Andrew Madigan is the author of the new novel, Khawla’s Wall. It’s a clear-eyed, entertaining and often profound look at a shimmering Dubai, where “people drive around with white tigers riding shotgun, own gold-plated stretch Humvees and pay servants $100 a month to carry their water bottles.”
2paragraphs: You often write about the Middle and Far East. You write from the perspective of Emiratis, Koreans, Moroccans, Tokyoites, Jordanians, Egyptians. You use pseudonyms. Mostly women. Foreign women. Why, how? Is it okay to impersonate an 80-year-old Emirati?
ANDREW MADIGAN: It’s amusing and sad to hear: How dare a straight actor play a gay part! Yeah, how dare an actor pretend to be someone he’s not. Hold on, that’s an actor’s job. By definition. That’s the whole job—hallas. The putative outrage is unsound on every conceivable level. The same holds true for writers. We’re told to write what we know. A pretty solid maxim, but it’s also good to, you know, make stuff up. One could make a rather cogent argument that this is the fiction-writer’s job. We tell stories about people who don’t exist, who never have and never will. People who are not, indeed, people. We’re children (or slightly unconventional non-children) holding Barbie dolls, dressing them, making them “speak.” How dare you write from the perspective of a woman! You don’t speak for her! You can’t tell her story! This is flimsy, reductive, fatuous thinking. Good characters—and formidable people—aren’t reducible to gender. To assume so would be sexist, absurd, wrong. The purpose of inventing pretend people with pretend lives who get into pretend conflicts is to allow such narratives to entertain and compel readers, which is done through stories that speak to universal human predicaments. Love, alienation, despair, outrage, hunger, delusion, obsession, addiction, hatred, jealousy, fear, submission, repugnance, isolation, violence, ecstasy, hope, joy, sacrifice, nausea, alopecia, athlete’s foot. Womanness, Arabness: not the issue. It’s the love, alienation and alopecia that are at stake. A woman’s fear is fear. A Jew’s fear is fear. If I’ve known fear, I understand anyone’s fear. It’s not that complicated. That said, we can never fully get inside someone else’s head and truly understand. (Cf. Hippolyte’s post-suicide “explanation” in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot). Each person is indefinitely different than every other, despite the fact that we all struggle with the same archetypal concerns. For me to fully understand my fellow man is 100% impossible. My fellow woman? There’s no such thing as 101%.
I once wrote a ground-breaking story. I wasn’t sure the world could keep spinning on its lopsided axis after the inevitable publication of my magnum opus in a leading journal. It told a woman’s (poignant…highly nuanced…expertly rendered) story from “her” point-of-view. It was rejected. Again and again. Even the non-leading journals were dismissive. Ditto the lesser blogs of Lithuania. One handwritten rejection maintained: the protagonist’s voice was not authentic. Hm. She sounded alright to me. I submitted it once again, as Sara al-Shamisi. A few weeks later, I was paid $400 for this story. Eight months later, after it appeared online, the Comments Board was buzzing. The people had spoken. They adored Sara’s story. One woman wrote: Only an Arab woman could have written this. Indeed. Or someone with eyes and ears. Men, women: we have the same problems. Only the details are different. And the details aren’t what’s at stake. Pseudonyms have a glorious history. I use them because I feel like a Japanese woman when I write under her name. It helps evoke the people and the place. I lived there for a few years and speak Nihon-go. That also helps. Writers need every trick in the book to capture that alchemy, so I use what I’ve got. When I submit something to an Editor—always so humbling: we’re exposed to such unkind consideration: it’s the best of us, and they say the worst things—l’d like it to be examined under natural light. Not through the funhouse mirror of race and gender. Pseudonyms help keep the Gatekeepers more unbiased. If you don’t believe me, look at the stats. Andrew just scrapes by. Sara almost always succeeds. But of course we’re submitting the same work… One more thing. I’ve had my DNA tested. I’m Jewish, Arab, Russian, European, lots of things. And who cares. My nucleic coding doesn’t define me. I’ve never even seen the stuff.