May Issue 2015
Interview: Soniah Kamal
US-based novelist Soniah Kamal has enjoyed story-telling since childhood. Many short stories and laborious drafts later, Kamal launched her debut novel, An Isolated Incident, in Karachi last January. In this interview with Newsline, she speaks about the genesis of her first novel which is set against the backdrop of the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan.
Tell us about your debut novel, An Isolated Incident.
It is an exploration of identity in a conflict-ridden part of the world, in particular Kashmir, as well as the role of memory and silence. It’s also about idealism and what it means, or does not mean, to be a hero in our very troubled times.
How did this novel come about?
I promised my late grandfather that I would write about Kashmir. Had it not been for my promise to him, I might have put this novel aside long ago because it was quite challenging to write about an ongoing political conflict in a nuanced fashion. I really wanted to explore the role of silence in memory and history, both personal and collective.
The maternal side of my family is from Srinagar, and one summer relatives visiting Lahore related how difficult life in Kashmir was (at the time) and that a late night knock could very well mean death or even worse. I could not get the ‘even worse’ out of my mind, and the story and Zari’s character were born in tandem. Billy was born when a schoolmate’s brother ran off to become a ‘freedom fighter.’ This was a boy from an affluent family; he’d studied at elite schools, was a stellar student, and was supposed to make his mark on the world — only, not in the way he did. I saw how his act changed his family. Then it was just a matter of getting Billy and Zari together.
Woody Allen once said, “Before I could read, I’d always wanted to write.” Did you, too?
Actually, I always wanted to be an actress but was not given permission, and so stuck to story-telling. My first short stories were loosely based on Enid Blyton’s various boarding schools and mystery novels, and L.M. Montgomery’s, Anne of the Green Gables series, but by the time I was 16, I was writing original fare.
Who are your literary influences?
Thomas Hardy, Toni Morrison, Jessie Fauset, John Steinbeck, Rohinton Mistry, Vikram Seth and Ghulam Abbas’ short story Anandi. Novels had given me so much pleasure as well as emotional sustenance that I wanted to add something of value to the shelves myself. But the impetus for writing An Isolated Incident was, I believe, Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Poisonwood Bible, about a missionary family in the Belgian Congo. Kingsolver says in her author’s note that she isn’t sure if she is ready to tell the story she wants to, but that she wouldn’t know until she took the plunge, and this gave me courage to do so too.
And how did you discover your own voice? Did it happen gradually?
I think finding one’s voice is an eternal pursuit because there is no one-style-fits-all — each short story calls for a different voice and often discovering the correct voice is the most difficult part. For example my essay ‘Girls from Good Families,’ about how I overcame self-censorship in writing about sex, took a while to pen because I wasn’t sure about the tone or even the approach.
Julian Barnes says that, “Literature is the best way of telling the truth; it’s a process of producing grand, beautiful, well-ordered lies that tell more truth than any assemblage of facts.” Your comments?
I realised many years ago that fiction will always be my first love because of the absolute freedom it offers to tell a complete truth even though, ironically enough, fiction is fabrication. Fiction allows the freedom of weaving together myriad and sometimes contradictory facts, and good fiction that explores the politics of conflict is full of nuance in so far that every side is explored, even sides we don’t necessarily want to see.
When you’re writing, do you think about your audience?
Toni Morrison once said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I think that’s how I approach a potential audience in so far that I am my own audience. I don’t have any readers in mind. I just trust that someone somewhere will hopefully find the story I’m telling of some value and/or entertaining. Hopefully both.
How do you write your first draft?
I try to get the first draft done in one go in order to keep the narrative mood consistent. However, this can be really hard with a novel and so I try to get one chapter done at a time. I write only when I feel like it; however, so much of writing a novel is thinking about it so when I’m not actually writing I am, nevertheless, writing in my head.
An Isolated Incident took around 10 years and many rewrites until I was finally happy with it. However, recently for a class, I wrote 80,000 words in 10 days which is a complete first draft of a tentative novel. I hope I never have to do such a marathon again, especially since I’m going to have to scrap most of the draft. But yes, I don’t have any strict routine. I probably procrastinate to a fault. And I tend to indulge in too much junk food and coffee when I’m writing, which is not good.
You are also a mother of three. How do you juggle writing with motherhood?
Writing is a full-time job for me because besides writing novels and short stories I also freelance and write book reviews, interview authors and write essays and memoir pieces. Juggling writing with being a parent is very tough, especially in the US where I live, since help is not available 24 hours a day the way it is in Pakistan. I’ve basically learned to write with the TV blaring, the children talking to me all at once, the dog barking at the cat and the cat trying to climb into my lap. There is no such thing as quiet time or locking myself in the study. I remember I was writing a rather intense scene for An Isolated Incident in which a camp in Afghanistan is bombed by drones, when my children suddenly wanted sandwiches. I got up, made their sandwiches, and then returned to the scene.
Considering that you have already established yourself as a writer, why are you pursuing a degree in writing?
I had never taken a formal writing class and my GRE was expiring, so I applied to an MFA programme on a whim. I did not expect to get in let alone be given a scholarship and full funding, but it was too good an offer to refuse. That said, I believe there is always something to learn about the architecture of story-telling no matter how established one might be considered to be. The blank page has a way of making me feel like a newbie each and every time.
Once a piece is done I always wonder how I managed to write it and where exactly it came from. It’s all ultimately a mystery of many layers.
What is the most difficult aspect of writing?
Rejection, as well as accepting how much of a role luck plays in a career. Lots of talented writers write really good books but unfortunately not every book gets the attention it deserves. Having to market oneself can be quite hard and demoralising too.
So what next?
A short story collection exploring the harmony and disharmony that can arise between different cultural expectations.
This interview was originally published in Newsline’s May 2015 issue.
The writer is a writer. Her first novel â€œNobody killed herâ€ published in 2015. She tweets @sabynjaveri