Woodshop Talk: Brain Mill Press
On February 22, Haris Durrani will unveil his debut novella, Technologies of the Self.
To commemorate this release, we sat down for a roundtable discussion
with Mary Ann Rivers and Ruthie Knox, his publishers at Brain Mill Press.
This is Woodshop Talk.
BRAIN MILL PRESS: The editors of Brain Mill Press, Mary Ann Rivers and Ruthie Knox, are happy to have the opportunity to discuss the work of Haris Durrani with Maxine Allison Vande Vaarst. Haris Durrani is the Brain Mill Press recipient of the 2015 Driftless Unsolicited Prize for Fiction, and BMP is publishing his book, Technologies of the Self, releasing February 22, 2016. Buffalo Almanack publishes Durrani’s short story “Forty-Two Reasons Your Girlfriend Works for the FBI, CIA, NSA, ICE, SHIELD, Fringe Division, Men in Black, or Cylon Overlords,” in their issue 10.
It was happily discovered that the book and the story are linked by their protagonist. “Joe”/Jihad, a Dominican-Pakistani American engineering student, recalls his high school relationship with Glory in Technologies of the Self, and in “Forty-Two Reasons Your Girlfriend Works for the FBI, CIA, NSA, ICE, SHIELD, Fringe Division, Men in Black, or Cylon Overlords,” readers experience the complex beginning and end of Jihad and Glory.
The opportunity to discuss fiction about the young American Muslim experience is particularly timely, important, and revealing. Brain Mill Press and Buffalo Almanack are honored to have this opportunity, especially as Durrani’s work is so engaging, witty, and makes the heart ache in the best way.
BUFFALO ALMANACK: Hi, Mary Ann and Ruthie! Thank you so much for organizing this roundtable. I fell in love with “Forty-Two Reasons” the moment I first encountered it, and Technologies of the Self has only further convinced me that we have a future star in our midst. In both cases, Durrani’s writing is clever and current, beach reading for the justifiably paranoid. These are stories about colonialism, neoliberalism, conspiracy bullshit, and a Trumped-out America at the gates of hell, which is why I find it such a miracle that they’ve got so much time for family dinners and high school romances, too. Durrani’s mix of pulp culture, diaspora angst, and world/family history is so precise, I can’t help but think of Junot Díaz. And that’s not a superficial comparison—the writing is there, too. That’s the potential I see.
BMP: Maxine, it’s our pleasure. Ruthie and I (Mary Ann) pulled Technologies of the Self out of the submissions to our Driftless Unsolicited contest at about the same time, with similar comments about the first several pages—comments that roughly boiled down to “!!!” When we did sit down to read the manuscript seriously, we couldn’t stop talking about the abundant depth of the human elements in a story that still manages to capture politics, sex, race, and identity so completely, possibly because this is an author who has the ability to remind us that politics, sex, race, and identity are human. Like, this isn’t just the stuff of essays and Internet fighting, this stuff is the reason we sit down to family dinners or not, and probably why our high school romance broke up. Or was doomed in the first place.
So yes, for sure, Junot Díaz, which is so great because we need more authors like Díaz and Durrani, or ZZ Packer and Roxane Gay, and more characters like Jihad and for that matter, Pakistani-American Kamala Khan, aka comic-book heroine Ms Marvel. There are all these stories that readers have so far, because of too many invisible Trump walls, been completely fucking denied.
It’s really exciting to produce and publish Technologies of the Self because it’s not just important, it’s fun. It’s a good story. It has great food and awkward conversations with ex-girlfriends and a crazy uncle sending his nephew on an actual spirit quest. And in the end, Joe from Washington Heights transforms into Jihad of the whole world, and that’s hope. That’s what Durrani offers.
BA: Oh yeah, Kamala Khan. You’re right—one of her creators, G. Willow Wilson, is another good comparison. Many of her stories, and especially her novel Alif the Unseen, draw on these same issues: the challenges to love and compassion in an age of surveillance. For both Durrani and Wilson, the gap between lived political transgression and the sort of hero vs. villain showdowns we expect from comics are allowed to blur, because at this point our political worldviews are equally muddled.
Something I’ve noticed about superhero media is that the bad guys tend to be analogues for our real-world ills, such as Kilgrave standing in for rape culture in Jessica Jones. The heroes, however, are never metaphors. That would be weak writing. The heroes are ordinary people, with powers exceeding those allotted to them by the government, by society, and by their own human bodies.
Díaz opens The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao with a brilliant epigraph, borrowed from an issue of Fantastic Four: “Of what import are brief, nameless lives…to Galactus??” At first it seems like a non-sequitur, but as you read, you realize that Galactus is a lot of things. Galactus is the dictator Trujillo, Galactus is the United States, Galactus is capitalism, Galactus is privilege. Galactus, or “Santiago,” as Durrani calls him in Technologies, is any system by which some lives are discarded to favor others, and so we need to be superheroes to defeat him. We need to be better than ourselves. Joe, to me, is the great superhero Jihad, still searching for his powers.
BMP: Yes, that’s exactly right. Neither of the Durrani pieces we’re discussing positions the protagonist as any kind of metaphor. In fact, the Joe of “Forty-Two Reasons” is as slogged down with the same sexist paradigms, homework, passive decision-making, and overfocus as any nineteen-year-old dude. His worldview is both sharpened and, as you say, muddled, but what he can see well is different than what his suburban white girlfriend sees well. His potential superpower isn’t accessible to him when he looks at himself as he imagines his girlfriend, Glory, looks at him, and so she keeps all the glory to herself. He can’t know how she actually sees him. How he sees himself is alternately as powerful and as prey in the crosshairs of American surveillance.
No wonder simply sitting in a car and making out is so impossible. Sex is out of the question. Penetration. What I mean is, every one of these actions is impossible to ordinary Joe—to any ordinary nineteen-year-old Joe who doesn’t quite yet know what he wants—and these are equally impossible actions when viewed as political and spiritual metaphors.
Facing down Santiago in Technologies of the Self is a Joe who has been found too powerless to be surveilled in “Forty-Two Reasons,” but too powerful to walk away from the fight. I keep thinking of the classic superhero trope, where once the superpowers are identified but not yet understood or under the hero’s control, the major impulse of the newly minted hero is to be “normal.” To have never borne witness to some secret war. To be made ignorant, and to have safety, to have a life granted by that ignorance. Once Joe calls himself Jihad, he is clear-eyed, powerful, and has a cape, yes, but his life isn’t anonymous or his own.
BA: It’s the classic Campbell call to action/refusal of the call/OK fuck it let’s go story structure. I find it interesting, however, that you frame the call to action as the very experience of growing up as a person of color in white spaces. Believers are always speaking in terms of sight and consciousness (“Wake up, America! Have you opened your eyes to the truth yet?”). It doesn’t really matter whether what you believe in is God, a political ideology, or conspiracies. Even Díaz uses the Matrix “red pill” analogy to set up the “true account” of Oscar Wao. We’re all awake to some things and sleeping through others.
So for a brown kid like Jihad, there’s no snoozing past Apartheid. He has no choice but to be awake to systemic racism, whereas 43 percent of the U.S. white population is living in some kind of daydream state, where “discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” But, as you point out, he’s just as likely to ignore (or even produce) gendered missives against women. The challenge for Jihad and all of us is learning to be as awake to the world as possible. He’s closer to that goal following his encounter with Santiago in Technologies, but he’s still not quite there yet.
BMP: Yeah, I think understanding that racism isn’t theoretical, that it is a imposition on an individual’s identity, an evil that forces its way into developing, personal consciousness and tries to crowd out native gifts and desires, is an understanding that Durrani is particularly good at showing his readers, and in his stories, that call to action is very much married to the inescapable imposition and insistence of racism. Which means there is no “be normal.” Which creates such intense, incredible, fucking tension in the storytelling that manages to blow apart and expose the steaming guts of colonialism with his stuff like a short scene of a Pakistani-Dominican kid having a conversation over a meal with a woman he wonders if should be his girlfriend.
Santiago is terrifying, mysterious, thrilling, terrible, and we aren’t even sure if he’s real, but we know he has to be defeated. How hard is that for a writer, an artist, to pull off? That punch in our belly of motivation and power and interest to a worthy quest? That’s why Durrani’s work is, first, page-turning. It appeals to our best and strongest impulses, and before we know it, we are getting awakened to all kinds of things that, before, were sleeping and unlit.
The stakes—they are freaking high.
BA: Now, I think, would be a good idea to explain Santiago to Buffalo Almanack readers, who are of course coming at this conversation knowing only the plot to “Forty-Two Reasons.” In the universe Durrani has created, Santiago is indeed St. James the Moor-Slayer, who lends his name to cities throughout Latin America (most notably in Chile). He is the same James/Santiago at the center of the conquistador cry, “¡Santiago y cierra, España!” (“Santiago and at them, Spain!”). He is the very personification of colonialism, and he is also, it happens, the Devil. Like, actually the Devil. And he comes after Jihad’s uncle Tomás again and again, often wearing a time-traveling suit of armor. There are a lot of fight scenes. It’s pretty awesome.
Colonial history underwrites every page of Technologies, which is stocked with references to figures like democratic freedom fighter Pasquale Paoli. But these references are never purely historical. Paoli (good) and Santiago (bad) are alive in Durrani’s world, and you never know when some eighteenth-century conqueror worm is going to jump through a time vortex and kill you. It’s alarming in the best way, and a fine representation of our relationship to the past. When you’re awake to oppression, Santiago ceases to be a name on a page. You are obligated to feel his power across time.
BMP: I have such a clear sense in my imagination of Joe/Jihad, and reading “Forty-Two Reasons” made the Joe of my imagination terrifically palpable. Brain Mill Press readers have the unique chance to run over to Buffalo Almanack’s issue 10 and devour what is the prequel to Durrani’s book that Brain Mill Press will put out late winter. “Forty-Two Reasons” is one of those postmodern stories that is very “po-mo for the average Jo,” that is, entertaining, funny, and heartbreaking in a human way while stretching the short story medium’s possibilities. Joe of the “Forty-Two Reasons” story grapples with how the entire world others him while conflating those feelings and realities with feelings and realities that are familiar to so many nineteen-year-old guys trying to figure out a romantic relationship. I wish it meant more, nowadays, to apply the word “genius,” though John Crowley just told us that Technologies of the Self “presages a great career for a young writer with lavish gifts,” so genius probably isn’t overstating Durrani’s work.
I know I am stumping for issue 10 and the book, at this point, but such is my excitement that everyone read this stuff.
BA: Hey, no worries. Stump away. And readers, check out Technologies of the Self whenever you can. Haris Durrani. Brain Mill Press. Coming out February 22, 2016. It’s a quick read, but it will stick with you.
Mary Ann, Ruthie, thank you so much for this lovely conversation. Best of luck to you both in the future, and please keep Buffalo Almanack readers abreast of any other big releases you might put out in the future! Happy 2016, everyone.
BMP: Thank you, Maxine! It was our pleasure. We encourage our readers to check out Buffalo Almanack for excellent short fiction, and especially issue 10 to read the prequel to Haris Durrani’s Technologies of the Self, “Forty-Two Reasons Your Girlfriend Works for the FBI, CIA, NSA, ICE, SHIELD, Fringe Division, Men in Black, or Cylon Overlords.”