Flipping the Script:
Sally Cooper In Conversation with Pasha Malla
Pasha Malla is an award-winning author, known both for his short stories, collected in The Withdrawal Method, as well as his novel People Park. Along with many nominations, he has won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, the Trillium Book Award, the Arthur Ellis Award and two National Magazine Awards. He has recently published Fugue States, his second novel. Over the summer, I had the opportunity to have a thoughtful e-conversation with Pasha about Fugue States. What follows is an inside look at the workings of this novel about two friends who embark on a Don Quixote-like quest from Canada to Kashmir, India.
Sally Cooper: In Fugue States, you are writing about grief, but it doesn’t manifest in the expected ways. After his father, Brij, dies, Ash comes across a photo of a carefree Brij at twenty with his friends in Kashmir. This photo triggers longing in the son for the youthful father he didn’t know, and, it’s implied, for the lost Kashmir. Is Ash feeling grief only, or is it something more complex, perhaps related to Brij’s life experience?
Pasha Malla: That photo is meant to acknowledge the selective and idealizing nature of a certain type of memory. It captures a moment of happiness, but it’s impossible to say what came before it, or after. And the alternate identity that Ash constructs for his father out of the photo is the same project of idealization that Brij created around his memories of Kashmir: it’s a place he can’t go to, so he imagines it as perfect. In both cases what dominates is a sense of loss, of the unattainable, of how we fill in those gaps with narrative and projections of our own desires.
SC: Fugue States plays with and draws upon external sources: fugues (musical/psychological); Don Quixote; the lingam quest. How did you come to incorporate these muses/devices? What was your process?
PM: The fugue stuff only entered into the book after I went to Kashmir and returned feeling like I had to reimagine the entire project. At that point I’d written two opening sections, and the trip was meant to provide everything I needed to write the third. It ended up doing that, but not in ways that I’d anticipated; instead it forced me to really dig into the themes of memory, narrative archetype and cultural identity — and the “quest” for cultural identity — that were already informing the book. And then once I’d introduced the fugue, I started thinking about how it might pun on the musical form give a shape to the overall book. The lingam quest was really the central idea of the whole thing, and in fact at one point the book was going to include an entire manuscript of Brij’s novel in a sort of tripartite form meant to riff on Pale Fire; the title of that version of the manuscript was Brown Ice, which my editor, Lynn Henry — and pretty much everyone else who heard it — totally hated.
SC: In Fugue States, we spend much of our time with Matt/Matthew, Ash’s close friend (though Ash’s internal monologue might lead one to wonder how close they are). Matt is impulsive and adventurous, teetering on the edge of buffoonery, but even taking into account Ash’s snide internal monologue, Matt doesn’t ever veer into the cartoonish. At one point the two argue over which one is the Don Quixote, over who is the star of whose show. Why is it Matt who travels to Kashmir, initially, and not Ash? How central is Matt’s journey to the novel or is it all about Ash?
PM: Does Matt not seem cartoonish? Certainly a bit like a caricature. The idea is that this should be Ash’s story, but Matt, due to a certain type of privilege and agency, dominates that story to the extent that he tries to make it his own. That he’s the one who initially goes to India is really crucial to a lot of the central ideas of the book, one of which is simply that Ash resists the cliché of returning to the homeland with this heirloom of the uncompleted manuscript and his dad’s ashes. Matt is impervious, oblivious and immune to these worries: there are no stakes for him apart from the ones he defines for himself — so he goes in Ash’s place with intentions of “finding himself.” In India, of course, he becomes powerless, such that his attempts at enacting the sort of agency he’s used to having in the world only get him in trouble.
SC: Matt does come across as a caricature of a privileged white guy, a Where’s-the-next-party? sort. Yes, I can see that. We’ve all met him; many of us have dated him. You mention his entitlement, and how it alters in India in that he doesn’t get the results he relies on or expects. Why was it important to you to explore white-guy privilege with a character so exaggerated?
PM: It wasn't specifically "white guy privilege" that I was interested in exploring so much as a character who might embody a colonial perspective; that said, certainly colonists, at least in modern history, have been mostly white, and mostly guys, and obviously the book is trying to pose some questions around patriarchy as well. But what's different in the second section, when Matt goes to India, is that his agency and gaze and the attendant power dynamics become more specifically racialized and more drastically gendered than they are in the first part of the book. The idea then is that India flips the script so that Matt is less of a goof and actually, as the various tropes that might inform his behaviour and identity (the hero narrative, for one) prove illusory, he turns dangerous. The exaggeration or caricaturization is intended to do a few things, one of which is to point to archetypes of these kinds of characters and narratives as they exist in popular entertainments — the idiot abroad, bumbling through foreign lands for laughs — and also suggest that ultimately harm is being done when that experience becomes the singular focus of those sorts of stories — essentially, that the colonial lens is the only subjectivity, and all other perspectives are subjugated by it.
SC: To follow up on this idea of cartoon/caricature and even the grotesque, I’d like to talk about humour. There are many comical scenes in Fugue States (the interview with the CanLit luminary comes to mind). Your writing is often playful, embracing jokes, pranks, disastrous exploits, changes of course. Yet you’re writing about grief. What is it about sadness that encourages the funny in these characters?
PM: It's so weird to me that humour in a book might be a point of curiosity. How has comedy become somehow anomalous in literature? Our lives are funny; why aren't more of our novels? So, yeah, the book is comic because life is comic — even amid grief. But beyond that I suppose one of the things the book is trying to do with humour, especially around Matt, is to make readers complicit in his behaviour, so that when things darken in the third act one might begin to have second thoughts about having laughed along. I guess that's an attempt to get at a certain experience shared by a lot of allegedly forward-thinking people (myself included) of this selective morality or tolerance of, say, a certain "benign" brand of misogyny, homophobia or racism, and the ways in which we might be failing those people without the means to step up and say something.
SC: I’d characterize Matt’s humour as frat-boy. What stands out is the ribbing he gives Ash about his size and skin colour, his jokes delivered in the familiar “it’s just a joke” tone that shuts down objection. Ash doesn’t challenge him. Are you suggesting Ash lacks the means to stand up to his friend? Is there a sense of complicity?
PM: Yeah, for sure. Or if not the means, exactly, than certainly the wherewithal. And as Matt's hostility and belittlement is normalized within the texture of their relationship, Ash becomes complicit in Matt's behaviour with other people. As I said earlier, I'm interested in how those of us who like to consider ourselves progressive might be coming up short in our day-to-day lives. Similarly, Ash, who considers himself a feminist and anti-racist and whatever else, completely fails to view his friend Chip's son, Ty, (who has Zellweger Syndrome, though that's not articulated in the book) as a full person.
SC: Your playfulness with text and story extends to names. We learn that Ash is short for a longer name, which is never revealed, though since Ash is contained in your name, the reader wonders. This self-reflexiveness, along with the inter-textuality we’ve talked about, seems to allude to deeper truths, as if you’re skating as close to the edge of fiction’s artifice as you dare. Can you speak about your intent here?
PM: Well there are a few things going on: my dad's name is Ashok, so "Ash" is the intersection between our two names, and also "Ash" strikes me as a very popular name in novels and movies that I've never encountered in actual human beings (I know of at least two other books out this year with main characters named Ash; Ash is also the main character's name in the Evil Dead movies!) So it's also meant as a reference to the fictional archetypes the book uses as its basic architecture. (There's also the pun on Ash/ashes, which is the most embarrassing part of this answer...) But, yeah, I was hoping that there'd be some obvious points of confluence between my biography and the novel, but distances and discrepancies too, all of which is intended to create tension that doesn't really exist in straight memoir or autobiographical fiction, in that readers might wonder what's "real" and what isn't and constantly question the story being told.
SC: Ash’s fugue state, which comes upon him suddenly while he's flying, pushes that tension between what’s real and not real to the extreme. Here, you raise the question without memory, what do we have? In his fugue state, Ash identifies “that irreconcilable space between document and memory, and what therein was lost.” Many of Ash’s feelings in his fugue state echo those of his grief, though Matt hasn’t told him his father is dead. Is there an essence of Ash’s personality that persists in this fugue state? What are you saying about identity here? Is there an analogy to be made with writing?
PM: Yeah, the "tension between what's real and not real" should be implicit in a) the massively contrived narrative cliché of amnesia; and b) the fact that this happened, almost exactly, to David McLean. So exploring that tension was one of my goals, but I also wanted to turn the search for identity grotesque: previously so resistant to returning to his ancestral homeland to "find himself," Ash now has to very literally figure out who he is from scratch. But it also affords Matt an opportunity to reinvent his friend per his own needs (and, later, desires) and to enact some power in a place where he has very little. And as for the last part of your question, I think the whole book, in some way, is about writing — maybe not directly analogous, but certainly working through ideas of representation, documentation, storytelling, etc.
SC: Speaking of echoes, one of the loveliest aspects of your technique is the many echoes you set up throughout the novel — scenes, moments and ideas repeating in a way that sheds new light on your characters. Brij’s story of the homemade ski, for instance, echoes Ash’s experience of skiing in his fugue state. Yet, whereas Brij remembers thinking “’This is what dying is like’” while skiing, fugue-state Ash feels more and more alive the faster he goes. What is your intention here? What are you getting at in terms of father/son dynamics?
PM: Those echoes are structurally important to the conceit of the book as a musical fugue, but as you point out they're often skewed to suggest shifts, progression and new subjectivities. Brij's skiing story is the last thing Ash remembers before he loses his memory, so the echo is meant as a kind of callback to something almost elemental. And when he goes skiing, after the crash, lying there in the snow, Ash gets to the edge of another, older memory of the only time, as a four-year old, he came to Kashmir and his socks got wet. (Socks, by the way, are a motif in the book that I don't entirely understand, but just seem to turn up at all sorts of key moments.) So the book has a kind of delay-pedal aspect, with echoes folded inside echoes, and each recurrence is meant to mirror the ways in which we rewrite memories each time we recall them — less about what fathers pass along to sons, specifically, than how identity can be a mutable process and not necessarily fixed.
SC: I’d like to come back to your ideas on your characters’ “selective morality,” a trait which you point out (quite rightly) that many of us share. Both Matt and Ash are hard to like for many reasons. I'm wondering if you aren't asking the reader to stretch, to feel empathy for these characters, and by extension themselves. Have you made space for empathy here? Was that your intention? What are your thoughts on empathy in this context?
PM: Oh, I don't really care if readers like any of the characters. That sort of thing in fiction so often feels like a ploy, and it's easy enough to achieve: give someone a dog; kill the dog. And I think that all novels require empathy of readers, but that's not the same as liking characters — more a phenomenological process by which we temporarily transplant our consciousness as readers into that of made-up people. So fiction is inherently an empathic space, whether the people we read about are kindly gentlefolk who tug at our heart-strings, or narcissists, bullies and dickheads we'd like to push off a cliff. Matt and Ash aren't designed expressly to test readers' patience, but more to embody different kinds of struggles, and their bad or irritating or frustrating behaviour is meant as an externalization of inner torment — and lostness.
SC: Your answers give us an insider’s sense of your writing process, which strikes me as a balance between intuitive and thoughtful. I’d like to end by asking you to comment directly on how you write. Also, what books would you recommend for readers who like your work?
PM: It might also strike you as super fucking neurotic. My writing process really depends on the project. Like, this book and my last novel are conceptual parodies, books that are meant to undo form to pose questions about the world and how we exist in it, and as such very conscientiously made, albeit in a way that, as you've noticed, allowed me to surprise myself or include stuff I don't entirely understand. That said, I spent a lot of time meticulously going through both books and making sure that every scene (almost to the line) is in some way speaking to their themes and central ideas, and that structurally they dismantle their own architecture as they go. The thing I'm working on now isn't like that at all. I'm letting the story and characters build their own momentum. I'm planning nothing. There's nothing in particular that I've predetermined beyond the basic set-up, some imagery, and a tone that honours my love of 18th century gothic novels, 1970s horror movies and Robert Walser. As for recommendations, the books that most informed Fugue States were probably Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin, Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow, Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, Don Quixote (obviously) and Virginia Woolf's The Waves. The TV series Peep Show also helped a lot!