5 Questions with Ali Eteraz, Author of Native Believer

NativeBelieverVery excited to welcome Ali Eteraz, who is at City Lights on Tuesday, May 3 celebrating his new book, Native Believer: A Novel, published by Akashic. He’ll be discussing the book with writer/journalist Vanessa Hua. Ali took the time to answer our 5 questions. More about him, and his answers, below.

About Native Believer: Ali Eteraz’s much-anticipated debut novel is the story of M., a supportive husband, adventureless dandy, lapsed believer, and second-generation immigrant who wants nothing more than to host parties and bring children into the world as full-fledged Americans. As M.’s world gradually fragments around him—a wife with a chronic illness; a best-friend stricken with grief; a boss jeopardizing a respectable career—M. spins out into the pulsating underbelly of Philadelphia, where he encounters others grappling with fallout from the War on Terror. Among the pornographers and converts to Islam, punks, and wrestlers, M. confronts his existential degradation and the life of a second-class citizen. 

“Eteraz’s narrative is witty and unpredictable . . . and the darkly comic ending is pleasingly macabre. As for M., in this identity-obsessed dandy, Eteraz has created a perfect protagonist for the times. A provocative and very funny exploration of Muslim identity in America today.”
Kirkus Reviews

“In bitingly funny prose, first novelist Eteraz sums up the pain and contradictions of an American not wanting to be categorized; the ending is a bang-up surprise.”
Library Journal, Top Spring Indies Fiction Selection

About Ali Eteraz: Ali Eteraz is based at the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto. He is the author of the coming-of-age memoir Children of Dust (HarperCollins) and the surrealist short story collection Falsipedies & Fibsiennes (Guernica Ed.). Eteraz’s short fiction has appeared in the Chicago Quarterly Review, storySouth, and Crossborder, and his nonfiction has been highlighted by NPR, The New York Times, and the Guardian. Recently, Eteraz received the 3 Quarks Daily Arts & Literature Prize judged by Mohsin Hamid, and served as a consultant to the artist Jenny Holzer on a permanent art installation in Qatar. Eteraz has lived in the Dominican Republic, Pakistan, the Persian Gulf, and Alabama. Native Believer is his debut novel.

Photo by Charles Mujie

About Vanessa Hua: Vanessa Hua is an award-winning writer and journalist. For nearly two decades, she has been writing about Asia and the diaspora. She received a 2015 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award for Fiction, and is a past Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, FRONTLINE/World, Washington Post, Guernica, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. A former staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, she has filed stories from China, South Korea, Panama, Burma and Ecuador. Deceit and Other Possibilities, her debut story collection, will be published this fall (Willow Books).


City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit? If you haven’t been here before, what are you expecting?

Ali Eteraz: I have been to City Lights a few times. Most recently was for a reading featuring the poet Shailja Patel, whose Migritude collection has been a huge hit among my friends. I have also wandered into the store at other times and gotten lost in the Existentialism section. It is also possible that I came in already-existentialist and simply stared at a stack of books and thought I was reading existentialism. One thing I have never done is to stop by the store solely to go to the bathroom. You’re welcome.

CL: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it sound like?

AE: Back when I was living in Philly in the early part of the century, there was a guerilla reggae group (now disbanded) called The Po Po. They were this post-hip-hop punk electronica hybrid. The band in my novel, Gay Commie Muzzies, is loosely based on them. Therefore, the Po Po should/could qualify as the soundtrack. If not them, then the classical piece “Boléro,” by Ravel, because the novel has this circular rhythm to it that it shares with the piece.

CL: What’s the first book you actually finished reading?

AE: I recently finished reading Molly Crabapple’s memoir, Drawing Blood, which is a fascinating intellectual history of the roaring decade that preceded the Second Great Depression. She has this wonderful way with dropping scintillating poetic lines in the middle of her description, like she was hit by inspiration. There is something very raw about that kind of writing that really appeals to me. I wish more people wrote like that. But if that was the case we’d have more Molly Crabapples and then she would have to fight them all to establish her supremacy and that’s not good.

I’m sorry, I just reviewed the question and it appears I misread it. That raises a second question, do you really want to hear about the reading habits of a person who can’t read?

CL: If you didn’t have your current job, what might you do?

AE: You aren’t allowed to ask a writer about their jobs because if they have a job it is a source of shame because it keeps them from writing, and if they don’t have a job, that is also a source of shame because it keeps them from eating. What you can do is play twenty questions with a writer, asking questions such as, “Are you a member of the Japanese Mafia?” or “Have you ever or would you ever write erotica for someone in your family if it guaranteed that you could do real writing without having to work?” Writers do better with hypotheticals of that sort.

CL: Name a few things you’d require if stranded on a desert island for an undefined period of time (and, yes, no wifi). 

AE: An underground tunnel to Atlantis where I would consort with Poseidon’s daughters and establish a publishing house called Sea Tea Nights where we would only publish manifestos, and only manifestos.

Also, I would need a biographer, a Merman biographer, because I would be rich enough to have other people tell stories for me. The Merman’s pseudonym would be Ali Eteraz, so when he published my biography, it would look like it was a memoir (by me, the original Ali Eteraz). I am not proud of hoodwinking Mustafa (that’s his real name) like that, but he should have been paying more attention when he signed the book contract.

Join us on Tuesday, May 2nd for the release party of Ali Eteraz’s highly anticipated new novel, Native BelieverHe’ll be in conversation with Vanessa Hua. For more about Ali, go to his official site. For more events this Spring at City Lights, go to our events calendar.

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