Denial and Its Opposite: Three Questions with Hananah Zaheer

Nayereh Doosti in Agni:

Nayereh Doosti/AGNI: Before the pandemic, “Story about a Boy” might have simply read as an absurdist narrative. It’s about a couple whose job involves offering assisted dying to individuals identified as “high-risk,” people who must live in camps or be euthanized—“drift away on crisp cotton sheets” if they buy the couple’s “Premium Plan.” Your setup is eerie, but oddly reminiscent of our current state, where “herd immunity” through uncontrolled infection is dangerously encouraged by some politicians, and where the same politicians have blatantly suggested seniors should be willing to sacrifice their lives to save the economy. To what extent did the pandemic inspire this story? How would you compare pandemic-era life to the strict and fear-driven atmosphere you’ve established here?

Hananah Zaheer

Hananah Zaheer: I started “About a Boy” long before the pandemic, as precisely what you said—an absurdist story about a group of people offering euthanasia as an escape from life. I was interested in playing with the idea of dystopia, especially in the context of South Asia and Pakistan, and what frustration with life under strict regimes might look like. Arguably, governance can be exciting and nearly dystopian at times anyway. I grew up watching Pakistan go from a democratic government to being under military rule and back to democracy, along with all the complicated and bizarre ways in which the pendulum of daily life swings under such changes—but this story was probably more influenced by what was happening in the U.S. (which I consider home) and the Philippines (where I currently live) after the virus hit. Watching the two governments respond to the disease in such opposite and extreme ways—denial from one and a complete shutdown with curfews and armed soldiers from the other—made me think about the choices ordinary citizens are left with.

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