June issue 2009
Interview: Nadeem Aslam
“Right from my first novel, I explored how politics impinges on and disrupts the ordinary life”
– Nadeem Aslam
Q: Women and children have paid the maximum price in Afghanistan since the end of the Cold War, and continue to do so in appalling numbers. Your novel’s three main characters, Qatrina, Zameen and Dunya, also end up paying this price. Is this a conscious choice or a coincidence?
A: The characters are quite international and their world-views diverge greatly from each other. In Maps for Lost Lovers I wrote about a family, but with this book I wanted to write about friends. If you remember, Jane Austen said, ‘Friends are the family we choose for ourselves.’ I wanted to see what would happen if people from various nations and belief systems came together and spent two or so weeks together in a house. How long would it be before our common humanity had to give way to our beliefs and bigotries?
While writing The Wasted Vigil I kept thinking of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, which he completed in Florence. In that book the details of Russian life are not as defined as in his other books. He said that in The Idiot, Russia had to be a question. I am not an Afghan, and I wanted Afghanistan to be a question in The Wasted Vigil: Can a superpower go into a country, play its geo-political game — as the US did in the 1980s when it supported the mujahideen — and then leave and expect there not to be consequences?
My books are me. I use my experiences, my thoughts and my memories and emotions. I am interested in politics, in religion, so all of that goes into the books.
I lived in the US earlier this year, teaching at George Washington University, and while walking past the White House or the Capitol Hill Building, I often reflected how certain decisions made in those places during the 1980s, when they travelled to my part of the world, became physical things like electric wires and fists that were used to break people protesting against Zia’s unjust regime. So politics for some of us is not abstract.
It has been said that The Wasted Vigil feels like an angry book — albeit, with the anger infused with a deep thoughtfulness. But I don’t feel it’s accurate to say that. Instead of anger, I think of grief, disappointment, the need to find hope and solace, keeping a quiet log of injustice. These are the emotions I pour into my books. All three of my books are a lament for how certain outside processes — politics, public morality, etc. — interfere with everyday life and with basic human emotions. There is a large domestic side to my sensibility — I am as interested in a woman making a cup of tea in her kitchen as in a politician making a speech or a murderer loading a gun. You must remember that I come from a country — Pakistan — and a part of the world, the Islamic world, where almost everything tends to be political. Right from my first novel, I explored how politics impinges on and disrupts ordinary life — and I have done that in the two subsequent books also.
Q: It seems from your novel that communism was a bad influence, not only in the Soviet Union, but also in Afghanistan; yet if you look at Afghan history, two of the main modernising projects there, i.e. the progressive reforms of King Amanullah and the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, were inspired by or came directly from communists. Your own father was a communist in Zia’s Pakistan. Please comment.
A: My father has read the book and he loves it. He particularly liked the communist teacher reappearing in the last chapter to take over the village school. My father, as a young man, wrote poetry but he got married and had children so he had to abandon his dreams of being a writer and had to go out and earn a living for his family. Growing up, I always felt there was a kind of wound in my father, that he felt his ‘real life’ hadn’t happened. He wrote poetry under the name Wamaq Saleem and a poet by that name appears in all my books. In the universe of my novels, he is Pakistan’s great poet. So I have done for him in my books what he couldn’t do in real life because of me.
Q: Another thing I admire in your novel are the constant references and nods to history: Muslim history, Afghan history, history of the early years of America. Why is it necessary to study and remember history in these fractured times, when memories are so short? Where did you learn to write in such a style?
A: The only concern I had was this: I wanted to tell Afghanistan’s story with The Wasted Vigil. I thought Afghanistan had been forgotten. This will sound like a strange statement because Afghanistan is in the news every single day. But, you see, it is in the news every day because of what it is doing to the rest of the world: so many US soldiers have died, so many Pakistanis have died because of Afghanistan. But what the world did to Afghanistan over the past 30 or so years has been forgotten and is news to most people. So I felt I should remind people of that. If there is brutality in the novel it’s because there is brutality in Afghanistan’s history. People lived through such horror. As Toni Morrison has said, ‘If they can live it, I can write it.’
The Wasted Vigil was in my head at the same time as Maps for Lost Lovers. In the autumn of 1991, when I was in my mid-twenties and had just finished my first novel, I was unable to determine which novel I would write next — my immigrant novel or my Afghanistan novel. I began my immigrant novel which became Maps for Lost Lovers. During the 11 years it took me to write Maps for Lost Lovers, I kept notebooks for The Wasted Vigil. I knew that the American character — the gem-dealer David Town — had to return to Afghanistan to confront the ghosts of the past, but I thought he would do so quietly. Then, September 11 happened and the Americans returned in a much more spectacular manner. They and the rest of the world were suddenly forced to look at the consequences of what they had done in that place 20 years ago. So when I look at my notebooks from a decade-and-a-half ago, and compare them to what I have just finished writing — The Wasted Vigil — I am astonished that 80% of the storyline is unchanged: I had most of the plot in my mind all those years ago.
The Wasted Vigil really began to take shape with the image of the books that are nailed up on the ceiling of the house owned by the Englishman in Afghanistan. That came to me one day — I don’t know how. One day it wasn’t in my mind, the next day it was. I paint and draw, so my original thought was that I would make a painting of it — a room where hundreds of books are nailed to the ceiling like tiles. But then I realised that it belonged to a house in Afghanistan — and with that the novel really took flight. If you examine it carefully, you will see that about a third of the novel spirals out of that image.
Q: How much research goes into your novels?
A: I wonder if I do any research in the strictest sense. The things in my books are what I’m interested in personally to a large extent: Jazz, painting, the natural world (all this could explain why I feel that if you don’t like my books, you won’t like me).
I once saw a green butterfly with white underwings which looked as if it were appearing and disappearing against the foliage of a tree. When I see something like that, I have the need to find a place for it in the book I’m writing, until then I am slightly anxious. What if nobody else has seen it and that moment of wonder disappears forever? I want to know that it is preserved somewhere. (The green and white butterfly is safe between the pages of The Wasted Vigil).
But there are times when your interests have to be deepened for the sake of a book. I went to a hill station in Pakistan that is just one street lined with perfume factories. Behind the factories are rose gardens. A buyer is led into the rose garden and if he likes the smell he can buy the whole crop for the rest of the year, distilled into perfume.
Q: Did you spend any time in Afghanistan for the novel?
A: During the writing of The Wasted Vigil, I talked to Afghan refugees here in England — about 200 people — because I was afraid I might not be granted a visa to visit Afghanistan. (I eventually was). The refugees here spoke so vividly — about a certain Kabul neighbourhood, for example, where you smell lemon blossoms. Others would talk about the quality of light in a particular street. It’s so interesting how our minds, our memories, work.
I entered Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass, just outside Peshawar. I needed to be in Peshawar because parts of the novel are set in the fabled Qissa Khwani Bazaar (The Street of Storytellers). We drove from the Khyber Pass and visited Jalalabad, Kabul and Heart. Everything I saw in these cities more or less ended up in the novel.
Q: What is your writing process?
A: I take a flat in London for six months when a book is published. Writers spend years alone working in a room, with no recognisable product at the end of each working day, and no response of any kind to any of their thoughts. As a result, I frequently feel I am not real. When a book is published and I give readings and attend literary festivals, where people ask questions about the book, my reaction often is ‘I exist! I can be seen and felt!’
But after six months, I go away to the north of England to write. There is a secluded cottage in the Yorkshire hills I always dream of when I am in a city. London and other cities are too distracting for me to concentrate on my writing.
I am weary of talking about this because that makes me appear as one of those writers who are not engaged with the world. In fact, I am a deeply political creature, fully conscious of my responsibilities towards my fellow human being.
I know that I don’t end where my skin ends — that I am connected by invisible threads to other people. But there does come a time in the writing of a book when I need to hear the music of the story better so I have to remove the background noise. Then I isolate myself. The Wasted Vigil took four years to write and during the last six months of that, I did not see a single human being. I slept during the day and wrote at night. My brother and sister-in-law would quietly come to my cottage a few times a month to fill my fridge with food. (The book is dedicated to them, by the way). I switched on my mobile phone one night and there was a text message saying ‘Happy New Year’ — I realised that about a fortnight ago while I was writing, the noise of fireworks had bothered me — that must have been the new year.
Q: Do you rewrite your work a lot?
A: I do as many rewrites as I think are needed. If I am unhappy with a sentence, I write it on a piece of paper and pin it to the wall of my study and think about it over the course of the next few weeks, or months or even years. At one point in the writing of The Wasted Vigil, all four walls were covered up — nothing else could be seen. I have to feel, when I get to the end of a book, that ‘Yes, this is the novel I set out to write.’ Samuel Beckett said that every new novel was an attempt to ‘fail better.’ But I am more or less happy at the end of each book — I wouldn’t let them go otherwise. There are some things which you know don’t work — and I think these are what Beckett was referring to — but they are so deep in the very foundations of the book, so deep within the very foundations of the writer’s own character and worldview, that in order to fix them you would have to tear up the whole book and start again, you would have to become a new and slightly different person. And that is what in a sense the writer does — he sits down to write his next book, in which he hopes the faults of the previous book won’t be repeated.
Q: Your endings seem to be very upbeat …
A: All three of my books end on a positive note. They are happy endings of a sort. But I can’t pretend the world isn’t a terrible place at times. But hope is very, very important. In the last sentence of The Wasted Vigil, Marcus emerges from the museum and once again resumes his search for his missing grandson, and I know that the readers will go onward with him. An artist cannot leave an innocent man companionless, we have to go with him. Lara, when she goes back to Russia, takes with her a fragment of mosaic where the bodies of two lovers make contact — that connection which you and I make, which everyone in the world tries to make every day.
The writer is a social scientist, translator, book critic and a prize-winning dramatic reader based in Lahore.