Author Q&A: Wajahat Ali

– Interview by Elena Bowes

Elena Bowes spoke to Wajahat Ali, a columnist for the Daily Beast, public speaker and author of Go Back to Where You Came From and Other Helpful Recommendations on Becoming American. His work has appeared in the Atlantic, Washington Post and the Guardian. He writes about his personal and political struggles with humour and optimism.

When did you realise you were funny?

I appreciate the compliment. I got my first laugh in first grade when I was waiting in line to go to the cafeteria. I made this girl Mercedes laugh, by riffing on a Dr. Pepper joke like Seinfeld. “What’s Dr Pepper? Is it a Doctor or a Pepper? How can it be a drink?”

So that was my first laugh, but I didn’t realise I was funny. I remember in fifth grade, I wrote this story and people laughed at all the right parts. And then throughout the rest of the year, when (my teacher) Mrs. Peterson asked me to do projects, I used to get up and the class would laugh, but even then I didn’t realise I was funny.

I’m like, oh, they’re not beating me up or making fun of me. This is great. And then I remember I got a little bit more confidence. It was the next year, sixth grade where we had a public speaking teacher. I remember I was able to do a 12-minute improvised set on vacations. I just riffed for 12 minutes and I held the class’s attention. So, I think it was eighth grade.

There is a reason why I’m mentioning this because oftentimes people say, ah, there was that one moment. And then overnight I became a superhero. I think what I tried to show in the book is it takes a lifetime. It takes a lifetime of discovery and skill and learning about yourself. You know, as Miles Davis said, ‘It takes a long time to be able to play yourself.’

And was that your superhero power?

No, I would say my superhero power was the ability to tell a story. I think I discovered that at the age of five. My father complimented me. My teacher complimented me and then in fifth grade, that’s when I think I won my first award, which was best writer, most creative and best artist. You have to realise I was a fat, shy, Husky pants-wearing kid. I was always sick, had missed 35 days of school and was almost kicked out. And so, for a kid who goes from being ridiculed to winning best writer, best artist and most creative, it was like I’d won the Super Bowl.

Can you explain why you always felt slightly undercooked?

Human beings are storytelling animals, and we try to make sense of our place in the world. And some of the strange things that happened to us. I was born with flat feet, IBS, OCD from my father, horrible allergies, overweight, Husky pants, left-handed. I always thought that when God was moulding me, he sneezed and just kind of messed up. And then he’s like, eh, I don’t have time. Let me just put this in the oven and see what happens. And then he kind of rushed me out. And so, I feel like I got rushed out and I kind of got delivered with all these quirks.

So, you talk about how you felt your family was cursed. Do you feel like you’re still cursed?

We tell stories to make sense of this chaotic universe and the Ali family curse for me was my narrative hook that I needed to make sense of all the weird things that happened to my family and to me. All this insane stuff happens that does not happen to most people because we’re cursed. That makes sense. Now I have no evidentiary proof that we’re cursed.

Life is oftentimes filled with challenges and suffering and pain, but it’s also filled with joy and happiness. I think you have to take all of it. Right? And so to me now, whether or not there’s a curse, I feel like a very lucky man. I’m alive. I have a wife who’s way smarter than me and hotter than me and likes me. I have three kids, one of them who survived cancer, we’ve survived a pandemic. And so, you know, I feel very blessed to just be healthy and alive. If it’s a curse, let me just say I’ve benefited and, and been able to live a good life still.

How did 9/11 change your life?

I was 20 when 9/11 happened. It was a permanent disruption in the timeline for us, there’s always a pre-9/ 11 and a post-9/11. And so it changed not just the world and America, but it reconfigured for me the rest of my life. And what I mean by that is the war on terror, the creation of DHS, Patriot Act, the funding of the military industrial complex. We probably would not have gotten to Obama without the disastrous war on terror and George Bush and his mishandling of it. I believe the rampant Islamophobia led to Trump and Trumpism.

What can we do to address this?

I think America is in a moment of intense crisis and disruption. There will be changes. Let’s see how we emerge from it because there are two visions of America. One that retrenches and constricts and says that we need to violently choke hold this country back to the 1950’s with this romanticised vision of this idyllic past of a burgeoning middle class, American families were getting homes, Leave it to Beaver America. Women were women. Men were men, women used to cook meatloaf for dinner. And people used to go to church and there were only two genders and black people knew their place and it was clean. It was pure.

The other vision of America is as a multiracial democracy, which is messy, an ongoing experiment. You push and stretch and expand the tent to include everybody.

I think we might see fascism in the next two years. I think things are going to get bad and then worse. Sometimes things get really bad for people to wake up. I do have to have faith that the majority will respond. America is often a selfish self-destructive country that learns the hard way. The opposite of hope is cynicism and apathy. If you choose cynicism and apathy, you’re throwing in the towel. I just can’t afford to do that. And so, you never know what the plot twist might be.

Maybe the young people will say, we’re tired of it. We’re done. We’re taking over. We are going to deal with climate change, marriage equality, multiracial democracy. Maybe people will come out on mass in the streets, like we’ve seen before three times – during the Women’s March, during George Floyd and in celebration when Trump lost. No one thought that was possible. You never know.

People have to be who they want to be in America. You can be an atheist, a Muslim, a Hindu. You can be straight, you can be gay. You can be whatever, as long as you have the right to live with dignity and equality and security. In order to get there, I think we’re going have to go through this very rude awakening, where we are awakened to the systemic racism that has always existed, that we have refused to acknowledge.

Have you ever done talk shows in middle America?

Yes. To answer your question right after the 2016 election, I told my speaking agent just send me to the Midwest of America. I wanted to see if I could win over some people. That’s what I told people, if you invite me, I’ll come.

How did finishing your play, The Domestic Crusaders save your life?

I was 22. I was supposed to graduate from UC Berkeley, go to law school. My parents got arrested and overnight, my life got rocked. They went to jail. I had to leave UC Berkeley, defer my graduation because I couldn’t turn in my thesis. I had to go back home to Fremont and take care of my two grandmothers and my parents who were in jail.

We lost our property. We lost our money. I lost my credit. It took me almost a year to get my parents out on bail. And then after they came out and they went through a halfway house, maybe after 13, 14 months of the entire ordeal, they were able to take control of their business and the finances in the home. And that’s when I was able to finally relax.

What happens is if you’ve been immersed in a chaotic situation, like if you’re running a race, your body due to fight flight and adrenaline keeps you in the race, what happens right? When the race ends, and your body realises it can relax?

You get sick. Your body thinks, oh, can I rest now? Can I stop using all of my excess energy? I used to go to the bathroom like 12 times a day and I felt like there were arrows piercing my bladder. I’m like, what’s happening? I’m not even drinking that much water. I went to a urologist, he examined me. He said, I’ve only seen this in people above the age of 50 and 60. And people have undergone immense traumatic stress. I was 22 at the time, completely broke, sick, lost. I didn’t know what to do.

The only thing that I had was 25 pages of a play that I had started writing for my senior English class. I had one thing left with my name on it, one thing that I could create. And I think that’s what inspired me to finish the play. And so, by finishing the play, I, I finished it at the age of 23, 2 years after I started as a present to myself. And I felt like this is the one thing that I have in the universe.

That process of writing the play gave me something to latch onto. It restored my mind and my spirits. And I was able to birth life, amidst death, but also birth life to my life. That was the only thing I had and it got me going again or otherwise I would’ve just sunk into the darkest places.

And you did amazingly well with your play. What happened when Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Toni Morrison came to see it?

In 2009, when it was the final showing of the play, Ishmael Reed, who was my professor at UC Berkeley and had come on as producer of the play, had connections to Toni Morrison for a long time. He just thought, I think I could get Toni to come see this, I think she’ll like it.  And she came and sat in the second row. I was in the third row. And being a very, enterprising son of immigrants, as soon as the play ended I jumped on stage and with all lights on Toni Morrison, I said, ‘Toni Morrison, what’d you think of the play?’, which was a really ballsy move. And she was very methodical and thoughtful. And she gave me a very careful but beautiful review. “This play is brilliant. Moving. Shapely. Clever. Funny.”

So, it all worked out in the end?

Life sometimes plays interesting tricks on you. If my parents did not get arrested, if our world wasn’t shattered, if I had gone to law school, I probably would have been divorced because I would’ve married the wrong woman. I would’ve been miserable as a successful suburban Bay Area attorney smiling at parties, but probably like popping Ativan and going to therapy, getting a Peloton bike and maybe at the age of 45, then I would’ve realised, oh, I probably should have become a writer.

Instead, the checklist of the good kid blew up and in a strange way, I had to forge my own path. I had nothing to lose because I lost everything.

Wajahat, thank you very much for this insightful interview.

– Interview by Elena Bowes

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