Ali Eteraz: On Writing Native Believer
To celebrate the release of Native Believer — the long-awaited and darkly comic debut novel from author Ali Eteraz — we’re pleased to feature a statement from the author on how the book serves as a reflection of modern America.
As a child of immigration I know a lot about what paperwork you need in order to get to America. The visas, the work authorizations, the adjustments-of-status applications. But the question I never got an answer to is what does it take to truly feel like an American, when do you become a “native”? For M., the second-generation protagonist of Native Believer, the answer to these questions is connected to his love for his wife, Marie-Anne, and the life they are attempting to create in Philadelphia. But their life is held hostage by two forces. One is Marie-Anne’s illness, and the second is M.’s status as a Muslim in an America disfigured by the War on Terror. I created this novel as a test, to see if M. could find a way to stand against this double axe.
The odd thing about this book is that I started it while living abroad. I wrote the first draft while working as a perfume merchant in a Middle Eastern country gripped by a popular uprising. Something about the upheaval reminded me of the American Revolution, and that made me place M. in Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution hammered out. For M., the stakes are not insurrectionary, but because they have to do with the woman he loves and the family he envisions, they are no less powerful.
Philadelphia is an ideal place to situate the novel because of the paranoia that grips M., and the way that sensation can be reflected back through this city’s dark and pulsating presence. Philadelphia is our Barcelona. People forget that Philadelphia is where Edgar Allen Poe lived and wrote his most famous works; his house on 7th and Spring Garden (about twenty blocks from where M. lives in the novel) has been deemed by Congress a National Historic Site. Poe’s Philadelphia was ravaged by race riots, economic distress, and colored by the gothic sensibility of the writers who were publishing in Philadelphia. The city still contains all of this. People often seek out New York novels. To me, New York is the kind of city that can drown you with its immensity; Philadelphia is the kind of city that can tie you up and waterboard you and laugh at you. (Incidentally, this is how the waterboarding scene with the pornographer came into the novel.)
My influences coming into this novel were Richard Wright, Chang-Rae Lee, Flannery O’Connor, and Wallace Stevens, but during the heavy-lifting periods of novel-writing, I stopped reading other people. I didn’t want to make the authorial membrane too thick and prevent the character from coming out of the shell. Also, those authors wrote of other moments in America, and M. is in the here-and-now. I give due regard to the past, but my novel’s concern is with how you feel like an American today, especially if you are the kind of American whose sense of belonging is under threat.
ALI ETERAZ is based at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. He is the author of the coming-of-age memoir Children of Dust (HarperCollins) and the surrealist short story collection Falsipedies & Fibsiennes (Guernica Editions). Eteraz’s short fiction has appeared in the Chicago Quarterly Review, storySouth, and Crossborder, and his nonfiction has been highlighted by NPR, the New York Times, and the Guardian. Recently, Eteraz received the 3 Quarks Daily Arts & Literature Prize judged by Mohsin Hamid, and served as a consultant to the artist Jenny Holzer on a permanent art installation in Qatar. Eteraz has lived in the Dominican Republic, Pakistan, the Persian Gulf, and Alabama. Native Believer is his debut novel. Visit him on the web at alieteraz.com.
Posted: May 25, 2016
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