An Arranged Marriage – An Illicit Affair – A Brutal Outcome
When Zuleikha arrives in Texas via arranged marriage from Pakistan, she soon realizes how different life in America is from the portrayals in the confiscated contraband books and movies her father trafficked in to pay for her education and dowry. Having trained as a pianist without ever owning a real piano, she finally has one—a wedding present from her husband. As Zuleikha learns to navigate her new role as a suburban middle-class housewife, she begins to feel diminished by her seemingly kind husband’s regular dismissal. She offers piano lessons to the neighborhood kids, and in doing so begins to find her identity and independence.
Everything changes when Patrick—the father of her young son’s friend—signs up for lessons himself. Zuleihka and Patrick grow closer, and Zuleihka finds herself in love for the first time. Zuleihka is caught between being a good Muslim wife and obedient daughter, and following her heart. Despite how careful she is, the affair is eventually discovered, leading to horrific violence with gruesome and fatal consequences. The ensuing circumstances catapult Zuleihka into the glare of the public eye in a foreign land, where she finds herself at the epicenter of a political firestorm fueled by winds of anti-Muslim hysteria, with different people seemingly using her situation to advance their own hidden agendas.
Suman Mallick received his MFA from Portland State University where he also taught in the English and Creative Writing departments. While his homes away from home include Calcutta, India and Portland, Oregon, Mallick currently resides in Texas with his beloved daughter and dog. The Black-Marketer’s Daughter is Mallick’s debut novel, and was shortlisted for the Disquiet Open Borders Book Prize.
Where are you from? Tell us a little about yourself!
I was born, and spent much of my childhood, in a leafy suburb of Calcutta. A college scholarship brought me to Texas, and I’ve ended up spending most of my adult life to date in between Austin, Houston, San Angelo and Dallas, although my education has taken me to the UK and Oregon for extended periods of time, and my work to New York, all over western Europe, the middle-east, Canada, Mexico and Argentina.
My mom, uncles and aunts still live in and around Calcutta. Even though I am an only child, I do have lot of cousins there as well, and some of them now have children. I am close to my extended family there, and my family here in the States, and love visiting them with my daughter when we can. It’s a good thing that the vast majority of my friends—not just writers but also those from my other lives, including my best childhood friends from India—are here in the US now, scattered all over, which makes for some wonderful visits.
I live with two lovely young ladies, both luminous souls: my daughter and our dog, and am happiest when with them, be it occasionally binge-watching the Simpsons on Disney+ to pass the pandemic, or going to a protest at this important time in history. Cooking a new vegan dish with my daughter or going to a yoga class with her is always a joy, as is picking out the next book for her to read (The Other Americans, The Handmaid’s Tale, Metamorphosis, and One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich were recent hits), or ordering something new for the road (the last two were Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Trevor Noah’s captivating memoir “Born a Crime.”) Our recent movie favorites are My Life as a Zucchini, The Breadwinner, Dhanak, The Life of Pi. She’s currently re-devouring all four of Jhumpa Lahiri’s books that I own, and I can’t tell you how much that makes me smile.
I’m also very happy when with family or good friends or a can’t-put-down book or can’t-stop-listening-to piece of music, on special nights out (sadly not in a while) at the theater or concerts or movies, when facing a complicated challenge at my day job (almost every day) or trying to resolve a knotty situation with a story, or anytime I am atop two wheels.
Tell us about your book? How did it get started?
The story gets its life from the age-old struggle to reconcile one’s upbringing, position, and responsibilities with idealized notions about romance, marriage, and sex, especially when the gap between the former and the latter is extended due to cultural displacement. In it, a young woman arrives in the US from Pakistan by marriage, having trained as a pianist without every owning a real piano. When she tires of her husband’s expectations and the lack of romance in her marriage, she embarks on an affair with a married man which, upon discovery, makes her the central figure in a scandal that catapults her into the public eye and plays out in equal measures in the local news and in backroom deliberations, all fueled by winds of anti-Muslim hysteria.
The novel was inspired by an unpublished short story of mine, which itself was inspired when Malala Yousafzai was shot in a school bus for being an activist for female education in 2012. Like countless others, I followed Malala’s story—her recovery, subsequent winning of the Nobel Peace Prize, the continuation of her education in England, and the publication of her heralded memoir—with more than a passing curiosity, and have continued to be overjoyed and inspired by her successes. From the outset, however, it wasn’t just Malala’s fate that I fretted about, because it was soon clear that she was either going to die from her injuries and be hailed as a martyr for her cause, or recover from them and be revered as a hero and an icon, perhaps (but hopefully not) to be attacked again in the future. What interested me more were the untold stories of countless other girls just like Malala who, because of circumstances beyond their control, suffered both physically and emotionally, and died, or continue to suffer and die, needlessly and with nowhere near the public awareness, outrage, and support.
For my story “Sawra Bibi,” I imagined such a young girl named Zuleikha, who grows up in the picturesque Swat Valley of Pakistan. Zuleikha’s next door neighbor and best friend is a girl whose father—not unlike that of the real life Malala—is a school principal who believes in the education of his daughter. Unlike this other girl, however, Zuleikha’s life is spoken for from the moment she is born. In the form of journal entries, the story opens with a young Zuleikha being afraid of traditional Pakistani garments hanging from clotheslines between the two households; at bedtime, they look to her like headless ghosts. She is told that people call her Sawra Bibi (meaning bent or crooked woman), to tease her about her slightly crooked nose, and does not know that the nickname carries with it a double meaning (the word sawra also means broken) and the weight of something far more sinister. She does not know that in order to settle a longstanding family debt, she was promised at birth to be given in marriage to a much older man in town. Upon learning this secret, and unable to accept the future that awaits her, especially when compared to that of her friend, Zuleikha writes a final entry in her diary and attempts to join the headless ghosts by hanging herself.
Needless to say, by the time I began work on the novel during the winter of 2015 at Portland State University, I had had a long time to let this character, Zuleikha, grow inside my head. In my mind, the story arc of the novel commences after Zuleikha survives her suicide attempt, and her family abandons the family home and her father’s business and moves to Lahore, twelve hours by bus from Swat Valley, to avoid the shame, scrutiny, gossip, and retribution that might reasonably be expected to follow the events of “Sawra Bibi.” In somewhat of a plot twist given the location and its culture, I imagined Zuleikha’s father undergoing more of a transformation than her mother following the suicide attempt, and becoming more indulgent in his daughter’s well-being and more progressive about her upbringing. He not only supports her education, but also conceives the idea of marrying her off to a western man of Pakistani descent, so that Zuleikha will completely escape her past and end up with an even “better” life than the neighbor and best friend she left behind in the Swat Valley. That is how she ends up in the US.
How do you create your characters?
Hmm, I have always been happy to let a character grow organically inside me until they are compelling enough to leave me with no other choice but to introduce them to a Word document; now faced with this question, however, I’m reminded of what the wonderful children’s writer Phyllis Reynolds Naylor once said: “We all have our own battles to fight, and sometimes we have to go it alone. I’m stronger than you think, you’d surprised.” I take that statement to heart, and would go so far as to say that Naylor’s is a perfect description of one of three or four essential character traits that, when found in a real person, propels me to make lifelong friends with them or fall in love with them, or if imagined, pushes me to write about them as protagonists and other key characters in my fiction. (Let’s save the other traits for another time). As for the other characters in my work, it is important to build them in one’s mind just as vividly and completely, while remembering to use them for—by borrowing photographic terms—light and color, contrast and exposure, frame and speed.
What inspires and what got your started in writing?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have had several incredibly inspiring personalities light my life on fire, but one that particularly stands out in the context of writing is Ms. Alo, my Class 6-10 English teacher. Alo means light in Bengali and she was just that for me: a singularly brilliant, tough woman (and grader) who would scribble on the margins of writing assignments little gems like “Why be just sad when you can be morose or melancholy?” If you’re trying to visualize this incredible powerhouse of a person, imagine the bantam hen frame of Buddy’s cousin from Capote’s Christmas Memory, and you’ll get close enough. I’m quite convinced she almost singlehandedly ruined me for most other women 🙂 In the painful days of puberty after I lost my father, she loaned me incredible books to read (Kafka, Tolstoy, Chekov, Hesse), drilled into my head how offensive it was to read only books that were inoffensive (a lesson I am trying hard to teach my daughter), encouraged me to keep a journal and write whatever else I wanted to write, and always made time after school to read my work and talk to me about it. She was melancholy when I chose to major in math and physics in college and only kept English as a minor, and always teasingly asked me whenever I visited from abroad when she’d receive my first book in the mail. Unfortunately, life got in the way of me publishing it before she died, and that will forever remain one of my biggest regrets.
Where do you write? Is there something you need in order to write (music, drinks?)
I write at home (no Starbucks for me). As a self-imposed challenge, I did try writing in cafes while on a weeks-long trip to Argentina, but eventually gave up. I’m a pacer when thinking through something about work or writing or life in general, and it’s easier to do that in my own home without drawing strange stares or generally pissing people off.
Apart from my MFA years, I’ve always had a day job in an unrelated field, which means I only write at night in my home office after my child goes to bed, or on weekends when I can make time. Occasionally I’ll take a pause to listen to music while working out the next section in my head, but otherwise I write without distractions and try to save the music and perhaps a drink to calm down from the rush of finishing something.
How do you get your ideas for writing?
Most of my story ideas fester in me for a long time. (I’ve only once written a story that built itself in my head in the course of one day, almost instantaneously after I read some articles about a person of interest to me from a work perspective, leading me to write that piece out the same evening). Usually it takes a while to get to know a compelling enough character like I mentioned earlier, see them and imagine them acting and reacting in complicated situations, and having conversations with them in my head (my leads are like me—expert scholars of their own predicaments, as David Remnick might say.) I meet a lot of really interesting and intelligent people in my day job and observe some of them doing incredibly positive, smart things to build their businesses and awful, foolish things in their private lives, or vice versa; that, and the coexistence of generosity and selfishness always gives me food for thought. I read voraciously and indiscriminately; that obviously helps.
What do you like to read?
Almost anything and everything: apart from fiction and poetry, I read a lot of history, religion, politics, economics, books and articles about writing and writers (anything by Tim Parks, especially), interviews and book reviews (Parul Sehgal is a favorite, sorry Salman Rushdie!), general nonfiction and memoirs, parenting, psychology—you name it. In fiction, I grew up with more novels than short stories—they used to seem grander and more ambitious, but then I discovered Alice Munro whose stories quickly disabused me of that hubris. Lately, because the pandemic has caused me to read a lot more work-related legal documents and macroeconomic research, I’ve focused my pleasure reading and some writing to short-shorts (by Joy Williams, Diane Williams, re-reading Kafka, Marquez, Bernhard, Lydia Davis, and a wonderful collection by Giorgio Manganelli, a lot).
What would your advice to be for authors or aspiring in regards to writing?
I am loathe to doling out advice, and in any case I am not a prolific and important enough writer to do so; but here are some lessons I have learned from years of pursuing the craft of writing:
- From the Department of Obvious Observations: the more I read, the easier I write
- The more I keep my own mouth shut and let my eyes and ears work instead, the more I learn and the more material I find to write about
- Ditto for the more I open my mind to other people, places, perspectives, and experiences
- While it’s important to be protective of one’s scheduled writing time, I find that doing so helps more with building and maintaining the habits and discipline of writing. For me at least, the best writing comes when I have created something compelling enough in my mind that I have no other choice but to make time to write it, no matter what other dozen things I have to do. But that takes meditation, concentration, focused thinking, etc.—basically, the ability to drown out other noises, cope with and thrive through a lot of silence. So I’d say it’s important to learn to master silence.
Anything else you’d like to share?
“The Black-Marketer’s Daughter is a key-hole look at a few things: a mismatched marriage, the plight of immigrants in the U.S., the emotional toll of culture shock, and the brutal way Muslim women are treated, especially by men within their own community. Titling it—defining the heroine by her relationship to a man rather than as a woman in her own right—suggests how deeply ingrained that inequality can be.”
~ IndieReader Reviews
”Mallick offers an impressively realistic depiction of a woman caught between tradition, family, and her own sense of empowerment.”
~ Kirkus Reviews
“A powerful debut, sure-
, sure-footed and tender. Mallick takes us on a journey that deftly slips in and out of disparate expectations, cultures, and desires, showing us the spaces in between. A gorgeously written book with a protagonist I’ll never forget.”
~ Lily Brooks-Dalton, author of Good Morning, Midnight and Motorcycles I’ve Loved
“The Black-Marketer’s Daughter is the portrait of a woman who endures violence, intimidation, xenophobia and grief, and yet refuses to be called a victim. In this slender novel, Suman Mallick deftly navigates the funhouse maze of immigrant life in contemporary America—around each corner the possibility of a delight, a terror, or a distorted reflection of oneself.”
~ Matthew Valentine, Winner, Montana Prize for Fiction; Lecturer, University of Texas at Austin
“This story reminds us that our lives spring from cultural traditions we must either escape or embrace. With rich language and a keen eye for the details of a small enclave in North Texas, Suman Mallick reveals a complex world hidden within American society.”
~ Andrew Mitin, author of Time Spent Away
“In The Black-Marketer’s Daughter, Suman Mallick explores the myriad systems by which this world further entraps victims of violence–the law, the mosque, the marriage–and offers us a way through.”
~ Matthew Robinson, author of The Horse Latitudes