Syed M Masood's new novel tackles pain and a sense of belonging in America

The American writer says he was trying to understand 'how you can belong someplace and yet, simultaneously, not belong at all'

Last year, Syed M Masood launched his literary career with More Than Just a Pretty Face, a charming young adult novel about a Pakistani-American teenager grappling with first love, filial obligations and an academic challenge. This year, Masood follows it up with another debut – his first novel for adults. Writing The Bad Muslim Discount was a completely different creative process, he says.

"I always say that young adult literature is the literature of hope, the literature of becoming," Masood tells The National. "Adult fiction is about discontent; about finding yourself unhappy with who you are or where you are. They are very different ways of looking at the world, and I enjoy them both."

The Bad Muslim Discount revolves around two protagonists who find themselves unhappy for different reasons. More interesting, though, is the way that unhappiness produces different effects: one character's pain gives the novel its raw power, while the other character's torment is a source of rich humour. Masood's compelling, provocative and hugely enjoyable tragicomedy explores crises of faith and issues of identity, and throws a new light on the immigrant experience.

His immigrants are Anvar and Azza. The former, a rebellious, wisecracking boy, leaves his native Karachi with his family when fundamentalism takes hold and starts afresh in the US. Over the years, he falls in love, practises law, and antagonises friends and relatives with his atheism. Baghdad-born Azza flees war and heartbreak with her father and, after a perilous journey, enters America illegally. When she comes in contact with Anvar, she finds a kindred spirit in this so-called "bad Muslim".

Like Anvar, Masood was born in Karachi but moved with his family to the US. Anvar was raised in a more or less bookless household but the opposite was the case for Masood. His mother instilled in him a love of books. He started writing stories when he was young, as well as Urdu poetry. As he grew older, he harboured plans of teaching English literature at university, but pressure from his family forced him to reconsider.

"My father was a practical man and he did not think that was a practical path," he says. "Being the only and eldest son in a desi family carries some financial pressure with it. Your career path is more about making enough money to support your family than doing what you are passionate about. Love, as my mother pointed out, does not pay any bills."

Masood’s parents wanted him to become a doctor. Instead, as a compromise, he went to law school. “I grew up as part of a generation of American Muslims where knowing the law, the constitution, what one’s rights were and how they ought to be asserted, felt important.”

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<span>I grew up as part of a generation of American Muslims where knowing the law, the constitution, what one's rights were and how they ought to be asserted, felt important</span>

Today, based in Sacramento, California, he practises as a lawyer and writes, he says, "so long as I am willing to forego sleep".

He wrote The Bad Muslim Discount "out of grief" after the 2016 American election. "I thought of myself as belonging in America," he says. "The fact that I was Muslim did not change that. I've never found any dissonance in those two identities.

“But, all of a sudden, with their ballots, a large portion of America had said that they disagreed with me, that they felt that people who believed as I did were somehow fundamentally different than they were. I started writing the book to try to understand how you can belong someplace and yet, simultaneously, not belong at all. The book grew from there and got more complex, but you see elements of that original question in the journeys of both Anvar and Azza.”

Anvar shares his creator’s dislocation. He describes fear and panic spreading as tens of millions of Americans – his fellow countrymen – experience a “rude epiphany”, and begin to view the Muslim community as an existential threat and “inherently, unalterably, alien”.

I ask Masood if he sees himself in America as Anvar does when, in a discussion with his friend Zuha, he claims that "Muslims – our generation, in the West – are like the Frankenstein monster. We're stapled and glued together, part West, part East. A little bit of Muslim here, a little bit of sceptic there. We put ourselves together as best we can and that makes us, not pretty, of course, but unique."

"I think it is fair to say so," he says. "But I also think that Anvar's worldview is too black and white, and allows for too little grey in this instance."

Masood's protagonists are incredibly sceptical. Anvar, in particular, is frequently irreverent, much to the chagrin of his tyrannically pious parent, "Big Mother". So, is Masood concerned about ruffling feathers in some quarters?

“I’m not particularly bothered by how Anvar will be received by more conservative readers, just as I’m not bothered by how his mother will be received by more liberal ones. They are portraits of people the likes of whom I have encountered, and have been coloured by moments I have experienced and seen experienced, and that is all the justification their existence needs.”

In Masood's view, Anvar can be admired and derided by readers. "I love him because he is flawed. But," he says, "also because he is brave and bright. His charm is that he is not perfect, that sometimes when he defies the interpretations of religion other characters have he is right, and sometimes when he does so he is wrong."

Of the book's depiction of being Muslim, Masood stresses that he doesn't set out to represent Islam. "There are preachers and imams who do that. This isn't the purpose of fiction." Masood says while it could be argued that he represents Muslims when he writes, this is "a bold assertion fraught with peril" and one he hesitates to make.

"Anvar talks about the fact that Islam is global and, even though the doctrine is consistent, it is practised in different ways throughout the world. It is like a people speaking the same language, but with different accents." Representing such diversity is, Masood says, an impossible task.

"There are 'good' practising Muslims in the world and there are 'bad' Muslims as well," he says. "In the course of their lives, they are worthy of censure at times and they are at times worthy of praise.

“They are more than heroes and villains. They are human, and that transcends their faith. This humanity of the cast – the entire cast – was for me the point of the book. It is, ultimately, the only representation that matters.”

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