Sunday morning, after the attempted Muslim Ban and protests, I had the chance to Skype with the phenomenally lovely, Ifra Asad, in Islamabad, Pakistan. Not-so-surprisingly, we talked about the Muslim Ban and President Trump. However, we also talked about schools in Pakistan, growing up in Karachi, does identity even exist?, sightseeing in London, being bilingual, feminism, and writing.
To listen, just click the play button above. You can read the transcript below and find links to more information on different topics at the bottom of this post!
On Education in Northern Pakistan
Liz: This is Ifra Asad. She is based in Islamabad, Pakistan. She is an award-nominated writer, as well as a non-profit professional, working in communications with policy advocate groups. [We are keeping her employer anonymous on purpose]
Ifra: Actually, right now, I’m in education, same as you. I work for a humongous international non-profit organization. Its biggest portfolio is in Pakistan, but is also in parts of Africa, India, and Bangladesh. It has an office in DC and in London, but those are smaller. London and DC don’t need that sort of non-profit help, so they’re [the offices] are more to generate funding and come up with the programs. It’s divided into nine different agencies and I’m in the education agency. We have 159 schools across all of Pakistan. Our key areas are the northern areas of Pakistan, so super mountainous, super ignored otherwise; and parts in the south, as well. It’s a really interesting job, in that it allows me to occasionally travel to these places. You go to these places and they’re so otherworldly, almost.
Liz: So you visit rural parts of Pakistan to visit these schools. How many students would you say are in a school?
Ifra: It largely depends. We have primary schools, middle schools, and higher secondary schools. The higher secondary schools are the most status, really fancy buildings, insanely beautiful campuses. You’ve got a campus set atop the mountains. That alone is going to make for a really gorgeous campus. These guys have a planning and building agency, as well, so that one does all the architecture. The higher secondary ones are the most beautiful, with the best faculty. And then, the primary ones, obviously the more rural you go, it’s not going to be more than 200-300 students per school.
Liz: That’s still fairly large, isn’t it?
Ifra: Yeah, that’s not bad, considering these are areas that don’t have a lot happening in them. Even when you go up north, you have sort of centers. The more central you get, the bigger the campuses get, as well.
Liz: Is it mandatory by law for all students to attend school in Pakistan?
Ifra: Well, it should be, but there’s no sort of implementation happening. When you go to Karachi, it’s a very sort of out-of-hand city. You enter and you see poverty. It’s just overwhelmingly present. Everywhere you look, you’re going to see kids without shoes and dirt everywhere and begging. But, somehow, when you go up north, they’ve figured out a way that education is extremely stressed upon. They have an almost 100 percent literacy rate. Every child, in every household, does go to school. That’s not enforced by anyone, as such, it’s just part of the culture there. I don’t know how that happened there, but it’s fantastic. They’re known for being very literate. They do rear goats, and all of that, but they also speak English to you, and they’re very educated. It’s super interesting. I wouldn’t have known that myself, had I not gone up there.
Liz: So what services are you providing when you visit these schools?
Ifra: Because I’m in communications, it involves any publications that we have to deal with. So the most recent trip we made up north, it was because the schools were turning 70 that year. We wanted to sort of document the history of publication for that. It didn’t entirely pan out as we had hoped it would, in that there was no publication at all in the end. But we went and interviewed community members, former teachers, alumni, anyone who might have been around when the schools were first made in the ’40s and ’50s. We gathered a lot of their stories, we took a bunch of pictures. It was exhausting, but it was such a fun trip. It was really great. Just hearing all of their stories, it was like, man, there is so much happening in this country that I don’t know about.
On Growing Up in Karachi
Liz: You grew up in Karachi, and you were saying you saw a lot of poverty when you were growing up and that’s different than what you’re seeing now. What was it like growing up in Karachi?
Ifra: See, that’s always a weird question. If I ask you, “What was it like growing up in Allentown?”…
Liz: It’s very broad, yeah.
Ifra: And you didn’t have any other childhood to compare it to, right? It just was.
Liz: That makes sense. Karachi is a big city though, and it’s a very busy city and you’re surrounded by lots of people of different socioeconomic classes, I suppose.
Ifra: Right, I guess I can compare it to the differences I felt when I got to America. The biggest one is that, I felt that, in America, there’s much more socioeconomic equality. Everyone is, more or less, middle class. Everyone can, more or less, afford the same things. Whereas in Karachi, it was very much like, either you have giant seven bedroom and seven bathroom mansions or you have a tiny flat. Everyone was very dependent on their wealth to define their social status, especially the school I went to, which was a very posh, rich-kid kind of school. Everyone wanted to align themselves with the upper-tier sort of people, and these upper-tier sort of people were the people with the most money. You’d hear a lot of things at my school like, “I went to Dubai this weekend because the new Spiderman movie was on over there and it wasn’t on here yet.”
Liz: Just a casual trip to Dubai.
Ifra: Bullshit like that. It was insane. There was a very clear, like “We don’t go beyond the bridge. We don’t go to that side of Karachi, because that’s where all the poor people live, and I just want to stay in my bubble.” There was a very pronounced sort of social inequality. It led to a lot of stifling of personalities, as well, I feel. In America, it was much more, I don’t know. Everyone was just nicer to each other, I felt like.
Liz: Well, I wonder with things like that, when you’re a child, when do you sort of realize socioeconomic differences?
Ifra: I can tell you exactly when all of these things started happening. My family is interesting, because my dad has a huge family to support, and his parents died very young. So they didn’t come from a lot. Then, he was a very smart man and he worked his butt off. He was very very hardworking, and he got us from the ground to the poshest part of the city. Now, I was born very late. By the time I was born, everyone had done their growing up and gotten married and all of that.
Liz: Well, you have a number of older sisters.
Ifra: Yes, I have four older sisters and they’re all ten to fifteen years older than me. Up until I was born, we were still sort of on the other side of the city. Then I was born, and then I was five or six, and we moved to the extremely posh side of the city. I also happened to get into this very posh school, which is actually not an expensive school, but it’s got this reputation for being extremely exclusive. So I grew up with this sort of… people in my grade had tennis courts in their house. They had fifty different maids and drivers, and it’s just casual conversation to say, “I got 1500 for pocket money this month”, which was a lot back then. Whereas, in my house, it was very different, we didn’t have those kind of roots. I used to grow up playing with my cousins a lot; we were all really close. But, they lived on the other side of Karachi in kind of slummy areas, which I didn’t realize until I was much older. As I was growing up and spending more time around my school friends, this was a huge sort of conflict; the way these people make fun of the way my family is, almost. I must have been 13 or 14 when all of this turmoil was happening, because I couldn’t hang out with both anymore. It was two completely different ends of the spectrum.
Liz: That’s a scary time too, when you’re 14, 15. You’re trying to figure out what sort of adult you’re going to be.
Ifra: Yeah, exactly. Forget adult…
Liz: You just want to fit in.
Ifra: Yeah, it was really weird. And then, I did bitchy things, like I completely abandoned my cousins. It wasn’t very nice, you know? There was a lot of, “Why don’t you hang out with us anymore?” and all of that sort of stuff. I didn’t know how to answer the question, so I just sort of cut them off for a few years. I think back now, and I’m like, “That wasn’t very nice.” But at the same time, I was a very confused, conflicted teenager, who just could not make sense of anything.
Liz: You’re torn between two worlds there, which seems to be an ongoing pattern.
Ifra: It does, doesn’t it? That’s why America felt a lot more accepting.
On Theresa May, Brexit, the Muslim Ban, and Conservatism
Liz: You moved to the States for undergrad, because we went to F&M together. Then you lived another year, here with me as a roommate, in New York City.
Ifra: The best year!
Liz: It was so lovely.
Ifra: I was 19 when I went to F&M. That was in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a weird first stop to America.
Liz: Amish country.
Ifra: Then, from there, it was New York for a year and a half with you. It was five years total in America. I’m really glad I got through it all in the Obama times, let me just say. I’m really glad I got my America time done and over with, before this shitstorm happened. Liz: And then in London, all of the UK, has become conservative, right? It’s under conservative rule with Theresa May.
Ifra: Though she did, thankfully, release a statement saying that she doesn’t agree with the Muslim Ban. She wasn’t saying anything for the longest time, but I just saw on CNN. She said she doesn’t agree with it. I hate that woman. She is the sole reason I couldn’t stay in the UK. I hated her before she became Prime Minister. I was well aware of who she is. Then, this whole Brexit thing happened and David Cameron stepping down. I was like, “You’re joking. Theresa May is going to be the Prime Minister? No!”
Liz: There does seem to be this big pendulum shift for a lot of nations. Justin Trudeau of Canada is our shining star right now.
Ifra: He’s so handsome.
Liz: He’s very handsome, and he’s also loving of humans. But it seems to be this big pendulum shift towards the right. I don’t want to demonize the right, because it’s very easy to do that right now, with the polarizing of the United States. My parents are Republicans, but I would say moderate Republicans, leaning conservative, but moderate. They have great ideas about some policies and we have thoughtful conversations about it, before they explode into fights. I don’t think my political views are a secret. It gets tricky when you start to put people in these two camps. You’re either hyper liberal, screaming, or you’re hyper conservative, screaming. What happens to the people who want to have regular discourse in the middle?
Ifra: I agree, absolutely. On both sides of the spectrum, you’re just like, ‘Shut up. Just relax. Just calm down for five minutes.’ What does your family feel about the whole thing right now?
Liz: I’ve been trying to avoid talking about it. The Republicans in my family weren’t excited about Trump, either. I know my dad wrote in Condoleezza Rice. He made me laugh a lot, he was trying to think of the best name to write in. He spent a week laughing to himself trying to figure out what he was going to write in.
Ifra: Didn’t 11,000 people write in Harambe?
Liz: Yeah, they really did. Or Ken Bone, that guy with the red sweater from the one debate. But, I think they were pro-Kasich. Honestly, when this election was first starting to be talked about two years ago, I honestly thought it was going to be a Jeb Bush/Hillary election and it was going to be the most boring cycle of all time. I thought that was fine, let’s stay with some boring for a little while. Sounds like a good move.
Ifra: That’s more preferable [than now].
Liz: Yeah, I want my politicians smart and boring.
Ifra: I mean, the drama and all, sure. But also, people’s lives.
Liz: The thing that’s interesting to see, here in the States right now, with…and I’m talking about the Democrats. Actually, this could be indicative of everybody, I guess…is that people who didn’t give a flying you-know-what about politics before are writing into their Senators, are calling political offices, are out protesting or posting about things on Facebook, or having discussions about it or screaming matches about it. People who didn’t care before are getting involved and I think that, if there is a silver lining, it’s that people are taking matters back into their own hands, both Republicans and Democrats. Well, I hope Republicans do in the Senate, but in terms of people on the streets…
Ifra: What I didn’t understand is that there were more people at the Women’s March than people who voted in total, right? Something like that. I thought, “Why didn’t these people just vote against him?”
Liz: I don’t think that that’s true. Well, Trump lost the popular vote, by something like 2.9 million.
Ifra: But then he said, that’s because illegal voters.
Liz: Right, and then it turns out that one of his daughters and his son-in-law were both registered to vote in two states.
Ifra: I heard something about that, that’s fraud, isn’t it?
Liz: We’re talking a lot about politics and we’re talking a lot about me.
Ifra: Things are so insane right now, how can you not talk about it?
Liz: That’s true. So living in Pakistan, what is general reaction to politics and the [US] election?
Ifra: People are super scared about things from the immigration front. There’s a lot of family members in America, who are visiting/not visiting/planning to visit. Obviously, there’s that constant back and forth. There’s tons of Pakistani-Americans. They’re scared about what this means for Muslims, in general. Everyone’s making that Germany comparison, also. Everyone is just scared, man. In disbelief, just “What the hell? This wasn’t supposed to actually happen.” We had CNN playing all day today, and were just like, “Holy crap.”
Liz: Being a Muslim and having lived in the United States for five years, and then living in London for a year and a half, and then back in Pakistan, your identity has been pulled in all these directions. I don’t know if you want to speak to that a little bit?
Ifra: My favorite thing whenever anyone mentions identity is one of my favorite authors, Mohammad Hanif, once wrote an article, in which he said he’s moving back to Pakistan after living for ten years in the UK. He had a line in that article about how identity is just a word invented to give PhD students endless numbers of thesis topics. I really love that. It’s true. You remember this, back when I was in the States, I used to wrestle a lot with what the national identity was, with what I identify with the most, culturally or what. Just sort of feeling like I’m sort of cheating on my own sort of cultural background. I suppose, the older I’ve grown/the more places I’ve lived in/now having lived here for a longer time…at that time, I was probably just feeling nostalgia and just missing home, but didn’t want to word it so simply maybe. The older I grow, the more I’m like, “Why does it have to be confined to where you’re from or where you’re living?” I feel very much like your personality does kind of change with your geography. I don’t know if you agree with me. You know there’s that thing of “Where ever you go, there you are”. I don’t think so. I think it very much changes to where you are.
Liz: What would be an example?
Ifra: When I was in London, I feel like I was much more politically inclined and very much more activist-y, because I feel the culture there is much more activist-y. You go on the tube and you see all these signs for “help this cause” and “help that cause” and you’re more likely to run into this protest or that protest. I feel like it’s very “London Calling”, the Sex Pistols.
Liz: The Clash.
Ifra: Sure, there’s just more of that sort of vibe. I feel like that came out a lot more when I was there. It might also have to do with the fact that I went to a very activist-y grad school. When I was in New York, I feel like I was very into doing fifty things at the same time. I wanted to be involved in everything, going to everything, and doing all the things, being social, and doing brunch. I just wanted to do brunch a lot. Now I’m here, and I just want to lie around and be with my cats. The work/life culture here is extremely relaxed and hence, I’m extremely relaxed. I stroll into work by 10:15 and leave by 4:30 sometimes. Whereas in New York, it felt like…
Liz: Get there early, go home late.
Ifra: Yeah, like take on extra work. That’s just what it means to be a good worker. I feel like these traits are very much influenced by the culture that surrounds you at the time.
Liz: Do any of them conflict with each other? Do you find yourself fighting against a personality [trait] that’s been cultivated?
Ifra: Yes, like right now, I mentioned that I’ve become a much more laid back and lazier person. That really conflicts with the previous version of myself that was much more active and doing things. I don’t like that at all. I don’t see myself living here permanently. I just feel like you don’t get a lot done over here. I hope people don’t hear this and hate on me for it, but that’s been my experience here. Also the thing is over here, as a woman, I can either live with my parents or with a husband. My parents, obviously, are protective, and it’s for the right reasons. I’m very protective of my cats, so I can understand maybe a fraction of where their protection comes from. But things like, the grocery store. I have to drive there, maybe a minute long drive, but my mom doesn’t like me going alone because she says people are over there. That’s ridiculous, I should be able to go to the store by myself. I can’t just go outside and take a walk if I want to, because “girl by herself”. It’s these sorts of things that conflict with… I just want to get involved in stuff, but you can’t. Maybe if it wasn’t for the parental thing, I might have been able to. I just feel like people’s priorities are completely different over here.
Liz: Is it unsafe to wander around as a woman, by yourself?
Ifra: It’s safer than it would be in Karachi, for sure. But you would get stared at, and all of that. But, I don’t know, man. It should be okay, but it just bothers people so much in this house, that I don’t want to cause the conflict. It’s fine. You’ve lived in a bunch of different places, as well. Would you feel like what I’m saying rings true?
Liz: Yeah. I mean, maybe not quite as dramatically, just because the places that I’ve lived have primarily been, I would say, Western civilization sort of things. Different places in the US.
Ifra: Right, but you were in South Africa.
Liz: I was in South Africa, but I was only there for a month and a half. And that was a huge disconnect between the sort of cultures that I had grown up with. There was absolutely that sort of feeling of a discord. But I would say, even between living at home in sort of small town America versus living in New York City, that disconnect makes me very uncomfortable. Even when I go home still, it takes me a little bit to adjust, even though it’s only a two hour drive. It still takes me a moment to adjust to the culture and the difference in my lifestyle. Maybe some of that is just independence of living on my own versus living at my parents’ place. I don’t know how much of that personality change is due to the people you’re surrounded by.
On London and the Beatles
Ifra: It must be, right? People speak to a little bit of who you are. I mean, I don’t miss the weather in London. If you got one day of sun, people would be posting pictures of it, being excited about it. The sun is here! And it was only ever out for like two or three hours and then it was gray again.
Liz: That comedian, Jon Richardson, had a bit about that where there was one day of sun and everybody took off work, and was outside, drinking like it was the end of the world.
Ifra: Yeah, remember when you were visiting, and we went to Winter Wonderland. It was going to be this great thing, and it was just raining.
Liz: It was still fun, though. That was a wonderful trip. It was really cool. We got a chance to see all the touristy things, I did ask you to do all the touristy things. It was great. We stalked David Cameron a little bit. I just wanted to see his house! I just wanted to see 10 Downing Street.
Ifra: We went to Abbey Road, and it was extremely underwhelming.
Liz: It’s very anticlimactic.
Ifra: It’s just a crossing. There was one family there, doing the Beatles walk sort of photo.
Liz: It’s also not exactly the safest thing to do. People kind of whip around that corner in their car.
Ifra: It was night too. That’s how I felt about Strawberry Field in Central Park. It’s just a thing in the ground.
Liz: It really is. It’s just some flowers and stuff. In a peace sign pattern in the middle of the park. You can maybe find it?
Ifra: There are signs, like “Strawberry Fields This Way!”, then you follow them, and it’s just a thing. I think everyone agrees that the Beatles might have been overrated, what do you think?
Liz: How dare you. You shut your mouth. You think you’re going to get heat for the Donald Trump stuff? Listen to what you just said about the Beatles. That was a sacred cow, you can’t do anything there.
Ifra: I take it back, I take it back.
On Being Bilingual
Liz: You were talking about the different identities, even though they’re not really different identities.
Ifra: No, it’s more like different traits are emphasized in different cities.
Liz: Now, you’re also multilingual, or bilingual?
Ifra: Yeah, bilingual. So Urdu is my mother tongue and English is my colonizer’s language.
Liz: Well played.
Ifra: Sadly, my English is much better than my Urdu, because that’s how they get into your head.
Liz: So you think in English? Or switch back and forth?
Ifra: When I’m here, actually, I think in Urdu. It’s so funny, when I’m talking to my cats, when I’m on my own, it’s in Urdu. But, whenever Ash is on Skype, I talk to them in English, and halfway through, I realize I’m speaking to them in English. I guess the language I think in is just surrounded by the language I’m around.
Liz: Do you find that if you’re thinking in one language or the other…if you’re thinking in Urdu, versus when you’re thinking in English, do you find that certain personality traits are more emphasized by [the language]? Because when you’re speaking Urdu, you’re surrounded by your family or you’re surrounded by folks in Islamabad or other parts of Pakistan? Or when you’re speaking English, also surrounded by folks in Pakistan, but also pulling in London and the US?
Ifra: Right, right. I guess when I’m thinking in Urdu, it’s pretty much only when I’m around my family, so naturally, it’s going to be a more familial way of thinking. Naturally, feels more like childhood. I’ll feel more naturally like showing deference to my elders and that sort of cultural stuff. Whereas, if I’m thinking in English, it’s much more spirited, almost. It’s much more thinking towards the future. It’s much more thinking “This is what I want to do with my life and these are the things that I find wrong.” I guess, because I know how to express myself better in English, so I’m able to explain my feelings much more.
Liz: So it’s almost more, and I say this without the negative connotation behind it, it’s almost self-centered. You know what I mean? It’s centered in yourself. And I don’t mean self-centered as in flipping your hair and being a jerk, I mean in terms of your focus.
Ifra: Like individualism and all that. Yeah, maybe. Could be. Because it’s definitely like, these are the things I want. When I’m here, I spend the majority of my time planning for the future, and I don’t see myself living in an Urdu speaking country, so I tend to be more English-y about it. Whereas, if I’m thinking in Urdu, it’s more to do with what’s happening here, what’s happening in the house. I feel like I’m not articulating that well. I feel like with Urdu, the most feeling that I associate it with is homeliness, whereas English is just, sort of, life.
Liz: More of that global perspective. I’m getting a visual picture in my head of… you know when they do montages of cars racing past each other, and people walking quickly past each other on the street… the ant farm of life. I might be off base.
Ifra: I don’t know, it’s definitely an interesting question. I’m sure there’s been studies done on this subject, of what is more emphasized, depending on what language you’re thinking in.
Liz: I’m not bilingual, so I get fascinated by it. I remember asking a friend of mine in middle school. His native language was Spanish and his second language was English. So I asked him what language he would think in, and he said something about switching back and forth throughout the day, which I thought was the coolest thing.
Ifra: The thing with Spanish, too, is that there is so much Spanish in America. It’s not like you only hear it at home or only in one place. It would be much more likely for him to switch back and forth. It concerns me that in the future, I want my progeny to be able to speak this language perfectly, but that’s kind of hard. My nephews and nieces, the ones who aren’t growing up in Pakistan, they just don’t want to speak Urdu ever. They just find it so tedious.
Liz: Because they have no need to in their daily life?
Ifra: Yeah, and they only hear it at home. The parents too. If your kid is talking to you in English, you just automatically respond to them in the language they’re speaking to you. It’s just a hard thing to enforce. But I would be really sad if my kids didn’t speak Urdu.
Liz: I’m sure you’ll make sure that they speak Urdu. Do you write in Urdu, as well?
Liz: You always write in English?
Ifra: Yeah, Urdu’s a complicated language. I did my dissertation on Urdu short story fiction. That was difficult. In my head, when I came up with the idea, I was like, “Oh my god, it’s going to be so…” And then I got to reading the books and I was like, “Oh god, I cannot do this. What have I signed myself up for?”
Liz: What was your argument for your thesis?
Ifra: Oh gosh, I don’t remember. It was this one anthology that I focused on. I honestly didn’t put as much effort into my dissertation as I should have, because I spent that summer trying harder to find a job that would let me stay in the UK. So that didn’t work out, unfortunately. I had started an internship and was working super hard at it and not giving as much time to the dissertation as I should have.
Liz: That internship was with a group that was fighting for…
Ifra: It was a women’s rights group, and it was concerned with Muslim contexts. Yes, Muslim countries, but sometimes Muslim communities living in Western countries. That’s sort of a new angle that they’re going for. But when I was there, it was more like the countries themselves. It’s a super interesting organization, but what I learned from that, is that funding for women’s organizations has really sort of fallen. Another thing that was really interesting was that the older feminists, the older generation of feminists, have a lot of anger towards the current generation of women, because before all this Trump stuff happened, let’s say under the Obama times, you had a lot of people cringing from the word feminism. Sort of shying away from it. You’d hear people say, “I don’t need to call myself a feminist, I just think there should be equality.” I think not fully understanding what the word means.
Liz: Feminism was synonymous with the pejorative term, Feminazi, right?
Ifra: Exactly. So the older women were sort of saying, “You don’t know what the fuck we fought for, to get you where you are today. How dare you.” I always found that really interesting, but in the wake of all this anti-abortion stuff that Trump has done, I’m getting a glimpse of what exactly they were up against back then. Man, how could anyone in our times say they don’t need to be a feminist?
Liz: There does seems to be a global trend towards feminism, just based on some of the news stories that I’ve heard of women in Muslim countries, as well as in the US and the UK. But it looks a little bit different, I think, maybe, in Pakistan than it does in the US. Do you see a lot of those movements?
Ifra: I wouldn’t call them movements, but there is a lot of discontent amongst the educated women here against the double standards. The problem is there just isn’t as much political will over here as there is in America, for example. My dad was saying today that the coolest thing about America is when they’re unhappy with a recent ruling, they just take to the streets. They just immediately take to the streets. But, you have the discontent, but not on the same level as over there, I would say. You still have a lot of people who are okay with the usual: you do your education, then you wait for a suitor family to come find you really attractive. You have to be tall, and you have to be really fair, light-skinned. There’s an inordinate amount of emphasis placed on these two things. And then you just sort of get married. Then again, equally, there are also a lot of people saying, “Fuck that noise.” … There’s an interesting upturn in feminism here, surely. I think I might not be the best person to talk to about this, because I’m not very social, so I don’t have as much interaction with people as someone else might. For sure, in my generation, there’s also a lot more, “I don’t want to do this, this traditional BS.” But as I said, the people I know, are very privileged, very much so, all studied abroad and all of that.
Liz: So there’s some room for choice.
Ifra: Yeah, and exposure. And all this higher education. For local women…there’s definitely some of that, “I want to stand on my own two feet. I want to do my own thing.”…But the norm, I feel, is to get married and make your in-laws happy. It depends who you ask, to be honest.
Liz: Now, the future for you. You are a writer and would like to continue writing and being published and being wonderful. I’m totally switching gears to talk about your writing right now. You were nominated for the Pushcart Prize, for your story, The Ostrich Effect. Can you give the premise for the folks at home?
Ifra: This story, which by the way, is published in the anthology, Songs of My Selfie, available at bookstores near you. This whole anthology, the theme was to…I hate the word millennial at this point. But this anthology was to get writers to write stories about their experience of what it means to be a 20-something right now, and all the difficulties that people face. Mine was not so much about a specific thing that we face. I wrote it two or three years ago. I wrote it right after I graduated from F&M, so I had just left college. You know how extremely awful that time is, because you just don’t know what the hell to do with your life, man.
Liz: Thank god you were there.
Ifra: Yeah, your life is so structured in college, and then you leave, and you’re like, “Well, what do I do now?” Unless you took a much more specialized path, like medicine. But for us, liberal arts fools… So that story, the premise was that the main character was super scared of all of these difficult qestuions and all this being faced with sudden adulthood. And then, they just decide to go live on the subway, for a year, until all of this danger overhead has passed. The Ostrich Effect, like how the ostrich buries its head in the sand, and the danger sort of disappears. It was turning that feeling into an actual image, and trying to explain just how scary it can be and how much you just don’t want to face it.
Liz: Do you find, when you’re writing, you pull a lot from the current feeling you’re having? Or is more of it fiction?
Ifra: I, for sure, feel like it’s current feelings. Because sometimes, I’ll write a draft and I’ll leave it midway. But then, I’ll come back to it; and if enough time has passed, then I can’t finish it, because I no longer remember what I was feeling back then. Which is not the ideal way to write, at all. I need to tame this beast of creativity. It’s more like, this is something I really want to express. How do I do it? Then, I just sort of get to it. That said, I haven’t written anything in a very long time. I seem to have lost the spark for a while, but I’m hopeful it’ll come back.
Liz: What do you usually do with writer’s block?
Ifra: I think the best thing to do is just read as much as you can. Read anything you can grab hold of. Read the sort of writers whose writing you really like, like the actual way they craft their sentences. You can read a really beautiful sentence, and that can sort of spark off your brain. I really like books that explore feelings, more than plot. I really enjoy when they delve into one specific thing and express it extremely beautifully. The book I’m thinking of right now, it’s called Open City by Teju Cole. I read it while I was in London, and it was just such a good book. I think it was his first book or something, and I was just like, “Fuck you! This is your first book, and you’re this good? Who are you?”
Liz: Are there sentences that come to mind? A beautifully crafted sentence?
Ifra: There is one, I even wrote it in my journal. I don’t remember it word for word, but it was something about: I think he’s in France, he’s visiting some place. He gets into conversation with this taxi driver, and the taxi driver says something that would be considered racist in America. Then he goes into a thing about how it would be unfair to place his educational understanding of the way race works onto this man, who grew up with completely different understandings of things. It was really really excellently expressed. My parents, they’re Pakistani, they’ve never lived anywhere else, they might say things that wouldbe considered very racist in America, but they’re not saying it because they’re bad people. They just don’t know.
Liz: It’s just a different culture. Even generationally, we forgive things that our 85 to 95 year old grandparents say, because it was a different time they grew up in. My mom found a letter that she had written home from camp, when she was a kid. She wentto one of those overnight camps, wrote home something, just in passing, about a little black girl who was at the camp with her. Nothing bad, just that it was an anomaly that this girl was there, and called her a negro, which is not a word that my mother uses. But, when she was six or seven, that was a word that was being bandied about. My mom showed me this letter, “See how times have changed? Look how different things are now.”
Ifra: Virginia Wolff, who’s one of my absolute favorite writers, sometimes in her books, she’ll say “Oh, I went to Mrs. So-and-So’s house, and her darky was serving tea” or whatever. She uses that word. I think it was Mrs. Dalloway or Through the Lighthouse, she says “He’s fighting the war in India. He’s doing such a service in educating those brutes, the natives.”
Liz: That was the entirety of Heart of Darkness. It’s insane, but we forgive some of these things because of the passage of time. But we should not accept it from the future.
Ifra: Or the present.