Transcript: Zareen Jaffery and James McBride

This is a transcript of Recommended Season 1 Episode 5.

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JENN:

This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. This week we’re joined by Zareen Jaffery, discussing Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri:

ZAREEN JAFFERY:

I really feel like Jhumpa Lahiri, she, kind of, was able to balance on that line really well. Where I felt very seen, but at the same time it is palatable, I guess, is that the right word, palatable to an audience that is unfamiliar or still exotifies a lot of these places. It acknowledges the exoticism that is sort of projected onto us, but also subverts it by showing how these are our stories. These are not just for the consumption and for the personal edification of majority culture.

JENN:

And James McBride, who picked Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird

JAMES MCBRIDE:

In retrospect, the simplicity of that story is one of its greatest attributes because it’s really hard to write simple. It’s easy to write complicated stuff. It’s easy to play every note in jazz. It’s easy to be a whiz-bang in math or something, but it’s hard to tell a story. To tell a story, you have to know what to tell and what not to tell. What works and what doesn’t. What’s important and what’s not.

JENN:

Zareen Jaffery is Executive Editor at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. In 2016, she began acquiring for Salaam Reads, an imprint that focuses on publishing books about Muslim children and families.

JAFFERY:

My name is Zareen Jaffery and Interpreter of Maladies is my recommended.

I first found Interpreter of Maladies through the New York Times book review, the Sunday Times edition. At the time, I was in college and every week I would go through the book review and pick out books that I wanted to read and put them on hold at the library, and when I had heard of this book, and I can’t remember if it was an ad or a review at this point, I picked up this book and I was so surprised to see a book that featured South Asia. I don’t remember having seen anything like that, with the exception of like a Salman Rushdie. The fact that the author of Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri, was a woman, was of particular interest to me and once I finally did read it, I felt like I recognized these characters in a way I had never seen in fiction in the US before. They really resonated with me, I can’t really describe the feeling, but it made me feel very inspired and alive.

Jhumpa Lahiri, she writes primarily in this book about people from India. My family is from Pakistan but of course it was all one country prior to 1947 and that is contemplated in the text.

It is a collection of short stories that all feature people who are from India living in America or going back to India from America but they have some tie to India. Pakistan is mentioned and Bangladesh is mentioned, growing up that was something that was very familiar to me. We would have visitors who are coming from Pakistan or India or Bangladesh stay at our house. That was very common when I was growing up and she includes those kinds of relationships in her stories and so it felt very true to life.

Really the story that had the most impact on me is the final story in the book, called The Third and Final Continent. It’s interesting, The Third and Final Continent is about this young man that comes from India, he’s going to MIT, and he is renting a room from an elderly widow. The story is about the experience of him having moved from India to the UK and then finally to Boston and how amazing it feels when he thinks about how he has traveled half the world to make his new home. Reading that I … it to me, was a very clear depiction of the wonder I felt when I thought about the journey that my parents had taken. They moved from Lahore, Pakistan to America in 1976 and they had 5 kids in 8 years. America is very much our home and knowing that they had come from such a different place and such a different upbringing, to now have 5 kids growing up in a completely different culture, it did amaze me.

I do reread it. I’m not a re-reader or re-watcher generally, I don’t know what that is about me. I like new things all the time. The times I do find myself re reading certain stories in Interpreter of Maladies is when I’m, sort of, recommending the book to other people actually and usually I’m recommending the book to young women who are South Asian.

As a publisher and specifically publishing with Salaam Reads, I’ve encountered a lot of aspiring writers or people who would love to begin writing, specifically about their own experiences. One of the sort of jaw dropping things that I hear is, “hasn’t our story already been told? Isn’t this sort of first generation experience already out there?” And it baffles me because it assumes that we are all the same. It is from the perspective of the white gaze. It’s from the perspective of exotifiying people who are from different places in the world or who have a connection to the culture of a different place in the world. I was like, “look, you and I are both born and raised in the United States and we went to American Universities and we are career women, but can you say that our lives are in any way the same?” And she was like, “Well, no.” And I was like, “Well, exactly. So why aren’t you allowed to see yourself as an individual as opposed to someone who’s trying to explain what dal is? That’s not your role. Separate yourself from the perspective of a onlooker and center yourself within yourself and that’s sort of where you begin.”

I really feel like Jhumpa Lahiri, she, kind of, was able to balance on that line really well. Where I felt very seen, but at the same time it is palatable, I guess, is that the right word, palatable to an audience that is unfamiliar or still exotifies a lot of these places. It acknowledges the exoticism that is sort of projected onto us, but also subverts it by showing how these are our stories. These are not just for the consumption and for the personal edification of majority culture.

I always say you might love it, you might hate it but it’s the first book I read where I feel like I really saw myself and wait till you get to the last line. That’s always my favorite thing to say. Wait till you get to the last line. The last story is The Third and Final Continent and the last paragraph is so killer.

On the last page of the edition I have it says, “While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent more hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly 30 years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”

I think about that, I think about my parents, what they went through, I think about my grandparents and what they went through. There’s this famous story in my family, my maternal grandmother, my nonni, when she lived in the India side of what is now India and Pakistan and she had to evacuate her home cause they had this narrow window where they could get on a train that was headed to Pakistan, where her and her family would be safer and she left a kettle boiling on the stove because she had been making tea. That is such a powerful image to me. It’s a part of our family identity.

I actually did a radio interview and it was a live radio interview, it was, I know, I get very nervous about live radio interviews. He had asked me, was with the CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Channel, he had asked me what book did I first see myself in and I mentioned Interpreter of Maladies and specifically The Third and Final Continent. What’s interesting is when I listened back to that radio interview, I actually inserted a character into the story. The story is actually about this young man, it’s told in first person. It’s about his experience with moving and he ends up having a son who’s sort of briefly mentioned at the end. Really, it’s just from the point of view of the person who’s had this experience. But in this interview, I had actually inserted a daughter. Yeah, and I had said like, “Oh, you know, the daughter sort of looking in wonder at what her parents had done.” So that’s the extent to which I felt so connected to this story, where when I think back on it, it’s me.

JENN:

Thanks again to Zareen Jaffery for joining us and recommending Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. You can find her on Twitter @ZareenJaffery, and more information about Salaam Reads can be found at SalaamReads.com.

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Included in that giveaway is The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo.

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JENN:

James McBride is an author, musician and screenwriter. His landmark memoir, “The Color of Water,” rested on the New York Times bestseller list for two years, and his novel “The Good Lord Bird,” about American revolutionary John Brown, was the winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction. His new collection, Five-Carat Soul, features never-before-seen short stories all told with McBride’s unrivaled storytelling skill and meticulous eye for character and detail.

MCBRIDE:

My name is James McBride, and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is my Recommended.

I was about maybe 11 or 12 when I first encountered To Kill a Mockingbird, and I think I related to it probably because of the opening line, which is something like “When my brother, Jim, was 12, he broke his arm.” And so he was my age, and the flow out at the introduction of that book, at the beginning, is so smoothly done that you’re into page nine or ten before you know it. It delivers that back story with extraordinary skill, and seeming ease.

And I related to a lot of the characters instantly in part because I was at a point in my life where I was going through some identity issues, and understanding the business of race and what living in the south meant. I’d been to the south because I have a lot of relatives in the south. I grew up in New York, but all my family was from the south. It just was a magnetic type of story. It was a coming of age piece of business that I really related to.

And, of course, most of my siblings had read To Kill a Mockingbird, and I just found the writing to be just so … In retrospect, the simplicity of that story is one of its greatest attributes because it’s really hard to write simple. It’s easy to write complicated stuff. It’s easy to play every note in jazz. It’s easy to be a whiz-bang in math or something, but it’s hard to tell a story. To tell a story, you have to know what to tell and what not to tell. What works and what doesn’t. What’s important and what’s not.

The underlying morality of the writer is really what’s at question. In other words, everybody can write. Everybody who’s a professional writer … Or, you know, the good writers can write, but their underlying moral bar, their underlying moral framework is really what powers the work through their characters in fiction. So, her moral grounding was and remains the magnet that sucks the reader to the end of that book.

Harper Lee’s ability to create character in the fiction genre is just magnificent. Because she creates characters that are simple, and these are people that you know or would like to know, and they’re people who are driven by moral questions that they don’t really have the answers to. So they bounce through life, or they spin through life, or they wander through life trying to do the right thing without knowing if they are. And that’s kind of where we all live. We all like to think we’re proper, decent people, and that we’re kind people, and we’re generous people. And if we’re not, we just pretend that we are. Thus you have our political situation that exists in America now. So if you’re not a really kind, generous person, you just create a storyline, a narrative that allows you to be a kind and generous person.

But in Harper Lee’s book, you see the kindness and the gentleness and the simplicity of everyone, and what she does is she really lets you see the other side of the world with great sympathy because her characters are fully dimensional. So, I think if there’s a shortcoming in that book, it might be the rendition of Calpurnia, who was the maid, because you don’t really see Calpurnia’s life. You see the moral grounding of Calpurnia, and she’s a very nice woman. And she’s very deep and very intelligent and understands what’s going on, but you don’t see her family. You don’t see her life. You don’t see the fullness of her character, and I don’t know that that’s intentional or not on Harper Lee’s part. Probably not intentional. It’s just an honest portrayal of the world that she knew.

In showing us the world, she shows us the shortcomings and the beneficial elements of that world, which makes the south a lot more understandable and a lot more sympathetic to those of us who don’t understand it very well.

The scene in the book where Atticus leaves the court room after Tom is convicted falsely. Wrongly convicted. And he walks underneath the balcony where the black people are, and they all stand as he leaves. That really struck me as a strong piece of theater, and that’s really what you want. You don’t want to hammer the reader over the head with symbolism and speeches and other nonsense. Show it and then let the reader decide what has happened. Let them use their imagination some. But anything that speaks to the nobility of poor people is something that I admire.

I’ve read that book several times, yeah.

Like anything that’s great … There’s a song by Sonny Rollins called St. Thomas. Sonny Rollins is a great saxophone player. You can listen to that song ten times and always hear something different in his solo because he’s such a pure improvisor. And similarly with Harper Lee’s book, there’s always something new that you learn as you go through it. The way she describes characters, her ability to structure the work in a really seemingly smooth fashion, description of scenes and how characters move, how characters talk and why, the economy of her work, the economy of the writing, the economy of the dialogue … Not a lot of “Um,” “Well,” “Yes.” Not a lot of “He didn’t do anything,” or “I didn’t say a word.” any of that bullshit. It’s just real straight up and down. It’s just straight up and down music.

JENN:

Thanks again to James McBride for joining us and recommending To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. McBride’s new short story collection Five-Carat Soul is published by Riverhead Books and is now available wherever books are sold. You can learn more about him at jamesmcbride.com.

JENN:

Thanks to Fierce Reads for sponsoring the show on behalf of The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo. Be sure to check out the Recommended Season 1 giveaway at FierceReadsRecommended.com.

Next week on Recommended, an author talks about a classic that blew his mind:

UNNAMED AUTHOR:

I think what I imagined was some wild sci-fi story. Instead, what I got was this weird family drama where no one was actually that surprised that this guy had turned into a bug, almost like something that had been within the realm of possibility. The controlled weirdness of it was something that really amazed me, and felt extremely different from anything else that I was reading in that book or anywhere else.