Mueenuddin's Book Provides Back Story Of Pakistan

Writers use the phrase "back story" to mean the background or history of their characters. Morning Edition is asking three acclaimed writers for the back story of world events. All were finalists for this year's National Book Award. First up is Pakistani author Daniyal Mueenuddin, who set his book in Pakistan. He talks with Steve Inskeep about his book of short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

All this year we've brought you the news. This Thanksgiving week we will explore the backstory. Writers use that word to mean the background of their characters, and we're asking three acclaimed writers for the backstory of world events. The writers will take us to New York, Michigan, and Pakistan, where we begin. That troubled country is home to Daniyal Mueenudin, and top officials in the Obama administration have been passing around his book of short stories. It's called "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders." I asked Mueenudin what I would see if I climbed to the roof of his family's farm house in the Indus River Valley.

Mr. DANIYAL MUEENUDIN (Author): What you would see around you is a checkerboard of greenery where it's irrigated. Anything that's not irrigated is dust. My house actually sits in the middle of a mango orchard, so it's quite green. It's funny. If you go to Google Earth, it's very easy to find my farm, because it's the only green thing for a long time.

INSKEEP: Daniyal Mueenudin says that landscape symbolizes Pakistani society. Some parts are vibrant. Some parts are dead. The gap between rich and poor is enormous.

It is sometimes said that Pakistan is a feudal, F-E-U-D-A-L, society. Which is a word that Americans tend to hear in connection with the...

Mr. MUEENUDIN: Medieval France...

INSKEEP: Yes, exactly, exactly. And so what does that mean in Pakistan?

Mr. MUEENUDIN: I guess what feudalism means in Pakistan is that until recently there's been this sort of community among landowners and the people who work and live on their lands. It's sort of a patronage system in which the landowner provides certain protections and the peasants provide labor. It's a very unfair system.

What you have to remember is that this system has not existed for very long. I mean many of these large landowners who became prominent in the '20s or '30s became wealthy through their lands and now their power is fading. My mother used to say three generations from shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves.

INSKEEP: Hmm. Your father was a landowner, not the biggest landowner by any means, but one of the landowners out there, and he had a staff that worked on his farm. And when you talk about a feudal arrangement, that's what you're talking about, right?

Mr. MUEENUDIN: Exactly, yeah. The reason, I think, that he prospered is he'd been trained in England and he set up this very excellent management organization, which enabled him to prosper. Unfortunately he didn't understand the people on the farm very well, therefore they'd become extremely corrupt. That's when I entered the picture. I'd been in school in America and my father basically said to me, look, if you want this property, you have to come back and sort of rescue it. So when I showed up there it was a complete mess and I spent sort of seven years trying to bring it under control, and I think now I have it under control.

INSKEEP: Which is suppose means you had to try to understand the comparatively poor people, at least at the beginning, who were working for you.

Mr. MUEENUDIN: Exactly. You know, I think that one of the most intimate ways you can know somebody is by doing business with them, and that's because in business there are no buddies, there's no friendship. I mean there is friendship, but it's tactical. Therefore when you do business with somebody, you better understand them well, 'cause they're trying to understand you well and they'll exploit your weaknesses and you have to exploit theirs. So it's a good way to get to know people.

INSKEEP: Does anybody think that the system in Pakistan is fair, is just?

Mr. MUEENUDIN: No, nobody thinks that. In Pakistan there's just such disparities in wealth. There's so many who don't have enough and there are few who have way too much.

INSKEEP: Do people widely believe in Pakistan that if a poor person or a poor family works hard, works honestly, and plays by the rules that they could someday get ahead?

Mr. MUEENUDIN: No, they don't. One of the things I've observed in Pakistan is that because people for generations have been living just at the edge of true desperation, they're very, very averse to innovation.

At my farm, for example, you'll see a guy who's, say - I'm exaggerating, but he's moving dirt from point A to point B and he's carrying it in a little bucket. And I'll say, hey, why don't, like, four of you get together and get a big platform, put all the dirt on that platform and then pick it up and move it over to the other place, wherever you want to move it? And they're reluctance to do it is puzzling and exasperating. And I think the reason is that innovation is dangerous. If you aspire, you can achieve, but you can also fail, and I think that failure is much more costly in a place like Pakistan than it is in, say, America.

INSKEEP: You have no margin for error.

Mr. MUEENUDIN: Exactly. If you do something new and it turns out to be a bad idea, you could fall very far.

INSKEEP: Well, I wonder if some of this leads to the corruption that you describe. You describe when you tried to retake control of the family farm, that the employees were basically stealing from the farm. I wonder if that's a natural reaction for people who feel that the system is unfair, that they have no stake in it and that probably someone is stealing from them.

Mr. MUEENUDIN: That's true, but also it's true that in Pakistan there's sort of a culture of corruption, which I'm sure there are people listening to your show, Pakistanis, who will attack me for that. But I think there is a culture of corruption. There's not a stigma attached to corruption, certainly not in the same way as there is in the West.

INSKEEP: Well, we should point out that even though you're are speaking critically of your country and you write critically of your country in some respects, you also make it clear in this book, "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders," I mean you create wonderful characters. It seems plain to me that you came to like, appreciate, even love some of the people that you have known and worked with in the countryside of Pakistan.

Mr. MUEENUDIN: I love Pakistan with all my heart. I mean you can't write without being affectionate about a place or loving it, really. But I think that there's a saying: My country, right or wrong, is like saying my mother, drunk or sober.

INSKEEP: You'd rather she be sober.

Mr. MUEENUDIN: Exactly. And just because it's your country doesn't mean you can't criticize it.

INSKEEP: We could have a long discussion about the history of Islamist groups in Pakistan and their intertwining with various governments over the years and how governments have built them up. But I want to ask about a source of their strength now. Do the social problems that you describe create fuel of some sort for Islamist groups and extremist groups?

Mr. MUEENUDIN: Absolutely. That's what it's all about. What I've seen is that they will come into a village and say, Look, give us one of your sons. We'll feed him, we'll clothe him, we'll educate him, in quotes. And people are desperate and they give their kids. I mean madrassas, which are these religious schools essentially, are building an army. I don't know if you - if you're a fan of "Lord of the Rings," but there's a wonderful scene in that in which the evil lord, whose name I forget, is sort of building an army out of clay and dust and underground, these vats, making these evil warriors. And in Pakistan you're seeing exactly that happen, that there are thousands and thousands of these madrassas and they're churning out an army.

INSKEEP: Years ago it was said of Pakistan that although there was this problem with Islamists, that we need not worry about it too much, it's not the kind of country that would be taken over by an Islamic revolution. It's a more secular and even Western-oriented country than Americans might realize. Do you think that is still true today?

Mr. MUEENUDIN: You see, one thing that you have to understand is that one guy who's willing to die for his belief is equal to 100 who aren't. These guys are fanatic, and therefore I think that you can't underestimate the threat from them, especially in a poor country like Pakistan, where most people are cowed and are unable because of their circumstance to resist.

INSKEEP: Daniyal Mueenudin is author of "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders," stories set in Pakistan. We're getting the backstory of world events this week from three writers, all finalists for the National Book Award. And tomorrow we'll talk with Michigan writer Bonnie Jo Campbell.

Ms. BONNIE JO CAMPBELL (Writer): People who are like the characters in my books would not be bad people to be with because they are people who remember how to survive at a very basic level.

INSKEEP: We'll hear Michigan's backstory tomorrow.

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