Midwestern Gothic staffer Kelly Nhan talked with author Naeem Murr about the interaction of racial identity and place, derelict houses, being haunted by your characters, and more.
Kelly Nhan: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Naeem Murr: Though I was born and brought up in London, with a few years spent as a child in Beirut, I’ve lived for extended periods in various parts of the Midwest—Michigan, Missouri, and Illinois. I’ve been living in Chicago for close to ten years now.
KN: Your most recent novel, The Perfect Man, is set, in part, in the small town of Pisgah, Missouri, where the protagonist, Rajiv, finds himself by way of London in the 1950s. How does racial/national/ethnic identity interact with place, specifically the small town setting, in your work?
NM: Rajiv Travers is a mixed-race but dark-skinned Indian boy who spent part of his infancy in India before being shipped off to unwelcoming British relatives in London. There he’s subject to particular racial tensions in regard to immigrants from the sub-continent—being called a Paki and so on. He then ends up in a small Midwestern town in which he becomes a series of confusing signifiers. While he’s dark-skinned, which suggests—negatively—African-American to some of Pisgah’s inhabitants, he has a plummy English accent, which brings with it other preconceptions. Since there’s only one of him, he becomes something of a curiosity rather than a threat, though the color of his skin still excludes him from such things as joining the school’s sports teams. Some characters, such as Nora, see him as a romantic figure, connected to the Old World, garden parties, and maharajas. Others see him as a “little nigger.” The novel has an unusual form. Many who read it think of Rajiv as its protagonist, which is reasonable given his place in the book, but we never enter Rajiv’s point-of-view until the final two chapters. (Indeed the prominent and significant characters of the book are two women, Ruth and Annie.) Until those last two chapters, Rajiv exists as a kind of trickster figure, onto which all the people of the town project different conceptions. All this interpretive confusion comes to a head, of course, when one of the girls in the town develops an attraction for him.
While I was writing the novel, it never occurred to me how close Rajiv’s experience was to my own. My father, who died when I was very young, was Lebanese-Palestinian, my mother Irish. I grew up in London, maintaining contact with both my Lebanese and Irish families, two cultures that are as surprisingly similar to one another as they are distant from the British culture. In order to save my brother and I from the kind of racism that in England was focused on the Irish (the English tell jokes about dumb Paddies) my mother taught us to speak with something of an upper-middle class English accent. However, we lived in a big working-class block of flats, which meant that this synthetic posh accent made us outsiders there. So I grew up in a world and culture that in some ways was alien, even inimical to me. Not Lebanese, not Irish, not English, neither upper nor lower class (and in England class is everything), I was without an identity—an outsider, an imposter. The massive block of flats in which I grew up was a place in which children were beneath notice and were constantly in and out of people’s homes, often witnessing adult interactions that would today be considered highly inappropriate. It was a fenestrated world, and a world to which I was highly sensitized, since I was trying to understand what it was to be a part of it—to be human. It was only after I’d finished The Perfect Man that I realized how faithfully the world I had grown up in had been refracted through a place I’d never known—this small town in Missouri in the 1950s. Pisgah, like the block of flats in which I grew up, in which everyone knew everyone else’s business, was full of people living hard-scrabble lives, full of strong women and bad fathers. Rajiv, in this place, is the skin he’s in and the accent with which he speaks.
KN: What was your inspiration behind The Perfect Man? Considering how centered the novel is in its respective time period and geographical place(s), did you do research while writing?
NM: The answer to that is place. I was living in Columbia, Missouri, and was taken by that landscape, particularly the flood plains and the bluffs over the river. When I explored the countryside I’d often come across derelict houses, almost swallowed up by the woods, a few of them looking as if their inhabitants had been subject to some kind of rapture, their possessions—crockery, shoes, and children’s toys—still scattered about. For me, as I think is true for many writers, there is an urge to re-populate the past. It was, in part, this urge that brought the world of Pisgah, Missouri to life in me. Once the place had established itself in my imagination, the people—the characters—followed, one after another, to populate it: Annie, Ruth, Nora, Alvin, Lewis, all, so to speak, walking out of the river, and woods, and flood plains toward me. Rajiv, the trickster emerged then as the spine and focus of the book, coming to meet them, inaugurating that ancient narrative of the stranger who comes to town.
Of course I did a great deal of research, both into the time period and into voice. The most important thing is for people to sound as if they’re from that place and time. I don’t believe in excessive research. In the end the world one creates as a writer is an imagined one, with its own dream life and dream coherence. You need to do enough so that readers are not thrown out of the book, but too much research, in my experience, weighs a book down, and can even kill it (I think of George Eliot’s Romola.)
KN: The Perfect Man tracks the coming-of-age of the young Rajiv. How did you prep yourself for writing in this voice?
NM: For me, living in the lives and voices of others is what it is to be a fiction writer. It’s often argued that there’s a divide here (a false one, like most such divides) between writers. On the one side lies someone like Joyce Carol Oates, who speaks of being possessed by her characters, and missing them after the novel is done; on the other side is someone like Nabokov, who asserts total control. It’s easy to criticize or even mock both, the medium versus the ventriloquist. This is a spectrum, and each writer lies at some wavering point along it. One controls even as one is controlled, is inhabited, haunted by one’s characters, even as one inhabits and haunts them—they dream of you as you dream of them. At the heart of every work of fiction is a sacred trilogy: reader, writer, character. A work comes to life by the balanced presence and input of these three, separate but indivisible, each filling the book with his or her life.
KN: Who are some writers who have influenced your own work?
NM: This is always a tough question for any writer to answer, since there are so many. On some level it can also be true that engaging deeply with the art and craft of writing can make a conventional reading experience—in which one loses oneself in a book—difficult, if not impossible. There is some truth in claiming that I was probably most deeply touched—in terms of my reading experience—by the books I read as a child. It’s also true that what I’m looking for in any particular work of fiction is often contingent on particular interests and obsessions that have grown out of whatever project I’m currently engaged with, including the specific elements of craft I’m looking to develop. This means that a book that was once important to me may not engage me in the same way (though it will perhaps again at some point in the future). In my university years, when I was studying, unhappily, to be an engineer, I read a lot of European writers, especially the French existentialist writers—Gide, Camus, Sartre, with Gide’s The Counterfeiters, being one of the most memorable of these books. Later I devoured the Russians, loving Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Babel, and Sholokhov, learning a great deal in particular from Tolstoy in regard to how to bring characters to life on the page, how to write a shapely chapter, and how to structure a long book with multiple significant characters. I loved George Eliot, particularly Middlemarch. Here is a random sample of books I return to: The Transit of Venus, Shirley Hazzard; Because They Wanted to, Mary Gaitskill; Absalom, Absalom! William Faulkner; To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf; Bleak House, Charles Dickens; The Patrick Melrose Novels, Edward St. Aubyn; The Coast of Chicago, Stuart Dybek, Island, Alistair McLeod; Going to Meet the Man, James Baldwin.
KN: Having lived throughout the Midwest, what do you think characterizes the region?
NM: Hard work and modesty.
KN: Much of your work, namely The Perfect Man and The Boy, has been described as literary thrillers. From where do you get inspiration for such dark, haunting themes?
NM: I found childhood very difficult. I was, I suppose, a sensitive child who saw, given the world in which I grew up, a great deal of the dark side of human life. For example, though I grew up without a father, I rarely envied any one of my friends his or her father. These were men who drank, who were emotionally or physically violent, and who often took up all the air in their homes. The behavior of these men was a function of being poor and powerless, of course, and on some level I understood that also. My experience of these men emerges in the malevolent organism of that group of men led by Bennet in The Perfect Man, and in general that difficult experience of childhood is inevitably going to be a part of my work. However, I also hope that I have developed as a writer. The Perfect Man is more balanced in regard to light and darkness than The Boy—which is not to disparage The Boy, which I’m proud of, and which reflects in a compelling way what was an extremely difficult period in my life at the time I wrote it. But one should hope and expect as a writer that one’s work will develop and expand in regard not only to its ambition, but also to its emotional scope. The last chapters of The Perfect Man, though still expressing an awareness of the darkness ever present in the hearts even of the best of us, ultimately constitute a positive ending, in which childhood, that deeply affecting dream that lingers throughout our lives, and from which some never fully wake, has been woken from—at least by Rajiv and Annie. In part the book expresses what is in me a fundamental belief that people need to grow up; and that people can.
KN: What’s next for you?
NM: I’ve been working back and forth between two long novels for the past decade, both of which are close to being done.
The first, Welcome to the Hotel of Strangers, covers the life, birth to death, of Ibrahim “Redbeard,” who was born in Haifa in what was then Palestine in 1938, and who is relating his story as a seventy-year-old in America in 2008. His is a rags-to-riches story, from penniless refugee to owner of a multinational corporation. As with so many of my characters—the eponymous boy, with his numerous aliases in The Boy, the antic and mysterious Amos Radcliffe in The Genius of the Sea, and Rajiv in The Perfect Man—Ibrahim is an elusive character, upon whom everyone projects his or her own notions in regard to his identity. At one stage he’s arrested, imprisoned, and tortured for being an Israeli spy in Algeria; at another he’s severely pressured to fund Arab militias fighting Israel. There’s something in him that refuses to be fixed in terms of the cultural, religious, and national identities that have destroyed his world.
For all this, much of the novel is really a family saga, covering Ibrahim’s childhood in Haifa and Lebanon, and the struggle of his family and friends after their exile from Israel; and later, and in particular, focusing on his relationship with his only child, his daughter Aisha, who is brought up in Detroit, but becomes politically radicalized. It is also, as with most of my novels (and here perhaps is the influence of those early children’s books), an adventure story, a journey in which Ibrahim encounters many gods and monsters.
The second, The Rabbit Game, is set in contemporary Chicago. The book opens with three murders that have taken place in Chicago just weeks before the arrival in that city of Chase Halliwell, an Englishman who has just inherited his deceased father’s estate. Chase hardly knew his father, who went by numerous aliases, and discovers that this man has been living in Chicago as him—as Chase Halliwell. This enables Chase to essentially step into his father’s life. He quickly becomes involved in the solving of these three murders, which leads him into the horrors of the Vietnam War, into the underworld of cyber-forgery, and into the lives of the wealthy glitterati of Chicago. Ultimately these mysteries are a kind of hall of mirrors for Chase, reflecting his own troubled life back to him, and offering him the opportunity for transformation and redemption.
Naeem Murrʼs first novel, The Boy, was a New York Times Notable Book. Another novel, The Genius of the Sea, was published in 2003. His latest, The Perfect Man, was awarded The Commonwealth Writersʼ Prize for the Best Book of Europe and South Asia, and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. His work has been translated into eight languages. He has received many awards for his writing, most recently a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Pen Beyond Margins Award. He has been a writer-in-residence at the University of Missouri, Western Michigan, and Northwestern University, among others. Born and brought up in London, he has lived in America since his early twenties, and currently resides in Chicago.