Elena Bowes

New York-London design & culture writer of a certain vintage looking for meaning and wholeness in life

Q&A with Wajahat Ali

April 26th, 2022
Calling All Authors

I felt like that in these dark times, I needed to read something funny and Pakistani American Wajahat Ali is very funny. What I didn’t realise is how much I would learn while reading his poignant, fast-paced memoir Go Back to Where You Came From and Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American. New York Times contributing op-ed writer, public speaker, recovering attorney, and tired dad of two cute kids, Ali’s work has appeared in the Atlantic, Washington Post, Guardian, and New York Review of Books. He lives in the Washington, DC area. His book about humour, identity and searching for the ‘Amreekan dream’ is as educational as it is amusing. He has lived both the American dream and at times its nightmare. I agree with what one fan told Ali,

‘I didn’t realize how much I learned until the end of your book, because I was so entertained.’

Here is my Q&A with Ali:

I loved your introduction where you list some of your “fan mail.” Here’s an example for those who haven’t yet read your book:

Fan Mail #2: Why don’t you shut up and go fuck a goat, you Moslem terrorist!

Wajahat’s reply: Always with the goats and camels. Why limit my options? Two legs good, four legs good. But no thank you, I’m happily married to a woman. Also, it’s Muslim terrorist. Unless you’re referring to muslin, which is a versatile, cotton fabric originally hailing from Mosul, Iraq, and typically has not been associated with overt acts of extremism. Nonetheless, I appreciate the helpful recommendation.

  • Do you still get lots of “fan mail”?

I get it every day. You know, what’s really interesting is, back in the day when we had less social media platforms and oftentimes it was only the comment thread like 15, 20 years ago, I remember when I used to write an article, the editors oftentimes emailed me to apologize for the nasty comments. And then oftentimes they had to shut down the comments because no matter what benign essay I wrote, even it was something lighthearted, not political, the fact that I was a Muslim, just brought out the most vile, ugly anti-Muslim hateful comments. They had to edit so much and especially if it was political, then you had the racism and Islamophobia. And so that comment section now has evolved into direct messages on Twitter, on Instagram, on Facebook and all also, on my email.

The difference between now and then is back then people used to use fake names. Now people use real names and real emails. It’s become so normalized and accepted and almost encouraged due to the political climate that we live in, that people don’t even feel like they need to hide their names or feel some sense of shame.

My existence really triggers the cultural anxieties of a lot of folks. Number one, with the problems that people are facing, I’m pretty blunt about it.  I’m able to call it out. I’m able to articulate myself, I’m able to communicate it. I’m able to back it up. I’m able to debate. I’m able to use humour and that’s very threatening. I would not be as threatening if I was this savage, brute and beast that they had imagined in their mind, but the fact that I’m able to go toe to toe with them either on page or, or on the stage and, and use humour and not lose my temper and not be the stereotype. I think that’s very triggering and threatening.

Well, I thought the way you responded to your fan mail was very respectful and very funny.

They’re expecting you to lose your mind and then you sit there and hit them with dry humour and wit and it just twists the knife a little bit more.

How did 9/11 affect you personally?

Being a Muslim Pakistani American, it was an overnight realization, that we’re not us, we’re them. You are a stranger in your own country. You’re a suspect and a citizen.  I was attacked for being a Muslim in America. And then when I went abroad, I got attacked for being American.

People forget that America lost its mind. After 9/11, we canceled Susan Sontag. We canceled John Lennon’s Imagine, we canceled the Dixie Chicks. These are American institutions that we canceled. We even canceled French fries. If you were a Muslim we felt like a magnifying glass was on us. The pressure was on us. Overnight, at the age of 20, I had to become the cultural ambassador of 1.7 billion Muslims and 1400 years of Islamic civilization. And I had to be perfect because if I messed up, not only would I be indicted, all people who are Muslim would be indicted.

  • What made you decide to write your memoir?

I turned 41 a couple months ago. A year and a half ago, when I was 39 about to become 40 during the pandemic, I felt like now’s the time. Good things take time. My agent has been after me for nine years to write this book. And every year we have the same meeting in New York. And then finally, he’s like just write something on paper, you and me can figure it out later.

I just couldn’t figure out the arc, how to weave it into the narrative. And then I finally got it. I think I finally got an arc and a spine and a title and, and then both my agent, and my editor said just write. These stories that you have, they are really good, just trust us.

I finished it, a couple days before my 40th birthday. People say, how long did it take you to write? One answer is three months with a couple months of editing. The more honest answer is 40 years. Good things take time. And if I’d written this book at 35, it wouldn’t have been as good. It’s like a mango, you can feel it, you can smell it, you know when it’s ready to eat it.

I felt there was an appetite and a curiosity for many Americans who had dismissed us and now were thinking, you know, I think these darkies are onto something. We should listen to them. Right. I felt like I could give the arc through my own life. It has some important parallels to what we’ve witnessed specifically in the past 20 years of America.

And then finally, when you say memoir, I think it’s very amusing because I didn’t call it a memoir and we didn’t know how to categorize it. And then I think (my editor) is like, we need a category. How about memoir? And very deliberately, I wanted to experiment with how, what a memoir is and how I can write it. The book doesn’t begin with Once upon a time, it begins with hate mail. I also have a checklist on how to be a moderate Muslim. There’s humour. I wanted to write the memoir the way I wanted to write it.

I wanted to experiment with the memoir form. The title- Go Back to Where You Came From and Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American, it hits you with something really ugly, going back to where you came from. And it follows up with a recommendation on how to become an American, like this kind of can-do American spirit. And I thought that type of tongue in cheek approach to these very tough issues without me sugar coating, it would be both the tone and the frame of this particular story. I thought I could take some creative licenses and avenues to talk about a great many things.

And very importantly, what’s your favorite Pakistani dish?

Ooh, that’s a very hard question. My family makes very good food, both on the maternal and paternal side. They’re very good cooks. They’re known for it in the communities. I really like a very well-made Biryani preferably goat or lamb, but chicken is good too. It’s awesome.

You can read the rest of my interview with Ali here in 26’s April e-letter.

April, 2022