It is a truth widely acknowledged that every man or woman with literary aspirations must be in search of a route to New York.
In New York, the myth goes, these aspiring gods and goddesses of arts and letters can mingle among themselves and recreate contemporary fantasies of literary commingling past. Every gathering in a dingy apartment with bottles of cheap wine and sprinklings of literary gossip is imbued with the potential of being the next cauldron of literary production. There’s the new Elizabeth Hardwick on the couch, the next Joan Didion discreetly folded on the ottoman beside her, with Dorothy Parker slinging sly asides at the Mailer-to-be.
I would have liked to be a New York writer. New York was where I landed when I first came to the United States, a wide-eyed teenage bride, hands covered in henna, brain full of literary loves. Its towering skyscrapers were the first bit of America that I saw with my own eyes, before my new husband hustled me into a “limo” to Connecticut where his parents lived. I learned in that moment this “limo” was not the fancy limousine that I had expected but merely a large bus. It was a portent, this shattering of expectations; it would happen again and again over the course of the marriage.
I did not know then about the geographic mores of literary gatekeeping that enshrine New York as the haloed altar of American letters. I did have a passion for the written word, a passion so fervid that I had agreed, at 16, to marry a man I barely knew for the promise of studying literature in America.
We moved to Indiana. The marriage didn’t last but my literary aspirations did. They were ill-suited to the life I was left with: that of a single mother with a toddler and very little money. I had won custody, but the judge had decreed custody could be taken away were I to move more than 100 miles from where I lived then. If I had nursed any hopes about a Maya Angelou-esque new beginning in New York, where all the writers were, I had to set them aside.
I felt sentenced to Indiana and so I pretended that I did not live there. When talking to other Pakistanis, on the internet, at conferences and during visits home I deflected questions over where I actually lived. I was actually writing by then, first for blogs, then in 2009 for Dawn, Pakistan’s largest newspaper published in English. When I took a position that required I go to New York City every six weeks, I thought my American writing career was about to begin. Instead, I got condescension.
The interactions usually went something like this: “Where are you from?” someone would ask, in the way literary New Yorkers do when sizing someone up (and they’re always sizing someone up). When I would say “Indiana”, most assumed I had said “India”. When I laughed and enunciated, “India-NA,” they frowned.
After a while I stopped correcting them. Exotically eastern, I thought, was probably better than dowdily midwestern.
I took on other forms of subterfuge. Once while trying to impress a publicist who was about to send me a book, I used the address of a New York friend. A few other times, while corresponding with editors, I gave my agent’s address in New York. Only if someone was particularly insistent did I offer up the truth.
Even after writing two books and hundreds of articles and essays, I balk at being excluded from the literary milieu because I do not live in New York full-time. At first I justified the lie to myself as a necessary one; the lore of literary New York required it, the brutal business of being a writer required it. More recently I’ve rationalized it as half true, which it became when I began to spend a part of every month in New York City.
Covid-19 has put an end to that “almost in New York” lifestyle. Catastrophe, I am learning, has the potential of exposing costs. Freed of travel and Fomo, I am aghast at the energy I frittered on it. With New York literary life paused, most of my anxieties have also dissipated. In the lovely silence of my study I can simply be a writer rather than engage in the performance of being a writer which is what New York is all about. I wonder now, why I did not free myself of New York sooner?
I know why. In a literary world where writer-ly performance – appearance at the right parties, questions at the right book talk, curated Twitter feeds and hustling with the publishing industry’s kingmakers – can yield bountiful book deals, everyone feels pushed and prodded into similar enactments.
As a brown, immigrant author, I know that I will never really be part of that elite milieu. The niche most available to me is one in which I gouge up the details of my suffering, framed in the requisite arc of having escaped my own culture, my arranged marriage, etc. If I do a good job, I could be permitted to tell the stories of other brown women. In the meantime, the new Didions of my generation will write about anyone, of any color or class no questions asked.
Catastrophe and transformation go together. The first we now know with a familiarity we would never have imagined were we not currently living it, the parameters of the second must still be envisioned. Is it possible to build a literary culture less centered on one very expensive place? During a global pandemic it feels radical even to consider it but I do believe that the American literary elite can be pushed to imagine it; to admit that literary genius can be cast in molds other than the Didion or Sontag.
I lied about my New York address because I wanted to appear cooler, more accomplished, more a part of the club than I was. Faced with a literary scene that by and large, favored women with Ivy League pedigree and insouciant style over those with a catalogue of hardscrabble, school-of-life truths such as mine, I hid facts and put up fronts. I still feel terrible for that girl who hid her truths, who never before spoke about being a single mother, who felt too afraid of losing custody of her child to head off for literary adventure in New York City. I would be lying if I said that I would have told her to do otherwise, to be completely honest – not yet, not just yet.