By Awais Aftab
26 Oct, 2012
Uzma Aslam Khan is the author of four novels: The Story of Noble Rot, Trespassing, The Geometry of God, and the forthcoming Thinner than Skin. Trespassing was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize Eurasia 2003. The Geometry of God was voted one of Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2009 and won a bronze medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards 2010. Both have been translated worldwide. An extract from Thinner than Skin, titled 'Ice, Mating,' appeared in Granta 112: Pakistan. Here she talks to Awais Aftab about love, life, and work.
Awais Aftab: You have travelled extensively; have lived both abroad and in Pakistan. How do you see Pakistan with your traveller’s eyes?
Uzma Aslam Khan: I was born in Pakistan grew up mostly in Pakistan, my family lives in Pakistan, and I've spent much of my life in Pakistan. I've lived outside the country too, but I'm not sure how to differentiate between my "Pakistani eyes" and "traveller’s eyes". When am I seeing from one and not the other? All my books have relied on experiences (sensory, emotional, and political) felt on and from the land. I couldn't write about Pakistan without this sediment to draw from.
AA: About your second novel Trespassing. It's easy to see how your own life experiences could have led to the development of the characters of Dia and Daanish, but what about Salaamat? Where did he come from?
UAK: I have no idea. I saw him one day exactly as I wrote him in the prologue: smoking on a sand dune on a Karachi beach while a turtle laid eggs. From there on, he was just there. I've always been grateful to him for the long visit, during which it felt as though I was the character and he the writer. Years later, Mehwish in The Geometry of God possessed me with the same intensity, leaving me equally hapless and thankful. And now I've recently completed a fourth novel, called Thinner than Skin. All its characters are still visiting. I think they need me to be more vigilant while the book makes its way into the world.
AA: You have often talked about a fiction writer surrendering to the book's own rules. Would you like to elaborate on that? Do you think that the characters and stories already exist in the unconscious mind and as a novelist what you do is to discover them?
UAK: Absolutely. It happens like this each time. All the characters take over. You have to surrender, or they desert you. You think you're in the driving seat, but really, you're in the back seat, watching. And it's never the drive you thought it was going to be.
AA: What is your personal view of love? Don't you think that there is something very wrong about the way traditional Pakistani society treats love?
UAK: I'd describe love as a living thing. As alive as yeast, or if you prefer something less smelly, a flower bud. You have to pay attention or it dies. This is true for every kind of love, whether between friends, lovers, or family. As with just about every aspect of Pakistani life, in matters of love, we overdo ourselves at the same time that we don't do enough. For instance, we lavish love on our guests, or our friends' children. And at the risk of generalizing, I'd say Pakistani children lavish more love on each other than children in the West; they're more affectionate and generous. I encountered dozens of such examples while teaching in Lahore, ways in which the young look out for each other. Yet, we teach those same children to withhold love from the poor, from religious minorities, from sexual "outcasts". We teach them to be ashamed of thinking of wives as lovers and friends. These aspects of love we don't nurture; the flower, if it blooms, blooms in a closed, guilty place, where it can't live for long.
AA: Being an English novelist of Pakistani origin writing for an international audience, do you feel pressurized into conforming your writings to the themes of so-called 'South Asian fiction'?
UAK: You can't think about this while writing. Not only does it have nothing to do with story-telling, but I doubt many people can know what the market wants, even if they wanted to know, which I don't. That said, though we can't guess the demand, we can examine certain patterns. Some years ago, I wrote an essay titled "Brown Man's Burden". In it, I say that today's 'Asian' novelists face an unspoken list of dos and don'ts. The most insidious rule on the list is the "freeing" of Muslim women by the West, an obvious draw in the current political climate, in which the West seeks to justify its wars through feeding the public the same hackneyed image of "oppressed" women-in-veils.
Some years ago, a publisher tried to put a cover of a veiled woman on my novel, Trespassing. I fought that cover and finally had it changed. But at some cost to myself. So, to answer your question, do I feel pressured to conform? No. Does the pressure exist? Yes. And the particular type of pressure outlined here is put on writers who happen to be women. Slurpy tales with sensational titles like "Married by Force" still adorn the front displays of major bookstores, and covers with eyes behind a veil continue to multiply like bunnies. It makes it harder for those trying to fight these trends to be heard.
AA: You don't tip-toe around sex in your writings. The sexual aspects of the lives of your characters, is it a depiction of something that actually exists that way in Pakistani society, or is it something else?
UAK: All my characters have different sexual lives. So I'm not sure which you mean ... But no, I don't tip-toe around the subject. I don't see the point. Details are what writers work with. And sex is a very detailed detail.
AA: What was more important for you in The Geometry of God: the ideological background of fundamentalism versus free-thinking or the complex relationships the characters developed in the novel?
UAK: Definitely the characters. The first scene of The Geometry of God came to me as a voice. It was Amal's voice. From then on I kept hearing her, and then I heard Mehwish and Noman. It was through understanding the voices and their relationship to one another that the themes of the novel arose, and the philosophical questions grew more complex.
AA: Was it fun, writing from Mehwish's perspective, inventing a whole personal language?
UAK: Hugely. Hers were some of the most rewarding scenes I've ever written. Amal tells her that a language is like a whale, it comes from something else. It's Mehwish's ability to adapt that allows her to become, in many ways, the soul of the book - without her zest for word play, puns, drawings, and mischief, the book would lose much of its zauq.
AA: Would you like to say something about the role Nouman played in The Geometry of God, particularly his relationship with Zahoor?
UAK: An Italian interviewer once described Noman's story as "an escalation, a crescendo of emotions." She said that just when it seemed he lacked a distinct identity capable of generous impulses and deep emotions, he became more than that. I liked her description.
Characters absorb us when they embody contradictions we're reluctant to forgive in real life, because, who isn't guilty of contradictions? I sometimes think I write to forgive. We have less time to call on our deeper, more forgiving impulses in our cold world of reality. But in fiction, we insist on doing just this. I hope Noman can be understood if seen in this universal light, as compelling because he's familiar in his weakness. At the same time, he's also a creature of the times. He says "I bat for both sides," a position not unknown to others of General Zia's generation. In public he's one thing, in private he's another. During Zia's reign, the line between private and public was scratched with a hard, angry fist, just as all lines were: between men and women, faith and reason, worship and blasphemy, west and east. Zia's legacy is a dichotomous world.
AA: In the years since you wrote The Geometry of God, the country has seen some of the most gruesome attacks on religious minorities, including inhumane abuses of the blasphemy law. What is your perspective on this?
UAK: When The Geometry of God was completed in 2007, there were many documented cases of blasphemy charges being levelled against innocent civilians, particularly Ahmadis and Christians. My character Nana was not based directly on any one person, but I read several case studies, including those involving ridiculous spelling errors, word shuffling, rumour, and revisionism - including of Jinnah's famous speech in which he emphatically declares us all "equal citizens of one State" - all of which I draw on in the book. And then last year it happened again: a Christian eighth-grader was accused of blasphemy for a spelling error in a poem. For a Pakistani writer, life imitates art all the time. When in the book Nana is falsely accused of blasphemy, he is also called an Ahmadi, as though calling someone this is an insult. His response is to refuse to wear it as an insult by refusing to say what he is. He says instead, "My faith is what they bury when they force me to expose it." And I think that the increasingly furious pace of hate crimes against our religious minorities - from the attack on an Ahmadi mosque in Lahore on May 28, 2010, which should be declared a national day of mourning, to the assassinations of Shahbaz Bhatti and Salmaan Taseer, to the present-day case of young Rimsha Masih - all of this, on top of terrorizing those already vulnerable in our society, makes us all guilty, for two reasons. First, for staying silent about what we know to be wrong. And second, because we are all forced to say what we are, all the time. We can't even get our passport renewed without 'confessing' to not being Ahmadis. I've even been asked my religion while registering for a blood test. And to whom are we always in need of confessing? Not to God, but to a bunch of people who call themselves the state. If this were a civilized land, faith would be private and proof against those we know are playing God would be public. But in Pakistan, it's the other way around: Faith is public and proof is private.
AA: So what is your new book about? Does it also involve religion and fundamentalism?
UAK: No. I never want to write the same novel twice. An extract of the new book, Thinner than Skin, was included in Granta magazine's issue on Pakistan, though the extract ("Ice, Mating") will only give you an idea of one of the characters, a photographer from Karachi who lives in San Francisco, and visits northern Pakistan one summer. A larger part of the book is about a woman from Kaghan Valley whose world is torn apart when the photographer and his lover arrive on her land. But whose land is it? Questions of belonging and ownership come up early. It's also about glaciers and geographies and the power of movement. Really, I don't know how to condense what it is, and I think I'm doing a terrible job and no one will buy the book. Those who've read it have offered one word to say what it's about: home.
AA: Bertrand Russell gave his children the emphatic advice: Do not marry a novelist. What would you say to that, given that you and your husband are both published novelists?
UAK: I would have to agree. *laughs*
AA: What inspires you as a writer?
UAK: Pain, beauty, surprise. The need to never forget. The thrill of learning something new. The sorrow of losing something known.
AA: Any advice for young Pakistani writers?
UAK: Listen to silence, not to others.
Awais Aftab is a doctor and a blogger. He would like to thank the Kemcol team of King Edward Medical University for providing a platform for this interview.