Exploring the Intricacy of the Human Experience: A Dialogue with Faraaz Mahomed
Faraaz is a clinical psychologist and human rights researcher from South Africa, based in New York. He has written several short stories and travel pieces, with publications in Granta, the Sunday Times and others. In 2016, he won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the African region, and in 2020, he was a finalist for the inaugural Toyin Falola Prize. He is currently working on a novel.
BY CHISOM OKWARA
This conversation took place over the course of a week, between Kigali and New York, in writing.
Chisom: Congratulations again on making the shortlist for the 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prize. How did you feel about getting shortlisted? You were the regional winner for Africa in the 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for your story, The Pigeon. How does it feel to be so close to winning another short story prize this year? If anything, what feels familiar…what feels different?
Faraaz: Hi Chisom, thanks! It always feels good to be recognized. I still consider myself an aspiring writer, and I really like writing short stories, so prizes like this one help me to keep working at craft while also developing a sense of confidence as a writer. In 2016, I entered the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and completely forgot about it because I wasn’t really sure I had enough sense of myself as a writer. Nowadays, I try to be a bit more consistent with submissions to journals and prizes, although the main goal still remains to develop myself and cultivate my own voice as a writer.
Chisom: There’s this sense of childlike beauty that shines through when you say you really like writing short stories. It’s pure. It’s relatable. In the journey to more consistency and to finding your own voice, what have you found helpful and encouraging? What inspires what you write today? I’ve read The Pigeon twice now – and on my second read, it left me thinking of fragility…deep seated fragility, of our species, of all things alive and living. Does this strike a chord – in your writing and/or career?
Faraaz: Yes, I would agree with the statement about fragility, and the vulnerability and fallibility of people. I think in my writing that tends to be one of the most central themes because that’s where the intricacy of the human experience is. I do also engage with humour and with lightness, because that too is intrinsically human, but I would say that my most natural voice is rooted in the parts of our lives that we want to shy away from or feel shame about. In a way, that is what’s more interesting to me.
Chisom: The way I see it—and this pattern might be totally in my head—the manner in which your writing broaches shame and pity seems to demystify (or perhaps reimagine) them in a sense. There’s both a light touch and a steeliness to the way your (main) characters navigate situations that would typically (in what tends to pass for reality and sometimes, in fictitious work) incite muddled shame and some form of pity. I think of the protagonist in The Pigeon, Faisal in Jubilee, Badat in Gracious, your shortlisted entry; the latter seemed to wade through murkiness with a sort of innocent oblivion – burying sentiment/passion in layers of seeming neutrality. What inspires your main characters?
Faraaz: There is what people sometimes call an absence of affect or what you are referring to as a seeming neutrality. I can understand that characterization, but I don’t think of it as steeliness. I think of it as engaging with emotion in a way that is less visceral and more ‘acted out’ through, for example, relationships. I think this defendedness and matter-of-factness, maybe even sociopathy, is how some people go through life. I think the difference with the protagonists in the works that you are mentioning is that, despite the flatness of tone, they are aware of the attached feeling, but maybe still struggling with its expression. On the part about shame and pity, I think there too the matter-of-factness is a signifier of the underlying struggle actually and a marker of how pitiful they are in the pursuance of the struggle.
Chisom: If we reimagined expression, stripped it of utterance and guise for example, would there still be a thing as a “struggle” with it? Does one pursue emotional expression knowing that the reception of it by another is likely subject to the degree of empathy and self-interest that other holds? It seems like a gamble to me. Perhaps, your main characters chose to skip over the gamble. What do you think?
“I would agree with the statement about fragility, and the vulnerability and fallibility of people. I think in my writing that tends to be one of the most central themes because that’s where the intricacy of the human experience is.”
Faraaz: I am not sure it’s always a conscious process. I think sometimes we are so unaware of our own struggles that it simply takes the form of lived reality. Sure, I imagine there are moments of defending against the ‘gamble’ as you refer to it, but I think there are also moments of real gaps in self-knowledge, moments of habitual defendedness, or moments of denial of vulnerability for the purposes of self-protection.
Chisom: Could you shed more light on the example of relationships you mention above in reference to engaging with emotion less viscerally?
Faraaz: I think there’s a subtle difference between affect and emotion, and so I’d probably call it affectless engagement, in the protagonist’s relationship in The Pigeon, and in the somewhat detached and analytical reaction of the protagonist to his biological father in Gracious. I think these mirror some of the ways in which we might engage if feelings are too difficult to encounter, if we’re taught not to feel our feelings outwardly because we don’t want to burden others, or if there has not been some modeling of what appropriate affect looks like. Of course, some of us are also just more introspective/inward-facing people and the internal world is a much more populated place than the external facing world. It’s just a different way of relating
Chisom: Do you think your writing is more internal world-probing than external world channeling? With the internal world being a much more populated place, do you think literature in general does enough to hone in on it?
Faraaz: I think there are many authors who channel the internal through our external behaviours, and others who feel their way through events or circumstances with genuine emotion and thoughtfulness. I think these are all aspects of internal world-probing. Sometimes the first person narrative is the most direct means through which to accomplish this, but I don’t believe it’s the only way. I imagine that if you ask any author they would say they are dealing with the totality of the human experience, but just as humans are diverse in how inward-looking they are, I think so too are the products of their creative expression.
Chisom: I often write in the first-person, although this is also because I mostly write non-fiction these days, and I agree with you that there must be other ways to deeply probe the internal world in our literature. Jubilee, published in Adda, which you wrote in third-person, does delve into internal and external worlds. Between the things unsaid—but felt—and the ones said, I felt like, to an extent, I understood Faisal, the protagonist. I often find myself tilting towards stories that I see myself in, in one way or the other. How does the relatability of a story count to you, as a writer and perhaps as a reader too?
Faraaz: I think about this a lot. I can see pieces of myself in many of my characters. My assumption is this renders them more authentic. But I think there’s something to be said for archetypes and Jungian collective unconscious, and so I feel as though maybe the stories themselves are versions of other stories and that’s why they are relatable. Of course, I also write complete others or strangers, like Moegsien in Gracious. They feel less relatable to me, but still familiar in the sense of their unconscious presence, which I think becomes conscious through the process of writing.
Chisom: I also acknowledge the presence of an underlying sense of familiarity in characters who are completely “other”. Aren’t such characters sometimes embodiments of our curiosities, or fantasies? I take them as reflections of one’s observation and participation in the vastness of humanity. But I must admit that I nurse a fear of attempting to place these “others” in the centre of my writing for fear of being “false” or surface-level or worse, stereotypical. Is empathy enough a recipe to imbue the “other”? What do you think? What was it like writing Moegsien?
Faraaz: I completely agree that there is a fear of stereotyping or building characters who seem inauthentic or unidimensional. It happens. Maybe I do it too, but I think this is why I like short stories, because I get to experiment with many more storylines and characters than I would in a novel. I feel like maybe the experimentation is part of learning and encountering the “other”. It’s true that it’s a fine line when it comes to not fetishizing or co-opting the stories of others, but one would hope it can be done in a way that is respectful and thoughtful as we learn and deepen our own worldview.
Chisom: Yes indeed, respect and thoughtfulness in the process, and openness to learning make all the difference in this case. Do you see yourself venturing past the short story form someday, writing a novel? If you’ve got favourites, could you share some of your most loved short stories? I always keep an ear to the ground for recommendations.
Faraaz: I’ve been working on a novel for ever, but it’s been difficult. I enjoy the novel, and I want to keep at it, but I think short stories are pretty special, also from a personal perspective because of the way in which they build confidence and craft. Literally dozens. Off the top of my head, Zora Neale Hurston’s The Gilded Six Bits, Bettering Myself by Otessa Moshfegh, Namwali Serpell’s Take It. The best one probably hasn’t been written yet.
Chisom: Thanks for the recommendations! I saw somewhere that “writing a book is like fine wine…it takes time to age”. Could be true for novel writing. Outside of creative writing, you are an academic writer, with journal articles covering mental health and human rights. Is there an overlap between your creative and academic writing – in process, or otherwise? What is it like switching between both hats?
Faraaz: They are actually very separate. Sometimes the theme of mental health will come up in my creative writing but other than that, I don’t really follow the same process. Academic writing is much more technical, and often more collaborative. Creative writing is much more personal and requires much more depth actually.
Chisom: Do you have other passions or interests or pastimes, outside your writing and your career path? I read an old travelogue of yours from your time in Rio de Janeiro. Is travel, perhaps in more normal climes, on your list, if there is a list?
Faraaz: I do enjoy traveling. This period has offered me an opportunity to learn how to be in one place for the first time in a long time, which has actually been really special and grounding. As much as I love to see the world, I think I was overdue when it came to learning to stay in the moment and experience a place or a time fully without some form of escape.
Chisom: I think it’s a lesson worth learning, a way of living worth cultivating – stillness, groundedness, contentment, peace (all other things being equal). We’re near a wrap to this conversation which I’ve found as humane as it has been stimulating. What would you say of this journey so far with your creative writing, and the direction it’s headed towards? What has stood out the most for you? What have you learned about yourself, and/or the world, and/or the role/place of literature by treading this path (especially alongside a separate full-time career)?
Faraaz: I would say that requires a lot of trust in oneself, and a lot of patience. I enjoy the process of writing and learning about myself through writing. There’s also a lot of possibility in it. I’ve been trying to find characters who are diverse and challenging to write about, and the experimentation of it is an interesting exercise. I also think the world of literature definitely demands a thick skin and a persistence that doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s like building a muscle I guess, in that it requires effort and struggle.
Chisom: I completely agree with you. Writing does require a lot of trust in oneself and a lot, a lot of patience. In all, the possibility it holds makes it beautiful. I wish you the very best as you build your muscle in the world of literature. It’s been a pleasure having this conversation with you, Faraaz. Thank you, and good luck for the Afritondo prize!
Faraaz: Thank you!
This conversation was conducted prior to the announcement of the winner of the 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prize.
Chisom Okwara is a Nigerian writer and interviewer. She writes essays and travelogues (with publications in the Question Marker, Thrive Global and Popula) and hopes to get back to writing fiction soon. She participated in British Council’s Future News Worldwide Conference for young student journalists in 2019. Currently, she is a full-time Project Coordinator at SoCha LLC.