Tuesday, November 02, 2010
Nadeem Aslam Interview
The best piece that Nadeem has ever written, says editor John Freeman of Leila and the Wilderness, which is also one of the longest pieces ever commissioned by Granta.
“I was on a panel in Edinburgh with him almost two years ago. It was all about the short story. I asked him, do you ever write stories? And he said no, but I have a story I think I want to write. I’ll send it to you. He did, only 9 months later, which is much longer than most people wait when they say something like that. It has such thematic depth and story-telling muscle – so much of what this issue ended up being about: love, family, the pull of extremism, tradition and honour, the feeling that Pakistan is becoming someone else’s place…all that’s in this story. So it was really a no-brainer putting it first.”
Past its minarets from where Allah was pleaded with to send the monsoon rains…..its snow blind mountains and sunburned deserts… past the boy sending a text message to the girl he loved…past the crossroads decorated with fibreglass replicas of the mountain under which Pakistan’s nuclear bombs are tested...past the six year olds selling Made in China prayer mats at traffic lights… in this immense homeland of heartbreaking beauty…
Nadeem Aslam, who was born in Gujranwala and lives in England, had Leila in the Wilderness in his mind for 15 years. In the two months that he took to write it, writing for 12 or 13 hours a day, not leaving his house, not seeing any one, not celebrating Christmas till the novella was done and sent to Granta, which accepted it immediately without any editorial cuts. What it does is that it distils the purest form of truth in prose, sprinkled with a surreal magic and an inhuman brutality, the politics of this moment - Guantanamo Bay and Jihad and love, all at once, in a sweeping fable. Leila is a young woman separated from her lover Qes and married into a family that kills all her just-born daughters and despises her for an inability to produce a son.
“I was introduced to a man – an educated man – who asked me whether I was married and had children. When I told him that I had no children and that I thought of my books as my children, he said, in utter seriousness, ‘Yes. Your successful novels will be your sons, and your unsuccessful ones your daughters.’ That was when I began to think seriously about writing the novella.”
“But I do love thinking about religion and how it attempts to put something other than money and sex at the centre of human discourse – it puts love there. As Borges said: I give thanks…for love, which lets us see others as God sees them.”
“It has always been the case. I remember being a student and buying Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles for 50 pence in a second-hand bookshop after reading the first paragraph. No one told me it was a great book, that he was a great writer. I knew it instinctively. When the real thing comes along you don’t need anyone to tell you: something inside you tells you. That is how I wish the readers to come to my work.” (Nadeem has never had a reader in mind while writing.)
“That sentence (the one-and-a-half page one) is the only occasion in the story when I let my subconscious speak. It was like a word-association game – I asked myself: What do you think of when you think of Pakistan? Give me the answer as fast as you can. I took less than ten minutes to write, one thought led to another – and it all feels like a train journey, sometimes the rhythm is uniform, sometimes broken, sometimes a wide and deep vista is seen out of the window, sometimes the back of a building looms up just two yards away. And all the while the wheels on the track keep up a steady beat – ‘past the…past the…past the…past the…’”
“Reality (referring to the many worlds in this book) is like that – it is made up of many layers, and our mind is quite capable of perceiving them simultaneously. We try to keep this aspect of existence out of art, out of stories, because we wish to see order in art, not chaos; we wish to sense rhythm and pattern, as opposed to confusion.”
“Pakistan is a country with immense problems and huge moral dilemmas - so it calls for minds that have to be sharp. It's not up to writers to do PR for Pakistan or Islam, or America, or India.”
The italics in the first paragraph are deeply unintentional but the calm, serene ,slow moving nature of my internet makes sure I make no ammends.