Ali Sethi’s debut novel, The Wish Maker, is the latest book to emerge from Pakistan, which is fast emerging as a hothouse of literary talent. It follows the homecoming of Zaki, a college kid in the US, who returns for the wedding of his cousin-aunt, Samar. The book then explores the way their lives have been influenced by their families and the developing history of their nation. Here, Sethi tells Time Out about the slow pace of his book, politics and why Pakistan’s middle class is different from India’s.
Many readers will find your book interesting because it describes a Pakistan they’re not at all familiar with. It seems to describe the sort of middle class life (and myth) that many Indians are most proud of: an entrepreneurial world where you work hard, study hard, get a chance to prosper and grab it with both hands. Is that a fair characterisation of your novel?
The family is middle class. But the Pakistani middle class is not like the middle class of the ‘India Shining’ myth (the political slogan referring to India’s economic optimism after the plentiful rains of 2003 and the Indian IT boom). In Pakistan you can be middle class and still fundamentally insecure, unsafe, and marginal to state and society: the police can beat you and arrest you for speaking your mind in a newspaper column, and your feudal father can have you abducted from the city and dragged back to the village for going on a date.
Did you never consider a more political book?
In a place like Pakistan, where the division between the private and the public, the home and the world, is so rigidly enforced, it can be rewarding to limit yourself at times to the small tremblings that occur in the interior of the setting when a big thing happens on the outside. These people have an urban, middle class existence, but their lives are ultimately shaped by the ways in which they overcome their circumstances – at least to some extent. That in itself can be a political experience, and it doesn’t have to feel like a revolution.
A common criticism of sub-continental writing in English is that the writer assumes the reader doesn’t know this part of the world intimately, and so feels the need to explain it. How did you deal with writing a book for people who know and those who don’t?
I was aware of that problem. But I think in the end you must allow the story to come up with its own patterns and codes, which speak for themselves and are not contained within the specificities of time, place or location.
The book itself progresses in an unhurried fashion. Was it a conscious decision to eschew crowd-pleasers, stylistically or in terms of the narrative?
The first draft was shorter and fast-paced. But the subject was too deep, and I only understood this once I’d done the first draft. The revision involved a lot of contextualisation, which made the story slower. In a book of this sort, which is so bound up in the smaller details of people’s lives, was there ever a fear on your part that your readers would say, ‘Great descriptions, but when is something going to happen?’ I reassured myself by looking at the world around me, which was made up of those small details.
Published by Hamish Hamilton. Dhs77, available at Magrudy’s