Vienna, Lahore, Syracuse, Islamabad, Amsterdam –– these diverse places and more are the multiple cities of identity for novelist Sorayya Khan, who interweaves them in her new memoir, “We Take Our Cities with Us.” Past and present exist simultaneously in this richly detailed evocation of a life shaped across continents. Khan will be reading from her memoir on Saturday, Nov. 5, at 3:30 p.m., at Buffalo Street Books. She recently spoke with Ithaca Times journalist Barbara Adams about how her book developed.

Ithaca Times: You’ve been writing fiction for more than 20 years –– did you ever think you’d write a memoir?

Sorayya Khan: No, never. I’d written essays here and there, but not very many. Actually, the impetus came from this question that novelists are asked all the time: How much of your novel is true, what parts really happened? I was asked that a lot, especially after my last novel, “City of Spies,” which was written in first person.

One day I thought I’d try to confront that question head on: What did happen? What does my story look like? I did that more as an experiment than anything, just to see what it might look like on the page. We're living in this incredibly polarized moment where we all speak about identity as if it's unchanging, fixed, and given my heritage –– that my father was Pakistani, and my mother was Dutch –– I needed to think about the multiplicity of my identity and belonging. When my kids were little, and they would ask, “Where are we from?” it was my husband Naeem who would remember the Dutch part of me. He would add that to what we described to the children.

So I wanted to think about identity as a looser, more flexible category. We can change over time, and we adapt in response to these big events that we don't have control over –– for me as a child, the hanging of a prime minister. And also personal tragedy, like the loss of the parent. So that's how I came to write this memoir about loss.

IT: How did this book develop? Did you start with the essays?

SK: Because I was being asked, “How much of ‘City of Spies’ is true?” I started to think about that. But that novel was so recent, I thought, let me take one of my other novels and actually write the story from my life that informs that novel, to try to figure out what the overlap is. I started with “Five Queen’s Road” and wrote the story of that place, the house of my grandparents in Lahore. And after that I turned to “Noor,” set mostly in Islamabad. So that's how I started to write essays, setting each in one city in my life. Then I started to sketch out the cities. Which cities would I include if I wrote a collection of essays like that?

IT: So your essay “Raising Brown Boys in Post-9/11 America,” which establishes the theme of being multiracial in a white environment, became the opening of the memoir?

SK: Yes, that was initially my Ithaca essay; that’s how the collection began. It was a way to locate the story, be the window for the reader to enter my world. But after I read the first draft of these essays on the eight to ten cities of my life, I thought my attempt to contain the story in a particular city wasn't working –– because I had mentions of multiple cities in each paragraph, sometimes even in the same sentence. And those cities were not all my cities; places like Maastricht or Amsterdam would make an appearance.

I thought it's just not working, and then I realized I had to surrender on the page to the way it was in my mind. You know –– how everything is all mixed up and together, and one city leads into another, and one person's story falls into another, and one memory is connected to somebody else's. Then I started to think about including my parents’ cities as well, and I sat down and rewrote the whole thing.

IT: After that, did the book progress as you imagined?

SK: The actual book does match the vision, which is still surprising to me. After I’d written the first collection of essays on each city, the vision emerged as I wrote. I was obsessed with getting it done; I’d write every single day because I was so afraid I would lose the thread of my thought. I think of myself as a private person –– I’m not so keen to give out intimate details. But there was something about the process and the need to write this book where all those things just came out.

IT: What dictated the structure of the book? The narrative isn’t chronological; it moves around associatively as memories do.

SK: After my first draft, I tried to figure out the narrative arc, how to handle the multiple cities. I worried about how to communicate this mishmash without confusing the reader. Only then I discovered how my mother made such a frequent appearance, and I thought, what if I use her journey, her illness, as the arc. That’s how I settled the structure.

IT: In the opening chapter we learn how the boys were harassed at school, and throughout the book, there’s danger, illness, death, loss –– all the harshness that life hands us. We face these threats without knowing when they’re coming or how grave they’ll be. Your memoir keeps retracing this theme.

SK: Yes…I was surprised by how much my mother’s death affected me. For a year I read grief memoirs almost exclusively; I couldn’t write fiction, literally –– the words were bouncing up and down on the page. I had to find a way to write about loss –– make it into something bigger, more complex –– so that I would not always, ever and only, write about loss in the future. In that way, I’ve made peace with it.

IT: Your research to envision and preserve the past was both traditional and archival as well as subjective –– like recording ambient sounds at a gravesite to capture the essence of your female ancestors. And you describe revisiting all these cities for years, persistently, almost like a pilgrimage.

SK: After my father’s death, our family home in Pakistan was dissolving around us. Now all these people are gone, parents, grandparents; they are the vessels of our lives. What do we have without them? Their homes, the place where they grew up, where they gave birth to us. It makes sense to visit these places; it’s a way of mapping, of locating yourself in the world. I think of my writing and these visits as a way of connecting the world, just as writing the memoir was a way of connecting the different parts of me.

IT: And throughout, there’s a tension between needing to remember and needing to forget.

SK: Isn't that the space we all live in all the time? It’s important to recognize –– and memoir is an exercise in this –– that history lives alongside us if we choose to see it. If we pay attention, it's always right there. And because of my heritage and trying to navigate multiple worlds all at the same time, I feel that history follow me. As the writer Aleksandar Hemon says: "There is no way to leave history. There's no other place to go."

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