“It’d Be Hard to be Friends with Anyone”: An Interview with Pasha Malla

by Amy Oldfield

Amy Oldfield was born in Ottawa and lives in Toronto, where she writes and teaches. You can read more of her work in BAD NUDES, The Feminist Wire, and THIS Magazine. 

Everything Pasha Malla writes is hard to put your finger on, but that’s the point. Since his inaugural short story collection The Withdrawal Method (House of Anansi, 2008), he has refused easy answers in favour of uncomfortable questions. It should come as no surprise, then, that Fugue States (Knopf Canada, 2017) resists definition; it is a parody of a buddy comedy, but it also lampoons the conventions of the realist novel and Diaspora literature.

Fugue States plays along the lines of Don Quixote, but the protagonist Ash Dhar is the sidekick of his duo. His childhood friend Matt—a middle-aged stoner hellbent on “making memories”—is the quixotic one. The story begins as Ash delivers a eulogy for his father, Brij, and follows Ash in the weeks after the funeral. The narrative voice darts between Matt and Ash, and transports the reader from Southern Ontario to Brij’s homeland: the Kashmir valley in India.  

Though it might sound like a story you’ve heard before, Fugue States defies readers’ expectations at every turn. We side with one character, then another. We form staunch opinions that we betray pages later. Ultimately, it is about the gaps between people—about the ways we care for or fail one another. Readers can only watch and cringe as Ash plummets headfirst into one of these gaps.

Deeply compassionate and darkly funny, Fugue States is written to hit too close to home. It encourages readers to ask hard questions, challenge their own assumptions, and not look away when things get weird.  

I caught up with Pasha Malla over email to talk about Fugue States, clichés, and masculinity. He raised more difficult questions.


Amy Oldfield: Don Quixote plays a big role in Fugue States. How much was Don Quixote an inspiration here, as opposed to being something that fit as an analogous comparison later?

Pasha Malla: It’s the prototype for the sort of buddy comedy that my book is trying to parody, but it’s also the prototype for the modern novel, and the postmodern novel, and pretty much every comic form from slapstick to wordplay to sitcoms to something a little more subtle, wry, and ironic. Archetypes—and tropes, and clichés—form the basic architecture of Fugue States, and Don Quixote felt like the most elemental novel to use as a literary starting point—as obvious as it might be, but that’s the idea, more or less.

AO: While engaging with this literary classic, your novel also pokes fun at contemporary literature. Ash hosts a radio show where he interviews prominent Canadian authors. Amidst his unravelling over the course of the narrative, he attacks the author of Into the Night—a parody of what one character calls “Bro Lit.” Can you talk about the inspiration for this novel within a novel?

PM: In earlier drafts of the book, the author with whom Ash disgraces himself was a woman; then that shit went down at the CBC with a certain former dickbag host and I wanted to distance my book as much as possible from that situation. So I changed the author’s gender, and in so doing needed to reimagine the content of the novel the author had written, too. It seemed to make sense to make it an almost archetypically-masculinist sort of fiction, and the author’s identity was so soundly based in a certain kind of traditional masculinity that it would make Ash—who is without a strong sense of self with respect to gender or culture or anything, really—so insecure that he’d try to take the author down.

AO: In Into The Night, as in many (most? all?) Bro Lit books, the main character is an isolated figure—endemic to the genre, which is something you point to through parody. Are there any positive portrayals of male friendships in the media? Positive in the sense of compassionate, nuanced views, if not just objectively good friendships.

PM: Well, one of the epigraphs in the book is from Giovanni’s Room, and I don’t think you can do much better than that novel for its examinations of male relationships, both romantic and platonic, as well as the nebulous territory between the two. Montaigne’s “On Friendship” is also great. As is the TV series Peep Show. But the books that were most helpful to me were actually Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels—which are, obviously, about women.

The books that were most helpful to me were actually Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels—which are, obviously, about women.

AO: Those novels have a lot to do with competition between peers. Do you think Matt and Ash view each other as competitors?

PM: They jockey and jostle and bicker (more like siblings, maybe), but Matt asserts himself physically, while Ash is more of an intellectual bully, so his usual strategies of one-upmanship don’t really apply to their relationship.

AO: There’s a powerful, lonely image near the beginning of Fugue States that stuck with me throughout the novel. Ash describes himself and his late father Brij as “two joggers running in tandem.” Can you talk about the focus on male isolation in the book?

PM: Many of the men in Fugue States are isolated from other people in fundamental ways, lacking the capacity for personal and emotional vulnerability that would help them really connect. I’m interested in these gaps between people, and the pathos of one character attempting to bridge that gap, reaching out to another, and still coming up short—and, in this book in particular, the harm that causes.

AO: I’ve been thinking about Chip as a character. An old friend of Ash, Chip is a single father and the only caretaker for his disabled son, Ty. In one scene, Ash asks Chip why being a father is the only way to be a caring man. Shortly after, Ash sees some scars on Ty’s back, an indication of abuse, which complicates the narrative of Chip as a self-sacrificing father. Can you talk about this choice?

PM: Sure. Part of what’s going on there is an expression of Ash’s narcissism. He’s incapable—despite all his alleged progressive thinking—of seeing Ty as anything more than a disabled body. In the face of Chip’s obvious struggles with fatherhood and loneliness, Ash feels it’s fair to complain about his own exclusion. I mean, I think Ash’s point is valid, but he picks a really dumb moment to make it. And then, when it becomes impossible for him to deflect—when the story blows outward into the unknown and potentially dangerous—he retreats. It’s one of the major themes of the book, this idea of flight, and in this case Ash literally flies across an ocean to get away from his friend.

AO: Ash misses an opportunity to connect with Chip here, but it’s at least partly in service of his friendship with Matt. When he flies away from Chip, he is flying to India to get Matt out of a jam. There is a sense of duty that seems to exist between them. What, if anything, do you think Ash and Matt owe each other?

PM: Ash and Matt don’t exactly “owe” each other anything, but one can’t exist without the other, and Ash is resentful for how their bond implicates him in Matt’s behaviour. Though Ash, of course, isn’t without fault or somehow impervious to patriarchal norms and expectations.

AO: Maybe “owes” isn’t the right word. I’m thinking of what Sherene says about Sancho Panza, the sidekick character in Don Quixote. She calls his “wilful obliviousness” the main disappointment of the novel. Ash is posited as the sidekick—he’s not really able to take Sherene’s advice once he gets it, but before his fugue state, do you see it as Ash’s responsibility to rein in Matt’s reckless pursuit of memories? Or at least to stand up to him while they’re together?

PM: I don’t know if it’s his responsibility, exactly, but certainly Ash has an opportunity as someone close to Matt to get him to rethink the way he exists in the world—and he never does that, really, beyond making snide comments that are more the texture of their banter than a real challenge to Matt’s ideals. But I’m interested in how those of us who fashion ourselves as progressives aren’t always consistent with our principles, how we compromise for the sake of decorum, and also how exhausting it is for people of colour, especially, to operate as a sort of cultural task-force that keeps everyone in check.

AO: One facet of Ash and Matt’s friendship is that Matt is always trying to position himself as, for lack of a better term, the alpha bro. As one character points out, this dominance often involves Matt emasculating Ash. This dynamic escalates to the point of violence, forcing the reader to confront the undercurrent of abuse in their relationship. Do you think Matt’s actions make it hard to sympathize with him?

PM: Matt, like a lot of victimizers, is a product of personal experiences as well as larger, cultural factors—not some sort of anomalous, self-inspired sociopath. I’m not sure if that makes him universally worthy of sympathy—and if readers don’t like him, fair enough—though maybe he can still be understood without being pitied. His emasculations of Ash are based in misogyny, equating femininity with inferiority, and function as attempts to reify his own power. Harj, the character you’re referring to who makes this point, is annoying and self-righteous in how he brings it up, but his point is valid: being feminized isn’t innately harmful, and Matt’s insults are really just expressions of his own inadequacies and flailing purpose.

AO: Harj is Ash’s brother-in-law, and he’s full of interesting contradictions. He’s a smug humanitarian, and an unhygienic doctor, and he cheats on his pregnant wife while he’s working in a war zone. Can you talk about how Harj came together?

PM: All the characters in the book function as a sort of prism that refracts their identities through Ash’s (mis)understanding and focuses all the light on himself. Which is, of course, its own cliché—the misanthropic, emotionally inaccessible male solipsist—and Matt is meanwhile competing for the same focus, trying to usurp Ash’s story and appropriate it as his own. I’d resist, maybe, suggesting that any of the characters are meant to represent anything or anyone specific; though the book traffics in archetype, I’ve tried to humanize and complicate those archetypes. There’s not meant to be anything directly allegorical about any of it. And with reference to Harj’s affair, it’s another possible path to caretaking—this time in Ash’s relationship with his sister—that he mostly fails to take.

AO: You’ve touched on another question I have. Ash’s viewpoint is often cynical; he can be caustic and callous. What was it like to have both your main characters be abrasive, and somewhat unlikeable? I imagine the length of a novel is a long time to inhabit that headspace as a writer.

PM: Did you know that Franz Kafka was a kind, funny, and quite lively person? Maybe he excised the darkness in his fiction. So, no, writing about these people didn’t really bum me out or anything like that—in fact I think it made me lighter and nicer to be around! But mainly I reject this binary of likeable/unlikeable as a metric for fictional characters. When it comes to fiction, I’m interested in human. We live in a culture of idealizations, of “best selves,” and it feels dishonest and detrimental not to explore our worst selves, too. Novels provide spaces to get at the stuff that people bury or conceal, and a lot of that stuff can be icky and off-putting—but, I think, necessary to explore.

Novels provide spaces to get at the stuff that people bury or conceal, and a lot of that stuff can be icky and off-putting—but, I think, necessary to explore.

AO: Was exploring the worse sides of these characters in some way cathartic?

PM: My intention wasn’t a therapeutic emotional purge or anything like that. And I doubt that wallowing in misery makes for any path to happiness—likely the opposite. Maybe I just got lucky?

AO: Maybe—maybe it’s because your characters are so nuanced. I would think that having characters that are redeemable (if deeply flawed) would make writing the novel a more enjoyable process.

PM: Oh, god, writing this novel certainly wasn’t an “enjoyable process.” But we don’t need to get into that. My understanding is that a lot of readers of the book have found it quite hard to empathise with the characters, some to the extent that they’ve had to put the book down. Which is fine. That’s their choice. But I’d hoped that it would be clear that any bad behaviour was the result of profound pain and an inability to honestly articulate that pain.

AO: The distinction between a painful past as an explanation for a person’s behaviour versus an excuse can be quite volatile. In the pervasive context of rape culture in particular, the perpetrator’s tragic backstory is often troublingly invoked to justify inexcusable actions. As an author, how do you navigate the space between empathy and exoneration?

PM: I’m not seeking to justify or exonerate my characters’ actions, but merely, as the fiction writers who inspire me tend to do (James Baldwin, in particular), offer some portraits of human beings with as much complexity as I’m capable. Eliciting forgiveness doesn’t interest me, and I don’t think empathy is inherently apologist. Nor does my book require or request that readers forgive anyone—only, I hope, to do a little work to understand where they’re coming from.

AO: Matt co-opts other people’s narratives of suffering, but he also has his own sad story. His mother committed suicide, and he doesn’t seem to have any other family. Can you talk a bit about Matt’s backstory? What is the significance of Matt being fatherless?

PM: Matt is searching the world for a model of how to be, and what he finds are limiting, reductive, and unattainable narratives of masculinity that set him up for failure and disappointment, and shoot him back into a loop of inadequacy. I’m not sure that having a father in his life would have solved that problem, and certainly mothers can do that modelling for young boys, but the fact that he grew up without a father figure forced that search very early. Part of his problem is that he’s unwilling or incapable of dealing with his own shit, so he’s constantly chasing down other people’s trauma—and consequently causing some of his own. That he’s an orphan, without siblings or a partner, makes him feel rootless and adrift in the world. He’s existentially lost just as Ash is lost, albeit in a different way, and as Ash’s dad—an exile—was a little lost, too.

AO: In the midst of all these lonely men, there is Ash’s friend and the producer of his radio show, Sherene. The ways that Ash and Matt fail each other often seem to be highlighted by the small ways that Sherene demonstrates support and care. She’s not a romantic interest, but I wanted to talk about the significance of her being female. In many ways, Ash’s relationship with Sherene is the closest he comes to bridging that gap between himself and others. We don’t learn much about Ash’s sexuality in the book, but we glean enough to assume that he’s a cis, straight man. Do you think it’s easier for Ash to be connect with someone he sees as a viable romantic option?

PM: I don’t think he ever sees her that way, though his career relies on her putting words in his mouth. So there’s a kind of dependence to that, and it extends to Ash’s identity amid this crisis. It begins mid-eulogy, when he realizes what he’s written is false and empty, and develops over the course of the narrative. Sherene also has a life outside of her relationship with Ash, while his life is basically work, and her, and not much else.

AO: My impression first reading the novel was that Sherene was going to be this girl he pined after—I have to admit, I thought this was going to open up a whole line of “friend-zone” commentary. Ash doesn’t pursue Sherene romantically, though. Can you talk about this choice?

PM: If there’s any hint of romance, it’s a red herring. In these sorts of stories, the wise female character exists almost exclusively to steady the ship of the floundering guy, so I set that dynamic up in some ways simply to undermine it. That said, there’s still meant to be a kind of longing for her, albeit a mostly platonic longing to associate himself with someone so different from Matt. Also I think Sherene actually likes Ash; their friendship, while not as close as Ash would like or even imagines, is genuine. He’s not as outwardly insufferable as his narration would have you believe—if we were all privy to everyone’s worst thoughts, it’d be hard to be friends with anyone. They have a nice rapport, and like similar stuff, and I think she finds him kind of funny, both intentionally and not.

AO: In an article published by NOW Toronto, you say, “for Ash, Kashmir has become a fantasy land that exists only in stories.” In fact, he never really experiences it for himself—or at least, as himself. You’ve been steadfast in other interviews about not wanting to tell a story that isn’t yours, but you do have the experience of travelling to Kashmir as a second-generation emigrant. Was the decision that Ash would return in a fugue state inspired by your trip?

PM: This is not what I am. I am the child of emigrants/immigrants but I was born in Canada. Also, generally, what’s with this need to count generations when we talk about people of colour? It’s a way of implying otherness. When was the last time you heard a white person qualify themselves as a “sixth generation Canadian?”

AO: That’s a really good point.

PM: And one trip does not make for ownership of a story. I went to Kashmir as, more or less, a tourist, albeit one with particular interests with reference to this book. I ended up not having the experience there that I thought I was going to have, which forced me to rethink the novel I was writing, and ultimately, yes, led me to the idea of the fugue state as a means of stripping the character of all the trappings of personhood, and turning the story into a literal, grotesque pursuit of identity.

One trip does not make for ownership of a story.

AO: In an interview with Adnan Khan, published by Hazlitt, you talk about how your trip to Kashmir left you with more questions than answers. The trip ultimately shifted your focus towards expectations, and what happens when a place becomes idealized. Can you tell me a bit more about how your awareness of this risk of idealization impacted your approach to the novel?

PM: The most illustrative story from that trip is the time I went to the neighbourhood where an uncle of mine grew up, to look for his childhood home. We kept going round and round the block, returning to this pile of rubble where his house should have been. But he couldn’t see that the ruins were, in fact, his house—and that it had been bombed or burned down. He just kept saying, “It should be here, it should be here.” That was a key moment in solidifying one of the things I wanted my novel to be about.

AO: Without giving too much of the story away, you show how dangerous idealization can be, especially when the subject is something as unwieldy as a disputed territory. We see how Ash has inherited a flawed, black-and-white view of Kashmir, and I’m wondering how that affected his perspective.

PM: In the wake of his father’s death, Ash is forced to confront Brij’s version of Kashmir and recognize that it’s false—or at least limited. So that inspires the collapse and potential reinvention of his worldview and view of his Kashmiri heritage. It’s expressed metaphorically when Ash actually goes to Kashmir, suffers total amnesia, and has to reconstruct his identity from scratch.

AO: I have to ask—Ash admits that the character in his first book is a “naive, hapless” version of himself. His book clearly isn’t an analogous situation, but there are pieces of Ash that reflect you: he is an author, he is Kashmiri-Canadian, and he was raised in London, Ontario. Can you talk about writing yourself into characters?

PM: Sure. There are obvious confluences between my life and that character, and he is in many ways a speculative version of myself who hasn’t had the same fortune to pursue the things that satisfy him most deeply—writing, genuine friendships, a strong partner, regular pick-up basketball games. But there are bits of me in all the characters—not just Ash, but Sherene, and Mona, and Brij, and even Matt. I think a lot of authors, if not most, work in this way, dispersing various aspects of their personalities among the cast of their books.

AO: Ash is particularly scornful of authors who write about themselves—partly a reflection of his frustration with his own first novel. But is it difficult to walk the line between writing from personal experience and making your characters essentially avatars of yourself? Or did it come easily for you?

PM: This novel is the first time I’ve ever written anything remotely autobiographical, aside from one story in my first book that was based on some volunteer work I’d been doing in Montreal—a story that is about the ethical conflict of transmuting that experience into fiction. Writing Fugue States was very challenging, mainly because I really didn’t want anyone who might be implied or implicated in the novel to feel bad or hurt or misrepresented—while also needing to be honest and, as I mentioned earlier, to not avoid any dark or upsetting material. That said, it was kind of fun to write out stories that my family has been telling for years—documenting our oral history, maybe, like some sort of weird insider anthropologist.

AO: How much of Brij comes from your own father?

PM: A lot, though it’s all amplified and caricatured. As all the male characters in the book are caricatures to one degree or another, I suppose.

AO: Finally, I have to ask: in “The Slough,” a story from The Withdrawal Method, you name one of your characters Pasha. Was that character in any way autobiographical?

PM: No, not at all.

AO: Can I ask about the choice?

PM: So that people would ask me about it in interviews. No other reason.

 

Amy

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Amy Oldfield was born in Ottawa and lives in Toronto, where she writes and teaches. You can read more of her work in BAD NUDES, The Feminist Wire, and THIS Magazine. 

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