Skin Deep meets Haris Durrani

Haris Durrani on writing assholes, complex Muslim characters and the theories that inspire his work

Haris Durrani is the author of Technologies of the Self, Jedi Night and Forty-two Reasons Your Girlfriend Works for FBI, CIA, NSA, ICE, S.H.I.E.L.D., Fringe Division, Men in Black, or Cylon Overloads. We met Haris at this year’s Bare Lit Festival for writers of colour and finally caught up with him for a much overdue interview. Here’s our conversation:


Skin Deep: What was the last film that you saw?

Haris Durrani: The Iranian film A Separation. It’s also my favourite film in recent memory. Every twist is painfully, inextricably linked to the preceding events and characters. The film reaches the perfect balance: unpredictable but not ridiculous, where each turn is unexpected but, in retrospect, cannot have gone down any other way. Fantastic dialogue. And despite being about family, love, trust, piety and law, I think it’s also fundamentally about class in a way many films aren’t.

SD: Your short story Jedi Night was featured in our recently released, sci-fi inspired issue, IMAGINING 2043. In keeping with that theme, what is your favourite sci-fi novel?

HD: I have too many favourites to single out, so instead I’ll tell you the most recent one I’ve added to my bottomless pit of favourites: Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed. A story I’d been meaning to enjoy for years, but for some reason I’d not yet gotten to it. I absolutely loved it. It became an inspiration for my novel Technologies of the Self, both for its cultural approach to mutants/superpowers and the provocative way it played with typically “oppressed” characters switching between positions of colonized and colonizer, a theme throughout Butler’s work. It felt like a more thoughtful rendition of X-Men, using the genealogy of African myth, in the context of colonialism.

SD: In a lot of ways your novel Technologies of the Self resists categorization and the imposition of genre. How would you describe your novel to someone who hasn’t read it? HD: I feel a good story is its own best description. Barring the necessities of marketing, sometimes I think the best way to approach this book, or any other, is with a blank slate. Hopefully people who like authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zadie Smith or Junot Díaz will like this, but generally I hope it appeals to “people who read eclectically.” That sounds like a broad category, but sadly I think it fits a small demographic. Readers have called Technologies “science fiction,” but I hope it doesn’t satisfy what we mean by “science.” Readers have also called it “fantasy,” but this suggests a removal from some “empirical” reality, a distance the book also aims to confuse. It’s been called a “diaspora” or “identity” story, but I think it is more about “ways of living” than “identity.” In writing the story, I aimed to subvert these expectations (at least for my own writing process, if not for the readers) by trying to cast such categories from my headspace. For me, this is ultimately a story about a young man and his uncle and family, and about their affections, piety and political action. It is also a superhero origin story, and not just metaphorically. Technologies is, I hope, “heterotopic”. Michel Foucault used the idea of heterotopia, a place or space that functions in non hegemonic conditions, in The Order of Things to describe a Borges story. He wrote that the story inspired The Order of Things because it made him laugh; it had “shattered all the landmarks” of his thought, and, thus, the modern categories of power that produced and conditioned his understanding of the world. Foucault was reticent to write about revolution and rarely wrote about heterotopias, but when he was involved in protests or revolutions (in Tunisia and Iran), he was also writing or thinking about heterotopias around the same time. I believe they were, to him, the closest thing to what he might call “revolutionary.” Jon Wilson postulated something to this effect at King’s College London’s “The Order of Things at 50” workshop. SD: The title of Technologies of the Self seems to be making an allusion to Foucault and his ideas on self-discipline. In the novel, however, we discover that the title is actually inspired by Al-Ghazali – a medieval Muslim theological, philosopher and mystic – who suggests that it is through the practice of prayer and recitation that the self is disciplined. Could you speak a little bit more about the inspiration behind the title? HD: The title was inspired by a phrase from Wael Hallaq’s The Impossible State, in which he describes Foucault as “a thoroughgoing Ghazalian.” Hallaq points to Al-Ghazali’s disciplinary technologies (prayer, dhikr, recitation, basic daily practices like cleansing or eating) as means of shaping the self to do good works in the world, a mirror to Foucault’s socio-political technologies (schools, hospitals, prisons, legal and economic order) that discipline the self to conform to the modern state. Foucault’s argument was that the modern state has shifted power from a medieval regime in which kings and lords enforced their power onto subordinates (“If you steal my bread, I’ll cut off your hand.”), to a more subtle and dehumanizing arrangement in which “the subject becomes the principle of his own subjugation,” as Foucault wrote in Discipline and Punish (a person is raised, schooled, conditioned to become an obedient citizen who wouldn’t steal bread in the first place). There’s an internal regulation, not merely external. As Peter Watts points out with respect to Fahrenheit 451, no tyrannical authority ordered people to burn books against their will; people wanted to burn books. This is in the vein of Fanon’s “black skin, white masks.” Foucault’s technologies are not merely executed and enforced by an external, hierarchical government, but operate internally as well. The political is personal. But the personal is also political. Just as Foucault’s state technologies shape the inner self, Al-Ghazali’s seemingly “internal” technologies (jihad al-nafs, the struggle of the self) do not operate isolated from social conditioning. Here, someone’s personal development and relationship with God operate in the same contested space as Foucault’s state technologies, an ambiguous space that transgresses any clear, empirical attempt to delineate inner self and outer reality. In Technologies, this tension manifests in almost every character. Prominently, in the protagonist’s decision to call himself Joe rather than his given name, Jihad. The demon that haunts “J” and his uncle is Santiago, the patron saint of Spain, who is revered in Latin American culture, yet was a symbol of the Spanish conquest of the New World that constituted the rape, pillage, and murder of the ancestors of these peoples. He was called “Santiago Matamoros/Matajudíos,” the Moor-Slayer/Jew-Slayer, during Isabella and Ferdinand’s Inquisition in Spain, and “Santiago Mataíndios,” the Indian-Slayer, when those monarchs sent Columbus to what we now know as the Dominican Republic. Also, I just loved the contradiction of Hallaq’s phrase. It felt almost playful. And what I had the most fun with in Technologies was playing with contradiction. All of what I’ve said sounds theoretical, but none of that theory is explicit in the text. The story itself is more an illustration or “case study” of these ideas playing out than an explanation of them. SD: You have what some might call a bit of an obsession with Talal Asad, a notable anthropologist and theorist on religion and postcolonialism. You even start your novel with a quote by him from his book Genealogies of Religion. What is it about his work that you find so fascinating? HD: Obsession would be putting it lightly. I find it difficult to take seriously any argument about colonialism, liberalism, modernity or secularism that has not acknowledged, if not Asad, at least his kinds of arguments. His word is not gospel, but I hear so many perspectives that would do well to acknowledge Asad in order to either distinguish their arguments from his or to disagree with him. What I find particularly refreshing about Asad is his determination to pierce through intellectual smoke. As he said in a recent interview, he is interested in questioning liberalism, secularism and modernity as instruments of power, precisely because the liberal, rational, secular-minded see themselves as conduits for the free flow of thought, mobility, action, and so on. This is a theme throughout his work: not necessarily polemicizing against modernity so much as pointing to its intrinsic inconsistencies and paradoxes, turning modernity’s rational claims back on themselves by unraveling their incoherence. Asad is interested in how power operates prior to, say, a rational public space or social constructions, yet manifests and continues by these means. At least that’s my personal reading. This notion of “something prior” is intriguing in his work and manifests in how he thinks about “embodied practice,” where faith is not merely about some disembodied “spirituality” (as Sufism is often diluted to today) or theological/philosophical/legal idea, principle or proof. This resonates with my understanding of faith as embodied and experiential. In that interview, Asad talks about how he was “struck” – in a way that reminds me of Foucault’s bewildered amusement upon reading Borges – by the way Al-Ghazali wrote about what Asad calls “embodied commitment.” Al-Ghazali writes: “Oh to have the faith of the old women of Nishapur!”, and Asad comments that “there is a kind of embodiment, a kind of being placed and knowing that one is placed without having to intellectualize or ‘reason’” that is important to a tradition. It’s relevant that Asad immediately follows up that remark in the interview by returning to his interest in rationality and intellectual categories as Foucauldian instruments of power. Asad adds: “But even the felt power of an intellectual argument may depend on something prior.” He references Jane Austen, Freud and Wittgenstein to refer to what he calls “suggestibility,” whose “presence determines whether and to what extent we will be persuaded.” I see the demon in Technologies as an embodiment, in the most Asadian sense of that term, of “suggestibility.” Specifically, I had in mind Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil” – that the Nazi war criminal Eichmann was “just following the rule of law” regardless of malicious intent – and her later admission that, perhaps, there really is some fundamental kind of evil prior to and manifesting the guise of rational and legal smoke. SD: If you were only allowed to pick one book by Talal Asad that you would like us to read, which one would it be? HD: Formations of the Secular, particularly for his chapters on minorities in Europe/the west, where he calls for the need to allow for multiple “ways of life” rather than “identities” (and for some interesting afterthoughts on posthumanism). This distinction between “identity” and “ways of life” is akin, I think, to Asad’s distinction, in that interview I quoted, between intellectual concepts – the social constructions of “Muslim,” “Latino,” “Desi” – that often facilitate state mechanisms through surveillance, border control, legal categories and social prejudice, and an “embodied” experience – being Muslim, Latino, Desi – that is not easily compartmentalized. Also Asad’s final chapter on the historical “transmutation” of shari‘a in Egypt during colonization from a broader framework to a diminished, legally-codified, private rule-making regime (and for a particularly biting footnote on why Sufism is about practice as much as, or more than, “spirituality”). SD: Your work grapples with some very relevant existential and political questions about being a Muslim American in a post 9/11 world. Given what’s at stake, in terms of answering these questions, you do a really good job of keeping things light. We see glimmers of humour in Technologies of the Self, but your short story “FORTY-TWO REASONS YOUR GIRLFRIEND WORKS FOR THE FBI, CIA, NSA, ICE, S.H.I.E.L.D., FRINGE DIVISION, MEN IN BLACK, OR CYLON OVERLORDS is outright hilarious. What was the thinking behind that particular story and, more broadly, what is the function of humour in your work? HD: “Forty-two Reasons,” a prequel to Technologies that shares the same protagonist, but is told in second person, is about a guy who dates a girl he thinks is so far out of his league (or who he likes so much), he’s convinced she must work for some clandestine federal agency. Or aliens… Certain people and situations in life are funny on their own terms. I don’t feel I have to “write humour” so much as I have to just translate what I see around me into a work of fiction. I think Kurt Vonnegut once said that he never intended to write humour; humor was just something that emerged from his observations. Experiences that are disturbing or confusing are often hilarious, and these experiences disturb and confuse precisely because they upset particular social or political norms. I believe this is at the heart of why Foucault laughed upon reading Borges. I think it’s hilarious how people of colour and Muslims – including myself – can become so paranoid about the security state, which is what “Forty-two Reasons” is about. But there’s truth to this paranoia, even if the protagonist is out of his mind. Because, really, is he? Or how a character, like Kareem in Technologies, can praise Al-Ghazali one moment and goad a friend about dating the next. How someone like the uncle in Technologies can impossibly survive so many trials through the experience of migration, yet never lose his machismo. Or a seemingly immortal time-travelling demon who’s terrified of dying. It’s important to keep stories light, particularly on these serious themes. At the same time, humour can point readers to raw, important questions, like “Poo-tee-weet?” in the final, dark, hilarious line of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. SD: Jihad, the protagonist of Technologies of the Self, is a sweet and confused kid, but the narrator ofFORTY-TWO REASONS YOUR GIRLFRIEND WORKS FOR THE FBI, CIA, NSA, ICE, S.H.I.E.L.D., FRINGE DIVISION, MEN IN BLACK, OR CYLON OVERLORDS, who is also called Jihad, is a bit of an asshole. It’s an incredibly refreshing viewpoint, the asshole, because mainstream depictions of Muslims either portray them as wholly “pious” or just another “terrorist”. Why do you find the cynical narrator, who is unafraid of being disliked and just tells things as they are, to be so effective? “Asshole” is precisely the word I had in mind. Thank you for noticing this. I’m often amused when people say J in Technologies is “thoughtful,” because, yes, he is – but he is also a version of the J from “Forty-two Reasons.” He is a quieter asshole. In “Forty-two Reasons,” the second person doesn’t so much point to the audience (although it certainly is intended to implicate the audience in some way), as much as it points to another, perhaps less virulent J, “the wuss” side of him as seen by the total asshole. In this sense, the “you” in “Forty-two Reasons” is the J in Technologies: another side of the coin, but still haunted by the asshole. As J admits, he is more like his crazy uncle than he or his friends or family realize. To answer your question: I don’t quite know why it’s effective. There’s a simple pleasure in just “telling things as they are,” but I think there is something else also. In the back of my mind, I did want to disrupt a particular dichotomy, although not so much between pious and terrorist representations. I think J is still pious, if flawed. He ends “Forty-two Reasons” by proclaiming the truth of the Qur’an, if flippantly. Part of why I wrote this character was because I’d hardly seen an “authentic” pious Muslim character. At least what felt “authentic” to my experiences and those of friends and family. Usually, the so-called “piety” of Muslim characters seemed proportional to the blindness of their ideology at best or to their militant tendencies at worst. More so, I wanted to subvert the “good Muslim”/”bad Muslim” tropes of which this was a part. Regardless, I tried to push this thinking aside and simply write a story that I felt was authentic to my experience and those around me, trusting that, in doing so, I would effectively accomplish my “agenda” in a more subversive way. I’m also attracted to cynical characters. Shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, which masterfully unwind the banality of evil men (or men who become evil), were strong influences on Technologies. As was the final scene of the film Enemy, which was an inspiration for the closing of the book, due to the film ending’s abrupt imagery and its dual interpretations as about both political dictatorship and sexuality. With “Forty-two Reasons,” some of that cynicism came from my desire to write against the seeming “objective” narrative of Othello, a depiction of an African Muslim I believe, like many such depictions, deserves harsher criticism, rather than deference to Shakespeare writing a “complicated story.” This emerges in more subtle ways in Technologies: The demon is Santiago, “Saint James,” the patron saint of Spain, from which Iago, “James,” is derived; Othello planned to kill Iago with the “sword of Spain,” much as the conquistador demon in Technologies wields a sword that reads “liberte equalite fraternite.” This is in the vein of Asad’s cynicism about liberalism, secularism and modernity. That intentional cynicism and irony gave birth to those references, although I don’t expect readers to necessarily pick up on them, or any of my philosophical ramblings. Lately I’ve found it hard to enjoy stories that aren’t cynical, in the sense that well-executed cynical or unreliable narrators – or an artist’s subliminal signaling about the “position” of the story relative to the audience – highlight the place of the reader, pointing the story back through the fourth wall without the audience realizing that’s what’s happening. This could be a byproduct of my paranoia. But it’s also subversive. This is not an insult to “simply told stories,” because I think even those, like the best Marvel films (although lately they’ve become “productions”), have that measured “wink,” that subtle awareness of what they are. This awareness opens the readers’ space for imagination, and with this, a space for (self) criticism. It makes readers consider, in the back of their minds, why a story is being told, and, perhaps, why they are reading. What is the narrator’s motive? What is the readers’ motive? Their “something prior,” in Asad’s words? For example, in Technologies, why does J neglect to mention his name until about halfway through the book? Junot Díaz, whose character Yunior is a brilliantly-realized unreliable narrator, is a strong influence. I recall a conversation at The Muslim Protagonist literary symposium at Columbia University in 2014 with Michael Muhammad Knight and Sahar Ullah, in which we talked about the need for Muslim men to write about misogyny in the spirit of Diaz’s work. I had a moment somewhere in the middle of revising both “Forty-two Reasons” and Technologies (they were written separately) when I questioned whether I should “improve” the representation of women in the narrative. But in the end I didn’t feel that was a thing to be “fixed.” It would seem contrived and out of character for J, because ultimately both stories are filtered by J’s perspective. The stories are how he represents women. The limits of the male gaze. But I think a careful reader can detect in both stories moments where what J (or his uncle) understands does not match with what he sees. We get hints of this in the essential role his mother and aunts play as narrators, in his grandmother’s reasons for “disciplining” her children, in the dissonance between J’s romantic interests’ dialogue or gestures and his interpretations, in the character Veronica’s decision to reject her complacency to the demon. There’s some explicit imagery also, which I will leave readers to discover. In “Forty-two Reasons,” there’s a malicious, post-break-up, almost self-righteous anger that clouds his cynicism. In Technologies, there’s more a sense of naivete than malice (which does not necessarily make it any better) that filters his narrative and, initially, makes him cynical of the demon. I think J begins to realize this toward the end of Technologies when he wonders whether he is now realizing “what I saw or was not prepared to see” and wonders similarly about his uncle’s stories: “Is he now realizing what he refused to remember? I am too afraid to ask.” I think the secular, modern mind would cast cynicism upon the existence of the demon, as has been the case for J throughout the book, but here he’s become cynical of that cynicism. This is similar to Asad’s cynicism about the “pure skepticism” of rational, secular inquiry, or about academics who soften the blow that colonialism struck by explaining away “the west” as a social construct. “The west,” Asad wrote in Genealogies of Religion, “is more than a mere Hegelian myth.” Here, the demon’s existence is, to the cynic, mythological. Meanwhile, although J is “awakening,” shedding his cynicism about the demon, he is timid about pushing further. There’s a reason, despite the depth of his prayer in that last chapter, he doesn’t call his ex. By the end, he finally seems to muster the courage to confront his problems. But it’s not yet clear. So far, he seems to have turned the same logic of objectification he’s projected around him onto himself (his “Dominican ass,” his beard, his receding hair, his “cro-magnon” bone structure, his malformed ear, and his lack of self-description on much else). This is where an involuntary question of “embodied practice” bothers him. His body and his historical lineage (cultural, racial, religious, political) are important to him, but to what extent are these externalities? “Identities,” but not ways of life? These questions apply similarly to his relationships: romantic, familial, technological. His ex may have meant more to him than “flesh,” but flesh is somehow significant to him, as it was in his playful wrestling with his father, the way his mother scratched his hands as a child, his injury from his high school robot, his Dominican ass, or the final scene (I won’t spoil it!). While “Forty-two Reasons” sort of rages without pause, in Technologies, I felt the tension in J’s uncertainty when writing almost every scene. Indeed, J’s “awakening” is both metaphysical and physical, intellectual and embodied, and these categories are not easily distinguished for J. The question looms: Where, if anywhere, does the demon fall on this spectrum? Anyhow, I have meandered from your question! SD: What can we expect to see from you in the near future? HD: Technologies is part of a larger story. As I mentioned, Technologies is a superhero origin story, so, as in any such saga, there are many more chapters in the “hero’s” realization of who he is. Technologies is littered with easter eggs to various characters and events to come or that have already passed.   If you’re in New York, you can catch Haris Durrani talking about his work at these upcoming events: Oct. 9, Indo-American Arts Council LitFest, “Family Dynamics,” New York University, NYC, 12:15-1:15 pm.  Nov. 3, PEN America, “Black Panther, Katniss Everdeen, and the Changing Faces of Sci-Fi and Fantasy,” KGB Bar, NYC, 7-9 pm

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