Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Ahsan Butt
by Hananah Zaheer Read the Story December 17, 2018
One of the most intriguing things about this story is the way it is told. It reads like a factual counter-account to the idea of propaganda. Why did you decide to use the distant narrator as a way of telling?
The short answer is—it came like that. The story, including its voice, came all at once, which is unusual for me. Usually I have only the residue of an idea, certainly not its voice, and have to struggle to find anything. Here, the voice was anchored in the first line.
I’d say the narrative distance felt right because of its authority. Once the strangeness on the moon begins, there is the sense that this narrator, at this distance, knows the story in a definitive way and could—and might—reveal what “truly” happened. This, I hope, gives the story some momentum, and then at the end, as it pushes into Raheem’s interiority, a feeling of expansion and opening out. Whereas if the narration was coupled too closely to Raheem from the beginning, one would intuit the limit of what can be known, which might stunt the story’s affect.
This story seems a commentary on the way propaganda interacts with the stories we are told about events in our real life. How do you see your portrayal of Raheem here? Is he a part of the machinery or a quiet rebel?
The moment Raheem tells mission control that there was an azaan, he loses ownership of that experience, and to an extent, his life. The way we are set up to consume lives is tragic.
I think “rebel” is too a strong a word. I think Raheem has integrity, but even that’s strained under the circumstances. After all, power coerces. It forces compromise and renders so many choices irrational. Maybe the question of his complicity is best answered by his appearances on state TV. Should he have refused? Did he really have a choice? What did he respond to the trite questions and how did he say it? Personally, I imagine he said nothing false, but also nothing that would offend the regime. Is that enough one way or the other? One could view his retreat into solitude as a kind of protest or simply the need to shut the world out to make sense of his own experience. Maybe both. In any case, I think he did the best he could think to do.
This story uses a lot of exposition. Can you talk about why you made that choice as opposed to creating full scenes and what your intent was?
The short answer is again—it came that way. I liked how self-contained and complete it felt, like an extended sidebar in a weird book about Lajiristan. I was conscious, too, of length. I knew the story should be short, and I didn’t trust myself to write succinct scenes. I would have chased details that served the scenes, sacrificing the overall tone and focus.
The expository mode also invited me, for some reason, to be a bit playful. Of course, my first impulse—when my wife pointed it out—was to erase the humor, but I quickly realized I couldn’t. The tone was doing something subtle to set up the story’s arc and the slight shift of the final moments with Raheem.
Heavy here, also, is a feeling of want and nostalgia for the repetition of that one moment. What does that moment represent for Raheem and for you as a writer?
For Raheem, I think it was a deeply intimate moment of conviction, of faith—of connection, somehow alone on the quiet moon. Who wouldn’t want to return to that amid the noise of the regime and the discourse of the media and the Internet? And I think I’m as caught up in that as Raheem. The image of an astronaut experiencing the azaan and performing salat on the moon has a charge for me as a Muslim.
As a writer (and reader), I’m interested in fiction that grasps at what’s beyond our perception, whether it’s weird, eerie, scary, or simply speculative. I obsess over how these modes can defamiliarize the familiar and re-engage us with everything’s complexity.
But more generally, I think many people can relate to having what they perceive is a moment of transcendence, indescribable to anyone else, only then to become stuck by it—desperately trying to relive it, or failing that, to mourn it. Maybe Raheem’s moment on the moon is a respite from loneliness. Or maybe it’s a moment of supercharged loneliness, a kind of trauma.
Have you ever wanted to travel in space? Where would you go?
This is where you find out I’m a chicken. Flying on a plane, which I regularly do to visit family, is terrifying enough. My wife is the one who dreamt, and dreams, of being an astronaut, and still says she’d consider piloting life on Mars, if volunteers were called for—which, no matter how hypothetical, stings a bit, I promise.
Beyond my terror of travel itself, I find the loneliness of space daunting. I crave my moments of solitude as much as any other decent introvert, but then I like to enjoy my solitude in public. The traffic of people around me is inspiring.
But could I imagine ever going to the moon? For an hour, if somehow my return was guaranteed—OK, let’s say yes. I’d perform my salat pointed at Earth, then come home, sit in a café with my wife, and dream about it.
About the Author:
Ahsan Butt was born in Toronto, is of Pakistani descent, and currently lives in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in The Massachusetts Review, The Rumpus, Pacifica Literary Review, The Offing, and elsewhere.
About the Interviewer:
Hananah Zaheer lives, writes, and improvises (life and theater) in Dubai. Her latest work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review and Michigan Quarterly Review, where it won the Lawrence Foundation fiction prize. She is working on a collection of short stories and a novel. She tweets @hananahzaheer.