Lucy doesn’t understand where I’m from and bends forward at me with a frown and shouts “where?!” when I say Pakistan, so at some point I started saying Atlanta, Georgia instead. And she doesn’t understand what I do for a…
This story took six years to write. Or rather, the writing of it unfolded over six years. And it wasn’t until one key element was added that it turned the corner from being musings on a page, to becoming a story.
My “Mulberry Street” folder tells me I started writing the piece in 2011 and continued revising it the following year, all the while submitting it to journals and having it rejected. I returned to it in 2016, when I was between jobs and using the time to focus on my writing again, and kept refining and submitting it until Glimmer Train accepted it a year later.
There is one lone draft in between, dated April 2013. But it is the critical one. That is when the key to unlocking the story first shows up, and that is when I must have understood what needed to be added to make the story work.
The protagonist in “Mulberry Street” realizes, when she reads an announcement about the woman in the apartment next door having passed away, that deaths in New York City are very different from deaths back in Karachi. That here, in her adopted city, neither lives, nor the endings of lives, are communal affairs. That you can live next to someone for years, never speak to them, and not even know they have died.
My early drafts are heavy with that sense of alienation. But they fail to acknowledge that nostalgia cannot be trusted. And that, especially for the immigrant, no place is truly home.
In the 2013 draft the protagonist’s mother first appears, as does the protagonist’s complicated family life in Pakistan which, she remembers on looking back on it more carefully, was trapped in its own, different silences. It was then that I must have discovered— though I can’t recall what triggered this discovery— that the silences between residents of this building on Mulberry Street in New York, silences across class, time, language and ethnicity, recall earlier gulfs the protagonist has tried, and failed, to escape.
Nor is she alone in her isolation. Her former tenement building in Little Italy has become home to immigrants of many different ethnic backgrounds over the years. It is now home to them all, and also to young, wealthy Americans moving into a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. The one thing that binds this group of people together is their alienation from each other.
It was the realization that these parallels are important that unlocked this story, because it achieved two things. One, parallels are satisfying. Our minds seek out patterns and linkages, both on the pages in front of us and across the unfolding of our lives. Second, nothing in life is uncomplicated, nothing is one-note, and anything that is will not ring true, even in fiction. In “Mulberry Street,” old-home is as bittersweet as new-home, and wherever we end up will never be enough.
MADIHA SATTAR grew up in Karachi, is currently based in Dubai, and has lived in New York City and in Cambridge, MA, where she studied History & Literature at Harvard College. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Glimmer Train, The Kenyon Review and Guernica. As a former newspaper and magazine editor she covered culture, society, politics and US foreign policy in South Asia, and her reporting and other nonfiction have appeared in publications including The Common, Foreign Policy online, The Economist and The Caravan. She can be found at www.madihasattar.com and on Twitter at @madihasattar