Swetha Amit interviews Farah Ali about her novel The River, The Town, faith, distance, and narration.
Swetha Amit: The River, The Town is a poignant story of a family that splits after a climate disaster. How did the idea initially transpire?
Farah Ali: I had an idea of an image of this river, which would flow through a small town or a city. Over time, this river would change its shape. I wanted to see how the change in the shape of the river would cause changes in the lives of people or the geography of that place. When I began writing it, the river became a character in itself. Eventually, the story became about the people inhabiting the river, and that’s how it ended up being the story of Baadal, his mother, and his wife.
SA: You have written it from the point of view of three characters. What prompted you to make that choice? Did you face any challenges while finding a distinct voice for each of them?
FA: Initially, it was supposed to be from the point of view of seven people, including Baadal’s friend, his father, and Junaid. Then, my editor and agent suggested I keep it to a few voices and give them more space in the novel. Their advice worked. I remember the first two pages took me six months. I would have a voice in my head and try to get it down on paper. It didn’t sound the way I wanted it to. In those six months, some other scenes began to take shape in my head. The other parts became more manageable once I was over this initial struggle. It took a lot of work to do justice to Baadal’s voice. A large part of the story is also about how he reconciles with his upbringing with his mother. However, I didn’t want it to be one-sided narration. I reached a point in the story where something happens between Baadal and his mother. I was curious about why she reacted the way she did and wanted to explore more about her past. Her story flowed smoothly from my mind to the page. Meena’s story only takes up a little space in the novel. It was a shorter summary of her life and quicker to pen down.
SA: Your novel centers around climate change. Was this always the central idea you were targeting?
FA: I did at a subconscious level. Two years ago, there were horrific floods in parts of Pakistan. And then there is this aspect of drought. Both are climate-related and were in my head as a background. I never wanted to make it a central idea for my novel. Even though my idea might have started with an image of the river, it was mainly about the people.
SA: I noticed how your language had a lyrical quality and flowed seamlessly, like how the river flows. Was that intentional?
FA: Not really. It could have resulted from staying in the characters’ heads constantly and experiencing their flow of thoughts. I never really connected the two aspects of language and the river. It is interesting how readers read your book and point out interesting nuances that make the author look at their work with new eyes.
SA: I like how you dealt with timelines in your novel. You capture an era between 1966 and 1998 authentically. Was there any research involved?
FA: I tend to get into the technical details of a specific period. But again, I was reminded by a friend that those technicalities were not that important since I wasn’t depicting any historical real-life moments in my novel. If I was doing that, I had to be more careful. Instead, I just had to trace back to some decades when Baadal’s mother was a little girl and her upbringing. Ultimately, it was all about the people in the story.
SA: I notice an element of faith and hope throughout your novel when the characters go through turbulent times. For instance, you mention how people get married and continue life as though nothing happened. Do you also perceive faith as a powerful tool amidst rough phases?
FA: Yes. Faith is essential in the lives of some people I write about. Whether practicing faith religiously or just harboring the idea of not giving up. It’s a part of invincibility and a belief that their adult years will not be like their parents’. My characters are stubborn. They believe they deserve better and refuse to believe tough times will last forever. It could be obliviousness to a certain extent.
SA: You don’t mention the name of the town or city in your book, which is interesting. This anonymity strikes a chord at a global level, especially when you talk about climate change. Did you have any particular place in your mind while writing this novel?
FA: I was thinking about this part of Pakistan, which is extreme in terms of the weather. Sometimes there is a lot of rain. Sometimes there is a lot of droughts. I remember reading this piece of news some years ago. In an interview, a mother is asked what she does when her child is hungry and there is no food in such extreme conditions. She said she just put the child back to sleep. That piece of information stayed in my head for a long time.
SA: There is this discrepancy between urban and rural life, and this thought in your characters that the grass is greener on the other. Was that what you were trying to depict? What are your views on this?
FA: Yes, sort of. But it’s also not a final solution. People tend to believe everything else will be resolved once they achieve something. However, achieving something comes at a cost. For instance, Baadal put a geographical distance between himself and his family when he moved to the city. Even though he was trying hard to move on to a new life, the people and the problems persisted in his head as baggage.
SA: Besides dealing with the climate crisis, migration, and coming of age, you pack in powerful themes like loneliness and isolation. How did it come together?
FA: I only sometimes knew what would be happening on the page. For instance, I never realized I would write about Meena and the birds. It just happened. All this ties in with loneliness or finding a small space for yourself. Even though Meena was married to Baadal, she wanted to create this small space for herself.
SA: You have written short stories and now a novel. How would you describe your approach to both these forms of fiction? What are the challenges you face?
FA: In short stories, there is this challenge of getting across the story in fewer words. In a novel, I had more space available in terms of pages. While writing my book, I had to remind myself that I could stay longer in a scene and I don’t have to hurry, unlike in a short story, unless it’s a long short story, which I usually don’t write.
SA: Are there any authors you draw inspiration from?
FA: I love and admire works by Grace Paley, Alice Munroe, Rachel Kushner, and Jenny Erpenbeck. I also read a lot of poetry by Kaveh Akbar and Jack Gilbert.
SA: Lastly, are there any upcoming works in the pipeline?
FA: I just finished a short novel manuscript. So, I’m sitting on it, trying to be patient to go back to it to revise it. I don’t know when it will be published. I have also recently started reading this Urdu writer, Khalida Hussain, who passed away in 2019 in Pakistan. I stumbled upon her short stories and her novel written in Urdu. I am blown away by her work and trying to translate it into English.
Author Bio: Farah Ali is the writer of the novel The River, The Town, and the short-story collection People Want to Live. Her work has been anthologized in Best Small Fictions and the Pushcart Prize, which has also received special mention. Her stories have appeared in Shenandoah, Kenyon Review, Ecotone, and elsewhere.