Cultural conventions provoke Pasha Malla's Fugue States

The cast of characters in this dynamic new novel struggle with old social ideas about race and masculinity

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      Pasha Malla believes that men need new templates. Decency requires more than “being caring people outside of our [own] relationships,” he says. “That’s not enough.”

      Questions on masculine identity figure in his recently released sophomore novel, Fugue States. Influenced by Don Quixote and television sitcoms, it upends archetypes while tracking 30-something Ash Dhar, a Toronto author turned radio host, and Matt, his childhood best friend, who reinserts himself in Ash’s life following the death of Ash’s father.

      An acclaimed writer of fiction, criticism, and verse, Malla, 39, wanted to look at “accepted scripts that exist—socially, culturally—in terms of not just masculinity, but racial and cultural identity for writers and artists, for relationships between men and women, for family relationships, for caregiving relationships.

      “The book,” he says to the Straight from Ontario’s cottage country, “is really set around this idea that these kinds of expectations and scripts that exist are based in false narratives, or at least very reductive narratives.”

      Ash’s discovery of an unfinished manuscript in his father’s Quebec residence, a tale possibly set in Kashmir, the elder Dhar’s homeland, inadvertently inspires the gregarious Matt, a meandering Caucasian stoner, to visit India. (“I just imagined what would have happened in the situation if this absurd character, who believes himself to have agency in every situation, enacts this privilege that he is oblivious to.”)

      Even as it broaches grief and belonging, duty and self-deception, the novel maintains a badinage that complements Malla’s sensitive, verbally dynamic prose. As Matt roams the subcontinent, “He was still letting India happen to him. This wasn’t his way. Nope! Life was the thing you bent over and held by the earlobes and rogered like a champ. You kicked life in the guts or clutched it fast and smooched it hard lip-wise,” Malla writes. “You made memories out of your days—or you went forgotten.”

      For a while, Malla had sought to explore his heritage through writing (his mother and father are respectively British and Kashmiri), but was apprehensive about being pigeonholed. “I needed some way to do it that I felt was honest, but also was questioning the very mechanisms required of people who have ‘interesting cultural identities’,” he says. “I was not really wanting to participate in what I see to be as a market-driven expectation of that of writers. But also feeling like ‘Yeah, that’s part of who I am, and it’s important to write about it.’ ”

      As a mixed-race first-generation Canadian, “it can be a bit trickier to figure that stuff out,” the Hamilton-based author adds. “There aren’t a lot of models to follow. But I don’t want this book to be me complaining about that. I actually think that that is a gift.”

      Three years into the writing of the novel, in 2014, Malla travelled to India and was struck by the concept of incorporating a fugue into the plot. Including this amnesia, which grips Ash when he later joins Matt in India, allowed for a disruption of “this idea that this first-generation Canadian character would go to the homeland and discover something about himself.

      “He gets there and literally needs to discover everything about himself because he knows nothing,” Malla says. “The idea of amnesia was a cliché that I wanted to embrace.”

      Caregiving, a motif in both his Danuta Gleed Literary Award–winning 2008 short-story collection, The Withdrawal Method, and his 2012 novel People Park, is emphasized here by a thread about Chip, another of Ash’s buddies, who has a severely disabled son. Chip “doesn’t have models. He doesn’t have a script to follow. And he’s doing his best, and obviously he’s having a very hard time of it.…I think I’m just drawn to that stuff a) because I don’t see it that much in fiction, and b) because I think it’s an important thing in my life.”

      One of Malla’s aims was creating a book with tonal registers and an emotional barometer that can shift throughout a scene. Humour, he notes, offers an effective way to address serious topics, and underscores some of the tropes he chose to examine. In spite of sad experiences, “people are funny, and [in life] funny stuff happens. I think it’s really important that we remember that.”

      Fugue States subverts conventions and presents Malla’s most accomplished work yet. His volumes of fiction form a loose trilogy on masculinity, and “it’s almost like you’re able to have this dialogue when you look at them together,” he says. “It can be humiliating and mortifying, but it’s also honest.”

      Pasha Malla joins Vancouver author and playwright Anosh Irani in conversation on Friday (July 7) at SFU Woodward’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, as part of this year’s Indian Summer festival. See the Indian Summer website for details.