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INTERVIEW: Mehr Afshan Farooqi

September 09, 2012




Mehr Afshan Farooqi is assistant professor of Urdu and South Asian literature at the University of Virginia. Her book Urdu Literary Culture: Vernacular Modernity in the Writing of Muhammad Hasan Askari, has recently been released

What are you reading these days?

A couple of interesting books that I read recently are Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity and Hamid Dabashi’s Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest.

I have different reading patterns depending on the time of the year and where I happen to be at the time. These days I am in India spending time with family, browsing my father’s extensive library, catching up on Urdu journals/publications and ‘Indian’ writing in English. I am amazed at the number of books being published in Urdu despite the popularity and vast readership that English commands. There is a growing number of books in regional languages that are now available in English translation and I am dipping into those. I am reading Salma’s searing Tamil novel Irandam Jamattin Kadai or The Hour Past Midnight, translated into English by Lakshmi Holstrom. I am also reading Hindi originals, notably Uday Prakash’s short fiction. I have been skimming Yashpals’ mammoth novel Jhoota Sach (which is now available in English translation). My current project has to do with multilingualism. Cities are the ideal and obvious places for linguistic diversity. My reading focus is mostly on reading literature that has to do with cities in the context of South Asia. I am enjoying Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis.

What is the one book/author you feel everyone must read? Why?

I think this is a difficult question to answer because it is too broad. In American universities there is usually a couple of books (sometimes just the one) assigned for all incoming undergraduates to read. I also feel that this question has to be culture specific to make sense.

What are you planning to reread?

I read a lot of poetry. I am always rereading Ghalib and Mir Taqi Mir. In fact, those collections have a permanent place on my bedside table. I feel poetry, especially of the ghazal variety, has so many layers and nuances that each reading has its own pleasures, rewards of new meanings and insights, and goes towards building a deeper connection and understanding of the culture that produced it.

What is the one book you read because you thought it would make you appear smarter?

I was fairly young when Edward Said’s Orientalism (1979) was published and everyone around me was talking about it. I wanted to read it badly so that I could at least understand some of what was being said. Of course I had to read it again later after I had developed my own perspective. This past year when I was editing my book on Muhammad Hasan Askari, I suddenly realised that Askari had passed on just a year before Orientalism’s publication. I wondered what Askari would have said about Said’s landmark work. Askari, who was a postcolonial before his time, who made a singular albeit partial effort to bridge the gulf between the literary past and present long before theorists came up with postcoloniality as a philosophy or methodology to understand the disequilibrium in colonised societies.

What is the one book you started reading but could not finish?

I don’t think I could name just one book; there are so many.

What is your favourite childhood book or story?

If I were to single out a particular book I would say, my favourite childhood book was Puss in Boots. I loved ogres and talking animals that seemed to have that extra bit of wisdom or special perception that humans lacked. I had a wonderfully illustrated edition (which I still treasure) of Puss in Boots. The ogre in the book was so tall that he couldn’t stand up straight inside a room; he had a single long tooth. Puss was so handsome and intelligent.