For the short story reader. Updated every Monday.

Uzma Aslam Khan: The Short Form Interview

That a writer can go through all the necessary stages of discovery, change, and even, to some extent, resolution, in so tight a space is daunting and miraculous.

Author of Thinner than SkinThe Geometry of God, and more.

The Interview

What led to the glacier-mating opening in your story “Ice, Mating”?

I don’t know exactly, but I kept seeing those two ice blocks – a male, a female – and I wanted to write a scene to see what happens next. The image must have begun nestling inside me years earlier, when, on a visit to northern Pakistan, I grew fascinated with how people from the area give each glacier a name, a personality, even a gender. Since outside the polar regions Pakistan has more glaciers than anywhere else on earth, that’s a lot of glaciers. They also arrange their marriages, and the ceremony is extremely secret and somber. It’s a way to naturally preserve water, while paying homage to the land. It moved me deeply, and then, for no obvious reason, one day I wrote that scene. “Ice, Mating” is an extract of sorts from my new novel, Thinner than Skin, just out in the US. So there too, you see that I was already toying with a novel when I arrived at that shorter piece, and now, in the book, it has mutated into a quite different and much shorter chapter.

Author Nicole Krauss has said that the story is “a form whose physical diminutiveness has saved it from the expectation of carrying nations on its back.” As a Pakistani who has lived in various countries and writes in English, what are your thoughts on that?

Thought-provoking, but I wonder, can size save us? To a great extent, writers don’t choose what a work will carry or discard, regardless of its size. So, for instance, you have the short story “Toba Tek Singh” by the Urdu writer Sadat Hasan Manto, which is possibly the strongest fictional work against nations ever written. It was shedding that burden by mocking it, but first, it had to carry it. Manto was, after all, responding to his environment. The story was written soon after the partition of India into India and Pakistan, which left millions homeless, including those in the story: the mentally ill. Where were they to go? Who’d take them? Who was really insane? He couldn’t shut his world out, so he axed right through it. Likewise, read the short stories of Patrick Chamoiseau.

A short story must end, while a chapter must urge you to turn the page. It’s a physical and psychological difference: I don’t like socks and I don’t like to tuck the sheets under my bed

What  is your relationship with short stories?

Novels, not short stories, are my first love, both as a writer and reader. I came to short stories late. Possibly the first ones I read in English that made me go, wow, these are amazing, but, oh, these are difficult, was in grad school. The stories were “The Egg” by Sherwood Anderson and “Slave on the Block” by Langston Hughes. What did – and continues to – draw me to this form, when I’m drawn to it, is control and precision, two things I arrive at more easily when writing a chapter, rather than a complete story. A short story must end, while a chapter must urge you to turn the page. It’s a physical and psychological difference: I don’t like socks and I don’t like to tuck the sheets under my bed. I like my limbs to be free. But a short story must tuck in the sheets. That a writer can go through all the necessary stages of discovery, change, and even, to some extent, resolution, in so tight a space is daunting and miraculous.

You've said your first complete story was at age 6. Do you remember what it was about, and with what kind of instincts you might've approached the form at that age?

It was about a princess and her horse. What was going through my head at the time? Well, I loved animals, especially horses. I was living in London at the time and a lot of English girls were taking riding lessons, but my family couldn’t afford that. There was one girl in particular, Gillian, the big sister of a girl in my class. She had long hair, freckles, and nice boots. She seemed always to be going to or coming from a riding lesson. I wanted to be her. Perhaps that’s why I wrote the story. I think my princess even had boots.

Recommended by Uzma Aslam Khan

The Egg
Excerpt

One hopes for so much from a chicken and is so dreadfully disillusioned. Small chickens, just setting out on the journey of life, look so bright and alert and they are in fact so dreadfully stupid. They are so much like people they mix one up in one's judgments of life. If disease does not kill them they wait until your expectations are thoroughly aroused and then walk under the wheels of a wagon--to go squashed and dead back to their maker. Vermin infest their youth, and fortunes must be spent for curative powders. In later life I have seen how a literature has been built up on the subject of fortunes to be made out of the raising of chickens. It is intended to be read by the gods who have just eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It is a hopeful literature and declares that much may be done by simple ambitious people who own a few hens. Do not be led astray by it.

We read it in The Triumph of the Egg.

Originally published in The Dial.

Slave on the Block
Excerpt

“He is the jungle,” said Anne when she saw him.

“He's ‘I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray,’” said Michael.

For Anne thought in terms of pictures: she was a painter. And Michael thought in terms of music: he was a composer for the piano. And they had a most wonderful idea of painting pictures and composing music that went together, and then having a joint “concert-exhibition” as they would call it. Her pictures and his music. The Carraways, a sonata and a picture, a fugue and a picture. It would be lovely, and such a novelty, people would have to like it. And many of their things would be Negro. Anne had painted their maid six times. And Michael had composed several themes based on the spirituals, and on Louis Armstrong's jazz. Now here was this ebony boy. The essence in the flesh.

We read it in The Ways of White Folks: Stories.

Originally published in Scribners: September, 1933.

The Old Man Slave and the Mastiff
Excerpt

It was, for the old man slave, a moment of confusion: seeing those men who looked so much like him leave the ship, all only half revived from the longest of deaths. The oil that coated their sickly skin blended with their sweat and traces of anguish. Their screams, companion to extreme suffering, had left permanent deposits of garlic-smelling foam in the corners of their mouths. They still carried the odors of the country of Before, its ultimate rhythms, its languages that were already almost lost. The old man slave sensed that they were still in thrall to the gods he remembered vaguely without words. And the ship also moved him. He no longer knew whether he had been born on the Plantation or whether he had known this crossing in the hold, but each tilt of a slave ship in the calm waters of the harbor triggered a primordial reeling inside him. Multiple creaks, muddy shadows, and liquid rays of light inhabited the depths of his spirit, which was drunk on the viscous seaweed and the ship's dances.

We read it in The Art of the Story.

Originally published in Grand Street 63.

Everything in This Country Must
Excerpt

Father's shirt was wet under his overalls and it was very white when the headlights hit it. The lights got close close closer, and in the brightening we heard shouts and then the voices came clear. They sounded like they had swallowed things I never swallowed. I looked at Father and he looked at me all of a sudden with the strangest of faces, like he was lost, like he was punched, like he was the river cap floating, like he was a big alone tree desperate for forest. Someone shouted out, Hey, mate, what's goin' on? in a strange strange way, and Father said, Nothing, and his head dropped to his chest and he looked across the river at me and I think what he was telling me was Drop the rope, girl, but I didn't. I kept it tight, holding the draft horse's neck above the water, and all the time Father was saying but not saying, Drop it, please, Katie, drop it, let her drown.

We read it in The Art of the Story.