A Q&A with Jabeen

Q: Who are you?

A: Here are the basics: My parents are both from Pakistan. I was born in London and immigrated with my family to the United States when I was two. I have an older brother and two older sisters (check out my sister's new book). My father is a financial consultant and my mother is a retired psychiatric nurse. I grew up in Washington, D.C., but after college, I lived briefly in Taipei, Taiwan where I taught English and backpacked around Southeast Asia. I have degrees in Economics and Public Policy. I worked for the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for almost seven years. At EPA, I wrote environmental regulations, specifically regulations concerning the stratospheric ozone. I was working at EPA when I quit to write the novel.  

Q: What inspired this novel?

A: Many things, including my experience growing up as a child of immigrants and Pakistan’s sudden prominence on the world stage. Americans know little about this country that is neither Arab nor Indian, or its people. They don’t know what to be mad at us for—are we blowing things up or stealing tech jobs? As a writer, I was in a unique position. I could satisfy some of this newly minted curiosity by offering readers a glimpse into the life of a typical Pakistani–American family.

I also wanted to explore how post-9/11 paranoia could impact an average suburbanite with a Muslim background.  I found an easy and rather comical venue with the FBI Terror Watch list—a list of over a million wanted names that is so bloated it serves no purpose other than to piss people off at airport ticket counters. Everyone is on this list, and most people have no idea how their names got on there. My brother’s name is on the list. Three-year-old kids are on the list. Dead people, etc.

Q: Name your favorite authors/books.

A: I love Garrison Keillor, Tom Perrotta, Nick Hornby , Richard Russo and Bill Bryson. My favorite novel of all time is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Tool. The protagonist is a loser, slob and intellectual snob, and one of the most compelling characters you’ll find in modern fiction. I pay homage to Confederacy by naming a cat in my novel after him. I also recently enjoyed Toby Young’s memoir, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. Generally, I like books about losers and failures. No one wants to read about successful, emotionally healthy people who make the right decisions.

I’m also an avid reader of 19th century gothic horror (Poe, le Fanu, Stoker) which has influenced my short stories. I tend to write weird, dark material for my short stories that no one wants to read.

Q: Describe the process of writing and publishing the novel.

A: Writing this novel was the best two years of my life. I had quit my government job to write full-time and was living in the cutest little purple cottage in Chapel Hill, N.C. I would start my writing day upstairs at Caribou Coffee on Franklin Street, stop in at Cosmic Cantina around lunchtime for a $2 veggie burrito, return to Caribou for a few more hours of writing, then spend the rest of the evening administering ear mite medication to the cats at the Goathouse Refuge.

Then came time to find an agent. It sucked. (see my piece on publishing for more info).

Then I ran out of savings right when the recession hit and had to go back to work. The only job I could find was at a store selling expensive olive oils and vinegars. After three months, the store manager fired me for scowling at customers. First I was offended.  Then proud. My first firing! I felt like a true American.

Q: In your novel, the protagonist, Samira, finds herself the target of a racist comment. Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever been racially discriminated against?

A: I have never experienced racism the way my parents had while living in London at the height of the 70’s skinhead movement, and sometimes while living here in the U.S. But the scene in which Samira is confronted with a racist comment is based on something similar that happened to me many years ago. I was at a convenience store and had overfilled my cup of Blueberry Blast Slurpee. I dumped some of it out in a trash can, and I guess the clerk didn’t like that. At check-out, she handed me my change and made the same comment Samira receives in the novel. When I wrote out that scene, I thought it essential for readers to get an honest account of the confusion and jumbled thought-processes of someone on the receiving end of a racist comment. The reaction is often not what you would expect. 

Q: What’s next for you?  Are you working on a second novel?

A: I am, and I'm very excited about it.  Sort of a U.S.-style Yes, Minister, but populated with wayward and oversexed staffers backstabbing each other for a mid-level promotion.