Pasha Malla feels things really, really deeply. Once, while reading Javier Marias' The Dark Back of Time on the roof of his old apartment in Brooklyn, he read a particularly moving passage and turned the page to find a photograph of a young boy. His reaction was visceral. "It's his little brother who died when he was a kid,” Malla describes. “And you turn the page and there's this picture of this kid that he's been describing with love and longing and loss. I lost my breath and was so panicked that I threw the book off the roof.” The moment helped solidify Malla’s own desire to write. “What an amazing achievement, you know? To have that physical response in the real world to something that's only going on in your head is pretty amazing. I had to go down and get [the book]. And I thought, 'Ah, I want to do that to people.'"
Malla is the author of the award-winning short story collection The Withdrawal Method (Anansi), as well as All Our Grandfathers Are Ghosts (Snare), a book of poetry. His first novel, People Park (Anansi), will be released this month. He is also a longtime contributor to Maisonneuve, and he spoke with us in advance of the book’s Montreal launch tonight.
Taylor Tower: What was your work like before you went to study writing at Concordia?
Pasha Malla: I was teaching elementary school in Toronto and I was kind of just writing things to make my friends laugh. I really liked Bruce McCullough from Kids in the Hall, and I like his sense of humour and I think I was just kind of copying him. And then a friend of mine pointed me towards the McSweeney's website and I thought there was some really funny stuff on there so I started sending them stuff and they started—after a lot of rejection—they eventually started publishing my stuff. I had a few stories in the can from undergrad that were terrible, and some humour pieces that weren't bad, and that's what I sent to Concordia to get into the grad program. I guess the summer before I moved to Montreal I went into sort of a panic and started trying to write some stuff for a workshop but I really didn't know what I was doing until I got there and met folks my age who were like far more advanced and reading better stuff than me, and thinking more seriously about writing.
TT: How did you move from humour writing to short stories?
PM: I was criticized as someone who hadn't yet found his voice. Maybe that's because [The Withdrawal Method] was written in a bunch of styles, but I think that the essence of who the person is who wrote those stories is still me. If anything good came out of post-modernism it's that we learned that identity is fractured and that there's a multiplicity to everything. I think that's something I'm interested in pursuing in writing. So moving from humour, where I was copying Woody Allen and Bruce McCullough and other humour writers, I started aping short story writers as a way to kind of explore who I am and what I could do with words on a page.
I'm a little skeptical and a little hesitant to use this term “writer's voice” because I think it implies a sort of singularity that I don't necessarily believe in. Like a singularity of writing styles and a singularity of identity. You know, I think I'm a lot of different people even in the course of one day.
TT: In People Park, there's this question of interacting with other people and what that gives or takes away from your experience. What is your feeling about this—especially as someone who lives in an urban environment?
PM: I loathe people as often as I love them. The other day I was on the subway and this group of five and six year old kids from Jane and Finch Community Centre got on and I don't know why but there were like 10 of them and they just swarmed me. They kind of left their counselors, and I don't know if it was that I looked like the friendliest person on the subway but they just started chatting with me, and one of them put his foot on my lap and was like, "Can you tie my shoe?"
And I had this moment where I was like, "It doesn't get better than this." I came home and told my girlfriend and I wept. It was the most beautiful experience I've had in so long. This doesn't happen anywhere except in the city. And I feel like everyday I have some kind of experience that kind of approaches that sort of thing. But you know, this little four-year-old girl staring at me in the eyes and telling me about the boogie man, literally, telling me about the boogie man that lives in her closet. If you wrote this into a movie, it would be a terrible movie, right? She was just so afraid and, you know, asking me if it was going be okay, and if she could go home, and I was like "Yeah, it's going be okay. I know what you mean, there's a boogie man in my closet too." We all have this shit. It's just so nice to see it reflected back.
TT: People Park depicts a kind of post-utopian society that's tried so hard to be as perfect as possible that it has become a caricature of itself. What feeling were you trying to create with this city, which in the book is named People Park, and the characters who live there?
PM: To me it's neither dystopia nor utopia, but a stagnant place in between. The thing about the city is that I feel like it's become static. There's no dynamism to this city any more. It's lost its ability to tell new stories. I feel like that sterility is a real danger in how we're approaching cities: trying to create these perfect places. Cities are always going be subject to the flaws of human beings. It's impossible to create a perfect city, like it's impossible to create a perfect person.
But I feel like one of the main sources of cultural anxiety I see, in myself and in my friends and in my family, is this idea of perfect. It's so ridiculous and it's just going to create this sense of deep anxiety that then becomes consumerism. Like we can shop our way into some ideal. Maybe a utopia is a flawed city where it's dynamic and shifting and good things happen and bad things happen. People are great because they're flawed.
Everything in the book is an archetype and a caricature. There's this family in the book that is kind of your standard American sitcom family. Taken to extremes. You have this loutish dad and a grumpy mother and a son who acts out and a girl who is a little bit estranged from the family. And it's this archetype that is so common on TV that we've ceased to think about it critically. And to me, it says some pretty dark things about marriage, and about what men are allowed to do in a marriage—like just be stupid and the woman will steady the ship. It's so offensive. And the way that the sons in these families supercede the daughters and the daughters are always in the background. That, and many other things in the book, are meant to be archetypal and then sort of humanize those people and those relationships as the book progresses.
TT: Do you ever feel anxiety about constantly being productive? Like what you produce has to have demonstrated value or it's not worth doing?
PM: What's nice about books is that they can have no value. There's a lot of work being done now to show that fiction will make us more empathetic. There's a group at York and U of T, and one at Buffalo doing this work about how fiction has tangible results in the real world. At first I was kind of excited about that and then I thought, Why does it need to? Why does everything have to have some use value? And then we start to think of books on those terms, like which book will make me the most empathetic? And then we get back to that whole idea of some sort of perfection of the soul through all these avenues. And then what? Then the writer becomes not a writer of a novel but the producer of a product that either achieves what it's supposed to or doesn't. I feel like it's a very slippery slope when we start to think about books in these terms, and then it starts to influence how we make them. There are a lot of inconsistencies in People Park and things I caught in second readings and I thought, you know what? I'm going to leave this. It's a flawed book. It's not a car that's meant to run in a certain way. I think it's meant to surprise you and it’s meant to speak to our humanness.
The Montreal launch of People Park takes place tonight at 7:00 p.m. at Drawn & Quarterly. Pick up a copy of Maisonneuve's Summer 2012 issue or order it online to read "Foul Mouth," Pasha Malla's short humour essay on teeth.