Zain Khalid’s debut novel, “Brother Alive,” is chock-full of imagination and literary references, as is the author’s conversation.
Describing the book, he said, “You have something of a bildungsroman, and then you have an epistolary memoir and a left-leaning political thriller, and it’s sort of,” before stopping and heading to another tiered thought.
In a brief chat, Khalid mentioned the influences of writers Don DeLillo, Tao Lin, Barry Hannah, Toni Morrison, Italo Calvino, Atticus Lish, Fernanda Melchor, Malcolm Lowry, and Thomas Bernhard. In the book’s acknowledgments, he thanks more than 50 writers for what he “borrowed,” from Edith Wharton to Octavia Butler. “For me, the boundary between art and myself,” he said, “is not healthy.”
Despite all these influences – or perhaps because of their volume – “Brother Alive” couldn’t be mistaken for someone else’s work. The story of three brothers related by adoption, it travels from New York to Saudi Arabia, considering themes of family secrets, geography and fate, utopianism and more.
Khalid, 32, grew up on Staten Island until he was 12, the child of parents from a “handful of places”, he said, including India, Pakistan and in parts of the Middle East. The borough, he said, is often reductively caricatured as the city’s “strange conservative brother,” but its immigrant diversity is part of what appealed to him in rooting the book there. low.
In a large Muslim family like his, says Khalid, “the lines blur between cousins/brothers, sisters/mothers. It’s almost as if the traditional taxonomy doesn’t really apply.