Denial and Its Opposite: Three Questions with Hananah Zaheer
Nayereh Doosti/AGNI: Before the pandemic, “Story about a Boy” might have simply read as an absurdist narrative. It’s about a couple whose job involves offering assisted dying to individuals identified as “high-risk,” people who must live in camps or be euthanized—“drift away on crisp cotton sheets” if they buy the couple’s “Premium Plan.” Your setup is eerie, but oddly reminiscent of our current state, where “herd immunity” through uncontrolled infection is dangerously encouraged by some politicians, and where the same politicians have blatantly suggested seniors should be willing to sacrifice their lives to save the economy. To what extent did the pandemic inspire this story? How would you compare pandemic-era life to the strict and fear-driven atmosphere you’ve established here?
Hananah Zaheer: I started “About a Boy” long before the pandemic, as precisely what you said—an absurdist story about a group of people offering euthanasia as an escape from life. I was interested in playing with the idea of dystopia, especially in the context of South Asia and Pakistan, and what frustration with life under strict regimes might look like. Arguably, governance can be exciting and nearly dystopian at times anyway. I grew up watching Pakistan go from a democratic government to being under military rule and back to democracy, along with all the complicated and bizarre ways in which the pendulum of daily life swings under such changes—but this story was probably more influenced by what was happening in the U.S. (which I consider home) and the Philippines (where I currently live) after the virus hit. Watching the two governments respond to the disease in such opposite and extreme ways—denial from one and a complete shutdown with curfews and armed soldiers from the other—made me think about the choices ordinary citizens are left with.
A lot of writers have expressed that they need more time to process before writing about the pandemic and its implications. Even though you started this story before the pandemic hit, do you think the dystopian aspect of “About a Boy” helped you approach a subject that many find hard to explore so soon?
I would consider myself very much in the camp of writers who need to process things before being able to reflect on them. Though I did not set out to write a pandemic story, I think the sheer number of hours I suddenly had to myself forced me to confront not only the new reality of my days, but also the things I had been processing before Covid hit. Just a few years ago, my mother underwent a double lung transplant. It was a traumatic event for our family, and we observed her going into quarantine before and after the surgery; her life looked a lot like ours has for the last few months, with the same fears and threats to health. She passed away unexpectedly in 2018, and I think the Covid quarantine broke open whatever I was trying to process about that sickness, her recovery, and then my grief. There was also the whole need to teach my children about grief and death—the harsh realities of life that I could not protect them from. I feel this story is as much about a mother having to show life’s ugliness to her son as anything else, and that element had been in the making for a few years.
I was struck by your portrayal of class in this fictive world where “sympathies are rehearsed.” The son does not know the details of his parents’ business and has never even seen them argue. “I don’t want him learning fear,” his mother says. But this protectiveness contrasts with the reality of her life: her income relies on the fear of those left unprotected. She admits that “being sick is no reason to die[.] But if [she] gave people advice, [she] would have no business.” Were the realities of class central for you from the story’s inception?
In a word: absolutely. The realities of class cannot be separated from any observations on our current world, whether about America or Pakistan, or from writing that explores, for example, what people have dealt with during the pandemic. An individual’s experience of education, of healthcare, of immigration even, of moving about their daily life, is based very firmly on their place in various systems, the prevailing economic and social structures being the two with the greatest impact. Important, too, is the understanding that all too often there is a moral compromise involved in maintaining these spaces. We either don’t notice or we seek to preserve the areas where we have privilege. The older I get, the more I see how this appears in my own life, how the world around me is bent the way Frederick Douglass observed: “where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them. . . .” Writing that touches on any aspect of class systems has to acknowledge the individual human cost, and take into account the often camouflaged distortions that make such a society possible.
Nayereh Doosti is an editorial assistant at AGNI. (12/2020)