Friday, 27 May 2016

Technologies of the Self by Haris A Durrani

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I first encountered Haris Durrani on the Bare Lit panel (Re)Writing Pasts and Futures which brought together fantasy and fiction novelists Tendai Huchu, Zen Cho, Tosin Coker and Durrani.

Jihad (now known as Joe, because it saves explanations) is an engineering student in New York. Like Durrani himself, he is of mixed Pakistani Muslim and Dominican Catholic descent. Joe is trying to be a ‘Good Muslim.’ His encounters with friends and girlfriends are tinged with a yearning, which any immigrant will understand, to find someone with whom he can share at least some common experience. Yet it is to his mother’s sprawling Latino family, and in particular to his uncle Tomás, who claims to have met the demon Santiago in 1967 and to have been stalked by him ever since, that Joe repeatedly turns in his effort to make sense of his place in the world.

As the novella progresses, it splinters into a rainbow of ideas. Discussions about the different strands of Islam bump up against ideas for travelling between different dimensions. Notions of devils, djinns and fallen angels sit alongside questions of ecological damage to the Dominican Republic through bauxite mining.

Durrani’s prose verges on poetry – perhaps at its best when it focuses on the banal details of everyday life. Here the adolescent Tomás encounters Veronica, one of his ‘three interlocutors.’

‘Her toenails glinted in the afternoon light, when the sun reached the right angle in the sky and Tomás would stare at faint line of dark skin that circled above her ankle bone like an old burn mark. She reeked of hard alcohol and thick jasmine perfume.’

The term ‘technologies of the self’ was used by the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, to describe “practices and strategies by which individuals represent to themselves their own ethical self-understanding.” Joe/Jihad associates it with medieval Muslim theologian, Al Ghazali and his description of prayer and recitation, which make the body sacred and shape it for good works. In the context of the novella, it seems to encompass the myriad tools needed to construct one’s own identity – especially as a second generation immigrant of mixed heritage living in the post-9/11 West.

In the end, Joe must battle the same demon who has dogged his uncle’s footsteps, and reclaim his identity as Jihad.

Technologies of the Self is not exactly what the general reader might expect from science fiction / fantasy. Magic realism perhaps comes closer. But the book defies categorisation. The nearest I can come to summing it up is: a reflection on religion, philosophy and identity, by an author with the mind of a scientist and the soul of a poet.

You can get a taste of Durrani’s writing (and meet the young Joe/Jihad) in his award-winning short story, “Forty-Two Reasons Your Girlfriend Works For The FBI, CIA, NSA, ICE, S.H.I.E.L.D., Fringe Division, Men In Black, Or Cylon Overlords,” available to read here.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, VALIS by Philip K Dick;  The Imagination Thief by Rohan Quine

Avoid if you Dislike: Poetry, religion and philosophy with your fantasy (or vice versa)

Perfect Accompaniment: Lamb with okra and a cup of fragrant tea.

Genre: Literary Fiction, Magic Realism, Fantasy

Available on Amazon

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