Arts and Culture

Minnesota author: 'I wanted to bring Karachi alive for people' in debut novel

Person stands and holds a book
Minnesita author Nigar Alam with her book, "Under the Tamarind Tree" on Aug. 2 in St. Paul.
Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News

Author Nigar Alam was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and spent her childhood in Turkey, Nigeria, Italy, Kenya, Indonesia and the United States. She currently lives in Minnesota and teaches at Anoka-Ramsey Community College.

“Under the Tamarind Tree” is Alam’s debut novel, released Tuesday. It’s set in the seaside city of Karachi.

The main character, a woman named Rozeena, opens the novel sitting on her veranda near a garden shaded by palm and Ashoka trees, where she receives a call from someone she knew in the past.

The rest of the book fluctuates between a dual timeline and follows Rozeena and her friends in the decades after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

MPR News reporter Elizabeth Shockman spoke to Alam about her book and her own memories of Karachi.

You and your family lived in so many places. What was that like and how did that shape your sense of home?

Alam: Usually I get the question, “Which was your favorite place?” Which is always very hard to say, because it was my childhood. I feel, as long as it’s a good childhood, you’ve won. It doesn’t matter where you’re living.

And I think my sense of home growing up was always Karachi. Because we did spend the entire summers there — two full months — summer vacation was spent at my grandmother’s house. So that really grounded me. And I think I needed that grounding, because moving every two years, I summarize it by saying before I turned 18, I lived in seven different countries on four different continents.

And sort of that gives you an idea of how busy it was moving, leaving friends, learning a new language in some cases. So going back to Karachi, every summer did ground me and growing up, I considered that home.

When you think about Karachi, what about it feels like home to you?

It was definitely my grandmother’s house — that gave me that sense of home. There were other cousins who also landed there in the summer from other countries. So it wasn’t as if I felt out of place, everyone was just visiting.

So it was that sense of a house that gave me the sense of home, even though now I very much consider the U.S. my home. If you add up all the years that I’ve lived anywhere, this is the place that I’ve lived the longest now. So it’s home.

Minnesota and Karachi are two main geographic locations in this novel. How did you and your family end up in Minnesota? And how has this place come to feel like home?

Minnesota is a hidden gem. Honestly, before I moved here, I didn’t know much about it at all. We moved from New York, where my husband was working, he got an offer for a job in Minneapolis. And we made the move.

It’s been about 17 years now. And I didn’t know what to expect. But I tell everyone, ‘Don’t tell people about Minnesota so we can keep it to ourselves.’ It’s really a hidden gem. The lifestyle, the sense of safety, to bring up children here, I feel, is about the 70s in New York when I was growing up there. So I feel it’s very different. The pace is different here. And there’s a sense of family, which is very important.

What has been your experience of the literary community in Minnesota?

So that was another huge and wonderful surprise for me. The Loft Literary Center is an amazing organization. It’s where I took my first novel writing class on craft and critique. And then slowly from there, I built a community because I did not have a very conventional path to writing. I didn’t do an MFA [Master of Fine Arts]. I don’t have those creative writing degrees.

So how do you form a community? And who knew that the Twin Cities are a very strong, robust literary community with lots of writers and a lot of support systems and conferences and author talks? I mean, you can go listen to an author practically every day of the year and there’s nothing more inspiring to me than to hear them speak. So it has been just wonderful. And I owe it to this community to be where I am today.

Your book has a dual timeline. It focuses on a group of friends and their families in Karachi. Some of the novel takes place when they're young adults, other parts take place when they are older, decades after Partition. Why did you decide to center this novel in Karachi?

So my goal in writing the novel, there were quite a few objectives. One was very personal. But also, I wanted to bring Karachi alive for people who only hear of it in the news. I want it to be an immersive experience so they could see the other sides of it. Everything is not a news headline there.

And I felt growing up, I moved from country to country, and one thing that I just knew, somehow was that people are the same everywhere — the same type of school conflicts or friends, or joys and sadness, the same hopes. So I wanted to bring that to the reader and show them first, that we’re all people and we all have very similar emotional journeys. And then look at this place — it’s so different, you know, so contrasting the similarity of human beings with the difference of culture and food and setting.

For those of us who don’t know, tell us what Partition was?

To summarize it, the land that is currently the countries of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, it was called the subcontinent. And it was called British India, because the British had been ruling directly for a couple of centuries.

And in 1947, the people of that land finally gained independence from the British. So obviously, everybody rejoiced — it was a wonderful time. But as they were leaving, they partitioned the land, because people wanted it. And they created the independent states, the independent nations of Pakistan and India.

But that time of Partition, it came with a lot of chaos, a lot of violence as well. In fact, it resulted in one of the largest human migrations in our history: 15 million people were displaced, and up to a million died. So that is the backdrop of this story. The book, in fact, doesn’t even start until 20 years after Partition.

You spend a tiny bit of time in your book on Partition, but most of it takes place years to decades later. Why did you craft the novel that way? 

That’s a good question. One of the early readers said to me, “I love the book. I learned so much about Partition, but it wasn’t about Partition.” And I felt that they summarized it very well.

I wanted a story that was relatable in the sense of the human emotions, and the feelings of love and loss, and the moral dilemmas we all face. But I wanted also to transmit this information about a period in history that is so important. In fact, it’s critical to that region and the stability of that region. So I felt that, let’s focus on a story of human beings and their relationships, and get it emotionally gripping. And then — I call this historical fiction light — that they also learned something on that journey.

Your book centers on four main characters who are friends in childhood and much of the story takes place when they are young men and women, but you also return to some of the characters later in life. Your characters are really diverse and they find themselves neighbors. How did you decide on these characters and what was the story you were interested in telling here?

I think the story grew from a my own parents’ families’ experiences of Partition and their struggles during and after. And, of course, this is fiction — I always try to remind people of that — but all these experiences that one hears from, they’re so different. You know, this event happened, but how everyone came out of it is so different. What they lost is different, and who they became. And definitely, privilege makes everyone’s journey better. People who were privileged before they became refugees, of course, they suffered, but the extent of suffering was much less than those who were underprivileged even before Partition and literally lost the shirt off their back. Of course, this doesn’t represent all the different experiences, but I wanted to show a representation of, ‘Look, this could have happened and this could have happened and, and they’re all refugees, ultimately.’

What do you hope people take with them when they read this book?

Well, firstly, I hope that they just enjoy the story. I hope they feel for the characters, have empathy for them and very much root for the characters. I hope they enjoy all the revelations and the secrets and the plot. I also hope that they are transported across the world because that is a place that I hold very dear. And I would like people to feel that even though we look different there and speak a different language, eat different food and dress differently. We are all really more alike than we are different.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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