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An Interview with Syed Ali Haider

29 Nov
Syed Ali Haider

Syed Ali Haider’s essay about food and religion, “Porkistan,” was published at The Butter.

Syed Ali Haider was born in Pakistan, grew up in Florida, went to college in Minnesota, and finished his degree in Texas. He lives in the Texas Hill Country, where he writes, teaches, and cheers for the Detroit Lions. His work has appeared in Glimmer Train, vandal, and Mary: A Journal of New Writing. His essay about bacon and Islam, “Porkistan,” was published at The Butter.

To read “Porkistan” and an exercise on using sensory details, click here. In this interview, Haider discusses the challenges of describing religious confusion and writing about family and the way that telling a story to a live audience can help shape its written form.

Michael Noll

The descriptions of food in this essay are really great. You capture the essence of bacon. the sound of it cooking in its own fat, the look of it. You write that after you tried it for the first time, you “wanted to lick the greasy paper towel.” You also capture the weird grossness of turkey bacon (“salted rubber tires”). Finally, you make a really interesting statement when talking about the food of South and Central Texas, comparing it to the food of Pakistan: “Carne Guisada Con Papas is Aloo Gosht. Aloo Qeema is Picadillo Mexicano.” Food can sometimes be a difficult thing to describe: our sense of taste doesn’t correspond neatly to adjectives. Was it difficult to put your love of bacon, disgust at turkey bacon, and appreciation for Tex-Mex into words?

Syed Ali Haider

I think it’s difficult for me to put nearly anything into words because I’m such a stickler about precise language. But when it comes to writing about food, I think I have an easier time than with anything else because I think about it so damn much. Seriously, I am nearly always thinking about food, reading about food, talking about food. And when I was growing up, bacon was such a constant obsession of mine, that it was so much fun to write about at length. Earlier drafts of the essay were much more focused on bacon that it read like a cheap David Foster Wallace knockoff. But, yeah, because food occupies so much of my time and thought, it was the easiest part of the essay to write. Everything surrounding food was much more difficult because I had to explain how religious confusion feels. I had to somehow put into words the moment your family is ready to disown you and everything that is going on in your head and your body. Bacon tastes smoky and salty. It has texture. It’s crunchy and chewy and fatty. But how does it feel when your mom tells you she won’t see or speak to you? What does that feel like? That’s much more difficult.

Michael Noll

This essay started out as a story told to a live audience. I’m curious how much you had to change the story to adapt it to a written form. Was there a significant difference between telling and writing this essay?

Syed Ali Haider

I think that because of the way Story Department was framed to me—tell us stories about your mom!—the stakes were lower than when I’m writing. I’m much more comfortable with oral storytelling. Because I can talk for days, and I don’t nitpick and stress about sentence structure and the precision of language and all that. I gave myself permission to just talk. Because I wanted it to sound like a conversation, I wrote a loose outline and allowed room to just freestyle and flesh it out on the spot. This might make some people really nervous, but it removed the possibility of me forgetting lines or anything like that. I rehearsed it four times, and each iteration was drastically different. And when I got up and told it to the audience, it was a whole new beast. Sort of stand-up routine/storytelling. Mike Birbiglia-esque. Telling the story to a live audience sort of activates all these devices we have as natural storytellers. You very quickly get a feel for the room and what sort of things are and aren’t working. When a joke bombs, you feel it. The silence of the room is so awful. You’re standing up there thinking, “I thought that was going to be hilarious.” So you get this instant feedback that you don’t get when you’re writing. When you’re telling somebody a story, you’re forced to cut out all the uninteresting parts that don’t really pertain or aren’t important to what you’re trying to say. Unless you’re just completely ignoring the look on the other person’s face in which case you’re going to miss most of that and tell a really long and boring story and completely lose the person’s attention. I think that’s what live storytelling did for me. Forced me to think about the audience and their attention. How can I tell this story in the best way so that they’ll keep listening to me. And the feedback I got that night was so positive that I wanted to keep that voice and sound in the essay. I wanted it to more or less be as direct an adaptation as I could get. There’re pieces that I culled from an older essay of mine and fit it in, but for the most part I wrote down what I remembered telling at Story Department.

Michael Noll

Syed Ali Haider's essay about food and religion, "Porkistan," appeared at The Butter, the new online journal edited by Roxane Gay.

Syed Ali Haider’s essay about food and religion, “Porkistan,” appeared at The Butter, the new online journal edited by Roxane Gay.

This is a wide-ranging essay. It’s about your relationship with your parents, especially your mother. But it’s also about religious belief, persecution based on religious and ethnic stereotypes, food, and creating a mixed identity—one that is part one thing and part another. I’m curious how long it took for this essay to find its structure. How often did you wade into this material before finding the right way to begin?

Syed Ali Haider

When I wrote the essay two years ago, it was more about me and my love of food. But when I told the story at Story Department, I opened with a story about my mom that is essential to understanding who she is. She’s at JFK and accosts a Delta Airlines lady and is nearly arrested for climbing over the counter. It’s such a bizarre story that all these years later, I’m still baffled that she did that and I wonder if I made it all up. I love telling this story about my mom because she’s so whackadoodle but also equal parts graceful and wonderful. The story comes back toward the end of the essay because I understand her and the story in a whole new way. She’s this totally fierce protector of her kids and is willing to look silly and risk arrest if her kid isn’t allowed on an airplane. In telling this story and focusing on my mom, I realized that her story and my story are so similar, which is why sometimes there’s so much tension between us. She grew up with the same religious confusion that I did except mine was so entirely food-centric. So everything just clicked and I realized that she was the missing piece to the whole thing.

Michael Noll

This is an essay about your religious beliefs, practice and identity, but it’s also about your mother’s conversion to Islam. That conversion is essential to understanding your own, not least because it led to your being born. But, it’s also someone else’s experience, not your own. Relationships with parents can be a touchy subject, especially for writers. Was it difficult to write about this part of your mother’s life? How did you approach telling the story of her conversion?

Syed Ali Haider

Yeah, this was an extremely difficult piece to write. When I told the story, it was a one-off thing, so I didn’t have to worry about my mom reading it, but when I sent it to The Butter, and they published it, it was suddenly out there for anyone to read. The strange thing about this essay is that it pivots on this secret—that I’m not a Muslim or at least that I don’t really know what I am—and the necessity to continue lying to her to maintain our relationship. But I still have this responsibility to tell her story in a way that honors her experience. So in trying to honor her, I asked her a lot about growing up and what that was like, and she was really open about it with me. I’m not sure what her reaction to the essay would be, but I tried very hard to write a piece that respects her and shows her how much I love her because I don’t want people to read it and think she’s a horrible person who disowns her kids. Like yes, that threat was there, but it’s like a fucked up love thing.

November 2014

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Use Sensory Details

26 Nov
Syed Ali Haider's essay about food and religion, "Porkistan," appeared at The Butter, the new online journal edited by Roxane Gay.

Syed Ali Haider’s essay about food and religion, “Porkistan,” appeared at The Butter, the new online journal edited by Roxane Gay.

Beginning in elementary school, we’re taught to use the five senses in descriptive writing. By the time we’re writing as adults, it ought to seem like second nature, right? Too often, though, when we try to use all five senses, the sentences feel forced and unnatural. Some smells are difficult to explain. Or, the smell is easy, but to describe the other senses takes too much room on the page. So, how do we move beyond the descriptions that are easiest, that first come to mind? How do we move to descriptions that are more imaginative and interesting?

A really good example of using sensory details can be found in Syed Ali Haider’s essay, “Porkistan.” The essay combines those essential aspects of the first Thanksgiving: food and religion. It was published at Roxane Gay’s new online magazine, The Butter, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Haider writes about bacon, a food that is impossible to ignore, even if you don’t eat it. Here is how he describes it:

I ate bacon for the first time when I was eleven years old. My best friend Jorge lived a block from my house, and I practically lived at his house during the summer. Bacon was a fixture at breakfast, sizzling in a pan and drying on paper towels. Before I even knew what it was, I wanted it. Bacon is intoxicating. The sound of bacon cooking in its own grease is seductive. Fat popping in a hot pan. It even looks beautiful. Ribbons of red and yellow, tips charred and crispy. The word “bacon” is plump and satisfying.

Haider doesn’t use all five senses, but he does return to one particular sense over and over. He describes the sound of bacon cooking three different ways:

  1. “sizzling in a pan”
  2. “The sound of bacon cooking in its own grease”
  3. “Fat popping in a hot pan.”

Two of those lines (sizzling, popping) are onomatopoeia: words whose sound imitates the thing they are describing. The other line simply states the actual sound (bacon cooking in its own grease). Haider also describes the sight of the bacon: “drying on paper towels” and “Ribbons of red and yellow, tips charred and crispy.” Next, he describes the smell:

Jorge’s mom, doling out servings of bacon, asked me every morning if I wanted some. On one particular morning, I gave in and held out my plate. I wanted to lick the greasy paper towel. That afternoon I went home and ran past my parents, straight to the bathroom, where I brushed my teeth over and over, but the smell was still on my fingers.

I thought I would be found out. It was in my hair, my nails, and sweating through my pores.

Notice that Haider doesn’t try to describe what the smell is like. The smell of bacon is not comparable to anything else. Instead, he describes the way it sticks to everything (which is not helpful if you’re a Muslim, as Haider was, and trying to conceal your bacon consumption).

In two paragraphs, Haider has not only described bacon but attached those descriptions to story: the things he describes make life difficult for him.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a description with sensory details using “Porkistan” by Syed Ali Haider as a model:

  1. Identify the thing to describe. Keep it simple. It’s difficult to describe something that is diffuse or abstract. If possible, name the thing you want to describe.
  2. State what the thing does. Sometimes it’s not necessary to compare the smell or taste to something else. A clear statement of what the thing does (cooking in its own grease) can clearly evoke the thing—and sometimes it can suggest sensory details. So, explain in close detail what the thing does. When and where do you find it? How do you know it’s there? What is it doing? How do people react?
  3. Describe the thing with a few senses. Perhaps you can use more, or even all; if so, great. But, very often, it’s effective to choose one or two senses and explore the different ways to use them. Haider uses two different onomatopoeic words. He twice describes how the smell sticks to different parts of his body. He finds two different visual descriptions of bacon: color and texture. Try choosing a sense and finding different ways that the thing looks, sounds, feels, smells, or tastes.
  4. Connect the senses to story. You’re really just connecting the thing to story, which should be easy; why else would you be describing it in the first place? Think about the effect the thing has on you. How does it affect your behavior? As you consider this, remember the sensory details. The smell of bacon made it difficult for Haider to hide the fact that he’d eaten it. How does one of the sensory details you wrote make the thing difficult to ignore?

Good luck and have fun!

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