New Author Spotlight: Yusra Amjad
What drew you to writing stories that move across genres? Is this a new direction for your writing?
This is a very new direction for my writing. I wrote this short for a workshop on speculative fiction with Usman Tanveer Malik, and it was a term I wasn’t even familiar with until I found out about the workshop. I hadn’t written anything that would qualify as SF since that story about a unicorn I wrote in 6th grade. So this was a complete first attempt. Since I started writing seriously, I’ve only written literary fiction and poetry. This story is also literary fiction, just with a splash of magic in it.
The theme for this issue is Portals. Did you write “Where Do You Go To, My Lovely?” for the theme, or was it something that you’d already completed that seemed to fit?
“Where Do You Go To, My Lovely” actually felt, and still feels, unfinished to me, but my workshop instructor thought it was a complete piece. I didn’t seem to able to figure out where I wanted it to go, so I left it as it was and submitted it when I saw what your theme for this issue was, because it seemed so fitting.
Why is grandma afraid of forks? Forks are cool. And what gave you the idea to use fine cooking as a portal device?
Grandma is afraid of forks because my grandma is actually afraid of forks. When I started writing this short, I was on a deadline and I had complete writer’s block, and so I just started writing something true off the top of my head. And then this idea for the story just started unfurling and I kept writing. Writing works in mysterious ways.
In the story, the grandmother is obviously a neurotic and almost enigmatic character. The story is about imagination and personal, internal experiences. The grandmother’s phobia is sort of this proof of how little we can explain about why we think what we think.
Your main character’s food-portals are intensely personal – for her and for whoever eats them. Yet she is never transported in the same way they are. Why not?
I had to really carefully work out the rules for the food magic – is it intentional? Should everyone be able to do it? Does the cook know where the food will take someone who eats it? Does everyone have the same experience upon eating the food? After figuring all that out, I got to thinking about how the food affects the protagonist herself.
I found something almost tragic about how she can’t experience her own magic the way other people do. If you write a poem, or compose a song, or direct a film, or act in a play, and so on, you will never experience the art you produce as your audience does. You can never have that experience. And it’s even like that with food in real life; I don’t think the cook – the cook who actually likes to cook, cooks for the sake of cooking – often creates a delicious meal but doesn’t eat much of what they make, and certainly doesn’t eat with the same enthusiasm as the guests who are served the food. That’s all it is really, the artist can’t be the audience.
Tell us something about your future writing projects. Are you developing more short stories? Do you have a novel in the works?
Well, a poem of mine is going to in the upcoming issue of Cities+. As for a novel, this particular story is the only one I’ve written that I feel has a world and concept tangible enough to develop into one. So, I really want to explore that. I’m working on another short story called “How to Survive the Summer” in which the summer is personified as a monster. Like “Where Do You Go To, My Lovely,” this one is also magical realism. And more than anything else, I write poetry, which comes a lot easier to me than prose.
Where is your favorite writing place? Can you draw us a visual picture of the kind of space you create for yourself when you write?
Ha. I can’t really tell you a favourite place because I will write anywhere. I always have my tablet or a notebook with me. If only inspiration came in a particular space, that would make writing a lot easier, but it doesn’t work that way for me. In fact, in order to write I completely have to forget about my physical surroundings. It’s an internal process and it can’t proceed if you’re still focusing on the external. I’ve written sitting at a restaurant table, on a 5 hour bus ride to Hunza, in the middle of an online conversation with a friend. More than anything else, though, I write in bed because that state right before you fall asleep is the most conducive state for ideas to form. The result being that when inspiration strikes, I’m often too sleepy to write anything down so I create an acronym for the basic concept that I memorise and hopefully remember in the morning.
Usually, I don’t.
What’s the question that you wish someone would ask, but no one ever has?
“Would you like a publishing deal?”
What’s the answer to that question?
“Yes. Yes I would.”
Is there anything I didn’t ask that you think is important or that readers might want to know?
Well, I think the story is as political as it is personal, because cooking is not just making food, it’s a whole feminist debate. We still live in a world where women are often defined by their ability or inability to cook. Every woman who hates being in the kitchen is criticised and any woman who loves making food is fit into the housewife stereotype. And that bores and frustrates me. I guess this story reflects that. It’s like, get your immature gender politics the fuck out of my food.
Also, the title of the story comes from a Peter Sarstedt song featured in a Wes Andersen soundtrack. I highly recommend listening to it.