July 2013

Terry Hong


An Interview with Nadeem Aslam

From the opening few pages of reading a Nadeem Aslam novel, I knew his writing was something to treasure and behold. Serendipitously, I used my then-day job to bring the Pakistan-born, British-educated-and-domiciled Aslam over the Pond to be a featured guest at the then-annual South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival (SALTAF) at the Smithsonian Institution. In SALTAF's eight-year history at the Smithsonian, Aslam's Maps for Lost Lovers -- published stateside just in time for his appearance -- is the only book that has ever sold out its sizable inventory before the lunch break. Never before or since has another SALTAF author commanded such exceptional sales.

The Smithsonian reading public's sophisticated taste resonated far beyond: Maps for Lost Lovers won the Kiriyama Prize, was longlisted for the Booker, shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Award, and named a New York Times Notable Book. Maps is a contemplative, intimate look at a Pakistani community in northern England -- self-named "Dasht-e-Tanhaii," meaning "The Wilderness of Solitude" or "The Desert of Loneliness" -- where a pair of unmarried lovers go missing. Five months later, the woman's brothers are charged with their murder, and the man's older brother must bring not only the families, but their reeling community, back together.

After discovering Maps, I instantly declared groupie status: Aslam is one of less-than-a-handful of personal favorite authors whose latest title causes nervous paralysis. For fear of the potentially long wait ahead until the next book (because there must always be a next book!), I agonize for months, even years, before actually daring to open certain authors' newest titles.

Three years following Maps, in 2008, The Wasted Vigil hit U.S. shelves; I waited almost five years to finally read the novel. In fact, until I had this year's The Blind Man's Garden in hand, I couldn't even peek at Vigil's first page. What I eventually discovered was a book of extremes: Aslam wields his language like a weapon, his mellifluous prose in cutting contrast to the horrific acts witnessed in the name of God, patriotism, honor, truth, and even love. Weaving in and out of the turbulent decades of Afghanistan's modern history, Vigil gathers the interconnected stories of four disparate lost souls -- Marcus, a septuagenarian British ex-pat doctor; Lara, a Russian widow searching for her late brother; David, a former CIA operative; and Casa, an injured young fundamentalist Muslim.

Aslam traveled extensively through Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to write Vigil, as well as interviewing some 200 Afghan refugees living in Britain. His international, peripatetic background places Aslam simultaneously on both "sides" of an incomprehensible conflict; that unique dissonance imbues Vigil with its unfathomable opposites -- its terror and beauty, its deception and truth, its abhorrent hatred and unconditional love.

With Vigil finished, I might have hoarded the promising potential of Aslam's Garden for a few more years (as it was, I had the galley for a good six months before its publication date) -- had I not been assigned this interview. As a bonus, I also had a copy of Aslam's 1993 first novel, Season of the Rainbirds, which finally made its stateside debut in March of this year two decades after its British publication, clearly timed to overlap with the May publication of Garden.

Dovetailing the reading of Aslam's first and latest books reveals unexpected parallels. Rainbirds -- spare and atmospheric -- proves to be a character study of a remote Pakistani village's inhabitants after the murder of one of its leading citizens. Garden is another detailed, careful observation of a not-so-dissimilar isolated town in Pakistan, the spotlight shrunken onto a single extended family and what happens when two sons -- one by birth, the other by informal adoption -- disappear. Garden tunnels deep into the tragic "war on terror" to examine the very lives of the individuals who must live through (or not) the shattering decisions of faraway leaders, governments, and regimes. When one brother secretly decides to go to Afghanistan in hopes of caring for the human collateral damage from the post-9/11 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the other immediately decides to join him. Together (and too soon apart), they embark on a harrowing journey of Odyssean feats in an attempt to return home.

For readers who have experienced Aslam before (and the apt word really is "experience"), you'll recognize (and be awed by) his mesmerizing prose in Garden. Of course that sense of awe comes at a high price for me: as grateful as I am for the one-to-one opportunity to chat, I remain bereft that preparing for our authorly exchange cost me all lingering comfort of knowing I still had more Aslam to read. Now having finished his entire oeuvre, I wait (and wait and wait). Patience is not my virtue.

Is it true that you write your novels by hand? Is that why I'll have to wait so long for the next book? And how, if ever, does the computer play a part in your writing process?

I write the first draft longhand. There is a feeling of direct contact with the paper through the nib. And the words seem to be flowing from my mind into my hand, then down the pen, and onto the page -- blood becoming ink. But after the first draft, I move everything onto the computer, mainly for editing. (I use an eight-year-old Dell laptop, very heavy and gray.) I print out each chapter in three font sizes: First in twelve-point, which is my usual size. Then in eight-point -- which is the smallest size available, so there are more words in each line -- and therefore the eye reads faster, instinctively. The eye, in its hurry to get to the end of each line, takes in more words -- so you think not about individual words but about the overall narrative and the storyline, the pacing. Then I print the chapter in fourteen-point -- which means there are fewer words in each line, so the eye slows down, and you do think about every word -- the weight of it, the lightness of it.

How does being multilingual manifest in your writing?

I am grateful for my knowledge of Urdu. I don't just have the twenty-six letters of English, I have the thirty-eight letters of Urdu, too. My alphabet seems to be bigger. I don't sit down to write in any particular way. It's not as though one writes a non-lyrical page and then decides to add twenty grams of lyricism to it -- or thirty ounces of political thought and five drops of emotional intensity. Language is a deeply private thing -- it comes as it comes. I get as much pleasure from looking at an apple as from eating it -- so my books are visual. One of the things I remember about Dante's The Divine Comedy is that Beatrice has emerald eyes. This is my sensibility. One must not examine these things too much. John Banville said about Nabokov that he did not write in English: "he wrote in a private secret language that was mysteriously comprehensible to English-speaking readers." That I think is true to all writers to an extent.

I do know that I wish to explore certain discredited modes of expression. To say, "I saw you" and "I saw you with my own eyes," are two very different things to me. The work has been done cleanly and efficiently with the first statement; and someone could argue that the second statement is in fact silly -- you saw me with your eyes as opposed to what, your ears? But we all know that the second statement is much, much more powerful than the first -- it brings in the body of the person talking, it's daring you to deny the presence of the other.

And my language is influenced by Urdu poetry, by the Koran -- which of course is Arab poetry.

Sometimes when I write, I want language to become an active participant in the storytelling. Just as a filmmaker would make the camera shaky during a battle scene, to convey the fear and adrenalin and velocity. Or he could saturate the colors at some point, or make the camera lose focus. I like to do that in prose when required. And I think I learned that from the texts like the Koran, which I have been reading all my life in various languages.

Leaving poetry and prophecy aside, being multilingual on the most basic level means I have direct access to more than one set of narratives. It is helpful to be able to read n+1, Bookslut, and also Savera and Jang. I come to the USA and am told the world's most dangerous country is Pakistan. I go to Pakistan and am told the world's most dangerous country is the USA. The Americans know about Malala Yusufzai and the Taliban blowing up buses full of other college girls. And a Pakistani person's opinion of America and the West is also based on facts and on history too (as well as on conspiracy theories). People read the papers, listen to the news. According to the latest figures just one in fifty of the so-called "surgical strikes" carried out by the CIA drones in Pakistan's tribal areas is killing a militant. In order to kill one militant, forty-nine innocent Pakistanis are being murdered. Baitullah Mehsood, the Taliban leader, was killed in 2009 by a drone strike -- it was the seventeenth attempt on his life, and the previous sixteen had killed upward of 500 innocents. Pakistanis know this. When Trayvon Martin -- the African-American teenager -- was shot dead last year in Miami on suspicion of being a burglar, I wept for him and for his family. President Obama appeared on TV and said, "If I had a son he would look like Trayvon Martin." This is not to take anything away from dear Trayvon's death, but I would like to say to Obama, "With due respect, sir, if I had a son he would look like one of the forty-nine people your drones are butchering in Pakistan -- on suspicion of being a terrorist, if they are lucky. Normally they are just collateral damage."

As we are talking of language here, let me say that one of the most humiliating things I have had to witness over the past decade has been the corruption of language. The American regime tells us of something called "extraordinary rendition" -- what they mean is kidnapping. Say it. They talk of "enhanced interrogation" -- what they mean is torture. Say it. And that corruption of language has occurred on both sides. Taliban and al-Qaeda keep talking of something called "jihad" -- a word they have reduced to war. In fact the word "jihad" has as many meanings as a rose has petals. To smile at someone when you don't feel like smiling is jihad. To be kind to someone when your own life is full of meanness is jihad. But no, they want only one meaning.

What was the genesis of this newest novel, The Blind Man's Garden?

The first sentence of The Blind Man's Garden is "History is the third parent." The impulse behind The Blind Man's Garden was the extraordinary decade beginning with 9/11 and ending with the Arab Spring. Mohamed Atta's suicide at one end and Mohamed Bouazizi's suicide at the other. Mohamed Bouazizi was the Tunisian fruit seller who set himself on fire in December 2010 and died the following month. That contributed towards starting off the Arab Spring, and between these two moments we had the call to jihad, the War on Terror, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, the finding and killing of Osama Bin Laden, the murder of Benazir Bhutto. This clash between an incomplete understanding of the East and an incomplete understanding of the West.

Not long ago I was on Google and I typed "Pakistan is..." and the four auto-fill choices I was given were evil, stupid, dangerous, a terrorist country. I then typed "America is…" and the choices I was given were evil, not the world, and not a country but a business. So I wanted to find a story with The Blind Man's Garden that would hold as many of these elements as it could without losing shape as a novel. Because first and foremost it is fiction, and so it has to have things that fiction is supposed to have -- great characters, aesthetic pleasure, ideas and what have you. I always say that a novelist doesn't tell you what to think, a novelist tells you what to think about. And so, I took all these elements and I placed them next to each other and the reader. 

The "War on Terror" forces bystanders to take sides. Have you experienced pushback from readers?

When the manuscript of The Blind Man's Garden was finished, about a year and a quarter ago, it was sent to my regular publishers around the world, in places like Britain, America, Holland, Germany, France, Spain, Brazil... It was also sent to publishers in India and Pakistan. The response invariably in the West was, "This is a dark book, a bleak book, a brutal book, a fearsome book." The response invariably from people in India and Pakistan was, "This is a lovely book, a beautiful book, a gorgeous book, an exquisite book." Now this is not to say that in India and Pakistan we are not aware of the darkness. It is just that we refuse to be defined by our darkness. The darkness was mentioned by the Eastern publishers, but as a third or fourth thing. The beauty was mentioned by the Western publishers, but as a third or fourth thing. On a day-to-day level, if shootings and car bombs are happening, you wouldn't be able to get out of bed if you didn't, for five minutes, think how beautiful the trumpet vine flower is or how beautiful your child's smile is.

And how do you yourself stay "objective"?

I like to let the characters do the work -- let them condemn or elevate themselves in the reader's eye. I won't say this or that American character is bad, or a Pakistani character is bad. I will show you their history, beliefs, and conduct, and then let you make up your mind about him. A novel is a democracy -- if it is about two characters, then you cannot have character A be fully developed and character B poorly developed. The reader would feel the lack -- I have been told what A's childhood was but why have I not been told what B's childhood? There might be very good artistic reasons why the author has withheld that information, but it can't be because character B happens to be an American and the novelist doesn't like Americans.

Rohan in The Blind Man's Garden is a complicated character in that respect. He loves his wife, but you could argue that he doesn't respect her (lack of) beliefs, and tries to impose his own on her during her illness. He cares about his students, but expels a boy because his mother is a prostitute. A person has many layers to his personality -- sometimes you fail on a moral level, sometimes you fail on a spiritual level, sometimes you fail on an ethical level. Just because you are religious doesn't mean all your acts are in accordance with your religion. Rohan is a Muslim but – for a while – forgets that his god is compassionate. Later he begins to regret what he does. Mercy is bigger than Justice.

At the most basic level I don't look at my characters as representatives of a religion, or nation, or ideology. I don't really care about countries -- I am more interested in people. Mothers, daughters, brothers, sons, neighbors. On the second page of The Blind Man's Garden, you would read the sentence, "The logic is that there are no innocent people in a guilty nation." Jeo and Mikal are equally opposed to the Taliban and the USA's attack on Afghanistan. What accounts for this distinction? They are decent human beings. Jeo's values are derived from Islam -- the gentler and deeply cosmopolitan sides of his parents' religion -- and Mikal's from his parents' political engagement.

And they are both me to an extent. The idea of consequence entered my life through Islam -- as a child, I was told that if you do a bad thing the consequences would be bad. If you do good, the consequences would be good. I am referring of course to Heaven and Hell, Sin and Virtue. There are any number of ways through which these ideas can enter a child's life -- secular as well as religious. I am just explaining how these lessons came to me -- given my social background and the household I was born into -- and it was through Islam. (I am perfectly aware of how religion can be corrupted, what psychological damage the idea of divine punishment and divine reward might cause -- but that is a different conversation.)

As for politics -- several of my uncles and my father were people of the left in Pakistan. I am deeply grateful to my father for having instilled in me a contempt for money, for profit. So it was through my father's family that I acquired the idea of engaging collectively with the problems of the world. As opposed to doing it alone -- which is a non-political stance. I always say that I vote every time I write a sentence.

What happens when you finish a novel?

I feel like the branch from which the songbird has flown.

You do develop an intense relationship with the characters. I loved Mikal and Naheed in The Blind Man's Garden and was grief-stricken at what they had to endure in the book. The Blind Man's Garden was the hardest book I have had to write. It took four-and-a-half years to write and I spent every single day of those years trying to save Naheed and Mikal. It was harrowing -- I actually don't recognize myself in the mirror anymore.

Have you noticed any differences between your readers on either side of the Atlantic? What about your readers in other parts of the world?

Somebody once said about Picasso that in the Soviet Union they hated his art but they loved his politics, and in the States, they loved his art but they hated his politics. When my previous novel, The Wasted Vigil, was published, I ended up giving readings in New York, Lahore, and New Delhi, within a period of twenty days. In New York, someone stood up, after I read a sequence and said "You are a pro-jihadi. It's clear from what you're saying that you support jihadi violence. You should be ashamed of yourself." I went to Lahore and I gave a reading from the same passage and someone stood up and said, "You are an American agent. You work for the CIA. You should be ashamed of yourself." I went to New Delhi, and after reading the same passage, someone stood up and said, "You are a conservative reactionary. You think of capitalism and conservatism as the pinnacle of human achievement. You see no other alternative. You should be ashamed of yourself."

These are polar reactions -- but there is an entire range of opinion in between. I also get letters and emails from Pakistanis saying they don't agree with the fundamentalists in my novel; and from Americans who say that they know their governments' policies are wrong.

I never lose hope -- I am not a believer but I do remember that in Islam it is a sin to lose hope. You are not allowed to despair. This is why suicide bombings were such a problematic issue for the fundamentalists -- suicide is a sin. So they have circumvented it by saying they are not "suicide bombings," they are "martyrdom bombings."

So I can't lose hope about anything -- East-West, Islam, USA. But that doesn't mean you will find conventional "happy endings" in my stories. I am puzzled when I am told that my books are dark or bleak. I think to have gained knowledge of why things went wrong for the characters in the stories, why things go wrong in real life for us, is a happy ending.

Do you read when you are writing? What are you reading now?

Reading is thinking with two brains -- your own and the writer's. And I am primarily a reader. When I came to England, the subjects I did well at were the sciences, because you didn't need good English for the sciences. You just have to assimilate facts and reproduce them. But the subjects I was interested in, the subjects I would have studied had we stayed in Pakistan -- such as literature, history, politics, sociology, anthropology -- you needed to write essays and form arguments and I couldn't even form a sentence, never mind an essay. So I went to university to read science and, in my third year, by which time I'd been in Britain for seven years, I realized my English was good enough to do what I really wanted to do, which was to be a writer.

So I dropped out. I didn't finish my biochemistry degree and I began writing my first novel, which took 11 months to write, and I didn't have any idea of how to have a book published. But the writers I loved were John Updike, Gore Vidal, V.S. Naipaul, Cormac McCarthy, and they were published by a firm in London called Andre Deutsch. So I picked up a copy of Naipaul's novel, A Bend in the River, looked at the copyright page and got the address. I sent them the manuscript and 10 days later I got a phone call inviting me to have lunch. And I said "I can't," and they said, "why not?" I said, "I have no money," and they said, "we'll give you money and we'll have lunch." So I borrowed £20 and I got on a coach.

After the book was accepted I thought because I couldn't do my O Levels, A levels, BA, MA, and PhD in the subjects I was interested in, I'm going to educate myself. So over the course of the next 10 or 11 years I read everything. I would go to person A and say, "Tell me, who's a great writer?" William Faulkner. So I read everything by William Faulkner. I would begin with the first novel and end up with the last novel. I would go to person B and say, 'Who's a great writer?' Thomas Hardy. I read everything by Thomas Hardy, sequentially. Who's a great writer? D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Dostoevsky.

And then I wanted to know, how much thought is allowed in one paragraph? How many images are allowed per page? What is a comma? And so I copied out the whole of Moby Dick by hand. I copied out the whole of As I Lay Dying by Faulkner by hand. I copied out Lolita. I copied out Beloved. I copied out The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, Gabriel García Márquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch. Over those years I was writing my second novel as well. People say your second novel took you eleven years to write, but I wrote it over the course of years, while I was educating myself and developing as a writer. 

And that work is still ongoing.

What am I reading now? Michael Wood's Yeats and Violence, a book-length study of Yeats's poem "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen." In fiction, there is Peter Hobbs's In the Orchard, the Swallows -- a jewel of a novel set in northern Pakistan. And I am slowly rereading The Poems of Marianne Moore.

And the inevitable: now that Garden has been planted throughout the world, what are you working on now?

I am writing a novel about Pakistan's blasphemy laws -- One Thousand Miles by Moonlight.

After this, would you write a novel set in England again? And where is "home" for you now?

Yes, I'll write a novel set in England again -- I hope to return to the English town of Dasht-e-Tanhaii which I created for my novel, Maps for Lost Lovers. England is "home," in inverted commas. Emotionally, I think of a map in which Pakistan and England are fused. The Grand Trunk road passes through Lahore and Peshawar, drops down into the Khyber Pass, and emerges into Newcastle in the north of England. That is the "country" I live in.

Having said this, I wish to set a novel in the United States one day, and in India also. Ultimately a writer's only homeland is his desk, his stories, and his language.

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.