In which Farah Ali (The River, The Town) and Lydia Kiesling (Mobility) discuss how their new coming of age novels are informed by place and their respective upbringings, and how the work addresses the ways in which the climate crisis effects families.
Farah Ali: Your novel Mobility is an immense book, both in the questions it asks, in its geographical scope. We first meet the main character Bunny as a bored teenager in Azerbaijan where her father is an American diplomat, and from there we see the ubiquitous oil world through Bunny’s eyes as she grows into an adult faced with choices, and ultimately becomes part of that very world. All along, she deals with changes within her family as best as she can while the larger world goes through turbulent changes of its own.
I love that although Bunny doesn’t do big, dramatic things, there is so much urgency in the narrative, sometimes a breath-suspending kind, building up to a menacing future, based on the events happening around her. How did you land upon that balance between Bunny’s point-of-view and the things she is viewing?
Lydia Kiesling: Figuring out the consciousness of both Bunny and the book itself was a major puzzle, especially in the beginning. From one angle I wanted Bunny to have a lot of specificity and be her own singular person. At the same time, as I started to think about the book more as a medium for describing the intersection of different systems, I also needed her to be a bit of a vehicle to carry the reader along. At first skipping through time was a problem with my narrative, because rather than a plot, I had a number of scattered scenes in a woman’s life but no way to really connect them. Eventually I realized that if I was intentional about moving through time, it actually added a natural urgency and sense of mystery to the narrative, in the way that moving through life as a person is both totally mundane and be inexorable—and a bit fearful if you think about it in certain ways. This also allowed me to weave in larger events more naturally.
Your novel The River, The Town starts with a teenager, too. Badaal, a boy from an unnamed town outside of a megacity—a town whose very existence is predicated on years of drought, internal migration, and social engineering. It’s a family and community story, about Badaal, his mother Raheela, and his eventual wife Meena, and their relationships and movements against this backdrop of a town in a perpetual state of flux.
I was amazed by your first-person embodiment of three different characters, at three different but sometimes overlapping times. How did you think about that structure? How did you think about the construction process—who to include—and when to include—and how to thread the narratives and perspectival shifts together and make sure each first-person was differentiated so well?
There aren’t like, flashy signposts saying “this is about the climate!!”—it just is fundamentally part of the book, and the characters’ lives, from the get-go.
FA: Structurally speaking, I struggled between two extremes: making the story only Baadal’s narrative with one linear timeline, or expanding it to many people’s narratives with time spent in their past. It’s like what you said about the consciousness of the book. There was a persistent need to find out more about these characters. I especially wanted to know what made Raheela the way she was, going as far back into her life as possible. As I wrote, it seemed the most natural thing to begin her story, from when she was a child, after her son had reached a certain point.
LK: Along those lines, did you have characters in your mind first as the seed for the book, or were you thinking first about scenarios and venues and the characters emerged from their setting?
FA: I definitely had Baadal in mind. He–or the idea of him–survived all the versions of this book. I was also pretty sure about the place the story would take place in, and that it would exert its own force upon the narrative. I did think in scenarios; I imagined parts of dialogues and movements, and then when I set out to write them it became an exercise in finding out why these characters were speaking and behaving the way they were.
In a sense, your character Bunny is shaped by foreign settings. Right in the opening scene, she sees the behavior of the diplomats, hears their conversations, and though she cannot yet fully grasp the hidden meanings and hunger for power in them, she definitely senses something. What made you decide to give Bunny that kind of childhood?
LK: I grew up in the foreign service, and as I have gotten older, I have thought a lot about the particular valence of that kind of upbringing—the kind of insularity and intentional apartness that is inherent to it. I started the novel because I wanted to convey some of the kind of sense memories I have of being a child and teenager living somewhere unfamiliar, and the ideas about home and place that upbringing left me with. But without contextualizing that kind of childhood, it would just be nostalgic travel writing, which is not what I wanted to do. And then I realized, sort of accidentally, how much that setup allows you to accomplish, narratively speaking.
FA: This book made me wonder at what point in life does one really come of age. Is it at political maturity, or emotional maturity, or when one has made the first definitive choice in life as a recognized adult? When do you feel it was for Bunny?
LK: One thing that has been alternately destabilizing, dispiriting, and occasionally hopeful about becoming an adult is that political ideas and identities that might have seemed fixed turn out to be changeable. But it’s also clear that if you aren’t making an effort to think about how you want to be in the world, your attitudes are shaped without your noticing. I thought about the political journey, and how nationality, class, and race conspire to discourage liberatory politics in someone like Bunny. Bunny is perceptive enough to perceive the kinds of hierarchies that exist around her, but she is still very much in thrall to those hierarchies. I like the question you pose, the idea of a separation of political and emotional maturity. There are definitely people whose politics seem to be all sorted and hugely admirable to me, but then you find out their interpersonal relationships are disastrous.
I deeply admire how climate and ecology is woven into The River, The Town, so—gently doesn’t feel like the right word, because it is in fact a relentless and devastating presence in the lives of the characters—but with a sort of paradoxical subtlety. It’s all-important in the lives of the characters, but it is so holistically integrated, both from a craft perspective and in terms of the daily existence of the places you are writing—the way a particular situation becomes familiar even while it continually wreaks havoc. There aren’t like, flashy signposts saying “this is about the climate!!”—it just is fundamentally part of the book, and the characters’ lives, from the get-go.
How were you thinking about the representation of climate and environment as you were writing?
FA: I look back at the way I grew up in Karachi, and I see how much this difficult way to live was part of our lives. My father arranging for water tankers to come to the house, instances when gas-shedding meant the cooking had to be done at fixed hours, loadshedding which meant work that involved electricity had to be scheduled around the no-power hours, the flooding during monsoons. All this right along with the more ordinary stuff of daily life: family, school life, spending time with friends, etc. I wonder if that’s what I brought into this book, that coexistence of the difficult and the comfortable.
The question of aesthetics appears frequently in your story, and the reader is then made to pause briefly and think about function over beauty, of the meaning of necessary change, of who benefits from that change. We’re only shown the facts and not told how to feel. On a craft level, that is not easy to do yet you’ve managed to weave it in so smoothly.
How were you thinking about including this without being didactic?
LK: I think about this a lot in my own life, the strong desire I have to make my dwelling nice or to buy a dress because I see someone else wearing it, or my very strong feeling about places and how they look. There’s one sunny way of looking at this, wherein a sense for and appreciation of aesthetics and beauty is one of the strongest things that connects humans across space and time. At the same time, we the living have to interrogate what shapes our own ideas of aesthetics, and through what methods we acquire or achieve beauty, and at whose expense. I didn’t delve into this in huge depth in the book, but I did want to show how aesthetics function in Bunny’s life, in ways that are both superficial and more fundamental.
I love how The River, The Town engages with ideas about home, both broadly (village, town, city) and in the actual dwellings of the characters, which vary wildly. The intimacy and materiality of the spaces are so rich in the book and I wanted to ask about your process for writing setting.
How do you make the spaces your characters inhabit come alive?
At the same time, we the living have to interrogate what shapes our own ideas of aesthetics, and through what methods we acquire or achieve beauty, and at whose expense.
FA: As the characters were going from place to place, even from room to room, I imagined how they would move, what they would sit on and touch. I always think about Dan Chaon explaining in an interview how for his short story, “Big Me”, for a climactic scene between two people, he had to enact it with words and movements, jumping around and playing both.
Were there certain world events you had to choose to leave out in the writing of Mobility?
LK: So many. Some of those were omissions that fit with Bunny’s generally hermetically sealed world—the privilege she has to avoid learning too much about things that are upsetting to her. So, there are tremendous currents that are only touched on—the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and the global refugee crisis (not to mention the moral crisis of the U.S. border) are basically blips in the book, along with many climate-related disasters like droughts and famines, and natural disasters like the 2004 tsunami or the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
As the book’s timeline reached the present day, and I worked on final edits, I was still furiously adding current events and disasters into the text (for example, a third of Pakistan was underwater at the time). Eventually my editor gently told me this was not working, because it conveyed the feeling of being breathlessly stuffed in rather than naturally folded into the narrative. I wrestle a lot with whether these omissions contribute to the erasure of these events, but I do think it is an accurate depiction of how many privileged people tend to go through life, in a state of cultivated obliviousness into which harsh reality sporadically intrudes.
What work is inspiring and provoking to you in generative ways as you are thinking about your own writing?
FA: I love how Marilynne Robinson thinks, how she presents a philosophy through her works. Cormac McCarthy and Olga Tokarczuk for the same reason. Mary Gaitskill for her completely unfettered way with words. Jenny Erpenbeck – I love her spare, tightly wound sentences. Also, the poets Kaveh Akbar and Jack Gilbert.
What work was important to you as you wrote Mobility?
LK: I was really interested in the challenge posed by Amitav Ghosh’s already canonical work of literary criticism, The Great Derangement, and his question of why fossil fuels and their effects are not more prevalent in literary fiction. To that end I was inspired by the novelists who buck that trend, from Abdulrahman Munif and Cities of Salt to Upton Sinclair and Oil! to Imbolo Mbue’s newer novel How Beautiful We Were. I also thought a lot about Madame Bovary when I struggled with questions of “likeability.” I don’t think Flaubert was fussed about whether people liked or disliked Emma Bovary, and she is both a highly individual character and a vehicle for all of his other observations about a community, and thinking about that structurally was really helpful to me.
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Farah Ali is from Karachi, Pakistan. Her short stories have been anthologized in Best Small Fictions and the Pushcart Prize where it has also received special mention. People Want to Live (McSweeney’s) is her first collection. Her latest novel is The River, The Town.
Lydia Kiesling is the author of the novels Mobility and The Golden State, a 2018 National Book Foundation “5 under 35” honoree, and a finalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Her essays and nonfiction have been published in outlets including The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker online, and The Cut.