Who Do Powerful Men Become When They Sit Down at Home?
Taymour Soomro’s novel, "Other Names for Love," reframes tropes about power, queer shame, and the language of violence
Taymour Soomro’s debut novel Other Names for Love begins with a son flinching at the sound of his father’s voice. Sixteen-year-old Fahad has been ordered to spend the summer with Rafik, his authoritarian father who manages their family farm in Sindh, Pakistan. It’s on the train ride there that Rafik offers up his animating belief: “Power is not something one pursues. Power pursues the man. And if it comes, then what?” It’s a question that haunts the rest of the novel, which begins with the summer that changes both Fahad’s and Rafik’s lives.
Other Names for Love comes out of Soomro’s own experiences on his family’s farm in Pakistan, but the world of the novel is one unto itself, one in which the land is haunted by histories of loss and full of surprising moments of beauty. A world of buffalo with wet hides “glistening like onyx,” and a moon that casts “a streak of silver like a spine.” As Fahad reckons with his feelings for Ali, the son of a local farm owner, and Rafik works to build political power in Sindh, their desires drive father and son further apart, and closer together, in unexpected ways. Soomro has written a queer Pakistani Gothic that is attuned to the shifting nature of desire, and the violent forms it can take. When, as an adult, Fahad thinks back on a student who wrote stories with “violence that shimmered beneath his prose,” I knew that Soomro was describing the particular and incredible essence of his own novel.
Soomro spoke with me from London over Zoom about the fallible nature of storytelling, writing against tropes of queer shame, and the language of violence.
Yasmin Adele Majeed: I was curious about your choice to tell the novel from both father’s and son’s perspective. What did one offer that the other didn’t, and vice versa?
Taymour Soomro: What happened was that I kept trying to write this story, and I kept getting stuck. One of the things that I was finding really difficult was the management of time. I would finish a chapter and then I would feel like, “Okay, this needs to pick up exactly where the last one stopped.” But once I started alternating perspectives, then the narrative started to move, because I didn’t feel so locked down by a particular timeline.
I also wanted to resist this very easy way of saying: queer shame, the fault of it lies with parents, who end up being a metaphor for tradition, and the culture you came from and the community you came from. Fahad’s point of view is much closer to mine in a way, or at least it began much closer to mine. Rafik’s point of view was unfamiliar to me, but it felt really, really important. It was really important to me that there shouldn’t be any villains in this story, and it shouldn’t be so simple that you could just say, “Oh, he felt so much shame about his sexuality because his parents made him feel ashamed of it.”
YAM: I have a friend who talks about their gripes a lot with queer narratives in which, especially for immigrant narratives, one must leave “home” in order to find one’s sexuality, or to express it. But that’s very much not the story here in the novel.
TS: Right. There’s this idea of the “backward barbaric place,” which you have to leave for London or New York. Or it’s the countryside, which you have to leave for the cosmopolitan, the urban space, which is much more liberal. I felt like those [ideas] were reductive and simple and not true to my own experience, or to what I’d seen.
YAM: That’s why I really love the scene where Fahad and Ali are in the car, and then they see Mousey [Rafik’s cousin] and his manager, and there’s this reflection of a relationship between men. But Ali says, “It’s like they’re friends … Like they’re boys.” There’s not quite the language there.
TS: The first thing I published was this short story in The New Yorker, which was also about a relationship between two men in Karachi. And I felt that people were reading it as if there was only one way for men to have desire for other men, which was a very – I mean, again, these words end up being a bit meaningless – but it felt like a very Western way to understand what queerness is, or what men who like men are. Actually there’s a different language, there are different words, there are different metaphors for understanding these relationships.
YAM: One of the questions that the book considers is the idea of the “wild” and the “savage,” and civilization. As the novel progresses, we see that those who subscribe to decorum are incredibly violent. I was curious about your thoughts on this binary in the novel, especially in the context of Pakistan and the class structure on the farm.
TS: We left Pakistan when I was four, but we would go back for summers and winters. When I was in my 20s, I moved back to Pakistan for a few years and I got involved with the farm and started managing it. It ended up being this really necessarily humbling experience [that] revealed all of these prejudices to me – of self loathing, of racism, classism, which I grappled with throughout that process.
That was something I wanted to show because I feel like it’s very true in Pakistan, but it’s also very true everywhere, right? I wanted to interrogate this idea about decorum and propriety. Whom does it serve? Sophistication is not showing your anger. It seems to me that [idea] really serves the status quo because it means that you need to keep your voice down and not fight.
YAM: Some of my favorite passages in this book are about food, and its relationship to power and need. Ali tells Fahad that if you feed people biryani, they’ll forget everything else. I was curious about your approach to these scenes.
TS: A very simple answer is that I’m obsessed with food. But also I feel there’s a way in which hunger or greed or interest in food—it’s a desire that reveals something. Despite what you think you want, there’s a way in which Fahad engages with these meals; he doesn’t want to be there but the food shows something else in his desire, this other way that he’s reaching toward the place. For me that hunger was analogous with other kinds of hunger. There’s a nostalgia in it, or celebration of the place.
YAM: Related to hunger, I loved your depiction of the fraught and blurry relationship between desire, especially sexual desire, and violence. What drew you to these themes?
TS: It’s really difficult to know how to engage with these questions of violence, because I’m currently editing an anthology for Random House, which is on the craft of writing, and race and culture. There’s that whole trope about the barbaric Muslim, the violent Muslim, and I was really wary of reproducing or perpetuating that. It seems like the one story that is told about Muslim men. At the same time, violence felt very relevant to me in relationships between men. They happen to be Pakistani men, but actually, it would have felt equally true to me about any man. Men don’t know how to express so much emotion, but anger and violence is the one thing that they do know how to express. We try to hold so much meaning in that violence.
YAM: Yes, it’s a core language of masculinity. I thought it was interesting that so much of the overtly political context of the book is in the background of the narrative. The negotiations over the ownership of the farm are reported back or heard through rumor. I was curious about that choice, and how the background reflected the foreground of the narrative.
TS: I think an idea that always interested me was, “Okay, take these super powerful men who are powerful in a national or global way. How does the way that they construct their identity on that scale inform them on a personal level? Who are they when they sit down at home at the dining table? And how do those selves have a dialogue between each other? Often in immigrant novels, or in novels by writers of color, there’s this expectation that we tell the story of our country, because we’re allowed to basically tell one story—the story of our country, the story of ourselves. And I wanted to resist that.
You get a sense of what Rafik is like in office, but you don’t see it. Those actions had these huge horrible effects and impacts, but I was interested in the micro effect of those behaviors and those attitudes, in the most intimate way. For these men, their masculinity is power. Who are they when it disappears or diminishes?
YM: Rafik is such an interesting character because he does hold so much love for Fahad. But it’s such a complicated love.
TS: This is something that felt so personal to me, that gender makes it very difficult for men to have any intimacy with other people because the ways we’re taught to be men make love impossible. There’s that tension for Rafiq, in particular. He has this desire for closeness, both with his cousin, Mousey, and with Fahad and his wife, and there are things that get in the way.
YAM: What came to you first when you set out working on this project? Was it the characters, the setting of the farm?
TS: Having spent all that time at the farm, I felt this urge to write something about that space because it ended up being a crucible for me. And now, as well, I think there was a desire to capture that moment in that time, because it felt very important to me, but it also felt like something that was disappearing from my life. In the novel, you get the sense of the farm eaten up and disappearing. I also felt that on a personal level.
I was interested to see how personal stories and histories can be mutable or as changeable. That was a seed for me.
YAM: One of the central tensions between Rafik and Mousey is that as an adult, Rafik suddenly recovers a memory from their childhood—but Mousey is like: this is a core wound that I have had my whole life.
TS: For both of them that story was so different. What was the truth of the story? And does it even matter? Can you even find out? Maybe what happened doesn’t matter as much as the effects a story has on ourselves and the people around us.