On Oct. 28, hurmat kazmi read their story “Sissies” in the Frank Manor House as part of the English Department’s Fall 2022 reading series. The Fall reading series featured two other writers: Audrey Gutierrez on Oct. 4 and Jane Wong on Nov. 8th.
kazmi is a fiction writer and playwright published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, American Short Fiction and McSweeney’s. This past year they were the Provost fellow in fiction at the University of Iowa. kazmi was born in Karachi, Pakistan and lived in California from 2011-2012 through a high school foreign exchange program. The story published in The Atlantic “The Armpits of White Boys,” was based on this experience.
The tale details an unnamed protagonist’s time in Visalia, Calif. where he befriends his traditional host mother while simultaneously exploring his sexuality. kazmi makes a daring choice by simply using he/him pronouns throughout the story in place of a name.
Although the story was based on events in kazmi’s life, that aspect of their work varies.
“The balance between what is fictional and what is bordering on my life varies, it is almost never 100% real life or 100% fiction,” kazmi said.
In contrast, “Sissies” is based on a 2014 mass shooting in a secondary and primary school in Peshawar, Pakistan in which 141 people were killed. kazmi called this story “an exception” to their typical writing style.
However, there are still many similarities between these stories. Both feature gay boys coming of age, Pakistani protagonists and some institution in the writing to help the reader relate to the story. The use of pronouns in “The Armpits of White Boys” allows anyone with he/him pronouns to connect to the protagonist. In “Sissies,” kazmi leaves a blank space instead of names so that anyone can imagine the setting they grew up in.
Despite this success, kazmi maintains that they were not supposed to be a writer.
“Given my life and my circumstance, I feel like deciding to be a writer would be the most dangerous thing I could probably decide to do,” kazmi said. “My family isn’t aware that I’m a writer, they haven’t read any of my writing, they don’t know that I publish stories in magazines, so any day now they could stumble upon my writing and read it. It’s like living in constant fear.”
However, they are grateful for being self taught and getting into writing atypically.
“In academic institutions and English programs, often readings tend to be very parochial and regurgitative, like all the people reading the exact same things at all times,” Kazmi said. “When I started reading, because I had no syllabus to look at — I had not lists to follow or wasn’t looking to read all the canon — I think my literary tastes became more varied and more diverse.”
From this unique reading list, kazmi recommends the works of Akhil Sharma, Anuk Arudpragasam, Souvankham Thammavongsa, Jamil Jan Kochai and Rajesh Parameswaran.