This story in particular most pointedly reveals what are perhaps some of Mueenuddin’s thinly veiled criticisms of Pakistani social circles: Discussing where the future of Sohail and Helen’s relationship might lay, Sohail’s meddlesome mother says to Helen, “You would hate Pakistan. You’re not built for it, you’re too straight and you don’t put enough value on decorative, superficial things – and that’s the only way to get by there.”

We get perhaps another sense of Mueenuddin’s point of view in ‘About a Burning Girl,’ in which the story’s narrator, a judge, tells the reader: “I don’t believe in justice, am no longer consumed by a desire to be what in law school we called ‘a sword of the Lord’; nor do I pretend to have perfectly clean hands, so am not in a position to view the judicial system with anything except a degree of tolerance.”

Mueenuddin, as the son of a Pakistani father and an American mother, sees himself as both and neither nationalities at the same time, allowing himself a particular sense of observation that perhaps would have not been possible had he spent his whole life surrounded by throngs of Pakistan’s wealthy elite.

Said Mueenuddin in an interview with the Wall Street Journal: “There is no balancing my sense of identity. I’m always rolling back and forth along the spectrum, from Pakistani to American, depending on what I’m doing and where. I believe that this fluid identity is useful to me as a writer, because I’m always looking at myself and my surroundings from the outside.”

“I spent a lot of time observing the people around me – I observed how things worked, the crooked deals, the power-mongering, how people found ways to get around the law and transfer land in their own name,” said the author in an interview with Tehelka. “There aren’t many people who have the ability to write and who also get to see the things that I have – to live that kind of life over a period of time. I suppose that helped.”

Mueenuddin honed his craft for story telling living in the solitude of his father’s farm, writing letters to his friends and his girlfriend in America.

“I wrote hundreds of letters – there was no telephone, I had to travel to Lahore for that every week – and I kept carbon copies of all these letters; I still have them with me,” said Mueenuddin in the Tehelka interview. “They helped develop my sense of narrative. It was richer than diary writing, because the tone and focus of the letters changed depending on whom I was writing them to. If I wrote to my mother, I would downplay the danger. If I wrote to my American girlfriend, I would make the place seem really attractive, to entice her to come across and meet me. It added up to a construction of different narratives.”

Mueenuddin’s Pakistan is a Pakistan in which everyone is corrupt, and no one can win. Lower class women successfully sleep their way up, only to be kicked back down. In ‘Lily’, the title character is an unhappy party girl who resolves herself to change, only to eventually realize that she can’t. In ‘Provide, Provide’, a corrupt property manager of KK Harouni finds true love, only to abandon his love on his deathbed for the honor of his family.

But Mueenuddin does not see his work as overtly negative, explaining, “I strongly believe that one thing an artist is not allowed to do is to despair. We all have our own dark nights of the soul, but if you take bleakness and desperation far enough, you basically have nothing to say. Even if you look at someone like Kafka, whose work is seen as so pessimistic, within his darkness there is the lightness of humour – he’s very funny! There’s an affirmation present there. I don’t think unremitting negativity works.”

Perhaps then, it is the beauty of Mueenuddin’s words themselves that lighten the load of narratives in which the final outlook is usually bleak.

“The place seemed immense and empty,” he writes in ‘Lily’, “a huge bowl of rock, with the cool river running through it, the blue and white stripes of the two tributary rivers beginning to mingle, a confusion at the middle of the stream.”

Writing intimately – and at times lovingly – of his native land, Mueenuddin’s Pakistan is pure, blemished only by the people who inhabit it.

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About The Author

Special Blast Magazine Correspondent Kristen V Brown is a former New Yorker working as an editor at The Caravan magazine in New Delhi, India. She has previously written for the New York Daily News, amNew York, Newsday and Curve magazine.

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