I have a complex relationship with science fiction. On the one hand, few genres are as exciting or have as much potential; on the other hand, the tendency for novels to devolve into “let me explain my theories on particle physics in excruciating detail” is, in my experience, high. So when Haris Durrani told me about his debut novel, “Technologies of the Self,” I was intrigued. When I read the blurb, I was relieved.
Durrani’s novel is really an exploration of law and the state via the medium of time-travel and other futuristic weirdness. It’s already won an award – the Driftless Novella Prize – and (interview spoilers!) may just be the first in a series. Durrani gave me the scoop on how this all came about.
You’re an engineer. How did you get into writing?
I cannot remember a time when I was not a writer. My interest in science and robotics arrived hand-in-hand with stories I read about them, and I was immediately drawn to producing those kinds of stories myself. I fell in love with writing after my cousin gave me “I, Robot” and “Ender’s Game” in fifth grade, and the rest is history.
I’m now in law school, a path I probably would not have foreseen as a young reader and LEGO tinkerer. But in retrospect it is a natural progression, since my interest in technology and its stories has always revolved around social and political issues, to which law is fundamental. I like to think my obsession with Isaac Asimov’s “Laws of Robotics” had a lot to do with it too.
Is there an intersection between engineering (or technology) and writing? How is that reflected in “Technologies of the Self”?
Writing is itself a technology…I often think of a provocative passage from “Phaedrus,” in which Socrates tells Plato of the myth of the Egyptian god of writing, Theuth…There are interesting stories about Islamic scholars’ reticence to write down the Qur’an and of scholars who did wudu’u [Islamic ritual ablution] before writing down Hadith, because they viewed the written word as an inferior form of communication. All of this goes to say, the written word is a technology, a result of or catalyst for change. I tend to be a Luddite about these things, but I reluctantly succumb to the necessity of putting words to paper.
Law is also technological. This is at the heart of “Technologies.” The title is a reference to a line from Wael Hallaq’s “The Impossible State,” in which…[he] compares Foucault’s concept of “technologies of the self” – the social and legal mechanisms that regulate the inner self as a means of maintaining order in the modern state, from schools to hospitals to prisons – to Al-Ghazali’s “techniques” – the practice of Islam, from dhikr to prayer to other socio-legal obligations. The story in “Technologies” is an attempt to grapple with the tension between these two kinds of technologies: the external regulation of the self by the state and the internal regulation by practices of faith.
Also, engineering, writing, and law all require creative processes. They operate from and produce innovation and new ways of thinking about the world.
The protagonist of “Technologies of the Self” is an engineer with the same background as yourself. To what extent would you say the character is a self-insert or a way of exploring your own identity?
Yes, the narrator, like me, has a Dominican mother and a Pakistani father and is also a Muslim. But this story is a fictionalization of the experiences of myself and my friends and family. I’m wary of calling it a memoir or a self-insert as much as I am of calling it fiction. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the story is about the nature of reality, as much as it may be an attempt to capture it. Junot Díaz once said in an interview that his recurring narrator, Yunior, is not the same person that he is but is “drawn from the same cloth” (I’m paraphrasing), and I feel similarly about my relationship with the narrator of “Technologies.”
Still, it is true that “Technologies” is a way of exploring my identities as well as the lives of my family and friends. In part, I wrote the book because I had never encountered their experiences on any screen, page, or stage. On the other hand, everything I write is an exploration of my identity, regardless of whether I’m conscious of the fact, because I am the writer; who I am inherently shapes the narratives and assumptions that underlie my characters and stories.
You write a lot about science fiction. How do you think the genre can best encapsulate issues of identity for PoC?
I’ve never set out to write so much about the genre but, somehow, that’s what’s transpired…Although science fiction, as much as mainstream literature, has problems with representation, the genre as a whole has mostly fallen outside the mainstream, rejected or neglected by the literary elite. Growing up amidst Western-centric curricula and as one of the few Muslims and students of color in class, this quality attracted me. The average science fiction novel often felt more attuned to social and political issues than the average literary novel. The genre gave birth to authors with radical ideas about race, colonialism, politics, and technology, like Octavia Butler, Frank Herbert, and Kurt Vonnegut.
I think there is sometimes a concern from PoC readers and writers that science fiction is escapist, that it deviates from “real problems in the world” and retreats into “allegory.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. The genre has the remarkable ability to reveal what is most true – and perhaps most horrifying – about our society and to force readers to confront these truths, no matter how brutal, unnerving, or uncomfortable.
What’s your take on the rising trend of novels around Muslim identity? Is that something that comes naturally because the 9/11 generation is now at adulthood, or is there something else going on?
Your observation about the 9/11 generation is probably true. I think there is also an increasing thirst within the literary community for these narratives. I’m not always sure that this is a good thing. While there are several great novels about the Muslim identity, most of the successful ones hardly ever relate the experiences of practicing Muslims. There are either “secular Muslims” (Muslim in name and perhaps in belief, but not practicing Al-Ghazali’s “techniques”) that appeal to the liberal idea of what a “moderate Muslim” ought to be, or irrational, militant fundamentalists, which also appeal to the liberal notion of what “religious” ought to be. There is nothing inherently wrong with either of those kinds of characters, because they do exist in the world, but…I am hard pressed to think of more than a few widely-known, popular novels that truly dive into the experiences of a practicing Muslim. This is the group that suffers the brunt of Islamophobia today.
Rather than critique from the sidelines, producing my own work is the best response. I also co-founded The Muslim Protagonist, an annual literary symposium at Columbia University that seeks to give a platform, mic, and audience for Muslim and allied writers. The symposium is now entering its sixth year.
What’s next for you?
I just came out with a novelette, “Champollion’s Foot,” in Mithila Review. It’s about a crew of failed rebels, from a colonized planet of Dominican Muslims, who discover alien detritus in deep space – with jinn. I have a short piece on space law and global economic inequality forthcoming from the exciting new journal Poet’s Country. And I’m Guest Editor for the upcoming Special Space Opera Issue of The Fantasist, an important new journal for long-form fantasy, broadly defined.
And, “Technologies” is only one chapter in a much longer saga…
You can purchase “Technologies of the Self” from Amazon.
This interview has been edited for length.