9/11 Posts

Of debut novels

2019 is proving to be a year of debut writing. Perhaps it is also an indication of the disruption that digital technology has made of print publishing. It is becoming more and more expensive to publish and if the advance against royalties is also included for publishing established names, then the unit cost of printing a book escalates. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why 2019 has been the year of debuts. Presumably publishers feel that the ROI on a debut author can be easily absorbed in their P/L sheets. Who knows?! Fact is, extraordinary amounts of literature across the globe by debut writers has been published in the past year. Some of it is stupendous. Three worth highlighting in this blog post are: Varun Thomas Mathew’s The Black Dwarves of the Good Little Bay , Nana Oforiatta Ayim’s The God Child and Rehana Munir’s Paper Moon. Three very distinct voices. Three distinct stories. All three debut writers who will shine in the future.

Varun Thomas Mathew is a lawyer by profession but has written a dystopic novel set in the near future where all humanity in India seems to be concentrated in a towering structure called Bombadrome. It is inhabited by people who have no memory and hence no sense of history. They have no recollection if this place was once called Bom Bahia or Bombay or Mumbai. It is a colony where there are specific functions allocated to each section. Occupiers of each section are identified by their uniform. Every task, evey person has a specific role that is designated by the powers that be and there seems to be no existence of free will. It is a “memoir” being written by a former bureaucrat called Convent Godse. The Black Dwarves are manual scavengers who resorted to splashing buckets of filth on to walls to create “arresting art”. Thus capturing the imagination of the media. But the black dwarves are like multiple versions of the real-life Banksy. Despite the Police Commissioner claiming to have arrested the Black Dwarves, a movement arose that could not be ignored. Like this there are many instances in the immediate past that Convent Godse has witnessed and finally opts to write them down. Another one is of the flautist who would stand at the Gateway of India playing tunes that “made passers-by of different religions fall in love” — love jihad. Convent Godse seems to retain a sense of perspective and sanity as he chooses to stay outside the boundary walls of Bombadrome. One of the people incarcerated in the medical quadrant who is a witness to the current chief minister’s past atrocities and the day the politician gains power, the witness “loses his mind” and is taken away. This is a sharply told tale that despite being set in the near future is horribly close to present realities. It is a powerful debut for sometimes fiction thinly masks the truth. Read it. Perhaps one day Man Booker Prize winner Paul Beatty and Varun Thomas Mathew can be encouraged to have a heart to heart talk about the literature they make and what propels them to write these extraordinary stories.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim is a Ghanaian writer, art historian and filmmaker whose debut novel is The God Child. It is about Ghanian expatriate Maya who is brought up in Germany and England. Later she is joined by her cousin from her mother’s side, Kojo. Maya’s mother belongs to a Ghanian royal family and is fairly regal in her ways. The children are close. So when Kojo is bullied, Maya is a witness and his confidante. Later as an adult she visits Kojo in Accra where he is trying to put together a museum that will revive their past royal glory. He is working very hard to put it together but tragedy strikes. Once again, Maya is a mute witness to a dream shattering. As with most debut novels, there is always a strong autobiographical element. The God Child is no different with Kojo’s drive to establish a museum in Accra is closely aligned to Ayim’s project of establishing an open-source encyclopedia of African history. Ayim’s fascination with art history resulted in her being the curator of the African pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. As with the link to the lecture posted below, Ayim’s debut novel is preoccupied with the different ways of seeing. The protagonist of the novel is equally at ease in Germany, England and Ghana but Maya is constantly made to feel an outsider. The insidious racism that exists in society is horrendous. Kojo and she bear the brunt of it. Ayim has an unabashed critical filmmaker’s lens to talk about society across three lands — Germany, UK and Ghana. The clash of cultures and the insidious and deep seated racism which continues to persist in the poshest of places. Also the complete unacceptance of these so-called developed nations to accept the stories of children from Ghana, simply because they are black and speak of being descendants of kings and living in palaces. It is to the white world a myth that the blacks weave. The writer shares unpleasant truths which will not go down well in the polite world which speaks constantly of diversity and inclusivity but when it comes to practice what they preach is unable to truly accept wholeheartedly how difficult it is to embrace differences. I also like the surety with which the author writes in three languages — English, German and the African dialect, Twi, without necessarily explaining it immediately or contextualising it. It is much like the French used by Wodehouse in his novels. You either know it or don’t, so most readers learned to skip those passages and yet enjoyed the storytelling. Same here. As she says in this TED Talk that she has the power to define her own narrative — “We deserve to be in this place“. It shows a calm and confident writer who has been dissed in the early reviews for writing a “promising but uneven novel” — which it is not. Far from it. Read it for yourself. Unsurprisingly, Ayim has dedicated her novel to John Berger.

The last debut novel under discussion is Rehana Munir’s fabulous Paper Moon. It is about Fiza inheritance from her absent father stipulating that she run a bookstore. Well, she is left a lump sum of money to do whatever she likes but he would love it if she made his dream of running a bookshop come true. This is an idea that she too has been secretly nursing but once the possibilities exist she quickly swings into action. Practically overnight from a quiet, good college girl who listens to whatever her mother, an ex-Jazz singer has to say, Fiza becomes a businesswoman. She sets up a bookshop in a old Bandra mansion. It is named after the popular Jazz song, “It’s Only a Paper Moon“. It is an enterprise that is thrilling, allows for a variety of visitors to troop in, it is a peek into the bookselling trade and getting books on consignment from the distributors etc. More than that it gives her the opportunity to introspect her own life, her relationships with her ex-boyfriend, Dhruv and the mysterious stranger who frequents her store, to the wide network ( safety net) of well-wishers. Paper Moon is written in a beautifully restrained manner making it hard to believe that this is a debut voice. The characters are so well etched. The plot moves at a controlled pace. There seem to be no awkward edges in the storytelling or clunky pieces in the plot. What is truly refreshing is the confidence with which Rehana Munir presents life in Mumbai and Goa for what it is — with its diversity, the ease with which everyone is comfortable with each other’s beliefs and practices. There are no apologies or fear presented. It is normal life. This despite her belonging to a generation that may have not witnessed the World Wars or the horrific aftermath of Indian Independence — the communal riots which accompanied the partition of the subcontinent. But while “contemplating the post 9/11 world… . Babri Masjid happened, dividing Fiza’s city forever. Not there was the gore and gloom of Gujarat. Every generation thought of itself as unique. Of negotiating historical events without precedent or the possibility of recurrence. Yet, how was this rapid descent into madness any different from the countless ones that had previously occurred?” This is the undercurrent affecting everyone and yet life carries on. Surprisingly Rehana Munir’s narrative, albeit fiction, affirms that if we see around us, life is different to what is told to us in hegemonic discourses which are increasingly being controlled by politicians. Much like what Hans Rosling laid out in Factfulness. Both are equally hopeful books in an otherwise depressingly dystopic age. Rehana Munir’s Paper Moon is a story that deserves to be converted to film without compromising on the story at all in the screen adapatation. It must run as is. Paper Moon leaves such a happy space in one’s mind of hope and joy for the future. And it is not a book I would classify as Up lit. It is good old-fashioned storytelling. Share it widely. Give it the love it deserves. Gift it happily.

7 December 2019

Interview with Randa Abdel-Fattah, The Mint ( 18 Nov 2017)

My interview with the fabulous Australian writer Randa Abdel-Fattah was published in The Mint on 18 Nov 2017. 

Randa Abdel-Fattah’s debut novel, Does My Head Look Big In This? (2005), is narrated in first person by a teenager, Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim, who lives in a trendy suburb of Melbourne. Her parents were born in Bethlehem, studied medicine in Monash University and became Australian citizens. Her father Mohamed is under the “misguided delusion” that he is still young and cool and drives a metallic-red convertible blasting Italian opera or Palestinian folk songs from his car stereo system. Her mother, Jamila, is a dentist who is obsessive about cleanliness and is loud and energetic. The novel is about Amal’s decision to don a hijab as “I feel like my passion and conviction in Islam are bursting inside me and I want to prove to myself that I’m strong enough to wear a badge of my faith”. Her parents are concerned about the reaction it will elicit in public, not least being called a “nappy head”.

It’s a tremendous coming-of-age novel written immediately post 9/11, which has now been re-released in India, given its relevance in our times. The Australia-based, 38-year-old author’s next novel, themed on immigration, The Lines We Cross, will be published in January 2018 by Scholastic India. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

What prompted you to write this book—a chick lit with a twist on religious expression and the importance of choice?

When I wrote Does My Head Look Big In This? and was searching for an agent, I spoke to one agent at length, explaining the basic plot of the novel. After my pitch, she had the audacity to joke: “Is there an honour killing in it?” This was the stock standard narrative space for the Muslim novel and that kind of lazy, dehumanizing genre of writing about Muslim women was what fired me up in the first place to want to write something that challenged such tropes. I wanted to offer readers a feisty, free-spirited adolescent Muslim girl speaking on her own terms and, importantly, delivering a story written by a Muslim female.

It is believed that debut novels tend to be autobiographical. Would it be an accurate statement to make with regard to ‘Does My Head Look Big In This?’ Or is it an amalgamation of stories you have heard as a human rights lawyer?

I actually wrote the first draft when I was a teenager, 15 years old, and it was, at that time, very autobiographical. I was “coming of age” during the first Gulf War (1990-91), at a time when suddenly being Muslim and Arab was no longer an identity description but an accusation. Not only was I dealing with the demonization in the media and political discourse of my Muslim and Arab heritage, but I was also dealing with gendered stereotypes which reduced Muslim women to oppressed and passive victims of faith and culture. That made me want to speak back, and for me writing has always been craft and activism. I returned to the manuscript post 9/11, and realized that the story was even more urgent. So I rewrote the first draft.

How did you decide upon creating the narrator as an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian teen? Did it take some effort to get the nuances right?

That part was easy. I drew on my own life, my experiences navigating multiple identities. The nuance was basically my own lived experience so it was never difficult to do!

It has been 12 years since this book was first published. What are the reactions that you get? Have these changed over time?

It amazes and humbles me that all these years later I still have people reaching out to me about the book to tell me that it was transformative in terms of their understanding of Muslims/Islam. Of all my novels, this has been my most popular work, taught in schools, staged as a play in the US, and currently being adapted into a feature film. My Muslim readers around the world tell me that the novel validates their experiences and empowers them to embrace their faith choices. For the majority of my readers—who are, in fact, not Muslims—I am told that the book has changed their perceptions about Muslims, particularly Muslim women who wear the veil. I still have girls contact me to say they read my book and were inspired to wear hijab or that it gave them that final edge of confidence to go through with their decision. The most touching feedback I’ve received was from a teacher in Canada who told me that on Christmas Eve, an elderly, non-Muslim man was handing out free copies of my book to people passing by a main shopping precinct because, he said, he felt it promoted a message of peace and harmony. It was one of the most beautiful and heart-warming stories I had ever heard.

The issues the book raised immediately after 9/11, about identity, race, immigrants, Islamophobia, are still relevant. Has this book been pivotal in opening conversations about faith, feminism, identity politics and social justice with teenagers?

Indeed it has. When I visit schools and writer festivals, these are the exact topics I address with students, talking to them about how writing can be such a powerful medium for speaking back to injustice, racism, sexism, and how they too can use their writing to navigate these issues.

Has this book been accessed by people across cultures and religions rather than being bracketed as a Muslim book?

Oh yes, definitely. In fact, the majority of my readers are not Muslim. So many of the people who write to me say that the book has helped them through their own identity, family and friendship challenges, and not necessarily from a Muslim perspective.

Does My Head Look Big In This?: By Randa Abdel-Fattah, Scholastic, 353 pages, Rs350.

Does My Head Look Big In This?: By Randa Abdel-Fattah, Scholastic, 353 pages, Rs350.
23 January 2018 

Naveed Jamali & Ellis Henican “How to Catch a Russian Spy”

how-to-catch-a-russian-spy-9781476788821_lgNaveed Jamali’s book How to Catch a Russian Spy documents his life as a double agent. He worked with the FBI but led the Russians to believe that he was working for them. For him, especially after 9/11, as a first-generation American, born of immigrant parents Naveed was keen to serve his country. Ideally he wanted to use his knowledge about computers in Naval intelligence but he failed to pass the test. So when an opportunity presented itself or rather he made it happen, it was the nearest to a dream come true — of being a spy. Having grown up reading spy novels, watching TV shows about undercover work and the James Bond series he was very enthusiastic about spying. Plus, he had the good fortune of his parents company — Books & Research — being strategically significant. It had for more than two decades been visited frequently by American and Russian agents in search of difficult-to-find books and articles.

How to Catch a Russian Spy details the three years Naveed Jamali spent working as a double agent. It is part-autobiography and part-documentation recording those significant years. The operation concluded happily for him. Once the Russian spy Naveed was associated with had been captured, Naveed was made a member of the Reserve force of Naval Intelligence. This book has been so popular that it has already been translated into a few languages and Fox has optioned the film rights as well.

Despite the Cold War having finished many years ago the fascination with spies continues to capture everyone’s imagination. Given how every two years a new Bond film appears to a resounding success and in 2015 the publication of How to Catch a Russian Spy has coincided with the release of the master of spy thrillers, John Le’ Carre’s biography and with the discovery that there was probably a sixth member in the famous Cambridge Five spy circle, Naveed Jamali’s true story is a very fashionable. Unfortunately for all the “truth” it engages with in telling a story how a Russian spy was caught on American soil in the twenty-first century, the book lacks the punchy zippiness associated with spy novels. Instead How to Catch a Russian Spy conveys the boyish starry-eyed wonder of Naveed Jamali at finding himself at the centre of a real-life spy story very well. Naveed is never quite able to get rid of that feeling and who can blame him!

Having said that it is a pleasant read. The film should be interesting to watch.

Naveed Jamali & Ellis Henican “How to Catch a Russian Spy: The True Story of an American Civilian Turned Double Agent” Simon & Schuster, London, 2015. Pb. pp. 300. Rs. 699 

Literati – “Storytelling” ( 6 Dec 2014, The Hindu)


Jaya Bhattacharji Rose( My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 6 December 2014) and will be in print ( 7 December 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati-a-look-at-the-world-of-books-publishing-and-writers/article6667631.ece . I am also c&p the text below. )

Watching Ameen Haque of The Storywallahs perform at the Kahani Tree, Bookaroo, was a treat. He wove stories, poetry and music together and had the audience singing and laughing along with him. In the short interaction, the children were introduced to the radical idea that crying is perfectly normal for boys and grown men.

Telling tales

Even when adults communicate, it is inevitably through stories. We call it conversation. Break up the conversation and analyse it. It is anecdotal, replete with stories and vignettes. The impact of a well-told story is immeasurable. Similarly a book allows a quiet engagement between the author and a reader. Books make you see the world afresh. It works for all age groups.

This relationship between books and young readers was apparent at an event organised by SCWBI India in partnership with Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan and the Bookaroo Childrens’ Literature Festival. The topic was “LSD: Love, Sex and Darkness in Books for Children” and the participants were educationist Dr. Shalini Advani, author Samina Mishra, illustrator Priya Kuriyan, and publisher Sayoni Basu.

“Should children’s books only deal with happy things? What about death, violence and sexuality? What about darkness and ugliness?” These were some of the questions raised.

Dr. Advani pointed out that adults tend to be more uncomfortable than children. “For adults, our role is to drag these issues out into the clear light of day. To normalise them as a part of the circle of life so that children — who think about them anyway — learn healthy ways of talking about them and thinking about them. It’s not happy worlds that young people seek. So it is not about whether a book has death or perfidious adults or parental divorce or pain. But more about how it is done — young people don’t like to be lectured to or even gently educated.”

Some recently YA books — Talking of Muskaan by Himanjali Sankar about a teen who may be a lesbian;Smitten by Ranjit Lal about a teen who is molested by a family member and Jobless Clueless Reckless by Revathi Suresh about a pregnant teen — have tackled these tricky topics.

***

Fiction relies upon storytelling to represent experiences, although its impact depends on the author’s magic with words. At times the storytelling has visible weaknesses but the reader persists, usually out of curiosity about a new topic. For instance, Sonora Jha’s Foreign (farmer suicides in Vidarbha); Pia Padukone’s Where Earth Meets Water (9/11 and the 2004 tsumani), Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman(indentured labourers on sugar plantations in British Guiana), Mira Jacob’s The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing (Syrian Christian family in New Mexico), and Robert Allison’s The Letter Bearer (WWII, amnesia).

Inclusive fiction

Exquisite storytelling and its impact is apparent by the recent online conversation between Amitav Ghosh and Raghu Karnad regarding Flanagan’s 2014 ManBooker Prize-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The two Indian writers discussed the inclusive capacity of historical fiction and the “duty” of a novelist but also gave insightful comments about a moment in history that had been made accessible through contemporary fiction.

The legendary publisher Gordon Graham puts it prophetically in a 1980 essay reprinted in As I was Saying: Essays on the International Book Business, “Creative composition in the electronic age will not happen at the moment when the author and the publisher decide it is releasable.” It will happen with the active participation of the reader. A statement that holds true 35 years later.

Irrespective of age groups and formats, the importance of storytelling can never be negated since it is an important module of communication and transmission of information, requiring the active participation of all stakeholders.

Update ( 6 December 2014):

In the paragraph listing the debut writers I should have clarified that it is not only fiction, but also nonfiction by relies upon the art of storytelling. Hence I have included Gaiutra Bahadur. My original list was much longer than was finally published.

6 December 2014 

Kalyan Ray, “No Country”

Kalyan Ray, “No Country”

I was asked by Asian Age to  interview Kalyan Ray and review his new novel, No Country. The review-cum-interview was published in the Sunday edition of Asian Age on 31 August 2014. Here is the link: http://wwv.asianage.com/books/looking-neverland-504 . I am c&p the article below.) 

no countryThis was no country the world outside cared to know.
(Page 469, No Country)

No Country, Kalyan Ray’s multi-generational second novel, spans nearly 200 years, several continents. Beginning with the murder of a couple of South Asian origin in 1989, it jumps back in time, to Mullaghmore, Sligo County, Ireland, 1843, and three friends — Padraig Aherne, Bridget Shaughnessy and Brendan McCarthaigh — whose lives become inextricably linked with the birth of Padraig and Bridget’s illegitimate daughter, Maeve. Bridget dies in childbirth after Padraig has sailed off to India, later to become a successful timber merchant, and Maeve is cared for by her paternal grandmother, Maire, who on her deathbed hands Maeve to “Papa” Brendan. The potato famine is on; the starving Irish flee to America on overcrowded ships. Papa Brendan and Maeve survive a shipwreck and arrive on a farm in Canada. From here the story moves to two continents, told by various narrators with different points of view, coursing its way through Canada, India, Bangladesh, famines, refugees in America, Ireland, Odessa, Poland… The zooming about is dizzy, and often characters pop up only to disappear soon — we meet Armenians in Calcutta; Padraig Ahern marries Kalidasi; the Easter Uprising of 1916 is reported in the Bengali papers two weeks after it happened, and that reconnects Padraig to his motherland; Padraig’s son and grandson Robert Ahern are caught in the massacre in Jallianwala Bagh in 1919; Jewish pogroms begin just when Jakob Sztolberg, a Polish Jew, marries Maeve; India’s Partition. Dizzying. But it flows smoothly.

Ray attributes his ability to weave various voices in various places to being “born into the rich oral culture of India.” “I have been deeply and permanently influenced by that. I grew up listening to a vast variety of folk stories, tales from Mahabharata and Ramayana, and have been fascinated by the story-telling techniques of the Pandavani. Even our folksongs are voices telling stories. All this colours my palette in conscious and unconscious ways,” he explains. According to him, the responsibility of the writer lies in making the reader sit up all night to read. “If you write about characters that you care deeply about then the reader will be mesmerised; that is the responsibility of the writer.” Ray says that he had to be “particularly careful” about the 10 distinct voices in his novel, ranging from 19th century rural Irish voices to those of Billy Swint of 1960s New York and Kush Mitra of the early 1990s.

Ray took an eight-month sabbatical from his teaching job to immerse himself in Irish literature of 1835-1847 — books, political Kalyan Raypamphlets, newspapers and posters. He said that “later historical research often challenged and corrected contemporary perceptions of events, but I needed to keep in mind that for a novelist, the early estimations, even rumours — especially early rumours — must mark the pigment on the canvas.” The novel is packed with delightful details. “I owed it to my readers to paint the past as vividly and accurately as I could, with its sights and sounds, contemporary opinions and mindsets. So I needed to use numerous books of history, memoirs, and contemporary journals… (I) put in a great deal of effort not to let the research show in the telling of the story…” Grafton Street in Ireland is pointedly described as being paved with wood, whereas most Irish streets were packed with sod. He learnt this tiny fact after “many hours spent often with a magnifying glass in hand peering into photographs of early Victorian-era cityscapes of Dublin, and at Irish landscapes of that period”.

Women are pivotal to the novel, yet they have been described only in terms of their sexuality and the choices they make after becoming pregnant (mostly out of wedlock). Though Maeve’s character develops logically, she comes across women often do in mythology — mostly just strong survivors of circumstances. Though she can read before she is four years old, she is never shown to be doing anything with her literacy. Instead, she swiftly adapts to farming. Ray says that he has been influenced by William Faulkner. Perhaps this slide of realism into myth comes from Faulkner.

Migrants don’t necessarily have the leisure to recall stories, occupied as they are in putting their lives together, making new friends, learning new language, culture. No Country tells their story. In an interview he gave to his publishers, Ray said, “I consider this story to be a seismic shrug, a novel that consists of individual migrations. These are stories about people looking for a country, a place where they could set roots but find it nowhere.” Ray too is a migrant, dividing his time between Kolkata and America. Paradoxically, No Country does not read like a story told by a migrant. Though I read the novel in two sittings, I remained dissatisfied with the outsider’s perspective.

Post 9/11, a noticeable shift in contemporary literature, particularly fiction, is an excessive stress on identities, akin to ghettoisation of literature according to ethnic, regional and religious identities, and literary criticism has always been preoccupied with genres. But No Country is refreshingly rich in multi-cultural diversity and is able to bringing out the commonality amongst migrants.

Kalyan Ray No Country Bloomsbury, Great Britain, 2014. Pb. pp. 560. Rs. 599 

‘Writing is really an interruption of reading…’  Interview with Zia Haider Rahman

‘Writing is really an interruption of reading…’ Interview with Zia Haider Rahman

On 20 July 2014, The Hindu Literary Review carried an interview I had done with Zia Haider Rahman. A shortened version was published in print, a slightly longer version on the newspaper’s website ( http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/writing-is-really-an-interruption-of-reading/article6228449.ece ) and I reproduce below the complete and unedited version of the interview that the author sent and approved. The book is available in India with Picador India, PanMacmillan India. ISBN: 9789382616245

in the light of what we know - zia haider rahmanZia Haider Rahman’s novel, In the Light of What we Know, is a forceful debut. It is about two male friends, an unnamed narrator and Zafar, who first meet as students at Oxford. The book consists of a long, meandering conversation with the men exchanging notes about their past, their careers, their families and their experiences since they last met in New York, when they were colleagues with bright futures at a financial firm. This meeting takes place in London, September 2008.

Zia was born in rural Bangladesh but migrated to the United Kingdom before his sixth birthday and was raised in a derelict squat before moving to state housing. His father was a waiter; his mother a seamstress. Zia won a scholarship to read mathematics at Balliol College, Oxford, and completed graduate studies at Cambridge, Munich and Yale universities. After working as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs on Wall Street, he turned to practising as an international financial lawyer before moving to human rights work.

1. What was the gestation period for this manuscript? How long was the first draft? How much time did it take from manuscript to printed book?

Many of the ideas and images in this novel have been percolating for rather a long time; some of the governing themes have grown out of preoccupations that have been with me for the whole of my life. I imagine this must be true of many authors and must hold for even books subsequent to their first.

The first draft was about the same in length as the final one, as I recall. Before I began revising anything, my editor made some helpful suggestions conceding that those comments might actually increase the length of the novel by ten or so per cent. In the end, I decided to make a few small cuts here and there and so the word count did not change much between the first draft and what is there now in the printed book. I find that certain writing is not improved by tinkering or revising, particularly passages or scenes of strongly emotional content: the rawness is a vital part of the energy.

From final manuscript to printed book, it took about three to four months. I made life a little difficult for myself by choosing to keep the British English version and the American English version distinct; the punctuation as well as vocabulary, of course, is different. The US version, for instance, has adopted the serial comma, which most non-American readers would find inhibitive to fluent reading.

2. How many notebooks did you maintain to create this novel or was it written directly on the computer? When and where was the research done? Does it ever cease?

As a matter of routine, I have always kept notebooks, jotting down ideas and things of interest. I used to try to keep track of them. Once I’m through a dozen or so, I sit down and take a few hours to type them up. This refreshes my memory but also allows me to discard ultimately uninteresting material. But the real reason I do it is that an electronic document is easy to search through.

While writing the novel, my note-taking activity increased hugely. I was quite itinerant at the time, so it was vital to have something to hand in which to record thoughts as they arose, if I was waiting for a train or plane, or if I woke up with a thought that I wanted to record. But when I was properly drafting any text for the novel, I did this on the computer. I type very much faster than I write long hand.

The research was done in various places. Some of it was done on the internet, although the internet is really only helpful as a starting point and also to confirm some fact or other. At one point, I used the internet to watch what felt like every US congressional hearing on the financial crisis, which was considerably more than was necessary for the novel, but I found them inherently fascinating and full of drama. The libraries I used were principally the British Library in London, the New York Public Library and the library of a small town in upstate New York, near Yaddo (a foundation for writers,  artists and composers, where I wrote most of the novel). The last library is actually plugged into the wider library system of upstate New York and has very swift access to the many books within the system. It’s quite extraordinary, actually, with large sunlit rooms and many shelves of books, as libraries used to have, and has not been overrun by technology, multimedia and so on.

It’s no doubt possible to do more research than necessary. But if the activity of research is in itself rewarding then one is not so much doing research as merely indulging oneself in the pleasure of reading.

3. Who are the authors and writing styles/ traditions that have influenced you?

Everything I read leaves something and I can no more identify my literary influences than I can point to particular meals I’ve had that have been exceptionally nourishing. Over the years, many, many books and authors have had an emotional impact on me, although whether and how they might have influenced my writing is, in most cases, harder to see. To name a few that spring to mind: Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Marquez’s Hundred Years of Solitude, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, David Adams Richards’ Mercy Among the Children, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Sebald’s Austerlitz, many of Philip Roth’s novels and Coetzee’s, James Baldwin’s, and the list goes on and on, as one might expect of any author, because writing is really an interruption of reading and vice-versa.

4. You have a lot of epigraphs in the novel but they seem to be used in an unusual way. What is their purpose?

You’re right. There is something unusual about them. Ordinarily in novels, epigraphs are evidence of the writer peeking in from behind the curtain; here, the narrator has actively included them after retrieving them—or most of them—from Zafar’s notebooks, as he himself explains. There is also the fact that near the end of the book the epigraphs of a particular chapter are the venue for a disclosure: the epigraphs actually do a job of storytelling. Described in this way here—and not encountered in the course of reading—it might seem like the assignment of epigraphs to and by the narrator is a breach of a convention of the novel. After all, epigraphs typically stand above, aside, aloof. I have no aversion to breaches of convention, provided they are effective, but I’m not sure there is a breach here in any event. All that is happening is that the narrator is laying claim to real estate on the page ordinarily owned by the author.

5. At a time when it is easy to Google for information why did you introduce extensive footnotes in the text?

As you know, the narrator himself does precisely that—go to internet search engines in order to look things up. The narrator uses footnotes where he wants to elucidate something that Zafar says, without interrupting the flow of Zafar’s account. Having said that, there are also a couple of rather long footnotes, notably one likening map projections in cartography to the translation of poetry and another relating to the war of 1971, where one has the sense that the narrator simply doesn’t want to omit something that Zafar said or wrote and yet cannot justify to himself the inclusion of the material in the main body of text. The narrator, as one quickly gathers, is to a certain degree rather unreliable: he thinks he is smarter than he actually is, he has a rather undeveloped attitude to women, and, of course, he is fundamentally compromised by a certain set of circumstances which we cannot go into without issuing a spoiler warning. The footnotes—their presence, form and the kind of material they include—are an example of what emerges from the first person perspective here. In a third person narration, they might not have emerged in a necessary way.

6. How did your training in mathematics impact your manuscript drafts and plot structure?

Mathematics is fundamental to my outlook on very many things and in ways that I cannot easily measure. In my formative years it was everything to me, the single place of beauty in my life, and of breathtaking beauty at that. I still believe that pure mathematics is the most creative thing that our species does, though I am no longer a part of the mathematical project.

The mathematical tilt remains basic to my epistemological perspective, my insistence on reasons for a claim—reasons that that are capable of yielding to interrogation. Mathematics gave me that. Other experiences might have left me with the same outlook, as I expect other things do to other people. But my debt is to mathematics. Nothing in life can be relied upon in the way that a mathematical proof can. Nothing anyone ever says or does or tastes or feels will so much as perturb the trust we have in a mathematical truth. And though elsewhere in life we cannot achieve the same conviction, the presence of this standard in one realm ought to be regarded as a beacon illuminating the dark poverty in the quality of reasoning we seem to settle for in other aspects of our lives, in the political and social especially.

I am unsure how to begin to answer your question—or even if I can—since thinking mathematically, day-in and day-out for a long time and at a formative age means that its effects are marbled into my foundations.

7. The analogy between cartography and translation is a fascinating concept on the art of representation via illustrations and word. How do you view your novel in the light of this theory?

In the novel, the narrator relates Zafar’s observations on one underlying similarity between map projections and the translation of poetry. There are many ways to represent the curved surface of the planet on a piece of paper. And there are many ways to go about translating a poem in one language into another. In cartography, for instance, you might choose to preserve relative areas or relative subtended angles. In poetry, you might choose to preserve rhyme or meter. The list of things to consider is actually quite long in both cases. Both involve choices about what to preserve and what to let go. Moreover—and this is crucial—in both cases a decision to preserve one thing limits or even destroys the freedom to preserve others. In both cases, also, the underlying need that drives the enterprise is that without either a map or a translation nothing would be knowable; after all, you cannot give someone a miniature globe with all the details of the earth’s surface along with a powerful magnifying glass and tell her to use these to navigate her journey across New York, London or Delhi, any more than you can give her a poem by a Hungarian poet along with textbooks to learn Hungarian and expect her to be moved to tears—assuming she’s not a native Hungarian speaker, of course!

The similarity of the two enterprises speaks to the pervasiveness of an underlying point: in order to gain access to the world, we undertake an activity of representing it that necessarily involves destruction. We are forced to abandon any hope of seeing some things in order to see anything at all. Zafar’s perspective is bleak, on one level, but on another it could be read as epistemic humility, an acknowledgement of one of the kinds of constraints on our perception of the world and on our access to knowledge. There are several themes in the novel but its backbone is to do with the status and nature and limits of knowledge.

8. There are so many identities that you mention in your novel whether defined by religion, nationality or language. Even within one religion there are many sub-categories such as Wahhabi and Sunni Muslims; Coptic, Arabic and Pakistani Christians, Anglicans and Catholics. Would you say that In the Light of What we Know is exploring the concept of a “global or an immigrant” novel?

I remember walking into a famous independent bookshop in New York a few years ago and discovering that under fiction they had an “Asian writers” section, as well as other ethnically or regionally defined categories. This sort of arrangement is not uncommon. But it is impossible to criticize the bookshops themselves; the industry of bricks and mortar booksellers is under enormous strain, with outlets folding by the day, not to mention whole chains of stores. Bookshops are simply responding to customer demands and preferences; in an environment in which margins are being squeezed, there is little room to do anything but organize books in a way that caters to customer tastes and maximizes sales. Some are throwing in the towel and have transformed into cafés or gift shops in all but name; if they can flog you a book on your way out, that’s a bonus.

The geographic and cultural categories into which novels are placed, often by people, other than the author, assigning her an identity, is driven by a market that has become habituated to conceiving of literature in terms of these categories. The root of the problem is a word: novel. The novel is such an expansive menagerie, holding such varied beasts, that a taxonomy is inevitable because it is useful. But the expansiveness of the idea of a novel gives rise to all manner of problems. For instance, it means that two novels might be compared that are fundamentally incommensurable. The label novel is misleading. But the publishing industry needs it in order to widen the market for every book it promotes: You like novels? Well, here’s a novel. I suspect that your question has more to do with aspects of my own particular novel. But I think that the question is related to the business of book-selling. The publishing industry is slightly schizophrenic in a certain respect. Discussions about lofty ‘literature’ rarely include matters of publishing industry realities.  I understand this—in fact, a little part of me dies when I hear talk about the art of novels and the business of publishing in the same breath. But—to bring us to your question—it seems to me that the current taxonomies are not responsive to the changing world and our changing understanding of the world. What happens twelve time zones away has as much impact on us as something happening on our doorstep. The geographic, economic, and social scope of the particular world each of us inhabits is widening, the perceptual field broadening. To return to the taxonomy analogy, even biologists have been introducing new taxonomies of living things that reflect better understandings of relationships between organisms.

9. Post-9/11 there have been a number of novels tackling the issues of identity, cultural politics, and new geo-political orientations, with literary conversations dissecting the rise of the Muslim novelists. Yet In the Light of What we Know focuses on “conflicts” happening along various fault lines—in the world of finance, within marriages or on real battlefields. The frightening truth to emerge in your story is the sense of wrongs and injustices of history being repeated over and over again, going against the popular theory of one particular community being responsible for terrorism. Please comment.

Every general election anywhere seems to mark a turning point, we’re told. Or something is a landmark event. Every military surge is a new initiative that will turn back the tide. The consumption of news would fizzle out if it did not bear the sense that what is happening is new in the sense that it is bringing in change, is going to alter the way things are. We all like to plan—we can plan like no other animal—but our ability to plan goes hand in hand with an appetite to learn what’s new, what’s news, what might affect our plans. News media feeds this appetite endlessly and would do itself out of a living if its reports ran along the lines of, say: Such and such happened today and it’s terribly similar to what happened ten years ago and also to what happened forty years ago and everybody thought then that it was going to change everything but it didn’t.

There is hubris in regarding ours as the pivotal moment in history—a shocking hubris given that every age has thought this way—but it is vital to the sale of news to maintain this pretence. To see the repeated patterns may not actually make it easier to resolve the problems we now face—after all, the most common repeated pattern is one of failure—but I have wondered whether it would lead to a feeling of familiarity, which would have a calming effect, a sense that we are not at the edge of a precipice without parallel. Of course, this is a nightmare to those who rely on us feeling frightened all the time.

10. During the Global Summit to end Sexual Violence in Conflict, London (June 2014) the birangonas stories were not shared in the official programme; a silence that was marked by protests. Whereas in your novel there are many epigraphs drawing the reader’s attention to the Bangladeshi women raped during conflict. Please comment.

What is there to say that hasn’t been said already? Tahmima Anam, the distinguished Bangladeshi novelist, has written evocatively about the plight of the Birangonas. But one finds oneself still asking: who is listening? Every aspect of the suffering that these women have been through at the hands of Pakistani soldiers and Bangladeshi collaborators is stomach-churning. But it galls me to think that after rape and violence during the war many of them returned to communities that turned their backs on them.

11.  How would you define yourself? By the country of origin or domicile or a bit of both like Zafar who is perceived as “Anglo-Bangla”?

I am often asked where I’m from—in Europe, mainly because of my skin color, and in the US, mainly because of my British accent. I know that this is the case because in the US when I say that I was born in Bangladesh, nine times out of ten, an American probes further to get an explanation of the accent. But if, instead, I tell Americans that I grew up in the UK, there seem to be no further questions. I’m explaining this because nobody ever actually asks me to define myself; the question is invariably “Where are you from?” and behind that question there is a desire to have something specific resolved—why the skin color or accent? Nor do I myself ever stand in the mirror and ask: Zia, how do you define your identity? Identity, per se, has not been an issue I have felt a need to resolve. Does a lion need to know that it is called a lion?

That said, I have long sought a sense of belonging to a place, something lacking in my psyche. The insufficiency is not without its advantages, of course. I think it keeps one a little removed from things, which is a helpful vantage from which to observe. And this slight dislocation can make for interesting personal experiences. But the cost is brutal. Human beings need roots, perhaps not all humans, but I rather suspect it is the norm to attach to a piece of land, to the ground that will one day take us back.

12. You are represented by the legendary literary agent Andrew Wylie, a dream beginning for a debut author. How did this come to pass?

I was introduced to the agency by a mutual acquaintance. I have been lucky in many ways over the years beginning with the enormous good fortune of having access to healthcare and schooling and libraries and, at least after the first few years, to a decent meal every day, all the way through to the sheer luck of living in a place where university education did not require me or my family to bring resources of our own. If humanity cared enough about fairness, then luck of this kind would have no place in determining the fate of a child.

22 July 2014 

 

 

Zia Haider Rahman, “In the Light of What We Know”

Zia Haider Rahman, “In the Light of What We Know”

( My review of Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel, In the Light of What we Know, has been published in the Hindu Literary Review on 6 July 2014. Here is the url: http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/two-worlds-apart/article6180418.ece . I am also c&p the text below.)

in the light of what we know - zia haider rahmanBefore 9/11, I was invisible, unsexed. How is it that after 9/11 suddenly I was noticed – not just noticed, but attractive, given the second look, sized up, even winked at? Was that the incidental effect of no longer being of a piece with the background of being noticed, or was it sicker than that? Was this person among us no longer the meek Indian, the meek Pakistani, the sepoy, but fully man? Before 9/11, I was hidden behind the wall of colonial guilt after having been emasculated by a history of subjugation. ( p.20)

Many people do know quite a lot about Bangladesh. They happen to be living in the region. I don’t think Indians and Pakistanis are quite ignorant about Bangladesh as the people you have in mind, and they make up a fifth of the world.

What about writing for a Western audience? I asked.

Bridging two cultures?

Why not?

How well will a book about modern India sell to a Western audience, a  non-fiction book about this shocking economic trend-bucking phenomenon, if it were written by an Indian?

You could write against that, with one foot in the East and the other in the West. ( p. 320-1)

In the Light of What We Know is about two male friends, an unnamed narrator and Zafar, who first met as students at Oxford. Zafar is of Bangladeshi origin and his family is not very well off; unlike the narrator is from an affluent Pakistani family whose parents are academics, equally comfortable with the intelligentsia, politicians and high Society of New York as they are in Cambridge. The two friends after graduation went on to become bankers, soon to go their separate ways and lose touch with each other. The book consists of a long, meandering conversation with the men exchanging notes about their past, their careers, their families and their experiences since they last met in New York, when they were colleagues with bright futures at a financial firm. This meeting takes place in London, September 2008. There are moments when the narrator supplements the information with extensive notes he has read in Zafar’s diaries. At times it seems to meander into digressions (also lengthy epigraphs and extensive footnotes) that are packed with discussions revolving around cartography and the quality of translations (“Both of them face the same problem, namely, that they cannot capture everything exactly and they have to give up some things in order to convey anything at all.”); about war, atrocities committed during conflicts, experiences of an insider ( irregular) dealings in trading derivatives with the bankers who were the brains of these operations becoming collateral damage,  discussions about philosophers such as Erich Fromm the Jewish German American philosopher, Western Classical music, science and mathematics such as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, a theorem of mathematical logic about the impossibility of proving certain truths.

There is a story, albeit a thin one. It is about the relationship between two friends, a Pakistani and a Bangladeshi, two nationalities, belonging to two different parts of society yet it is a sense of belonging to the Indian subcontinent that keeps them together. Otherwise they have very little in common. Urdu, spoken in Pakistan and by Zafar’s parents, is not the narrator’s “mother tongue” so they resort to using English. These young men are representative of their generation—a South Asian professional of the diaspora—a close attachment and understanding of their own history, but acquire the sophistication required to move with grace in different societies. Along the way these young men become intellectual jukeboxes with sufficient bytes of information and cultural titbits to be accepted in various pockets of the world. It is like being a participant of a cultural tsunami. They encounter people of other nationalities who are like them too—Arab Muslims, Wahabi, Sunni, Israeli and Russian, Pakistani Christians, Arab Christians, Palestinian Christians, Coptic Christians, Englishmen who were in the Burma War—who in all likelihood have an equally complicated mixed bag of religious, cultural and nationalistic considerations to think about.

Read In the Light of What We Know as a middle class reader of twenty-first century experimental literature. Have no expectations of it being a novel of the classical form—a structured, chronologically told, multi-layered story. It is not. It is probably a biography, but even the narrator is not quite sure what to term it—“current enterprise” or “present undertaking”. The Internet is creating a new kind of fiction where sections of a novel that would work very well as an independent digital long read are being embedded in the architecture of the printed story. Zia Haider Rahman’s first fiction is a sound example of South Asian literature becoming a global novel, not necessarily an immigrant novel. It is at the cusp of the Anglophone novel infused with the confidence and characteristic of South Asian literary fiction. It is unapologetic about its style and is best read like a stream of consciousness set in an absurd drama. The novel could have been reduced by at least 100 pages without any harm done, yet it is a forceful debut—definitely one of the new and promising writers of 2014.

6 July 2014 

Zia Haider Rahman In the Light of What We Know Picador India, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. Pp. 560 Rs. 599 

Chitra Banerjee Divakurni “Oleander Girl”

Chitra Banerjee Divakurni “Oleander Girl”

 

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni

Oleander Girl. Chitra Banerjee Divakurni’s latest novel. It is about Korbi, who was orphaned at birth and is brought up by her maternal grandparents in Calcutta. She is a bhodra Bengali, while studying in college meets Rajat, a rich young man. (His parents own a very well known art gallery in the city and in New York.) They are engaged and to be married soon. It all seems to be moving correctly when Korobi’s life is suddenly thrown out of gear. She chooses to investigate her past since she would like to begin her married life knowing the truth. It involves her travelling to America soon after her engagement. A move that does not go down very well with her immediate family but she is determined. Korobi or Oleander (as she is named after the flower) is true to her name– “beautiful but also tough. Also knows how to protect herself from predators.”

Oleander Girl is a very readable novel. At the superficial level it is a love story with its moments of heartache. It is gently and charmingly told by Chitra Banerjee Divakurni. It is set against the backdrop of the Godhra riots and the events of 9/11. Frighteningly these events have an immediate impact on even bhodra families like that of Korobi. These unpleasant events also unmask the prejudices that exist in individuals too. It is an intricate web woven by the author and done without making it seem complicated.

A characteristic trait of all of Chitra Banerjee Divakurni’s novels are the number of women characters she has. The protagonist is always a woman but she is surrounded by women of all shades. Incredibly the author manages to make every girl and woman in the book a strong personality. They are memorable. In Oleander Girl, there is the grandmother Sarojini, Rajat’s mother, his younger sister Pia and Seema Mitra in NYC. Also not forgetting the late Anu Roy, Korobi’s mother. To put it blandly these are women who struggle, make their choices and survive the consequences. But the joy in reading the novel lies in understanding these women better. I am not surprised that Chitra Banerjee Divakurni writes the way she does. Some years ago when I met her she told me of her involvement with Maitri. http://www.friendsofbooks.com/blog/evening-with-chitra-banerjee-divakaruni )

In 1991, Chitra co-founded Maitri (http://www.maitri.org/ ). It is an NGO based in the San Francisco Bay area that helps battered women of South Asian origin. I asked Chitra if her experience at Maitri had in any way influenced her storytelling and the choice of prose. It seems that Chitra first began writing and publishing poetry, but after four years of working at Maitri, she published her first collection of short stories, Arranged Marriage. In fact, one of the stories in it is based on a true incident and so are some of the sketches in the later books. She also realized that writing prose was a far easier medium to communicate and tells stories than poetry. Yet, the rhythm, discipline and diction of poetry did and continues to influence her prose.

Oleander Girl is a must read. Junot Diaz calls Chitra Banerjee Divakurni “A brilliant storyteller”, which she is.

Chitra Banerjee Divakurni Oleander Girl Viking, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 290 Rs. 499