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Literature: Identity Crisis

By Paul Wilner

Mira Sethi crosses fictional — and professional — borders in a new story collection.

Author Mira Sethi’s new collection of short stories touches on themes she’s encountered in her other career as a television and film actress — and her life in both her native Pakistan and San Francisco, her part-time home.
Author Mira Sethi’s new collection of short stories touches on themes she’s encountered in her other career as a television and film actress — and her life in both her native Pakistan and San Francisco, her part-time home.

“As a non-Western writer, I think the expectation is that you will give Westerners, or Americans, a geopolitical breakdown of what’s going on in Pakistan,’’ says Mira Sethi, whose debut publication of short stories, Are You Enjoying?, has been garnering positive reviews. “The truth is, that’s boring to me,” she acknowledges, adding, “Geopolitics does not play out on the breakfast table, at least not in the ways I think the West often would like to hear from us. What I really wanted to show were the lives lived between and around the rules — the quotidian aspects of life in a traditional society.”

Sethi is seemingly ideally positioned to speak to these issues. She grew up in Lahore, the daughter of two outspoken Pakistani political journalists. “When I was 12, my father was arrested on charges of treason by the government because he had written an editorial exposing the corruption of the then ruling party,” she shares. She attended Wellesley College, where she earned an MFA in creative writing, and followed in the footsteps of former graduate Hillary Clinton as a commencement speaker. “I still remember a phrase I used about the ‘difficult pleasure’ of being at Wellesley,” she says with a laugh.

“I’m not someone who can sit in an ivory tower and just write. I need to be somewhere where my eyes and ears are open, and I’m alert to life around me as it’s unfolding.”

She moved on to The Wall Street Journal, where she worked as an assistant book editor, but “realized pretty early on that I didn’t fit in” at the conservative-leaning publication and moved back to Pakistan to take on an entirely different career — as an actress. “I went back and auditioned (cold!) and immediately jumped into my first drama series, and haven’t looked back since then.” She’s been featured in 13 television series, as well as a film there, and now divides her time between San Francisco, where her husband works (they got married in 2019), and Pakistan.

“I’m not someone who can sit in an ivory tower and just write,” she says. “I need to be somewhere where my eyes and ears are open, and I’m alert to life around me as it’s unfolding. Acting really enables that, whether it’s the power dynamics on a set or the relation between an actress and her makeup artist.” Some stories in her collection draw from her experiences in the field, like “Breezy Blessings,” which recounts a “me too” moment with a sexist director. “Mini Apple” is about Javed, a Pakistani newscaster, who has a doomed affair with Marianne, an American diplomat. “He’s projecting his idealized desire of her,” Sethi says. “She kind of leads him up the garden path and then just disappears.’’

Are You Enjoying? (Knopf) The stories in Sethi’s debut collection feature an eclectic mix of characters and story lines.
Are You Enjoying? (Knopf) The stories in Sethi’s debut collection feature an eclectic mix of characters and story lines.

The author resists overly political interpretations of her work. “Is that a comment on Pakistani-American relations? Sure, you can read that into it. But the point is to make the quotidian sacred. That’s ultimately how lives are lived out. Fiction is a very good vessel for that — it can hold contradictions.”

Again, her acting experience has been instructive. “My book has three or four characters who are professional performers,’’ she says. “But even folks who aren’t performers are skillful chameleons. Their dreams are secular, but the framework into which the characters are born is traditionalist. My book is about how you improvise identities in order to get by.”

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