Saturday, December 16, 2006

In Conversation with Uzma Aslam Khan

Ahmede: My reading of your Trespassing has found it be a sad epic. Your portrayal of life in Pakistan is both ruthless and bleak. Do you see yourself as a social realist, someone whose primary aim is to depict the existing social relationship of the time?

Uzma: I see myself as a novelist. I’m not sure which parts of the book you find so bleak. To my mind, there is both darkness and tenderness in the lives of all the characters described. If this is ‘social realism,’ I suppose I have not written a fantasy!

If your question refers specifically to the violence in Karachi through the 1980s and early 90s, well, it was a very violent time. The Soviets were in Afghanistan, Pakistan was ruled by its most brutal military dictator, General Zia ul Haq, a United States ally (one Pakistani general referred to Pakistan as the condom through which America entered Afghanistan), billions of dollars worth of arms spread across this country, mostly to Karachi, where a nasty ethnic war ensued between the indigenous people of Sindh, and the Urdu-speaking, Punjabi, and Pathan migrants who settled in Sindh after Partition (and continued to pour into the province during the Afghan War). It is the period I grew up in, and it must have left a deep mark on me. I studied at a Convent and during Independence Day ‘festivities,’ I remember marching between an icon of Jesus and Mary (which I associated with our colonial history) and the Islamic Flag (which I associated with our present, namely, General Zia), and wondering if anybody understood how any of it happened.

But I absolutely didn’t know I was going to set my novel TRESPASSING during that period when I started writing the book. It just took that turn on its own. Often impressions that shape us the most are absorbed unconsciously. That’s the difference between non-fiction and fiction: in the former, you know what you want to say and even how you’re going to say it. You have a thesis, an argument. You very consciously set out to prove it. The beauty of fiction is that you tap into something hidden. At some point in the process of writing, the fiction writer stops inventing the rules. She has to surrender to the book’s own rules. It’s own ecosystem, if you like. When I write, my only aim is to be in the story.

Ahmede: You may know that, Tariq Ali has said this about Trespassing: ‘Cocoons are not the only things that explode in this novel. The silken prose emphasizes the conflict between the tender subject and a world where violence of every sort has become institutionalized.' How do you respond to this comment?

Uzma: By saying, Thank you!

Ahmede: Your approach to handling narrative is Western and, if you allow me to say, modern in nature. Does South Asian fiction, as a concept, really exist? Or is it merely the subject matter that defines it?

Uzma: What makes a category really exist? I’m not sure how to define American fiction, or even British fiction, except to say that the latter especially has been around for so long it has come to be recognized and respected as having a significant influence on others, both inside and outside the UK. There is a sense of continuity there. But what makes it ‘British’?

South Asian fiction is relatively new. (Poetry is of course a lot older.) Does it have to have the weight of history for it to really exist? I can’t say. I have difficulty relating to many other South Asian novelists because the ones who write in English tend to live abroad, while I live in Pakistan. There are some Indian novelists who write in English and live in India, but not in the rest of South Asia. I know that as a Pakistani fiction writer who writes in English and continues to live in Pakistan, people both here and abroad don’t know where to put me. They cannot put me in the ‘diaspora’ group, which is, increasingly, where this fiction is coming from.

Diaspora writers typically fall into two groups, neither of which is true for me. The first group lives outside, or mostly outside, South Asia but does not write about the country of residence, only the Motherland. These novels have been very popular with both Eastern and Western readers. Their authors rely on memory, family and drawing room gossip, the media, and/or the odd back-to-my-roots holiday. They follow the Orientalist tradition, using trite icons – jasmine flowers, spices, saris, bangles – to evoke an exotic ‘East’ that is best smelled from afar. I think it’s plain that I’m not interested in this South Asia, seen through the nostalgic lens. The second group of South Asian diaspora writers is a more recent phenomenon. These writers focus more on the immigrant experience. Their work grapples with the restrictions placed on minorities by the minority group itself. It shies away from looking as openly and critically at non-‘Asian’ groups. But at least it does not romanticize the East!

But I am not a diaspora writer. I can’t even relate to the category of ‘Asian’ or ‘non-Asian’ since I live in Asia. Overall, then, I suppose ‘South Asian fiction’ is too vague a category for me, both as a concept and even as subject matter.

Ahmede: How do you see the role of English in the context of South Asia, a place where the language had once been imposed on its people?

Uzma: I don’t know what ‘role’ English should play. It exists here. It is becoming a South Asian language, if it hasn’t already. After North America and the UK, South Asia has the highest percentage of English-speaking people in the world, and we’re not all from the same background. Many Pakistanis feel that Urdu has also been imposed on them, and yet they speak it and write it. The resistance to English in Pakistan is ironic when seen in this context. Many Urdu speakers who never thought twice about ‘imposing’ Urdu on non-Urdu speakers bristle at the idea of having English ‘imposed’ on them. So, instead of viewing English as an ‘outside’ language, better to accept that it’s ours now.

Ahmede: In your last novel we see two lovers struggling for freedom and passion in a hostile world. Do you see love as a force that has the ability to free us from existing social relations?

Uzma: Yes, love can overcome societal restraints. But only if both sides are equally committed to putting their love first!

Ahmede: As a woman coming from South Asia, how free do you feel when you write?

Uzma: I’m usually able to shut out the outside world when I write. I leave my own skin, become my characters, which is I think how I’ve written about men as much as women. In TRESPASSING, the character I revised the least was Salaamat, the Sindhi fisherman’s son who comes to Karachi for work and gets involved in a violent gang, ostensibly, as a ‘freedom fighter’. I knew him intimately, right from the start.

But I’ll admit, it’s not always so easy. The biggest challenge for me a writer in Pakistan who happens to be a woman is: interruptions. The doorbell ringing, the phone ringing, visitors, social obligations. When men want privacy, they get it. When a woman wants it, she’s being selfish. This is an ongoing battle. I have carved a quiet solitary space from which to write at the cost of social relationships.

Then there is the subject of sex. All three of my books – including the one I’m writing now – have frank sex scenes, told from the point of view of both men and women. Pakistani women tend to tiptoe around sex when writing about it. I like to describe it. (I like to describe almost everything.) These details matter to me a lot. I get lost in them. I play with them. That is the joy of living! But when my first book, THE
STORY OF NOBLE ROT, which has a masturbation scene, was released, I know there were people in my family who were ‘shocked’. They were more shocked by TRESPASSING, which describes the male body more then the female body, from the eyes of (unmarried) women and men, both. People who know me sometimes have difficulty reading ‘controversial’ passages without putting me in them. And that has caused some upset, unfortunately.

Overall, I feel free when I write because I insist on the sanctity of my space, both mental and physical, but it has not been given to me. I have had to fight for it, a lot.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

In Conversation with Bapsi Sidhwa

Ahmede: Does your background as a Parsi Zoroastrian influence your identity as a writer?

Sidhwa: It certainly does: it has formed my habits, my thoughts, my values, and I have fun portraying my community, as in Crow Eaters. No matter where they are the Parsis are a minority, and the tension this creates compels one to express feelings, ideas, politics etc. Being a Parsi also can also make a writer a more objective observer perhaps.

Ahmede: In "Water" we see you narrate the story of an eight-year-old against the backdrop of Indian independence movement. This little girl has been abandoned at an Ashram after the death of her husband. We see this theme of an individual's presence in history coming back to your work like a leitmotiv. Can you explain this for us?

Sidhwa: I like the way you've put that question. One cannot really remove an individual from his/her political or historical context. The Partition was one of the defining moments of our history, and the mass exodus and carnage affected millions of lives in the subcontinent. Unfortunately too little has been written about it in fiction. It is our history and shapes what we are today. Gandhi's influence in moderating bias and injustice benefited the subcontinent in substantial ways.

Ahmede: How do you perceive the role of religion in the social and cultural life of South Asia?

Sidhwa: Religion is so subjective: I think we each mould it to suit our needs. I think religion appeals to what is noblest in humans. It has nourished and brought peace to us through the ages. It has also been misused by those in power to benefit themselves and wreak havoc in its name. In the subcontinent I grew up in one learned from infancy not to discuss it, and to respect other people's religion.

Ahmede: As a woman coming from Pakistan, how free do you feel as a writer?

Sidhwa: There are thousands of women writers, journalists and poets in Pakistan. Writing is a solitary activity -- it does not entail interacting with men, and as such is considered a suitable and even laudable pursuit. Of course there is the extremist element who are ready to take umbrage at what they conceder "fawsh" or obscene, but luckily they are not given to reading fiction. I find quite raunchy stuff written even in Urdu. I am disappointed though that my books are not taught in colleges and schools because of this prudery.

Ahmede: You, we all know, write in English, a language that has once been imposed on the people of the region where you come from; and at the same time, people of South Asia have embraced English at the later half of the last century and have modified it significantly. What is your response to this issue?

Sidhwa: Although Gujrati is my mother tongue, English is the only language I learnt to read and write in. It has become the dominant language and people in most countries are striving to learn it for commercial or scholarly benefit. It was perhaps among the better features imposed on us by the British. I have no problem incorporating the Punjabi, Parsi, or Pakistani idiom in my fiction.

Ahmede: Does the concept of South Asian fiction really exist? Or it is only the people and region that defines the genre?

Sidhwa: Well, people need to compartmentalize for convince; it makes life easier for many professors in the West also. But I do find the definition limiting if not demeaning - each writer stands on his or her merit in the community of world writers.

Bapsi Sidhwa is the writer of "Ice-Candy Man", "The Crow Eaters", "The Cracking India" and "An American Brat".

Saturday, December 09, 2006

An Interview with Laila Lalami

Laila Lalami, Morocco-born writer and author of Hope and other Dangerous Pursuits, talks about her life and times.

Ahmede: In Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, we see you use a stream of narratives with the brilliance of a master. Why is this reliance on multiple narrations?

Lalami: It was not a conscious choice. I had started with just one short story about a young man named Murad, an unemployed university graduate who feels emasculated by his sister’s ability to provide for the family, so he decides to try his luck in Spain, and leaves the country on an inflatable boat, crossing the Straits of Gibraltar at night. As I was working on the story, I became curious about the other characters who were with him on the boat. There was Faten, a fanatically religious girl on the run from the law; Halima, a mother who takes her children with her on the boat; and Aziz, a mechanic who leaves his wife behind to try and find a job, to name just three. So I decided to write stories about each of them, and that's how the idea of multiple narratives came about, the idea of having a book in which we follow four characters' journey out of the country, and discover their lives before and after that fateful trip.

Ahmede: How do you see rising Islamic extremism across the globe?

Lalami: I think it is the result of very specific political and economic failures that happened in the 60s and 70s. In many countries in the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East, leftist movements did not deliver on the promises they made after independence. In addition, there was widespread, Western supported repression of these movements. These two factors created a political vacuum, which was filled by a religious discourse that continues to grow. I think the only way that this will change is from within, not through external military involvement.

Ahmede: Coming from a predominantly Muslim country how free do you feel as a woman and a writer?

Lalami: As a Muslim woman, I'm often expected to talk about how my father or brother oppressed me, but the reality is that my father always encouraged me to study, to work, and to be independent. There are of course many problems facing Muslim women, chief among which are illiteracy, poverty, access to healthcare and family planning, and so on. There are many feminists in Muslim countries trying to bring about change within their societies; unfortunately, we are living at a time when some religious conservatives often stand in their way.

Ahmede: The language you have chosen to write in is English; is their any reason behind it?

Lalami: I wrote in Arabic and French when I was a child but English superseded those languages by the time I was in college. I was the product of a post-colonial education that still emphasized French to the detriment of Arabic. In addition, the written form of Arabic which is taught in school is not the same as what Moroccans speak at home, so it was more difficult to write about every day life using a classical form of the language. I started learning English in high school and liked the mechanics of the language and soon I was reading almost everything I could get my hands on in English. By the time I was working on my Ph.D., English became the language I did all of my writing in.

Ahmede: Your portrayal of Morocco reminds one of a stagnant pond; why is it so?

Lalami: A stagnant pond? I wouldn't say that at all. I think the book describes the despair of some very specific individuals, these four characters who find that their lives at home have led to a dead end, and they want to risk it all for a new beginning.

Ahmede: Will you share your reading of novels by South Asian writers with us?

Lalami: Among the writers I've read and admired are Kiran Desai, Pankaj Mishra, Monica Ali, Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, and others. I also just received a copy of The Golden Age, a debut novel by Tahmima Anam, which I look forward to reading very soon.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

An Interview With Amitava Kumar

Ahmede: What is your forthcoming novel Home Product about?

Amitava Kumar: A Hindi film-director asks a Bihari journalist in Bombay to write a story about a small-time poetess who's been killed by her politician lover. The journalist is unable to write that screenplay. Instead, he begins to narrate the story of his cousin who is in prison for running an Internet porn parlour but who is dreaming of making a film when he comes out of jail. The actor who will star in that film is his old school-friend from Bettiah, a man who is now big in Bollywood. I'd say that the book is about anarchic impulses in a society, and the search among its members for order, and even artistic brilliance.

Ahmede: Your non-fiction work "Husband of a Fanatic" is about modern secular India, a country you have left some years ago. How do you see rising fanaticism--both Hindu and Muslim-- in this part of the globe?

Amitava Kumar: I read the other day that the killers in Rwanda were the shoeless who were fighting those who had a shoe to wear. When I think of what happened in Gujarat, when a thousand or more Muslims were butchered, the situation appears more complex. There you had those with shoes going after the barefoot. But I must add, the Hindu fanatics I interviewed always mentioned Bangladesh. They would say to me, "when will you liberals raise your voice against what the Muslims do to Hindus in Bangladesh? Do you know what is happening to Hindu temples there?"

Ahmede: In "Bombay, London, New York" we see you masterfully dissect the idea of post colonial fiction; can you tell our readers how you see English in the south Asian sub-continent, a place where the language has for some years been a mere tool used by the colonisers?

Amitava Kumar: Even our constitution was arguably a gift from our colonisers--the point is not where this language came from, but what we now do with it. In the hands of our best writers, but also as a tool used by millions on the street, English has been changed. It has become a creative weapon in our hands. We cannot be blindly opposed to it. At the same time, it has to be said that in the subcontinent, given the deep social divisions, those who are considered the rightful users of this tongue, and those who employ it most authoritatively, belong to a class that's set so far apart that to think of writing in English as being wholly free from contradictions would also be a mistake.

Ahmede: Is there any particular way you think readers in the west read or react to texts from our side of the universe?

Amitava Kumar: In an ideal world, the reader in the west would have to be prepared to encounter a novel or a short story from our part of the world as more of an enigma than a plain tale. This hypothetical reader would not get their texts as either ready-made exotica or even as a very legible, easy-to-consume product. In a more just and equal world, the western reader would have to work, and work hard, to translate our truths. Just as we do with them.

Amitava Kumar is the author of several works of literary non-fiction and has edited five anthologies. His 'Husband of a Fanatic', was on the "Editors' Choice" list in the New York Times. He is Professor of English at Vassar College. His novel, 'Home Products', will be published in 2007.