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Pakistani-American Writer Bridges Two Worlds

Author Daniyal Mueenuddin attended Dartmouth and Yale Law School before returning to Pakistan, where he manages his father's family farm.
Author Daniyal Mueenuddin attended Dartmouth and Yale Law School before returning to Pakistan, where he manages his father's family farm.

Writer Daniyal Mueenuddin straddles two worlds. Born of an American mother and a Pakistani father, he grew up mostly in Pakistan, with frequent visits to his mother's family in Wisconsin. After attending Dartmouth for his undergraduate degree and Yale for a law degree, he returned to Pakistan, where he now runs his father's family farm in the Southern Punjab region.

The author says he sees himself as somewhat of a translator, interpreting life in a remote part of Pakistan for a Western audience. But he notes that he lives between those two cultures — and is not really part of either.

"In both cases, either in the West or in Pakistan, people always view me as being somebody slightly from the outside," says Mueenuddin. "And I think I view myself as being from the outside. And that is something that can be aggravating and painful but also liberating and fun."

Mueenuddin may feel like an outsider, but he writes like an insider. His new book, a collection of intertwined short stories called In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, re-creates a world that few Westerners have experienced firsthand.

Set mostly in rural Punjab and the city of Lahore, the stories take place over several decades and explore the lives of both rich and poor under Pakistan's rigid feudal class structure. Whether he's writing about a lowly servant girl or a privileged beauty, an ambitious politician or clever electrician, one senses that these are people Mueenuddin understands well.

"I played in their houses when I was little. Now I go to their houses when they are sick or when somebody dies or when they get married," says Mueenuddin. "I've done business with them, and doing business is a very intimate act. ... I've hired them and fired them and sold to them and bought from them. When you are doing business with someone you need to look at the world through their eyes."

Mueenuddin moved to his family's farm in the Punjab right after graduating from college. He returned to America briefly to attend law school and work for a firm in New York, then went back to Pakistan again, where he settled into a routine that allowed him to do the two things he loves best: farming and writing.

On a typical day, Mueenuddin meets his managers in the morning, writes until lunch and then, after lunch, farms — which, he says, "means a lot of the time, unfortunately, looking at accounts books and going through budgets."

Mueenuddin says he often tries to sneak off and go for walks around the fields. As he becomes more conscious of himself as a fiction writer, he says, his outlook on business meetings has changed.

"As I am trying to have a business conversation with someone who is trying to rip me off in some fabulous and hilarious way, there is always a little figure on my shoulder saying, 'Calm down, calm down, because this is going to be in your book,'" he says.

Each story in the In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is a snippet from a character's life, a moment in time that defines the person or changes him forever. In the opening story, "Nawabdin Electrician" (read or listen to the full story), Mueenuddin's portrayal of the crafty electrician who spends his days tooling around his landlord's estate on a motorcycle is so vivid and recognizable that it's easy to think "I know someone like that" — even though he lives in a world thousands of miles away from the U.S.

Mueenuddin says that while he wrote the stories, he was consciously trying to create a picture of the whole society from the lowest to the highest. It was only after he finished writing that he realized that one figure — a wealthy landowner named K.K. Harouni — tied all of the characters together.

Mueenuddin likens Harouni to a "feudal patron" to whom the rich are related and upon whom the poor are dependent: "The feudal patron is the man who protects you and ... your adherence to him is your sort of capital. So when he dies, you're nobody because you have no protector," he says.

In this strict hierarchy, no one is lower than Mueenuddin's female characters. In story after story, women, both rich and poor, use sex in an effort to manipulate men or find some happiness. Time and again the tactic fails and they are left worse off than before.

But though many of Mueenuddin's stories end in tragedy, somehow, the overall effect is more fascinating than depressing.

"The movement of these stories is always toward affirmation," explains the author. "Just by describing the life force of the characters ... Life affirms because life goes on."

Mueenuddin also manages his mother's family's farm in Wisconsin, which he rents out to the Amish. He has already started writing stories about life in Wisconsin. It may not be the Punjab but, he says, he feels intimately connected to the people there as well.

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Lynn Neary
Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.