Sorayya Khan examines the concept of home
I met Sorayya Khan last year at a publishing panel for nonfiction writers. I’ve long admired her work and classed her with writers such as Tania James, Claire Messud, and Aminatta Forna, international writers whose work moves effortlessly across borders of all kinds. In person, Khan was as elegant and urbane as I imagined, and also warm and eager to connect. When she mentioned she had a memoir coming out—We Take Our Cities with Us—I made a mental note to put it at the top of my reading list.
We Take Our Cities with Us (Mad Creek Books, 2022) is a work of stunning literary agility. Khan moves effortlessly between Islamabad, Lahore, Vienna, Ithaca, Syracuse, Amsterdam, and Maastricht, seaming together the lives of her family, from maternal great-grandparents to her sons, as they deal with the pressures and losses imposed on them. The book spans nearly a century of family history, including the worlds of her Pakistani father and Dutch mother. She does this in order to move toward forgiveness, or at least a fuller sense of her beloveds.
Images remain with me: a son’s response to a story about 9/11, Khan’s mother as a young girl jumping from a burning home, and Khan herself as a child running through the alleys of Lahore to follow a childhood friend. We Take our Cities with Us is an acute, empathic memoir. Two-thirds of the way through, Khan wills herself to be a kinder, gentler daughter to her ailing mother. This memoir is part of that: a gift to Khan’s mother, and all the people she loves. Within its pages, they are being actualized, and being seen.
I caught up with Sorayya via email where we discussed family, displacement, our favorite reading over the past year, and her writing process.
Rumpus: You very boldly, in the title, declare that place is primarily what we take with us, not material objects, customs, or even people. Can you reflect a bit on how place ends up as such an important force in this work?
Sorayya Khan: My foray into memoir began with an attempt to tell the real story behind my novels. I’d recently completed a novel written in first person, and readers often wanted to know how much of the story was true. Because I’d wanted to step back from fiction and try something new, I decided to explore this very question, but around my earlier novel set in Lahore. I wrote about my Dutch mother’s introduction to my Pakistani father’s family and home, and soon realized I’d written as much about place as people. Then I turned to the story behind my first novel, Noor, and found myself (among other things) poring over Greek architect C.A. Doxiadis’s blueprints of Islamabad, and wrote as much about Pakistan’s capital as anything else.
I decided to write a collection of essays in which each chapter focused on one of several cities in my life. A few years later, the completed manuscript surprised me. My cities, like my life, couldn’t be neatly contained in chapters (even if they were named for them), and my mother, who’d been ill and now had passed away, was all over my pages. The only way I could imagine moving forward was to surrender to these impulses. I set out to offer my cities on the page the way they exist in my mind, which is often in the same breath. And since my mother and her cities of Amsterdam and Maastricht were such a strong presence, I gathered my grief and an expanded list of cities, and wove the tapestry into We Take Our Cities with Us.
Rumpus: Why cities and not countries?
Khan: I never considered countries as an organizing principle or a lens through which to tell the story. As a concept and as a geographic area, countries would have been too large a setting for what I was attempting, which is, in essence, a story of particular places and people. Also, the term is unforgiving, and by definition laden with nationalism, citizenship, and a jingoism that I didn’t want to engage with.
Rumpus: Your novel City of Spies deals with biracial characters. Given that We Take Our Cities with Us is billed as a memoir, I was expecting you to focus more on your experience of living ‘feet in two worlds.’ But much of the book is given over to your extraordinary mother and grandparents and their experience of dislocation and otherness. How did you make the decision to focus on that side of your family and why?
Khan: After my mother passed away and I returned home from Vienna, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer was waiting for me in the mail. Try as I might, I could not read that novel or, for that matter, any other, and I could not write. Words bounced up and down on the page, as if the possibility of containing or conveying the world had come and gone. But I found that not to be the case with grief memoirs, which I spent a solid year devouring. While the loss depicted in those memoirs spoke to me in terms of immensity, they did not speak to what loss might mean to a sense of belonging. I remembered being struck by an odd thought when I watched my father’s coffin being lowered into his grave: Could I be Pakistani without him? And in the aftermath of my mother’s death, when loss was laid bare all over again, I realized that I wanted to write that story of belonging—a story of belonging across multiple places.
The focus on my mother arises from a confluence of factors. Her death made the memoir possible because, of course, I wouldn’t have written it if she were still alive. In a way, sitting with her day in and day out in my manuscript was a way of holding on to her a bit longer. But it was also a way of coming to know her in a way I hadn’t known her when she was alive. I gained a deeper understanding of the forces which shaped her decision to leave the Netherlands and the heady historical moment which made it possible for her to embark so completely and with such hope on a new life. An additional factor was that I worried that if I didn’t write about the loss of my mother right then, I would only ever write about loss when I returned to fiction, which I knew I didn’t want to do. But there’s a larger reason as well. In our current polarized moment, when we tend to think of identity as fixed and unchanging, I needed to explore the multiplicity of belonging, and to think about how we change or adapt in response to larger events we don’t have control over, like World War II or 9/11, and for me, the hanging of a prime minister.
Rumpus: I was intrigued by how you handle the impact of major historical moments in the work. World War II, 9/11, and the Partition of India haunt the collection, and yet there’s no salient event that’s more traumatic than the other. It’s as if the major characters in this memoir—you and your mother particularly—are formed more by the accretion of many events, a sort of web of history that spans continents. I know this is also the case for your fiction. Is this conscious on your part? Does it reflect a larger world view?
Khan: Recently, while I was on book tour, a reader commented on the plethora of historical events in the memoir and speculated about the believability of weaving such a milieu into a novel. It took me a moment to understand what he meant, because I take the mix and breadth of the history vis a vis my family for granted, and am not necessarily in awe of the magnitude. I think we are all shaped by history, whether we accept this or not. It just so happens that my parents brought such different histories to the table and did so with such specificity. My mother described standing in ration lines during World War II and Nazis searching her home for forbidden items, and my father and his siblings discussed the fight against the British and the violence of Partition. These realities were the backdrop of my parents’ lives and our family mythology.
When I was a child, I had a sense that we couldn’t really separate ourselves from the world or history, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to understand this. In graduate school, where I studied international studies, I came to see how the world is connected, how something that happens in the center of one place affects realities in another, and that we all exist inside larger structures that we do not have control over. Ironically, I’d gone to graduate school with the goal of working for an international organization, but my education led me to tell people’s stories. I wanted to explore the relationships between personal lives and large historical forces outside of our control. I suppose my memoir, like my novels, is in the same vein.
Rumpus: Both of your sons appear in the book. What do they think of you writing about them?
Khan: Prior to publication, I gave it to my children, husband, and siblings to read. In a sense, my story also belongs to them, and I didn’t want to risk upsetting them by presenting my version of our shared reality. I also wanted to be certain that my memory hadn’t utterly failed me. I was very lucky at their generosity to use their lives in my work. I’m not sure what I would have done had they had serious objections.
Rumpus: Who are some essayists you admire and who influenced you? Who are you reading now?
Khan: I never know how to answer the question of writers who influenced me, but there are many books that have made a difference to me as a writer. An early collection of essays that was important to me was Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days. Her elegiac essays are devoted to family and place, but I was also transfixed by her setting, our shared city of Lahore, which in my earliest days of being a writer made it possible for me to imagine writing about my places. More recently, Aleksander Hemon’s memoir The Book of My Lives captures exile and its soulmate—longing, longing, longing—with beauty and deep insight. It’s a novelist’s journey to writing, an exile’s account of unimaginable losses, a man’s love for family. I distinctly recall putting down the book after I’d finished it and wondering if I could one day craft an essay or two in a similar form. At about the time I was venturing into memoir, Kiese Laymon came to Ithaca College and read his powerful essay, “What I Pledge Allegiance To.” I’d already read How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America which is a lesson in courage, as all of Laymon’s writing is. But while hearing him read, I thought that if he could be brave enough to put his words on the page, I could at the very least give myself permission to try. Which is how I came to write about my children’s experiences after 9/11 and explore what brown might look like on the page and in my story.
At this very moment, I’m listening to the audiobook of Every Good Boy Does Fine, a spectacular memoir by classical pianist Jeremy Denk. Some sections remind me very much of George Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, but rather than being a master class in writing, it’s a master class in classical piano music. And it is beautifully written. A line that haunts me already is, “The melody keeps remembering notes it left behind,” because it makes me think of narrative. I’m also halfway through Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet, and although I read it years ago, I’m marveling at all I missed the first time around. I recently finished Anuradha Roy’s The Earthspinner [interviewed in The Rumpus in August 2022] which I loved (as I do all her work), and I hope soon to turn to Dur e Aziz Amna’s American Fever and Jenny Bhatt’s The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories which is her translation of Gujarati writer Dhumketu’s short stories.
Rumpus: You often reflect on the resources and methods you use, including interviews, to create these very personal accounts. How important were interviews and research, and did anything about that process surprise you?
Khan: Writing memoir was freeing (which is not to say it was not without constraints!) Among the gifts the form offered was permitting me to incorporate process into story. As a novelist, the research I undertake is integral to writing, but it’s hidden to the reader; it’s the invisible building blocks that make the story possible. Writing memoir allowed me to be transparent about including, even highlighting, my research process on the page. Often, process was the story, as when I set off on a search for a long-lost family painting or when I listen to decades-old family interviews and discover myself asking the very questions I’m currently grappling with. Recording the process, inviting it into the story, felt true to the spirit of my memoir, in the sense that the writing required a vulnerability and openness that was different from my novels. Shortly after finishing, I read Nora Krug’s graphic memoir, Belonging, and what I loved most about it is that it unveils the mystery of research by taking us through an illustrated journey of what it looks like. I realized that I, too, wanted to be transparent about my process.
The research process was unexpected in terms of the discoveries it elicited. For example, in the sixty-year-old correspondence between my parents that I inherited, I heard them engage with questions that were not so different from those that occupied me. My efforts to trace paintings from my mother’s childhood confirmed her vague references to us of famous Dutch painters that I’d long ago discounted. Listening to old family interviews gave voice to multiple viewpoints of the same events and, sometimes, striking details, like the precise menu of a meal on the night of a spectacular family fight.
In terms of craft, it was surprising to discover that the process of researching and writing the memoir was not so different from writing a novel. While I imagined I was beginning with a narrative arc and all my material at the outset, I was surprised that I picked and chose my material, much like any novelist. In the end, despite all the research you do, all those interviews you record, all the photographs you look at, all the books you read, all the newspapers you flip through, whatever you include must be in service of the story, which means that only a fraction of what you might encounter makes it into the book. That was the biggest surprise of all.
Author photo by Barbara Adams