There are few absolutes, but I’m almost certain that there aren’t two Wisconsin farmers out there who also tend land in Pakistan. And that only one Pakistani farmer is also a 2009 National Book Award finalist.
Daniyal Mueenuddin, all these things and more, lands in the Midwest today for a regional book tour for “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders,” and he says it feels like a homecoming. His father, a Pakistani government employee, fell for a Wisconsin farm girl-turned Washington Post reporter, and their children enjoyed summers at their grandfather’s farm in Elroy, Wis., and the rest of the year in Lahore, Pakistan, on their paternal grandfather’s farm.
“I really was mostly Pakistani until I was 13 or so, because the farm was sort of a bubble; we were not really immersed in American culture out in Elroy. So it was a shock, a new world to get used to, when I came here for school.”
Mueenuddin says his dream was to be a poet, and wrote lyric poetry very seriously for years. Then he noticed his poems changing.
“Lyric poetry is like physics: a young man’s game. My poems started becoming long narrations,” he says.
He attended law school at Yale, practiced for a few years, then quit. “I really wanted to be a writer, and nothing else mattered to me. If I didn’t become a writer, I’d feel as if I’d failed in life.” His poems started becoming short stories.
He attended an MFA program, started publishing his stories in the New Yorker, and then put together “In Other Rooms,” a collection of extended, interlinked stories that revel in the complex lives and tawdry romances of the rich and the poor in Pakistan. Poetry continues to serve the writer in these pieces, although he says he’s about 70 pages into his next work — a novel.
“If poetry is the highest level of the art of writing, and short stories a step down, I guess I’m climbing to the bottom,” he says wryly.
He rents his Wisconsin property to an Amish farm family, and he’ll take some time out from the book tour to work with his tenant, mending buildings and fences and other hands-on tasks. “He knows I’m a writer, but he doesn’t take it too seriously,” says Mueenuddin. “He considers it the same as maybe a furniture maker, just another job.”
Daniyal Mueenuddin, Jan. 19, 7 p.m., Barnes and Noble Galleria, Edina.