Nadeem Aslam Interviewed by Julian Gough

Julian Gough interviewed Nadeem Aslam at St. John’s on Saturday 1 june.

NadeemJulian: The worlds of Pakistan and Afghanistan now, reminded me of the Ireland my mum grew up in. An extremely religious society where women have an extremely restricted role, where men run everything and are making a bit of a bags of it. I get the feeling that a lot of the Islamic world is going through the same kind of stuff we went through seventy years ago but it was delayed by the whole post colonial lockdown, and that essentially what is happening there now is what we did to each other back in the twenties and thirties.

Nadeem. I think it was Gore Vidal who said the most interesting literature in the second half of the twentieth century came from societies which were enclosed, and which were having an encounter with modernity, meaning the American South and Ireland. So there is a friction that happens.

The impulse behind the Blind Man’s Garden was the extraordinary decade beginning with 9/11 and ending with the Arab Spring. Mohamed Atta’s suicide at one end and Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide at the other. Mohamed Bouazizi was the Tunisian fruit seller who set himself on fire in December 2010 and died the following month. That contributed towards starting off the Arab Spring, and between these two moments we had the call to jihad, the War on Terror, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, the finding and killing of Osama Bin Laden, the murder of Benazir Bhutto. This clash between an incomplete understanding of the East and an incomplete understanding of the West.

Not long ago I was on Google and I typed Pakistan is… and the four auto fills I was given were… evil, stupid, dangerous, a dangerous country. I then typed American is… and the choices I was given were… evil, not the world, and not a country but a business. So I wanted to find a story with The Blind Man’s Garden that would hold as many of these elements as it could without losing shape as a novel. Because first and foremost it is fiction, and so it has to have things that fiction is supposed to have – great characters, aesthetic pleasure, ideas and what have you. I always say that a novelist doesn’t tell you what to think, a novelist tells you what to think about. And so, I took all these elements and I placed them next to each other and the reader. By the end of the book you have been given any number of thoughts, and you can come up with ideas of your own.

Nadeem then proceeded to read the first very short chapter of The Blind Man’s Garden, (a précis of which is below).

But a man’s life blood

Is dark and mortal

Once it wets the earth

What song can bring it back?

Aeschylus

History is the third parent. The exquisitely poetic prose tells us of Rohan, who makes his way through a garden not long after nightfall, when a memory comes to him from his son’s childhood. Ahead of him candles are burning in various places […] Wounds are said to emit light under certain conditions – touch them and the brightness will stay on the hands – and as the candles burn Rohan thinks of each flame as an injury somewhere in his house. […] In his memory, Rohan’s young son is troubled, and trying to reassure him, Rohan says, But have you ever heard a story in which the evil person triumphs at the end? The boy thought for a while before replying. No, he said, but before they lose, they harm the good people. That is what I am afraid of.

Nadeem: This fragment of the novel was originally buried quite deep in the novel. The book took four and a half years to write, and with each new draft this passage would move to the front of the novel. About a couple of months before I finalised the manuscript, I realised that this is what the book is about. I mean the first sentence is History is the third parent. The first word is history. And yet, by the time we move to the bottom of the page, we are no longer in the historical or the political realm, we’re in the personal realm.

This whole fragment came out of a conversation I had with a friend of mine. We were talking about the troubles in the world, and my friend said that things like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban and the War on Terror can be found elsewhere in history and they will eventually go away. In five, ten, fifteen, twenty years time they will go away. Al-Qaeda will disappear. And I thought, ok, but what if, while they are in still power, they kill my brother. So in twenty years time there is no Al-Qaeda, but I still have this absence next to me. How do I deal with that, so as I said, we are no longer in the historical realm, we are in the philosophical, moral, ethical realm. What is a human being? What is grief? How do I get over things? Sometimes it seems to me that I’ve never got over a single thing in my entire life.

One of the astonishments for me when 9/11 happened was that half the world reacted as if this was a non-political moment, as though it came out of nowhere. Why do they hate us they said? Of course it was political. I wouldn’t be in Britain if it wasn’t for what happened in 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and it was decided that the CIA – with the collusion of Saudi Arabia and the Pakistani regime at the time – would pour billions of dollars worth of weapons and money into Afghanistan because they wanted to give the Soviets their Vietnam, as it were. So it all went through Pakistan into Afghanistan.

The Koran was translated into Uzbekistani languages in Berlin and smuggled into Afghanistan, then taken into Uzbekistan, where the CIA said to the warlords, here is your Holy Book, which calls for a thing called jihad. Come and fight the infidels. And there were people back then in Afghanistan and Pakistan, among them people like my family, who said don’t do this. What is going to happen to these shiny weapons, these beautiful weapons of yours, once the Soviets leave?’ What is going to happen to the mindset that has been created? And of course, things are made difficult for people like my family. My father was a political exile and so we left on the third of June 1982, and came to Britain.

When the manuscript of the Blind Man’s Garden was finished, about a year and a quarter ago, it was sent to my regular publishers around the world, in places like Britain, America, Germany, France, Spain and Brazil. It was also sent to publishers in India and Pakistan. The response invariably in the West was, ‘this is a dark book, a bleak book, a brutal book, a fearsome book.’ The response invariably from people in India and Pakistan was, ‘this is a lovely book, a beautiful book, a gorgeous book, a heavenly book.’ Now this is not to say that in India and Pakistan we are not aware of the darkness. It is just that we refuse to be defined by our darkness. The darkness was mentioned by the Eastern publishers, but as a third of fourth thing. The beauty was mentioned by the Western publishers, but as a third or fourth thing. On a day-to-day level, if shootings and car bombs are happening, you wouldn’t be able to get out of bed if you didn’t, for five minutes, think how beautiful the trumpet vine flower is or how beautiful your child’s smile is.

Somebody once said about Picasso that in the Soviet Union they hated his art but they loved his politics, and in the States, they loved his art but they hated his politics. When my previous novel, The Wasted Vigil was published, I ended up giving readings in New York, London, New Delhi, within a period of twenty days.

In New York, someone stood up, after I read a sequence and said “You are a pro-jihadi. It’s clear from what you’re saying that you support jihadi violence. You should be ashamed of yourself.” I went to Lahore and I gave a reading from the same passage and someone stood up and said, “You are an American agent. You work for the CIA. You should be ashamed of yourself.” I went to New Delhi, and after reading the same passage, someone stood up and said, “You are a conservative reactionary. You think of capitalism and conservatism as the pinnacle of human achievement. You see no other alternative. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

I always say that I could live anywhere if I loved someone. To me nationalities don’t mean anything. The idea that this is Ireland and this is America, Australia or London. I really don’t care. On the second page of The Blind Man’s Garden you will find the sentence, the logic is that there are no innocent people in a guilty nation. That to me is the most abhorrent thing that there is. The impulse behind most of my books is that idea.

In The Wasted Vigil, the main character is a seventy year old Englishman. The book took four years to write. At no point really did I think of him as an Englishman. I just thought of him as a seventy year old man who had a love life, who had a sex life, who had a daughter and a business to run. Does that make sense? He happened to be born in Canterbury, instead of Colorado or Cork, which is not to say that there is no such a thing as an Irish man, that there is no such a thing as a Pakistani person.

At the age of fourteen when I went to Britain my English was very basic. I don’t come from an affluent background. If you’re rich in Pakistan or belong to the upper middle class or the elite, you go to a school where they teach you in English, meaning that the kids can then go off to foreign universities and come back and run the country. That is how it works. But I went to a non fee-paying school, where the medium of teaching was Urdu. So when we had to come to Britain my English was very basic – this is a cat, that is a dog. And I was traumatised by the fact of racism, because up until then, if someone didn’t like me, it was after an interaction with me. They based it on my character and my ideas and my thoughts. But racism meant that someone could look at me and decide they didn’t like me, or even look at my name and decide this is not someone they would like.

We came to Britain in June 1982 and by the end of the summer I was over racism, because some of the greatest thinkers, writers, poets and singers had come from my part of the world. So when they said I was inferior, I said, actually you don’t know what you’re talking about, which I think would have been different had I been born in Britain, in that I wouldn’t have had that knowledge. That is why multiculturalism is important. Kids need to be taught that their heritage, the part of the world they or their parents come from – that too is part of the story that the world is telling itself.

It’s good to move away from the place where you are from for a while, because staying in one place makes you selfish, because you’re not exposed. If you come to a new place there isn’t anyone you can call on, so you actually have to appeal to the humanity in the other person, rather than being complacent and thinking everything will come to you.

The wonderful thing for me about Christianity when I was learning about different religions was that before Christianity, the idea that I had to be good to you, that I had to look after you even though I didn’t know you, was based on the idea that you were a human being. But Christ brought the idea that I have to look after you because you are my brother, not simply because you are a human being, but because you are my brother. That idea wasn’t there before. The idea that you are my brother was brought into the world by Christ, and I think that is a revolutionary idea. It’s a very subtle shift and yet it makes all the difference, what the great thinkers bring into the world.

Religion for me was about consequence. I always say that if you do something good, something good will happen to you. If you do something bad, something bad something bad will happen to you. I’m talking about heaven and hell. We can talk about any amount of side effects of that kind of thinking. But that is a different conversation. I got this idea from my mother, who is a deeply religious person and I’m grateful for that. But that lesson can enter a child’s life by secular means, through stories, myths etc. But given my background and circumstances it came to me through that.

I was visiting my parents in Yorkshire where they live, and I was in the kitchen with my mother and my father. The phone rang and my mother’s brother rang from Pakistan to say to my mother that her sister has just died. My mother’s back was to me and my father. She let out a cry of distress and she began weeping. She continued weeping, ten, twenty seconds went by, then thirty seconds, and I moved toward her, and my only thought was that I have to hold her if she falls. I didn’t know what to do about her grief. I didn’t know what to do about her distress. She was weeping into the phone and a minute had gone by. I was thinking, do I take the phone away from her? Do I have the right to do that? Is she waiting for me to take the phone from her? The only thought was, just be alert, because if she falls you have to catch her.

I saw from the corner of my eye my father move towards my mother. Her back was towards us. My father put his hand on her shoulder and said “We have to help him. Not add to his burden.” And that’s all it took. Within the next few seconds my mother had absorbed all her grief into herself and started speaking to him rationally. So the idea is that he was the one who needed help. That you prioritise, the idea that I will save you and someone will save me. This is how it works. Where did my father learn this? From religion? From myths? I don’t care. These lessons are there in your life. Just look around you. How will things get better. That is how things will get better.

When I came to England the subjects I did well at were the sciences, because you didn’t need good English for the sciences. You just have to assimilate facts and reproduce them. But the subjects I was interested in, the subjects I would have studied had we stayed in Pakistan, such as literature, history, politics, sociology, anthropology; for them you needed to write essays and form arguments and I couldn’t even form a sentence, never mind an essay. So I went to university to read science and in my third year, by which time I’d been in Britain for seven years, I realised my Englsih was good enough to do what I really wanted to do, which was to be a writer.

So I dropped out. I didn’t finish my biochemistry degree and I began writing my first novel, which took eleven months to write, and I didn’t have any idea of how to have a book published. But the writers I loved were John Updike, Gore Vidal, V S Naipaul, Cormac McCarthy and they were published by a firm in London called Andre Deutsch. So I picked up a copy of Naipaul’s novel,  A Bend in the River, looked at the copyright page and got the address. I sent them the manuscript and ten days later I got a phone call inviting me to have lunch. And I said I can’t, and they said why not? I said I have no money, and the said we’ll give you money and we’ll have lunch. So I borrowed £20 and I got on a coach.

After the book was accepted I thought because I couldn’t do my O Levels, A levels, BA, MA and PhD in the subjects I was interested in, I’m going to educate myself. So over the course of the next ten or eleven years I read everything. I would go to person A and say. Tell me, who’s a great writer? William Faulkner. So I read everything by William Faulkner. I would begin with the first novel and end up with the last novel. I would go to person B and say. Who’s a great writer? Thomas Hardy. I read everything by Thomas Hardy, sequentially. Who’s a great writer? DH Lawrence, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Dostoevsky.

And then I wanted to know, how much thought is allowed in one paragraph? How many images are allowed per page? What is a comma? And so I copied out the whole of Moby Dick by hand. I copied out the whole of As I lay Dying by William Faulkner by hand. I copied out Lolita. I copied out Beloved. I copied out The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, Gabriel Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch. Over those years I was writing my second novel as well. People say your second novel took you eleven years to write, but I wrote it over the course of years, while I was educating myself and developing as a writer. So people now say you are speeding up, because The Blind Man’s Garden took four years to write. It was just that during those years I was also learning a different language.

During those ten years I had no money, but it really didn’t matter, because an artist is never poor. I’m deeply grateful to my parents for instilling in me a contempt for money. It’s hard to explain. Just live a passionate life. The advance for the first book was £1,000 but it really didn’t matter because someone was waiting for me… to receive what I would do with my second and third and fourth novels.

I don’t have children and I never will have children, because my father, when he was young, wanted to be a writer and he published poems, but by the time he was twenty-two certain mechanisms within the society from which he was coming from had been activated. He had to contribute to the household expenses. He was the second to eldest child. So unlike me, who said, now I’m in my mid-twenties and I’m going to read everything by Faulkner, he couldn’t. He had younger siblings, his mother was widowed. And of course he got married and the kids arrived. So all my life I thought there was a kind of wound in my father, in that his real life didn’t happen, and so he writes poetry under the pseudonym Warnaq Salim. In all my novels, there is a poet called Warnaq Salim. So he’s the great Pakistani poet. I’ve done it for him in the universe of my novels, what he couldn’t do in real life.

I have eleven more novels to write, and I’ve just finished my next one, which is a small novel. After that I’m beginning a trilogy, which is about my father, so once you read the trilogy you will suddenly understand this poet that I keep mentioning in all my books.

Nadeem then took some questions from the audience.

Q. When you and friends and family get together over a cup of coffee and you remember the old country. What cheerful or amusing memory do you have of those early years?

Nadeem: Becoming a writer. I wrote my first story when and was twelve and it was published in a Pakistani newspaper in the children’s supplement. I would go to stay with my sixteen year old cousin during the summer holidays, and she had a scrapbook in which she had collected all the stories of her favourite writer. I so longed to read those stories but she would never let me. A neighbourhood boy fell in love with my cousin and in a moment of madness he went around the neighbourhood writing her name on every single surface. I came home and told my cousin that her name was everywhere. Oh no she said, you have to go and erase all of it because what will happen when my parents find out? They might think I encouraged him.

She used to wear a burqa and she thought that when she had got near home she must have taken the veil off and the boy must have seen her face and fallen in love with her. He used to follow her rickshaw to school and to wait for her afterwards. She pleaded with me to go and erase her name from the tree trunks and the verandas and the walls. I said I will do it if you let me read the stories (laughter). And she said ok, go ahead.

So I remember spending an afternoon going around with a tin of paint, painting over her name, and when I came back and she gave me the book. Over the following days she would ask, what do you think of the stories and I told her I loved them, and that they made me wish I could write. She said why don’t you write? I said I’m only twelve and she said well Neil Kumar was only twelve when she wrote her first story. I said how do you know and she said I am Neil Kummar. (laughter). Because her parents would have been upset that she drew attention to herself by having her name printed in the newspaper she wrote under a pseudonym. So I had my first story published the following autumn.

Q. I am ashamed to say that I’ve never really thought much about Irish emigrants who went abroad to various countries or how they felt. They were just gone and that was that. But I’m presently reading Maps for Lost Lovers and I would say thank you for opening me to what life was like for emigrants. Thank you for opening up that in me. I apologise to anyone who is lonely and miserable and lost and homesick for my crassness in not ever giving them a thought.

Nadeem: Thanks. That’s a beautiful comment. I had a girlfriend in the past whose parents had moved to Florida when she was a child, and who then came back to live in Britain. When I met her mother for the first time I asked her why they came back to England and she just sighed and told me it was too complicated to explain. After a while she told me she was homesick, and that I wouldn’t understand. She had no idea because she thought I was British and she was a white person. She told me it would be hard for me to understand, but obviously she didn’t know the full facts about me.

I was startled when I was in India earlier this year and a journalist asked me why I wanted to go back to Pakistan when I had my parents and siblings with me in Britain. I still have no answer. I didn’t miss it in the way I would have missed the land had my parents or siblings been there. So yes, it’s a strange thing. What is it that you miss about the place in which you come from?