Your story in this week’s issue, “Foreign-Returned,” is about a
Pakistani couple trying to build a successful life in Connecticut. What
inspired you to tell their story?

I’m fascinated by the ways in which our family histories and the
legacies of our class, racial, and ethnic identities affect the choices
we make as adults. I imagine the protagonists of my story, Hassan and
Sara, as the grandchildren of the Urdu-speaking migrants who arrived in
Pakistan at Partition and helped transform Karachi into the country’s
economic center, and I loved thinking about how that past might affect
the way they interact with Hassan’s co-worker Hina, a second-generation
American whose family hails from Pakistan’s agricultural heartland.
Hassan, Sara, and Hina’s Pakistani origins might be seen as equivalent
and interchangeable in Stamford, Connecticut, but the reality is that,
as these three characters attempt to connect with one another, they are
negotiating differences in class, culture, and religious observance. We
have a tendency to think of specific immigrant populations as
monolithic, but what I’ve seen within my own Pakistani-American family
is much more nuanced. My late mother came to the United States in the
early sixties, when there were very few immigrants from South Asia, and
in her early years here she was often treated as a kind of unofficial
cultural ambassador, which became an intrinsic part of her personality.
My mother’s experience was, of course, radically different from that of
other members of my family who migrated here later, after there had been
significant changes in U.S. immigration policy, in 1965, 1992, and,
especially, post-9/11. I wanted to investigate some of those variations,
and the ways in which they impact Hassan and Sara, as they begin their
life in Connecticut.

The first draft of “Foreign-Returned” that I read predated the 2016
election. In this version, the election and its results form an
important backdrop to Hassan, Sara, and Hina’s story. How did the
election become integral to the narrative as you were revising?

In my original draft, my aim was to explore how Hina, who grew up in the
Pakistani diaspora, might interpret or react to her religious and
cultural identity markedly differently than Hassan and Sara, who are
products of Karachi. I wanted to play with how Hassan and Sara’s having
moved from an anchored life in a cosmopolitan urban center to a
relatively anonymous existence in the Connecticut suburbs might affect
the couple’s increasingly fluid and unstable sense of self. Then, as I
was revising the story prior to the Presidential election and during the
first months of the new Administration, I found myself wondering what
Hassan, Sara, and Hina would think of the election cycle and how each of
them might be affected by the increasingly toxic rhetoric around Muslims
and immigration. It had always been important to me that Hassan was in
the United States on an H1-B visa—my hope was to portray some of the
precariousness he might feel at being in this country as an economic
migrant, even one with a job in finance. Now I wondered, how might
Hassan feel about his position, and his potential future in Connecticut,
if the H1-B, and the status and future of immigrants in general, was
constantly being called into question? How might the daily onslaught of
news about the election affect Sara, who doesn’t have a job and has time
to become obsessed with every fresh headline? Would this political
moment be galvanizing or paralyzing for Hina? I realized that, if I set
the story in the latter half of 2016, then Hassan’s ambivalence about
his future in the United States might be a logical reaction to the
election. When I imagined Sara, I saw her spending a lot of time
indoors, devouring cable news. And it made sense to me that Hina would
become politically active and travel to Pennsylvania to canvass and
register voters with her women’s group. Many aspects of the revision
fell into place once I was able to place the narrative within a very
specific time frame.

Hina, who wears a head scarf, is assaulted while canvassing for the
Democratic Party. Did you draw on real-life events for that scene?

During the lead-up to the election I became troubled by what appeared to
be a causal relationship between the anti-Muslim rhetoric in our
political discourse and a sharp rise in acts of anti-Muslim bias. I
began to think about my Muslim family, friends, and students, some of
whom wear the hijab as an expression of their faith and identity, and
the ways in which their increased visibility made them and others like
them a target of curiosity, and even, in some cases, violence. As I was
developing the description of Hina’s assault, I read reports and news
articles about hate crimes in the hope of making the emotional reality
of the scene feel true, but the specific details of the incident are the
product of my imagination. My aim was both to connect my belief that
anti-Muslim speech in political culture can act as a kind of permission
for racist behavior and to show how Hina processes and unpacks this
experience after the fact. I wanted the assault to be relatively minor
physically, because so often acts of intimidation or harassment against
women that don’t end in extreme violence are brushed off, and it’s
assumed that the woman will recover quickly. The reality, of course, is
that this experience weighs heavily on Hina’s psyche. I also wanted to
imply that after Hassan hears Hina tell her story he must wrestle in a
new way with the question of whether he and Sara should remain in the
United States.

Hassan doesn’t seem particularly ambitious, but it must have taken some
drive for him to move himself and Sara from Karachi to New York. Why did
he choose to try to build a life in the U.S.?

I’m interested in the expectations and ambitions that might propel young
people from my family’s ethnic community, the muhajirs, to leave
Pakistan for the United States, and what happens after they arrive and
must square their aspiration with the reality. I think that Hassan’s
ambition is centered on leaving Pakistan in order to participate in the
persistent lure of the American Dream, but I don’t think he’s ever
stopped long enough to consider whether a life in the United States is
really what he wants. I imagine Hassan and Sara as people who have,
until this point in their lives, fulfilled most of the expectations of
their families and communities: they’ve completed their degrees, married
appropriately, secured a coveted finance job, and made the move to the
United States. Now, presumably, Hassan will work toward a promotion,
Sara will get pregnant, and they will both become respected members of a
Pakistani-American community. I am curious about what happens to these
characters when their ambitions prove to be difficult to realize.

Sara’s interest in social status can seem petty. But, when it comes
down to it, Mona is the person who encourages her in that direction. How
likable are Mona and Ali, ultimately?

I see Sara as someone who is trying to adapt to social rules that are
largely unfamiliar to her. In Connecticut, she struggles to find
meaning, to find community, and to conceive a child. Mona and Ali and
the guests at their parties are the only people Sara knows in the
Stamford area other than her husband, and when the Ahmeds cut ties with
the couple the loss of the friendship is disorienting. I’m not sure that
Mona and Ali are entirely sympathetic characters, or even that Sara and
Hassan are ultimately particularly fond of them. But the Ahmeds do hold
a certain power, as the gatekeepers of a very specific world. I see Mona
and Ali as symbolic of Sara and Hassan’s imagined, successful life in
the United States—a life that remains perpetually out of reach.

Did you feel the influence of any other short-story writers when
working on “Foreign-Returned”?

This story owes a great debt to one of my favorite short-story writers,
Mavis Gallant, and specifically to her story “The Ice Wagon Going Down
the Street.” “Ice Wagon” is a story that I return to year after year,
trying to put my finger on what the peculiar alchemy between her
characters is and why the story works the way that it does. I remember
reading Gallant’s story—which is largely about Canadians working in
Geneva—and thinking, This feels so Pakistani. Gallant’s ability to
create a fictional world that conveys a sense of truth that feels
universal, or that might be applicable to a completely different
context, is incredibly exciting to me. I am also influenced by the great
Urdu short story writer Saadat Hasan Manto, whose economy of language
reminds me to try to say more with less, and by Qurratulain Hyder, who
interweaves political reality, social anxiety, and the power of exile in
order to physically and mentally unmoor the female characters in her
short fiction.

You published a nonfiction book, “The Girl from Foreign”—a
memoir about your travels through your family’s three-country,
three-religion history—in 2008. You’re also a documentary filmmaker. But
I believe that this is your first published fiction piece. Is this a new
start for you as a writer?

“Foreign-Returned” is my first published short story, and I could not be
more thrilled that it has found a home at The New Yorker. As a
nonfiction writer and a filmmaker, my process is anchored in gathering
raw material from other people’s lives and then telling a story that I
hope is true to their experience. As a fiction writer, I find it
incredibly liberating not to be limited by what I am able to collect in
the field—to be able to draw from research and from my own life, to
marry disparate elements or ideas, and to move backward and forward in
time. When I write fiction, my gender, my nationality, even the laws of
time and geography, are permeable borders. This story is part of a
collection that draws on the visual details of what we bring with us,
what we leave behind, how we selectively appropriate and customize
objects, appearances, and environments. I’m absorbed by the narratives
we carry with us and how they inform and shape who we are, as well as by
the idea that our migrations are not always linear paths from old
country to new country but in fact a navigation, or a re-navigation, of
multiple trajectories.