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Sorayya Khan is a Pakistani-Dutch writer. Her new book, We Take Our Cities with Us, is a multicultural memoir of grief and the immigrant experience that illuminates the complexities of identity and inheritance in a global world. It will be published on November 7th, 2022 by Ohio State Press / Mad Creek Books. Her 2017 Longreads essay, “Raising Brown Boys in Post-9/11 America” was adapted for the book. We spoke with Sorayya about what it means to live “in between” cultures and how those experiences shaped her as she mothered her own sons, years later.
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In the opening of the book, you describe the light and dark skin your mother and father had respectively and you note that “I am in between.” Can you tell us more about what it means and what it has meant to you to be “in between”?
My father used to tell my siblings and me that being half Pakistani and half Dutch meant that we had the best of both worlds. My parents were a product of the heady post-World War II moment that shaped them, which made possible a marriage that combined such different worlds, one in Lahore, the other in Amsterdam. It has taken my parents’ passing for that moment to come into focus for me — to see the risks and fullness with which they lived their lives, a belief in the future and themselves that is hard to comprehend in our current moment. I can’t be sure what my father had in mind, but as a child, I used to think of his “best of both worlds” mantra as a place which, if I could ever find it, is where I’d belong.
There have been times in my life when being in-between meant not fitting in smoothly or entirely or at all. Most were when I was younger, coming to the US for college at seventeen, for example. Those feelings were tied to a time in my life when I longed to fit in seamlessly somewhere, to be fully one thing or another, to be rooted. In college and graduate school, where I studied political science and international studies, I discovered the reach of history and our interconnectedness, and I began to think of being in-between as coming from multiple places with a shared global history.
Writing rooted me. Drawing on different worlds and gathering them in a single place — on the page — helped me make peace with my in-betweenness. In fact, my mixed background (and all those cities!) gave me my subject matter. As a writer, I explore the interconnectedness of our world, how place and history shape us. My novels and memoir reflect on what it means to belong, whether neighbors in post-Partition Lahore, a soldier returning home from war, a young girl coming of age, or parents who’ve raised children far from their homes. While writing has been a home for me, having a family, too, changed everything. With my husband and children, I’m at home, I belong.
Your mother — someone who was Dutch and light skinned, was considered an outsider. What does it mean to be mothered by someone who is an outsider?
I suppose there are many ways to be an outsider. For some, there’s an urgency to rid yourself of the reality by assimilating as quickly as possible, a frequent immigrant response to enormous social pressures faced in making a new home. That was not the case for my mother. There was a time in our first year after we moved from Austria to Pakistan that I recall her completely out of place, but not imagining the same of myself or my siblings, as if we had escaped what she could not. But my mother was a person of conviction and, as I say in a scene in the memoir where my aunt teaches her how to buy meat at the market, She did not look away and she did not pretend. In some ways, her outspokenness made her an outsider wherever she lived.
My mother made a home for us in two countries that were not hers, Austria and Pakistan. In both places, although especially in Islamabad, my mother subsumed her life to the one she was building with my father. Doing so relegated her heritage to the background which, perhaps, she didn’t mind as much as you’d think– for reasons I discovered while writing the memoir. Even so, raising children is filled with all sorts of compromises, and when cultural and national identities are at stake, parents make decisions about balancing them (or not) in the process. My mother was an example of how to make a home and raise a family far from your own. She taught us to navigate multiple worlds — home, school, country — and that although the process was challenging and complex, it was possible.
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My mother was a voracious reader and her hunger for books meant we shared recommendations and discussed recent reads. I’d already been a writer for many years when my mother passed away, but during her illness, when I’d begun for the first time to think about writing memoir, I was struck by her need to read, as if her hunger for worlds extended to the realm of books — in all genres. I wonder now if the ways in which she navigated belonging led me to books and writing. Regardless, she passed along her love of stories to my siblings and me, and when she died, we divided up her books between us, loath to give up even one. Now I have her copy of Agha Shahid Ali’s The Half-Inch Himalayas, not just the photocopy that she made for me decades ago when the book was difficult to find in Islamabad.
Above all, the experience of being raised by an outsider gave us the gift of locating ourselves in the world. My mother was forever interested in the world around her, turning on the news first thing in the morning and last thing at night, as if knowing what was happening around us all kept her grounded. She passed on this way of being, as if she knew that our home was the entire world.
In some ways America will always treat you as an outsider, simply because you have roots in Pakistan. I read that prolifically throughout the first section of the book, with the awkwardness at the bus stop, the anecdote about Nick, the questions you fielded about life in Pakistan. Sometimes you’re treated as an outsider, even though you are not an outsider. How do those experiences of being treated like an outsider when you were younger affect how you mothered your sons later in life?
They gave me a certain (unwelcome) familiarity with some of the challenges my sons faced as school children, and made me sympathetic to their travails, although even then I was sometimes slow to understand what they faced. But my own experiences also kept me off balance, making me question my sense of belonging and my status in this country. I worried about what repercussions we might face. Every so often, in the midst of my sons’ difficulties, I had a sneaking, secret suspicion that ignoring what was happening might be the better response, which doesn’t make me proud. Defending our children drew attention to us and, lacking my mother’s courage, I would have rather not been in the spotlight. But between my husband being a political scientist (not to mention his own international background) and my parents’ emphasis on the larger world, it was natural to encourage our children to think about their context in it and, also, to think about the forces that produced the harm they were experiencing.
Your two sons are adults now. How has growing up in a post-9/11 America shaped them? How has it shaped your family? How has it shaped you?
My children’s complex selves are a result of their post-9/11 lives. They were introduced to racism as children and learned early to think about the social and political conditions that perpetuate injustice, both in the US and abroad. One of our goals as parents raising our children far from our own families and where we grew up, was to impress upon our children that the world we are a part of is much larger than our New York college town. While our children might have had that sense without their childhood experiences, I think the aftermath of 9/11 drove home the point.
It’s hard to say how it shaped our family because I don’t know what our family might have looked like if we hadn’t shared those experiences. It gave our children a greater appreciation for their father’s lifetime work of thinking about the larger structures that produce the behavior that clouded our lives. Ironically, we understood that our situation was comparatively mild with respect to the violence that was unleashed elsewhere, here and abroad, and appreciated that luck. Certainly, there was a sense of us all being in that moment together, and that sharing it as a unit would help us get to the other side.
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The events around 9/11 confirmed that I was an outsider in this country, a sense that was re-confirmed with the Trump years when Muslim bans were put in place, hate speech proliferated, and the US became even less tolerant of its minorities, which is where it remains today. But I don’t believe 9/11 shaped me. The event and the retribution, both at home and the wars abroad, were shocking, but not unexpected. As open as this country presents itself as being, it has a history of turning against its citizens, and whether domestically or internationally, it does not value human beings equally. But as a parent, it’s always difficult to watch your children go through tough times, and there were many confusing and sleepless nights for us all. That constant worry, shared by so many of us, of how our children might fare in interactions with authorities, whether school administrators, police, or immigration officers, is the background hum of parenting and I imagine it would be less insistent had history unfolded differently.
Sorayya Khan is the author of We Take Our Cities with Us: A Memoir, and the novels, Noor, Five Queen’s Road, and City of Spies which received the Best International Fiction Book Award, Sharjah International Book Fair, 2015. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @SorayyaKhan