Farah Ali is the author of People Want to Live (McSweeney’s 2021). Set in Pakistan, this debut collection features award-winning short stories about togetherness and reckless faith in the face of a world that’s built to break us. Publishers Weekly said, in a new review, “With a cast of well-drawn characters, Ali pays careful attention to themes of mental health, loneliness, and poverty. Ali’s dexterous debut strikes hard.”
RAJ TAWNEY: How long did it take you to write all of the stories in People Want to Live?
FARAH ALI: I wrote the first story six years ago. The most recent one was revised and finished last year.
RT: When did you discover you’re a storyteller?
FA: When I was convinced I had stories to tell; when I could not hush the voice in my head. Maybe I was six or seven then.
RT: Why did you decide to set your stories in Pakistan? In particular, the city of Karachi?
FA: Karachi is where I grew up in a lot of senses of the word. It’s where I did most of my school years; it’s where I first looked for work, where some of my most unforgettable formative experiences took place. But more than that, the whole time, I was just taking in all these experiences and sights and observations and storing them away. So even though the stories are not about Karachi, they at the least have a connection to them.
RT: How do you think Pakistan is viewed by other countries? How do Pakistanis see themselves?
FA: Dusty, somewhere in the Middle East, broken up, oppressive, terrorist. It’s viewed by tag words that are reductive and simplistic, and that do a great job in eliciting reactions from people (misplaced sympathy or horror) that politicians then work with. There is a factual refutation for each of those words, but I’ll just say one: Pakistan is not in the Middle East, which in itself is a problematic area-descriptor because of its Eurocentric origin.
There are almost 221 million people in Pakistan. They’re busy being all kinds of people. They see themselves with their own lens, within the contexts of their own lives.
RT: What do you hope Westerners will take away from People Want to Live? What about Pakistanis?
FA: For all readers, I hope they see that, as much as that phrase “you can’t escape from your troubles” is true, it is good and necessary to sometimes do the act of escaping to get a wider, safer space between one’s despairing self and the edge.
RT: If this book suddenly possessed the power to impact the world, what sort of change would it provoke?
FA: Very uncomfortable with imagining grand things, so I’ll say that maybe the book could help remove the “well” or “unwell” boxes we put people in, because when we do that we declare who is capable of doing useful work and who isn’t. And so, people could feel more free to live and move around in the spectrum between those two words without an absolute definition of their usefulness.
RT: Is there a specific food or dish that reminds you of growing up in Karachi? I’m a big foodie so I just had to know.
FA: My grandmother, my nanijaan, used to make a chutney out of raw mangoes, which are called keri in Urdu. If I smelled it again I would think of her and her house and all the hours I spent there.
RT: Generations from now, If someone finds your book in a retail store, library, or yard sale, what will they learn about the period in which you existed?
FA: From the few details in the backgrounds of the stories, they would get a glimpse of circumstances specific to a place that could exacerbate personal struggles of working, loving, losing. They would see that these circumstances were beyond people’s control. And that people were trying to define themselves despite that.