by Thomas K. Pendergast
In his second book, “Cafe Le Whore,” Moazzam Sheikh steers clear of any overt political messages that an American reader might expect from a short-story fiction writer born and raised in Pakistan.
Instead, he draws upon his many years of experience living in the Richmond District to give insight from an immigrant experience by juxtaposing very human tales from both his homeland and his adopted American city. In this way, his work is only very subtly political.
“My stories do have political undertones. Almost all my work, as far as I see it, is political, but there is a shift – a culture shift that I want to write about where I live – and my issues are American issues,” says Sheikh. “My stories are, in part, a reaction to what the South-Asian is not writing. They’re writing for the market, even if they’re writing important works.
“In Hollywood, we have seen this transition where you have a white cop and black cop and blacks have been accommodated … now we’re opening the door for an African-American actor,” Sheikh said. “There’s going to be a balance between white and black and maybe a Latino here and there. But America is so rich in terms of ethnic diversity. I can understand the difficulty of replicating that in movies because movies are expensive.”
He said the movie screen might not be the most cost-effective way to push the envelope, so that’s why literature can help.
“When I was hanging out with white, Indian and Pakistani friends, they would have no desire to go see a movie with a lead Vietnamese actor and the lead actress from Bangladesh, because of our mental colonization. They want to go see what the media has made acceptable.
“So, literature does have that ability because it doesn’t require a $3 million budget. You can just write, even if you don’t get published by a major press, it’s a different dynamic,” he said.
Sheikh grew up in the Pakistan city of Lahore (the title of the book is from one of the short stories, which contains a somewhat twisted reference to his home town). He says the neighborhood he grew up in was the “film district” of that region.
“My mother was an actress. My father was a cinematographer. So, I grew up in the film milieu – theater, stage, stunt men, directors – and this neighborhood was kind of close to where the studios were,” he said. “My neighborhood was saturated by people who were in radio, TV, theater, commercials, writers. … It was a mish-mash of people who were barely surviving. And here and there, well-known people were also living. Everybody knew everybody.”
He moved to San Francisco to attend the film school at SF State University, but eventually dropped out. It was a few years later that he felt inspired to become a writer instead.
“One day I just started writing. I wrote a few things and friends said, ‘oh, this is interesting,'” Sheikh said.
“My first story in the book, “Invisible Threads,” was my first story, and it was directly inspired by ‘Catcher In The Rye.’ Now, I have added layers to it, so it sounds a bit more sophisticated, like when I added the line about one of the character’s grandfather not being able to study medicine in America. And he had to go to Germany. … We don’t really think that it could become that ironic, that you would actually have your degree stamped with Hitler’s signature.”
He pauses to laugh, finding the situation ridiculous.
Another story based in San Francisco is titled “Film Librarian,” which was inspired by his day job working at a library. In this story, the protagonist is confronted by an elderly homeless woman that wants to know the identity of a much younger woman in an old movie photo. At first, the librarian is frustrated when her research turns up nothing, but then she notices that the woman in the picture looks a lot like a young version of the homeless woman, at which point her research becomes a quest.
“At the library we see so many marginalized people. So many characters like that. Where did they come from? How did they end up in this paradise, you know, the land of opportunity?”
And in real life, it was just such a photograph that inspired the fictional story.
“You know as part of being a librarian, I also have to read books to weed some out. So, this book came to me by one of the shelvers and I was flipping through it and there’s a movie still: Jack Nicholson, an unidentified woman and some other actor. I said, ‘that’s just so fascinating.’ You could have a photograph with somebody who is so famous but nobody knows who you are or where you went,” Sheikh said.
“An author needs to see beyond. America has changed. It surprises me, whether I’m talking to a colleague of mine and he’s from Pennsylvania or the Midwest and his sister-in-law is from Pakistan.
“If you were to create a story in which one of the main characters is a Pakistani woman, it would change the complexion of the writing because she’s not Anglo-Saxon. She’s not going to fit into how we see conservative and progressive or Republican or Democrat because she is neither. She’s probably carrying the politics of her parents. … We all bring those forces into the New World. It alters the white person or the black person’s perspective, even about America.
“When a Pilipino and a Korean friend hang out in a black restaurant, eating African-American food, the dynamic changes. The story changes,” he said.
Categories: Richmond Review