Rumaan Alam’s latest novel, Leave the World Behind, centers on a white family and an older Black couple who find themselves together in a beautiful vacation house on Long Island while a power outage — and possibly something much worse — grips much of the East Coast.
The novel, which is up for the National Book Award, explores class and race relations — and how we respond to crisis and fear. The juxtaposition between the luxury inside the home and the growing sense of uneasiness outside the house seems to speak to life during the pandemic, but Alam says the connection was purely accidental.
“I could not have foreseen the particular cultural moment into which I’m publishing this book,” he says.
Alam, who lives in Brooklyn, felt a particular tension between safety and confinement during the early days of New York City’s COVID-19 shutdown: “I felt really trapped earlier this year when it was March and it was kind of cold outside and the playgrounds weren’t open and there really was nowhere for me and my kids to go. And it’s hard to hold those two things in your head — that you can have the great fortune of having a place to be and still feel a little trapped there.”
That tension runs throughout Leave the World Behind: “There’s a discomfort in that metaphor of the home — the luxurious home that promises to be this family’s getaway — that eventually becomes this family’s trap,” Alam says.
On the novel’s opening chapters, in which the white family who is renting the house opens the door in the middle of the night to an older Black couple who claim to be the home’s owners
The reader is meant to feel a bit of discomfort there because, of course, a knock at the door late at night in a place where you’re not expecting to be, it feels suspicious, it feels threatening. But this liberal white couple is then forced to confront the fact that their immediate presumption is that this Black couple who show up on their doorstep must somehow be criminals, that they must be lying, that they couldn’t possibly have a house this nice because they are Black.
Amanda [the white mother] reflects at one point that they look like they could be the handyman and the maid associated with the house and that maybe this whole thing is just a con. It’s an uncomfortable place to be because they’re acknowledging some very deep and unflattering preconceptions based on race. At the same time, it is scary. It is nighttime there in this place where they ought not to be and they’re not expecting to confront people in the middle of the night on their doorstep.
On how he tested out the sound of the book on Twitter
In the middle of 2018, I was working as an editor at The New York Times and I was commuting to work on the subway and it was a big job. I was a busy person and I found myself with that particular itch that I think many people feel when they’re away from their chosen art for a little too long. That desire to get back to the work I wanted to be doing. And I was just confronting the reality that I didn’t have a lot of give in my days. I was getting home at 7:00 [p.m.] and I wanted to see my family and I was tired at the end of the day. And there’s just less time to give myself over to a project.
I use Twitter a lot, maybe too much. And at some point I realized that tweeting is actually just a form of writing, right? … You’re sending communiques out into the void. And that I could use Twitter instead of as a way to air my kind of nonsense observations of daily life, I could use it with a particular goal in mind. I could use Twitter almost the way a writer would use a notebook.
So I made this second Twitter account that summer, and when I was commuting on the subway, I would write sentences and I would try and establish a sense of how the book sounded, what these people looked like, what they sounded like, what their names were, what the voice of the novel was going to be. It’s not an exercise that I kept up for very long. I probably did it for four or five weeks. But I do consider that my first foray into the world of the book.
And then when I sat down to write the book, I had already had this preliminary experience inside of the voice of the book, and it came very easily. So a draft of the book came together in about three weeks.
On how the teenage kids in the book pick up on things that the adults don’t see
I think that that particular choice reflects the one point of optimism I have about the cultural moment, which is I have a lot of faith in the generation to which my children belong. I think that very young people today see the world for what it is and don’t really accept a lot of the mythology that adults try to throw at them.
The children in this book are paying attention in the way that the adults are not, and that reflects my own sense of what is happening generationally in this country. – Rumaan Alam
My kids have a way of thinking about the grim facts of life, whether you’re talking about global climate change, whether you’re talking about the ongoing and very urgent protests about police violence against Black Americans. There’s all of this stuff that my kids have a very keen awareness of. And it is not because I have handed it to them, and it’s not because we as parents have forced it upon them.
It’s because kids are smart and kids are paying attention. And I do think that the children in this book are paying attention in the way that the adults are not, and that reflects my own sense of what is happening generationally in this country.
On the choice to not explain or resolve all of the unanswered questions in the book
This is a book that poses, let’s say, 15 questions and answers, maybe seven of them. There’s a lot that is unknown in the book and that remains unknowable to me, also. … So much of the point of the book, I think, is that in this contemporary moment, that information does elude us and once we possess it, we still don’t really have the answer we think we do.
On defying expectation others had for him as a writer
I think that is a particular burden that so many artists bear: That if you are gay, you are a gay artist, that if you are Black, you are a Black artist, that if you are Latinx, you are a Latinx artist, and that your work must engage with probing that particular identity. It is possible to be a Black artist who does not write about Blackness. Or it is possible to be a Black artist who doesn’t write about Blackness exclusively.
But I do think that when you talk about the cultural industry as opposed to artistic expression, writers and artists need to be filed by type, they need to be understood as a certain kind of thing. And so there’s an expectation sometimes that if you are an Indian artist, you are writing of the Indian experience. If you are a Bengali artist, as I am, you’re writing of the Bengali experience.
I don’t think I’m doing that in my work or I think I’ve resisted doing that in my work — and that creates a strange break in the system. It’s as though I’ve declined to honor this particular obligation. … I’m not sure I meant to act out in this particular way, but here I am. I have written three books now and none of them have talked about who I am as a person.
Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. One of the most anticipated books this fall is the third novel by my guest, Rumaan Alam. It’s the story of a white, middle-class family from Brooklyn enjoying their vacation in a luxurious rented home on a remote, bucolic stretch of Long Island when they’re unexpectedly visited at night by an older Black couple who say they’re the owners of the property and have come fleeing a massive power outage in New York. It’s a story about race and class relations and how the two families respond to a mysterious set of events that seem to threaten the future of civilization. The book, “Leave The World Behind,” has been nominated for the National Book Award in fiction.
Rumaan Alam is also the author of the novels “Rich And Pretty” and “That Kind Of Mother.” His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Elle, New York Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books and other publications. He also hosts two podcasts on Slate, “Working” and “Outward.” He joins us from his home in Brooklyn. Rumaan Alam, welcome to FRESH AIR.
RUMAAN ALAM: Thank you so much for having me.
DAVIES: So this story involves a family of four and an older couple who find themselves in this house in a kind of remote area of Long Island when this mysterious crisis affects them. Can you just tell us a little bit about these characters and what connects them?
ALAM: Sure. The family is a couple named Amanda and Clay. They have two teenagers, Archie and Rose. They’re a kind of striving upper-middle-class white family from a nice part of Brooklyn. And they’re heading out to Long Island for the kind of holiday that we used to have when we weren’t all trying to stay home in service of public health. And they’re kind of splurging on an experience of life that is not normally theirs. They’re staying in a beautiful house. It’s in a beautiful place. And it’s theirs for the week.
DAVIES: They’ve rented it. It’s an Airbnb or a rental, right?
ALAM: They’ve rented – exactly. They’ve rented it. It’s an Airbnb. And they’re anticipating having this kind of private experience as a family, which I think is sort of, you know, the ideal of vacation. And it is interrupted, as you say, by a knock on the door. And it is an older Black couple, G.H. and Ruth, and they own the home. They’re both upper-middle-class families. I mean, G.H. and Ruth are wealthier than Amanda and Clay. But there’s still a particular kind of collision between their differences. They’re different generations. They are different kinds of wealthy. And they are – of course, one couple is white and one couple is Black.
DAVIES: Right. And when, you know, the white couple who are there thinking they’re in this isolated place – it’s got a hot tub, it’s got a pool, the kids are having a great time. They’ve had – one night, they’ve had a barbecue and then this knock on the door. And these people say they’re the owners of this place. And then what are the reactions of Clay and Amanda?
ALAM: Their immediate reaction is disbelief. And the reader is meant to feel a bit of discomfort there because, of course, a knock at the door late at night in a place where you’re not expecting it to be feels suspicious. It feels threatening. But this liberal white couple is then forced to confront the fact that their immediate presumption is that this Black couple who show up on their doorstep must somehow be criminals, that they must be lying, that they couldn’t possibly have a house this nice because they are Black. Amanda reflects at one point that they look like they could be the handyman and the maid associated with the house and that maybe this whole thing is just a con. It’s an uncomfortable place to be because they’re acknowledging some very deep and unflattering preconceptions based on race. At the same time, it is scary. It is nighttime. They’re in this place where they ought not to be, and they’re not expecting to confront people in the middle of the night on their doorstep.
DAVIES: So when the white couple, Clay and Amanda, are a little suspicious that these people arriving, Ruth and G.H., are really the owners of the house, how do Ruth and G.H. establish that they are?
ALAM: There’s a line in the book where G.H. is standing on the porch, and Amanda and Clay are looking at him and he raises his hands. And the book says that by his age, Black men are adept at this gesture, a way of showing that he is unarmed, a way of showing that he comes in peace. This couple understands that even though this is their house, in this particular context, as Black people, the power dynamic is what it is, and they understand what they’re getting into, what they’re negotiating. So I think that Ruth and G.H. come into the book in all honesty and what they are saying should be taken at face value. But Amanda and Clay do not accept it.
DAVIES: Right. And in some circumstances, the Black person might – look, I can show you my driver’s license, whatever. In this case, it’s we know the house. There are pictures of our family around.
ALAM: It seems self-evident to them. It seems clear, I think, that they are there because of an emergency and that they are in possession of the facts, that they possess this house. They have a kind of confidence in the world because people, older people in particular and wealthy older people, I think have that particular confidence in the world. And it doesn’t really carry much traction with Amanda and Clay. And so it’s a strange confrontation, but everyone feels a little unstable, I think, in that moment and especially, hopefully, the reader.
DAVIES: It happens that G.H. and Ruth, the couple that have arrived, are indeed the owners of the home. They’re quite well-off. And they explained that there’s been a massive power outage in New York and maybe beyond. And they say, can we stay? There’s a mother-in-law apartment on the lower floor. And it’s kind of awkward, but that’s what happens. And one of the things that’s interesting about this book when we consider the current times is that you got people sort of holed up at home not sure whether to venture out in a world that may have changed or to stay home where it is safe, which is exactly what so many of us are doing right now. Was this just a coincidence?
ALAM: It’s purely coincidence. I could not have foreseen the particular cultural moment into which I’m publishing this book. You know, there’s a discomfort in that metaphor of the home, the luxurious home that promises to be this family’s getaway that eventually becomes this family’s trap. This moment that sees us trying to stay home in service of public health, I think we’ve all felt that particular tension. You know, those of us who are fortunate enough to have a home, have a safe place to be, have the kind of work that we can do from our homes, you know, have our health, we understand that it’s important to stay home and that it’s important to sort of think about the larger community. At the same time, I think we can’t help but feel a little trapped. I know I felt really trapped earlier this year when it was March and it was kind of cold outside and the playgrounds weren’t open, and there really was nowhere for me and my kids to go. And it’s hard to hold those two things in your head, that you can have the great fortune of having a place to be and still feel a little trapped there.
DAVIES: Yeah. Well, I want to get a little bit into the story, but can you share where the germ of the idea came from for this?
ALAM: At the end of 2017, the writer Laura Lippman, who is a great crime writer and an extremely generous human being, let me borrow her home in New York City for a week to write. I had said something on Twitter, which I use a lot, about how I needed to get away from my kids and sort of sink into a project. And Laura very generously said, well, come stay at my place and you can have a week there. I was in this beautiful apartment. It’s on the Upper West Side. It’s not far from the river. And it was December, and it was freezing cold. And every time I ventured out to run to the diner or to get a cup of coffee, I was just so cold. And I found myself thinking about my family vacation that August. We had rented a house that’s pretty much exactly the house I describe in this novel. We had rented it through Airbnb, and we had hung out at the pool all day and had this sort of idyllic, beautiful summer vacation. And I was really missing it. I was at the time engaged in writing a different book, actually, and this particular germ sort of stuck with me, this desire to write about this place that we had vacationed and to find in the story of a family vacation something that had bigger implications, that had political implications, that had cultural implications.
There’s a way of talking about fiction – we use this term a lot, the domestic fiction – the novel that is concerned with the family life, the home life. And I think it’s – there’s often a perception that this is kind of a small thing, that it’s a minor thing. And I resist that ’cause I think that family life is a really big thing and, actually, it’s a point of access for so many readers. And I do think that domestic fiction can reveal something really important.
But it was the particular challenge I wanted to take on with this book to write something that really looked like a domestic fiction in a very literal sense, because so much of the book is about the house in which they find themselves, but pushed through that to find something much bigger with bigger cultural implications.
DAVIES: Yeah, it’s interesting. You know, the first 30 pages or so, we find this family settling into this house and doing the stuff you do when you’re on vacation. You go to the grocery store. You buy, you know, some fruit and some burgers and some wine and all that stuff. And these little details kind of set the world for us, which then kind of changes dramatically. You – I also read that you started this – if I have this right, you had a Twitter account, and you began kind of trying this out on Twitter.
ALAM: You do have that right. So in the middle of 2018, I was working as an editor at The New York Times, and I was commuting to work on the subway. And I – you know, it was a big job. I was a busy person. And I found myself with that particular itch that I think many people feel when they’re away from their chosen art for a little too long – that desire to get back to the work I wanted to be doing. And I was just confronting the reality that I didn’t have a lot of give in my days. I was getting home at 7, and I wanted to see my family. And I was tired at the end of the day. And there’s just less time to give myself over to a project.
I use Twitter a lot – maybe too much. And at some point, I realized that tweeting is actually just a form of writing, right? You’re just writing – you’re sending communiques out into the void. And that I could use Twitter instead of as a way to air my kind of nonsense observations of daily life, I could use it with a particular goal in mind. I could use Twitter almost the way a writer would use a notebook.
So I made this second Twitter account that summer. And when I was commuting on the subway, I would write sentences, and I would try and establish a sense of how the book sounded, what these people looked like, what they sounded like, what their names were, what the voice of the novel was going to be.
It’s not an exercise that I kept up for very long. I probably did it for four or five weeks. But I do consider that my first foray into the world of the book. And then when I sat down to write the book, I had already had this preliminary experience inside of the voice of the book, and it came very easily. So a draft of the book came together in about three weeks because I had really spent time thinking about the world of the book.
DAVIES: Wow. And this was not a Twitter account associated with you, right? I mean…
ALAM: No, it’s hidden. It’s locked and nobody could see it. So it was really private. It was really just a matter of fooling myself into being productive. Sort of the way that you might choose to walk to pick up your kids at school and force yourself to get a little exercise, it was just a sort of act of self-improvement.
DAVIES: Do you think this – the act of writing in – whatever it is – 200-character bites, or whatever the limit is, was helpful?
ALAM: I do think it was very helpful. Jennifer Egan published a short story that she composed as a series of tweets a few years ago. I believe it was called the “Black Box.” And it’s an extraordinary story. And there’s a real attention to the feel of every sentence because, of course, you’re thinking about it as discrete sentences.
And I think bringing that particular attention to the sentence, to the diction, to the word choice, to the way the book was coming together was really helpful. And I think that it is a lean book. It is not a long book. And so I really wanted to have a strong sense of the sound of it from the moment you enter it.
DAVIES: All right. Well, I’m sure some literary critics of social media may be run – run screaming from the room now that you’ve got this great book started on Twitter. But it worked.
Let me reintroduce you. We’re going to take a break here. We’re speaking with Rumaan Alam. His new novel is “Leave The World Behind.” We’ll be back in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is Rumaan Alam. He’s just published his third novel, which has been nominated for the National Book Award in fiction. It’s called “Leave The World Behind.”
So let’s talk a bit about the characters in this, your new book, “Leave The World Behind.” We’ve got this white middle-class couple who are having a vacation in a rented house, and this African American couple – older couple – show up. They’re the owners of the house, and they’ve – they’re fleeing this – a problem. There’s been a blackout in New York and apparently all, you know, parts of the Northeast. And all they know is, you know, nobody there has – at the house has satellite TV reception, Wi-Fi or cellphone service, so they’re really cut off from the outside world, but we know that there’s a power problem.
And we gradually learn that this is more serious as some events begin to, you know, occur in the family. One of the things that happens is after this couple arrives in the middle of the night, the next day, they’re trying to figure out, what should we do? Should we venture out and look for information? And Clay, the husband of the couple that rented the place, decides he’s going to go out, I guess go to the local town square, see if he can get more information. He gets lost, and he’s wandering around this area because he doesn’t know it, and he has an encounter with a woman. Can you describe this a bit?
ALAM: Clay sort of sees it as his role as the father of this family to roll up his sleeves and go out and figure out what’s happening in the world. And he’s quite confident that it’s going to be something relatively minor, that he’s going to drive into town and buy a Coke and figure out that, like, there’s been a power outage, but it’s no big deal.
As you said, he quickly gets lost. Clay realizes that without the tether of the global positioning system, he actually does not know how to navigate these unfamiliar roads. As he’s driving back and forth in this sort of farm country, he sees a woman standing by the side of the road. She is in distress, and she flags him down. But she is unable to communicate with him because she speaks only Spanish, and he cannot speak Spanish. They have a strange kind of awkward encounter. And ultimately, he rolls the windows up and drives away, leaving her there. And it is a complicated and strange moment because it feels like a real moral failing on his part to abandon a person who is clearly in distress. But it’s almost as though he’s choosing to turn away from this particular clue that there is something wrong in the world, and he is sort of sticking to his sense that everything is fine.
DAVIES: Right. She is a little frantic and can’t tell him why and maybe he doesn’t want to know.
DAVIES: There are a lot of things that happen with animals here, and we won’t go into them all. But there’s this sense that animals, you know, sense things that people don’t always. And the kind of omniscient narrator in the book also suggests to us that the two kids, these two teenage kids, are at times intuiting things that the adults aren’t, right?
ALAM: I think that that particular choice reflects the one point of optimism I have about the cultural moment, which is I have a lot of faith in the generation to which my children belong. I think that very young people today see the world for what it is and don’t really accept a lot of the mythology that adults try to throw at them. My kids have a way of thinking about the grim facts of life, whether you’re talking about global climate change, whether you’re talking about the ongoing and very urgent protests about police violence against Black Americans. There’s all of this stuff that my kids have a very keen awareness of. And it is not because I have handed it to them. It is not because we, as parents, have forced it upon them. It’s because kids are smart, and kids are paying attention. And I do think that the children in this book are paying attention in the way that the adults are not. And that reflects my own sense of what is happening generationally in this country.
DAVIES: You have two boys. How old are they, if you don’t mind my asking?
ALAM: They’re 11 and 8, only just 11 and 8, so sixth grade and third grade.
DAVIES: Can you think of an example of them having this sense of things?
ALAM: Yes, I have a great example, actually. We, this summer, were seeing a friend of mine who their pronoun of choice is they/them. And so before we went to meet this friend, I just mentioned that to my kids. I said, just so you know, this is how my friend identifies themself. And both of my kids asked questions, of course, about what that means, you know, what it means when somebody chooses to define their own sex rather than accept kind of received ideas about sex and gender. And I tried to explain that to them in a way that was age appropriate and sort of linguistically appropriate. Both of my children responded with, OK, got it, and that reflects to me their generation’s willingness to look at things that we have been told are a binary, look at things that we have been told are black or white and say, actually, this is gray and that’s fine. And that gives me great hope for the way that their generation thinks about things that can be so divisive and cause so much problem for people who are older than them.
DAVIES: You know, race divides us in so many ways. And an interesting question that this poses is, if there is a crisis which threatens us all, which maybe even threatens human civilization, do our prejudices, you know, blossom and drive all of our reactions, or do we realize that we face a common threat and we really have more in common than we do differences? How do you see that playing in the story?
ALAM: Oh, it’s a very thorny question. I think we want to believe in our own ability to take the high road and say, well, this is an emergency, but we are all in this together. And that runs headlong into a very human, I think, desire to say I will take care of my family. It’s not hard to walk from I will take care of my family to I will take care of my own. And my own can be defined, you know, very broadly. And the particular discomfort that they feel early in the book upon opening the door and realizing that the person standing outside is Black lingers. The sense lingers that perhaps because they are of different races, they cannot get to a place of pure understanding, although I think what ultimately happens challenges some of that.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. We’re speaking with Rumaan Alam. His new novel is “Leave The World Behind.” We’ll be back to talk more about his life and writing after this break. I’m Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, speaking with writer Rumaan Alam. He’s just published his third novel. It’s called “Leave The World Behind.”
One of the ways that we feel the tension in this story is that the characters, you know, have no cellphone service, no Internet, and they’re just used to constantly checking their devices for information and reassurance. Are you addicted to your phone and your devices?
ALAM: I mean, listen, haven’t we all been there? Haven’t we all been there? I mean, you feel that phantom ring of your phone in your pocket. You are looking at your phone. You’re looking at The New York Times up on your phone, and then you think, oh, where’s my phone? I need to check my email. And it’s right there in your hand and you’re looking right into it. You find yourself making a familiar drive, one that you make all the time, to the grocery store, to pick up your kids at school or whatever it is, and you realize that you don’t have your GPS and you don’t understand where you’re going. The phone has had a very profound effect on us. You know, technology has rewired contemporary existence. And I think it’s worth thinking about. And in a moment of real crisis, we are all going to look at our phones to be told what to do. And sometimes that information is not forthcoming, and that’s very unsettling.
DAVIES: Right. So if some actor were able to shut down the Internet – wow.
ALAM: It’s scary. It’s scary to consider. I mean, one of the characters is describing that experience of being on a plane. And you hear those dings that tell you you’re below 10,000 feet or whatever it is. And everybody starts looking at their phone surreptitiously hoping to catch on to the cellphone network for the first time and find out what they’ve missed during the duration of that flight. It’s become a very addictive force in this culture.
DAVIES: I’m wondering if you, for the purposes of crafting this story, have a fully blown explanation for everything that’s going on.
ALAM: That’s a great question, and the answer is that I do not. This is a book that poses, let’s say, 15 questions and answers maybe seven of them. There’s a lot that is unknown in the book and that remains unknowable to me also. Every answer the book offers – oh, this thing has happened, that thing has happened, this thing has happened – you can put them together, and they don’t really tell you anything. But so much of the point of the book, I think, is that in this contemporary moment, that information does elude us. And once we possess it, we still don’t really have the answer we think we do.
DAVIES: Your parents are from Bangladesh. You grew up in an affluent suburb in Washington, D.C., right?
ALAM: That’s right.
DAVIES: And I read you didn’t have a lot of contact with relatives in Bangladesh. And was this by design on your parents’ part?
ALAM: No, I think it was just sort of the terms of life. You know, I was born in 1977, and I’m one of four children. It would have been very expensive for us to schlep back and forth across the world once a year. It was a big indulgence. We would go back to Bangladesh every three or four years. When I was a young kid, I got very ill, actually, on one trip to Bangladesh. And so my parents were kind of cautious about taking us to a place where, you know, the climate was so different, the food was so different. It could be difficult on a young kid’s system. And this was also just a different moment in this country. And my parents arrived in this country in the early 1970s with the intention of becoming wholly American. They were here to pursue higher degrees, and they raised us in a way that was really quite American.
And in some ways, I guess they had no choice because once you send your kid off to school in this country, that is just who they become. And so I’m mindful of that particular tension for every immigrant who comes to this country, that you come to provide something for your children, you have to watch your children become something that you yourself are not. And so you inhabit this strange interstitial space and, in fact, your children do as well, where your children are not quite of America and not quite of the place from which you’ve come. It’s a complicated negotiation. And I think that the culture now values immigrant communities in a different way. I think that there’s a sense that immigrant communities can retain a sense of their own identity and that is not, you know, suspect or that is not difficult to do.
For whatever reason, because of our geography, because of my parents’ own personal choices that I don’t have access to because I was a child then, that wasn’t my experience. We were not raised with a strong sense of our own culture. I don’t know the language. As a young kid, I kind of rejected the food, which is insane to me now because nothing is more delicious than the food from that part of the world. But, you know, that is just how I was. I was a kid who wanted to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and watch cartoons, and that’s just who I was. And that sort of created a strange – I inhabit a strange place where I might look like I’m from another place, but I really feel a product of this country.
DAVIES: Right. When you were growing up, did you feel accepted by classmates, friends, teachers?
ALAM: I did. I did. I didn’t have a particular awareness of myself as other. And that is an awareness that I still don’t really possess because you don’t walk around in your body conscious of the ways in which you are different. You walk around in your body as yourself. And it wasn’t until my adulthood, really, that I began to see the ways in which maybe I wasn’t accessing an experience of the world that my white peers were. And that’s destabilizing and strange. And it’s strange to think about even now that I was able to delude myself for as long as I was, or that I was unclear about exactly who I was for so long.
DAVIES: Yeah. Was assimilation a conscious goal of your parents, do you think?
ALAM: I’m not sure if it was a conscious goal. I think that that was the value, to come to this country. And, you know, we talk about the American dream – right? – to master the American dream, to possess that. And they certainly did. My parents came to this country with very little. They were both graduate students, essentially. And by the time Ronald Reagan was the president, they were quite wealthy and quite successful. And they had four children. And we all went off to great schools. And we are the American dream, in many ways. It’s just maybe that American dream, the terms of it, have changed a little.
DAVIES: You are gay. You’re married to your husband in Brooklyn. You have two kids. And I’m wondering, if you’re comfortable talking about it, when, you know, you were clear about your sexual orientation and how that affected your sense of identity.
ALAM: That’s another strange psychic split – right? – where you can be conscious of something from a very early age and not articulate it to yourself until much later. That’s a phenomenon of the closet, right? And I do think that that’s changing as we have a different cultural understanding of what it is to be gay. There’s more acceptance of that. But I certainly knew from a very early age that I felt different about, you know, having a crush on a boy on television. Like, I was conscious of that, but I was also conscious of never acknowledging that aloud. And it’s hard for me to say what effect that has had on my adulthood or my psyche. It just is the way it is. And I think that’s really changing. That’s really changing. There will still be children who experience that, but there will also be children who don’t. There will be children who never know what it is like to sublimate their own sense of self.
DAVIES: You went to Oberlin and studied creative writing. It’s interesting, you know, as I’ve read about you, it sounds like, for much of your career, you know, you developed your craft and your voice. And then people expected you to be a different kind of writer. They wanted you to represent, you know, your ethnic background. Did that go way back?
ALAM: I think that is a particular burden that so many artists bear that if you are gay, you are a gay artist, that if you are Black, you are a Black artist, that if you are a Latinx, you’re a Latinx artist, and that your work must engage with probing that particular identity. It is possible to be a Black artist who does not write about blackness. Or it is possible to be a Black artist who doesn’t write about blackness exclusively. But I do think that when you talk about the cultural industry, as opposed to artistic expression, writers and artists need to be filed by type. They need to be understood as a certain kind of thing.
And so there’s an expectation sometimes that if you’re an Indian artist, you are writing of the Indian experience. If you are a Bengali artist, as I am, you’re writing of the Bengali experience. I don’t think I’m doing that in my work. Or I think I’ve resisted doing that in my work. And that creates a strange break in the system. It’s as though I’ve declined to honor this particular obligation. And I’m not sure I meant to act out in this particular way, but here I am. I have written three books now, and none of them have talked about who I am as a person.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. We’re speaking with Rumaan Alam. His new novel is “Leave The World Behind.” We’ll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AMANDA GARDIER’S “FJORD”)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we’re speaking with writer Rumaan Alam. He’s just finished his third novel. It’s called “Leave The World Behind.” It’s been nominated for the National Book Award in fiction.
Your second novel, “That Kind Of Mother,” is about a white woman who has a – I guess she’s a nursing coach – has a relationship with this woman who then becomes her nanny and who is African American. The nanny then dies. And then the woman adopts two Black children, which you have done, right? I guess…
ALAM: The nanny dies in childbirth. And she adopts the baby. Yeah.
DAVIES: Right. You’re the adoptive parent of two Black children. I guess – was that long before you had – where did that book come in relationship to your own two adoptions?
ALAM: Oh, no. Yes, I wrote that book after I had become a parent. And those are not the circumstances in which I became a parent. But that book distills many of my own experiences as a parent and many of the feelings I have had as a parent. And there’s a natural, I think, tendency for readers to look for autobiography in fiction.
And the truth is that my work, especially that work, is quite autobiographical because, in a way, that’s all I know, right? You’re always hostage to your own biography. You can only see things through the lens of your own lived experience. It’s just very hard for people to see by the simple choice to choose to write about a woman as opposed to a man, the notion that I’m writing about motherhood instead of fatherhood clouds the territory a little bit. But that is very much a book about my own feelings about being a father.
DAVIES: Is there a particular moment or theme in the book that connects with a point – one in your own life?
ALAM: Oh, there are tons of them. They’re very small and meaningless, though, you know? Rebecca, the protagonist of “That Kind Of Mother,” keeps the rotting bananas in the freezer. And, you know, she makes them into banana bread periodically as a way of kind of feeling thrifty and feeling resourceful. She’ll – you know, she gets up early one morning – there’s a scene where the baby wakes her early in the morning. And they’ve been up since 4:30. And she decides to make chicken stock. She takes out the bag of bones from the freezer and boils a pot of chicken stock, which is exactly something that has happened to me in this particular house.
Like, there was a night once – my younger son was kind of a fitful sleeper. And I slept on the couch for, like, two hours and then just finally got up with him at 3:30. And I made a pot of chicken stock. And my husband came down at, like, 5 o’clock in the morning and said, what on Earth are you doing? And I was like, well, this is what I’m doing. Xavier did not feel like sleeping this morning. So there is a way in which you stitch that material into a fiction. And you push through it or, hopefully, make it into something that is not just about yourself, but becomes part of a story that readers can access and make sense of and, hopefully, mean something bigger.
DAVIES: Do you imagine yourself ever exploring, you know, your parents’ roots, getting to know more about your ancestors or maybe writing about it? It is not your responsibility, let me make sure I…
DAVIES: I’m just wondering if it – you think that, at some point, you might turn your attention there.
ALAM: So earlier, I described to you that I was in Laura Lippman’s apartment in New York City trying to write a novel when I had the idea for “Leave The World Behind.” And that novel that I was trying to write was about what you’re describing. It was more engaged in looking at an experience that’s near my own autobiography, the experience of the children of immigrants in this country – immigrants from South Asia in particular. For some reason, it’s very difficult for me to see a way forward into that material in part because I think other writers have already defined it. And so I see – it’s less clear to me how I can possess that material.
When I think of the great contemporary stories about the Indian immigrant experience in this country, I think about Jhumpa Lahiri. And I had this very odd experience many years ago now – Jhumpa Lahiri published a story that felt like it described, in some weird – in its weird particulars, the story of my own life. And confronting that in fiction in the pages of The New Yorker was so unsettling and so weird. And it was just this feeling of like, well, I would never write this story now because someone has beaten me to it. That’s a cop-out, for sure. There’s plenty of room for variations on this theme. Somehow, my imagination doesn’t feel like it’s rich enough. I haven’t been able to crack it yet.
DAVIES: I’m wondering what you do when you are not writing novels. I mean, you write reviews, right?
ALAM: I do. It’s a way of staying engaged in the literature but not thinking about my own work, thinking about the work of writers who are better than me, writers like Zadie Smith or Ben Lerner, L.E. Smith (ph). And it’s a great, great exercise that really keeps me sharp. I’m also teaching this semester. And as so many parents are, I’m also helping my children negotiate home school, so I’m kind of a teacher for sixth grade and the third grade as well.
I think it’s very important for me to have other pursuits beyond my own fiction, to have a thing that I can do that enriches my understanding of the world that isn’t just about my own sort of invented worlds. I really enjoy writing about books. I also sometimes write about music or film. It’s really helpful to me. I think – what I say when I teach writing is that writing is an input-output proposition, and it’s very difficult to get to the point of output if you haven’t had any input. And so a tether or a perspective on what’s happening in the world that has to do with other people’s work is really useful for me.
DAVIES: Well, Rumaan Alam, it’s – congratulations on the book, and thank you so much for speaking with us.
ALAM: Thank you so much.
DAVIES: Rumaan Alam’s third novel is “Leave The World Behind.” It’s been nominated for the National Book Award in fiction.
Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker returns to a Prince album he reviewed 33 years ago. A new deluxe version has just been released.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “PLAY IN THE SUNSHINE”)
PRINCE: (Singing) We want to play in the sunshine. We want to be free without the help of a margarita or ecstasy. We want to kick like we used to. Sign up on the dotted line. We’re going to dance every dance like it’s going to be the last time. We got to play in the sunshine, turn all the lights up to 10. I want to meet you, kiss you, love you and miss you. Do it all over again. Do it all over again. We’re going to play in the sunshine. We’re going to get over. I’m feeling kind of lucky tonight. I’m going to find my four-leaf clover. Before my life is done, someway, somehow, I’m going to have fun. Play in the sunshine.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE SONG, “DELIRIOUS”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.