Interview with Haris Durrani


Spread the Word Flight 1000 Associate 2016 Sara Jafari spoke to writer and academic Haris Durrani, author of Technologies of the Self about Sci-Fi, Muslim characters, his writing process and inspirations and many things in between. 

What first inspired you to write creatively?

I always loved to write stories. Isaac Asimov and Orson Scott Card were my gateway drugs to writers like Octavia Butler, Frank Herbert, Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, Ted Chiang. As a Muslim Dominican Pakistani American (take that in any order) growing up in a 98% white town in America, I identified with science fiction as a genre. The literary elite looked down on it. The canon, including my school curricula, excluded it. The genre’s marginalisation had provided a space for writers like Butler. It operated outside the mainstream, and I loved that. It gave me the courage to call bullshit on what I read in school. While I read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in class, at home I read Herbert’s Dune; while I read Othello in class, I read Butler… Through science fiction, I didn’t feel that I needed acceptance from a universal narrative. I could embrace my otherness.

In 2013, The Guardian profiled Brian Aldiss, who, after a lifetime of producing classic science fiction, wrote a novel about a mosque in Headington: “No social realist writer thought to note the appearance of one of the first mosques in Britain. Do Sci-Fi writers have, as it were, slightly more sensitive antennae to changes in society?” His terrifying novel HARM is about a Muslim satirist tortured by a near-future British police state. The Guardian remarked of Aldiss’ position as a seasoned author whose genre status continues to exclude him: “He lives in Oxford, but not in Oxford.” I still have problems with Aldiss’s portrayals of Muslims, but his place on the outside has inclined him to tell stories mainstream authors haven’t told. This is why I’m disconcerted when I hear people talk about the “universal appeal” of story-telling or about science fiction becoming mainstream. I think these trends run the risk of literature losing its protest spirit.

A lot of the memories in Technologies of the Self are written so vividly and read real. Are there elements of your own life, experiences, and dialogue written into the novella?

Junot Díaz has a great line about the recurring character, Yunior, in his stories. He says that while he feels kinship with him, Yunior is not the same person but is ‘pulled from the same cloth.’ (I’m paraphrasing.) I feel similarly about the protagonist of Technologies. The novella is certainly drawn from the experiences of myself, my family, and my friends, but at the end of the day it is a work of fiction.

When I was writing the story, I knew which events definitely happened in the real world, and which ones definitely did not, but as I continued writing, the story grew and lived somewhere in between. There were scenes where I couldn’t draw a sharp line between what I knew to be real and what I knew wasn’t. When I workshopped early drafts of the story, my peers, thinking I’d made up everything, told me that the parts I definitely knew to be true were not believable, and those I definitely made up felt real. At the Muslim Protagonist Symposium at Columbia University a few years ago, Michael Muhammad Knight said, “Memoir is theft.” When you write creative nonfiction – or any other nonfiction – you’re appropriating the experiences of others, subjectifying and fictionalising them into your worldview. Meanwhile, fiction is a means of accessing a higher truth. I think this is why so many medieval Muslim scholars wrote parables. In a particularly sufi turn of phrase, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote, “I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.” She also wrote: “All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor.”

I’ve slightly evaded your question, because Technologies is about the nature of reality. The relationship between representation and “real things in the world.” In a political context, I’ve heard skeptics – sometimes those who claim they want to ‘complicate’ the picture and give agency to colonized or oppressed peoples – who say there is no ‘system.’ This obscures the question. Of course there’s a system, but to many it manifests in subtle ways. I think skepticism about the reality of the system comes from a place of privilege, or because people are taught to see the world from that perspective, where the lives of those limited by the seemingly ambiguous power of the state are invisible, unimportant, or exceptional to the status quo. I’ve tried to expose this form of power in Technologies. The whispers of Santiago the time-travelling demonic conquistador “space knight.”

I’m reminded of JJ Bola’s remark at Bare Lit Festival that Black Lives Matter only becomes relevant to the public eye after an act of violence but not before – say, in terms of small daily interactions with police, what we’re taught in school, what we see on TV. The term for this is “microaggressions,” but I feel that word doesn’t do the problem justice. The subtlety of power confuses the interplay between symbols, theories, representations, and “reality itself.” My prequel story to Technologies, Forty-Two Reasons Your Girlfriend Works for the FBI, CIA, NSA, ICE, S.H.I.E.L.D., Fringe Division, Men in Black, or Cylon Overlords, satirises the pervasiveness of the modern state as symbol, paranoia, and ‘reality.’ In anthropologist Talal Asad’s brilliant introduction to Genealogies of Religion and historian Timothy Mitchell’s essay ‘The Limits of the State,’ both criticise those who claim the state is not a pervasive body because its operations are not immediately observable, not empirically verifiable. I’m fascinated by this, the non-empirical nature of the state, despite its colonial history as a bastion of empiricism. Law operating outside of itself. Violence as both an exception and fundamental to the state. It’s sort of like the dichotomy between political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s critique of the state as exercising the too-rational and amoral ‘banality of evil’ and her later admission that, perhaps, there is still a fundamental evil behind the guise. These philosophical, religious, scientific, political issues begin to blur in questions about reality and power. The character Santiago is a key piece of this. What is Santiago? Is he real? What exactly do we mean by these questions? Who is asking them and why?

When I was growing up I noticed there was a lack of fantasy/sci-fi books with Muslim protagonists. Is this something you noticed, and did this influence you in any way to write your novella?

I’m increasingly irritated by the stories we read. In Frankenstein, there’s a chapter about a mischievous Turk who betrays his family and whose wife denounces Islam in order to be liberated as a free Christian woman. I remember re-reading that after I’d read it in class, shocked my teacher didn’t call it out. Card’s later portrayal of the Muslim character from Ender’s Game in his sequels is troubling. One of Asimov’s Black Widowers mysteries is about stealing a piece of the stone in Mecca. It’s well known the terrible portrayals, or lack of any, of Muslims in literature.

What really bothers me is when I see Muslim writers, or writers from Muslim backgrounds, writing these kinds of stories. Because of their background, they are propped up by the literary elite, decorated highly, but at the end of the day they are telling binary stories about Muslims who must either clash with ‘the West’ or assimilate, struggling against the sexual or other repressions of their tradition. I won’t name names, but this deeply troubles me. It’s tragic. These writers are haunted by their Santiagos, both oppressed and oppressors… They are telling the kinds of stories, presumably, people want to hear, what the publishing industry looks for—stories about liberation, like Shelley’s divorcee, from the straitjacket backwardness of tradition. But these stories hardly describe anyone I know. Even Muslims I know who struggle with these issues do not struggle with them in the stereotypical way. They often feel an appreciation for their tradition, not an anxiety about being imprisoned in it. My book has sex, drugs, violence, profanity, time-travelling demons, and alternate theologies, but I don’t think it’s liberal.

My friend Mirzya Syed and I have sought to change these narratives with the Muslim Protagonist Symposium at Columbia in NYC which supports and brings attention to Muslim writers and readers. We were frustrated that the stories we read described virtually no one we knew. But now it’s incredibly satisfying for me to be able to challenge these stories with my own. That is the most powerful response. And there are so many brilliant young writers out there who have honest stories to tell. The future of Muslims in literature is strong. The establishment should start biting its nails.

Did any novels inspire you to write Technologies of the Self?

Díaz, Chiang, Asimov, Butler all influenced me. But my direct inspirations were, embarrassingly, from TV. I had finished watching Breaking Bad the year before I wrote Technologies and was in the middle of Mad Men. Both of those shows were surprisingly quiet (and I admit had problems with POC representation). Breaking Bad is about drugs, violence, and riches, but it’s not told as you’d expect. There’s an episode where the two protagonists spend an hour trying to get a fly out of their meth lab – that’s the whole thing. There are scenes where characters don’t say more than a few words over a single meal. Yet it’s tense, terrifying, menacing even in the most banal moments. And it plays with time in extraordinary ways. A work of art. Mad Men is about sex and money, but is similarly calm-tempered. Greed, patriarchy, and privilege operate most powerfully in the quietest scenes of those shows, and I wanted to tell a story that similarly embraces the messy banality of modern life, where power is a looming menace, hard to place yet immediate.

I was also inspired by the academic work of Talal Asad and Wael Hallaq, particularly Hallaq’s The Impossible State, which argues that shari’a is incompatible with the modern state. His book has been widely misunderstood, I think, and I hope my story can serve as a complement for those skeptics. Many criticisms misunderstand that Hallaq is referring to subtle and pervasive modes of power. This is the subject of Technologies. The title comes from Hallaq’s contrast of Foucault’s “technologies of the self” (education, institutions, socioeconomics, etc.) which shape the obedient citizen of the state with al-Ghazali’s technologies (prayer, dhikr, religious obligations) that discipline the moral self.

How would you describe your writing process?

I have to work to control the chaos of my approach. My professor at Barnard, Hisham Matar, beautifully taught me the value of patience in the process, of being deliberate as a writer.

My process is also political. Some of the writers I mentioned above who portray Muslims poorly have said explicitly that they do not want to talk about politics or identity in their work. They’re just interested in the story. To say an unfavorable portrayal of a Muslim or POC is ‘one story’ of many, or that writers should not concern themselves with portraying ‘good’ characters when it comes to these identities, is obfuscating and ignores that stories are read in context. I’m not saying writers need to write anesthetized ‘good’ Muslim or POC characters, but that they need to write honestly. If the pen is truly mightier than the sword, then, like the warrior, the writer needs to be held accountable. That means the writer must be willing to talk about the politics of her work.

To think otherwise seems naïve. Aditya Chakrabortty wrote a great piece asking “Why are English and American novels today so gutless?” Look at the New Yorker science fiction issue a few years ago: there were a few good stories, but it was mostly fluff, well-written but not saying much. Style over content.

For me the best science fiction – the best stories, period – are unafraid to engage with issues. Art, by definition, is an engagement with an audience, a community, which is a political body.

Writers often caution that to approach writing as a political process is to produce polemic, but I think that misunderstands the nature of politics. When NWA says, “F*** the police!”, that’s more than polemic. They’re relating lifetimes of experiences about living as black men under the American police state. That deep, experiential connection is what gives the line real guts. Power manifests in subtle ways – whether you like it or not, it informs the writing process – and art has the unique value of being able to engage subtlety. Politics, ‘the system,’ propagates not through polemic but a series of experiences – Foucault’s “technologies of the self.” Literature too is a series of experiences. It has the power to operate in that language. When I write, I throw aside polemic but never politics. I don’t think I could. It’s a part of who I am, and I trust myself as a writer that that will emerge naturally from the process. It’s not so much about being politically-conscious as politically-unconscious. Politics operates most dangerously, or powerfully, in the unconscious.

What inspired you to write a fantasy novella over other genres?

I’m not sure Technologies is fantasy. I’m not sure it’s science fiction either. Or fiction. But it’s not ‘real,’ is it? I prefer to think of it as just a ‘story.’

Sorry, that was a pretentious answer! I spoke before about intentionally blurring these boundaries in the story. Arthur C. Clarke has that line that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” so maybe everything in Technologies has a ‘scientific’ explanation. But I don’t think that’s true either. I’m not sure what we mean by ‘science.’ Philosophers of science still haven’t decided. Meanwhile, the word ‘fantasy’ denotes a remove from reality I’m not quite comfortable with. I think when writers say what I’m saying, it’s often an attempt to evade stigma about writing ‘genre,’ but that’s not my concern here. Tossing aside my theoretical nitpicking, this story would probably be accepted, by convention, as ‘science fiction/fantasy.’ I’m fine with that in the sense that I love that the genre’s place outside the mainstream provides a position from which to chip away at the establishment. But I also want to confuse what we mean by these boundaries…

A careful reader will pick up that Technologies is a superhero origin story. I’m fascinated by the idea of an ‘origin story.’ It’s about identity, about action, about your place in the world. Consider the line “I have to assume my time is coming.” I will say no more!

As a BAME writer how did you find the process of getting published?

I was lucky. The kind folks at Brain Mill Press accepted Technologies for their Driftless Prize, which meant publication. It was an honor. They have embraced the racial and religious complexities of the story. If I sold to a large-scale publisher, I’m not sure I would have had the same freedom with the story. It would probably be a hard sell because it’s so unconventional in terms of structure, characters, themes. I encourage others to write for Brain Mill – they are looking for writers and guest editors now. Submit! They deserve the plug.

What is next for you and your writing?

My first professionally-published story from Analog Science Fiction and Fact, a novelette entitled Tethered, will be reprinted in Lightspeed in May. It’s about a mixed race couple who clean up space junk in the near future. Things go wrong. It’s similar to Gravity, but I wrote it before I ever knew the film was coming out. I think Gravity missed the political nature of spaceflight and space debris. Tethered is all about the politics.

And, Technologies is only a piece of a longer story…

Do you have any advice/words of wisdom for aspiring sci-fi/fantasy writers?

Keep writing. Be critical of your work but confident in your vision. Don’t think you have to be liberal to be creative. Be patient in your writing process and as you submit for publication. Write politically, not polemically. And don’t write to be accepted by a universal narrative – embrace the fringe. We need an irregular literary landscape, not a homogenized one.

Haris Durrani is a writer of fiction, memoir, and academic essays. His debut, Technologies of the Self, received the Driftless Novella Prize. He is an M.Phil. candidate in History and Philosophy of Science at University of Cambridge and holds a B.S. in Applied Physics from Columbia University, where he co-founded The Muslim Protagonist Symposium.

Sara Jafari was a Flight 1000 Associate at Spread the Word. Sara wrote her first full-length novel, Zara Freej & The Monopoly of Magic, a YA fantasy novel featuring a British Asian protagonist, when she was sixteen years old. Since then, she has written a novella and multiple short stories. She graduated with a BA in English & Comparative Literature from Goldsmiths, University of London in 2014. Sara is currently editing her first novel, six years after writing it, and is writing short stories that are featured on her blog