Midwestern Gothic staffer Meghan Chou talked with author Ian Bassingthwaighte about his book Live From Cairo, perspectives on the refugee crisis, the psychological toll of his work, and more.
Meghan Chou: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Ian Bassingthwaighte: I was born in Minnesota and lived for a few years in Iowa, but moved to the West with my family at such a young age that I don’t have substantial memories of either state. Just vignettes. Blurry, almost dream-like recollections about a neighbor, a yard, a street. I didn’t come back to the region for more than twenty years, after I was fortunate enough to have been accepted into the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. This was in 2013. I spent the next two years in Ann Arbor and another two in Ypsilanti. Though my novel isn’t, as the title makes clear, set in the Midwest, much of it was written there. In my apartment, in the library, in the Rackham Building. This shows in small, but important ways. One of my characters is from Dearborn, for example. That character’s mother fled Iraq for Michigan, and ended up working in the library at Wayne State. These choices weren’t exactly conscious; real life just had a way of leaking into my work.
MC: Live From Cairo takes place in 2011 after the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak as Egypt erupts into riots. We follow the struggles of Dalia, an Iraqi refugee seeking asylum in the United States with the hopes of joining her husband in Boston. Live From Cairo unveils the ironies of wartime and bureaucracy in the modern Middle East just as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 exposed the logical fallacies during World War II. How were you inspired by Catch-22 and what ironies particular to the conflict in the Middle East, and Cairo at the time, did you want to bring attention to?
IB: One of the many quotes from Catch-22 that I love: “The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn’t earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce. Major Major’s father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa.” I love it because it reminds me how ill-equipped government and bureaucracy tends to be in A.) identifying the problem and B.) solving it. Take, for example, the refugee crisis. Western countries, which have been starting or exacerbating conflicts in the Middle East for generations, collectively bemoan the violence in the region, pass it off as a religious issue, and all but shut their borders when refugees, who’ve fled their home countries not by choice but by necessity, show up at the figurative door in search of respite. “Go away!” is the rallying cry of the Western world. “Keep your problems to yourself!” It’s absurd. We make refugees, then punish them for existing. It would be worth all the years it took to write this book if even one person who couldn’t see that before reading was thereafter able to.
MC: Hana, a resettlement officer for the United Nations Refugee Agency, and Charlie, a lawyer who works for the Refugee Relief Project, are two characters from very different backgrounds who have a large influence on Dalia’s fate. Both want to help refugees, but since only a limited number of cases can have a good outcome, the decision mostly rests on the power of the individual’s story. How do Hana’s and Charlie’s attitudes toward the refugee crisis change after they meet Dalia and hear her story?
IB: I can’t say too much about that without ruining the plot of the book. What I can say: even stubborn minds will change under the right circumstances. Arriving at those circumstances is largely what this book is about.
MC: Live From Cairo has a diverse cast of characters, including the aforementioned Dalia, Hana, and Charlie, as well as Aos — a protester in Tahrir Square, interpreter for refugees, and Charlie’s friend. How did you create distinct voices for these characters and what perspectives on the refugee crisis do each bring to the story?
IB: Writing believable characters is easier when you’ve born witness to people like them. That’s why I’m so thankful for my travels, for having worked in an office like Charlie’s, for having met, talked to, and befriended very real people who filled the roles likes the ones I’ve written. Lawyers, interns, translators, UNHCR employees, and so on. Having that abundant resource—thousands of memories derived from a powerful, if also painful experience—makes all the difference. There’s less burden on the imagination.
It’s interesting, too, that you ask about the different perspectives each character has on the refugee crisis. The book was designed with that question in mind. Omran, who was lucky enough to have been resettled, is nevertheless stuck in limbo. He’s waiting for his wife, who’s stuck in Egypt. Her lawyer, Charlie, is stuck trying to help them. The inadequacies of the system provide no room to move. Aos, Charlie’s only friend and translator, is stuck between a refugee crisis at work and a failed revolution in the streets literally surrounding the office. Hana, the UNHCR employee, is stuck between her desire to help and her inability. The rules make it impossible for her to act. Though these perspectives are different, they all share a common thread: an overwhelming sense of futility. No matter where you’re standing when you look at the resettlement system, you see a process that doesn’t work as it should. This brings us to the plot’s driving question: how far will the characters go to circumnavigate that broken system?
MC: In 2009, you served as a grantee of the Fulbright Program (an international exchange program dedicated to raising awareness of global issues). As a part of the program, you worked at a legal aid office in Egypt, helping refugees from Iraq, Sudan, and the Horn of Africa. How did your time in Egypt influence your portrayal and understanding of the struggles of refugees from the Middle East?
IB: More than just influencing my portrayal and understanding of the refugee crisis, it fundamentally changed my understanding of who refugees are. These are not people without hope, without humor, without light. These are people with lives in front of them. Futures, if we dare call them that. Characters who were cast in that role had to be round, had to be complicated. No empty shells. No victims who weren’t also something else. A father. A mother. A husband. A wife. An aspiring dancer. Something.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the psychological toll of the work. The New York Times cited the rate of clinical depression among aid workers at double that of American adults. Experience tells me the real number is higher. But I digress. The point I’m trying to make is this: the work never really left my body. Writing this novel has been one way of handling that. So the job was more than just an influence; it was also the impetus.
MC: In addition to writing, you have had photographs published in magazines such as National Geographic. One particular series features photos of Egypt and the Middle East. How did the process of framing the cities and landscapes affect your portrayal of Egypt in Live From Cairo?
IB: Photography is more than just a visual reference. At least, if you’re shooting the photos yourself. Then the ostensibly static images contain smells, sounds, tastes, feelings. They are keys to memories locked away by time. (This is where I admit how long it took me to write Live from Cairo—7 years.) I needed some way to keep Egypt with me after I left. Besides reading and reminiscing with friends, photography was all I had. I suppose, too, that photography affects how I see the world and, by extension, how I describe it. My eyes, and so my pen, are drawn to singular details that reflect the nature of some larger place. Why describe an entire kitchen when you can just describe ants crawling in the sugar bowl? The reader’s imagination will extrapolate the desired shabbiness.
MC: In the past, you have published mostly short stories and nonfiction, so Live From Cairo is your first full-length novel. What advice do you have for writers transitioning from short fiction to longer pieces?
IB: There’s a song I like by First Aid Kit in which they sing, “Now, so much I know that things just don’t grow if you don’t bless them with your patience.” I suggest every budding novelist take that line to heart.
MC: What’s next for you?
IB: I’ve taken a few tentative steps toward a second novel. I’m still interested in immigration, but with an eye toward the future: how borders might look, for example, in a post-apocalyptic environment. Anything else I say about it will almost certainly change. It’s just an idea at this point. A few dozen pages of chicken scratch.
Ian Bassingthwaigthe was a Fulbright Grantee in Egypt in 2009, where he worked in a legal aid office that served refugees from Iraq, Sudan, and the Horn of Africa. He has been honored with Hopwood Awards for both novel writing and short fiction. He was also named as a finalist for the Daniel Pearl Investigative Journalism Initiative. His work has appeared in Esquire, National Geographic, The Chicago Tribune, The Sun, Tin House, The Rumpus, and many other publications. Live from Cairo is his first novel.