In her debut novel “A Small Fortune,” British author Rosie Dastgir asks: How do you distinguish between obligation, indebtedness and responsibility?
Harris, a middle-aged divorcee living north of London, is a lapsed everything — Muslim, Pakistani, father, uncle, boyfriend. After his marriage fails, the patriarch’s desperate attempts to rein in what’s left in his life backfires, resulting in a total loss of control. Misunderstandings abound when, as a gesture of good faith, Harris tries to rid himself of the burden of his divorce settlement — a sum of just over 53,000 pounds — leading him to make a regrettably rash decision. While his intentions come from the heart, the more he meddles in family affairs, the more strained relations become, exposing generational and spiritual rifts that test the bonds of bloodlines and brotherhood. We took tea with Dastgir to discuss platitudes, cultural attitudes and compromise.
Having expectations often leads to disappointment. Harris has high expectations, yet finds
himself unhappily settling quite often. Is settling actually a good thing that we resist?
I think there’s a kind of elegance and beauty to settling, or compromise. There’s humaneness to that. Harris is pulled in all these different directions, so he has this sense of burden and, therefore, expectations. Settling isn’t the worst thing a person can do. It can actually be damage control.
Kinship ties are strong, even overpowering. Harris’ daughter, Alia, mistrusts her father’s use of the term “community” as it refers to their extended family.
What I’ve tried to capture in the book is the ambiguity and ambivalence of all of these catchphrases: What it means to be a Muslim. What it means to be a good friend. An extended family can be an amazing support network, but it can also be oppressive. And that word, “community,” can be oppressive. It is a group of people with a shared set of values — that’s the broadest, loosest definition. But what interests me are the fault lines of those values and the way those values clash. People talk about the Muslim community, and one thing I’ve tried to show is that there are many different types of Muslims — devout ones, doubting ones, secular ones — just as there are in any other community.
Money is a driving force behind the characters’ decisions. And it gets in the way of freedom.
I’ve thought about this theme a lot and it’s tricky. If you’re saddled with debt, it hampers you in a profound way. Money can hamper you practically and it can hamper you spiritually in that you become wedded to a notion of consumption and materialism that isn’t really what you should chase after. That said, if you have a sense of what things cost and what you owe, you don’t take anything for granted.
Like the protagonists, before writing, did you or your family foresee a different career path?
I was the youngest of three children, so [my family] had given up by the time they got to me. [Laughs] I studied English and would have liked to do theater directing, but I ended up studying film. And then I worked for the BBC in production. I really was a frustrated writer all of that time. So after having a lot of stuff getting stuck in development, I moved to New York and thought, I’m just going to have a go at writing.
What do you consider your small — or great — fortune in life?
It’s been meeting my husband and having our two children, seeing that the best thing in life is loving and being loved.
What about Pakistani culture do you hope readers take away from the book?
The portrayal of Pakistani culture has been demonizing in the media. I wanted to tell an ordinary, heartfelt story that would appeal to all sorts of people, that wasn’t so ethnically specific. And to redress a balance of the image that people have in the West.