FACE TO FACE
ZIYA US SALAM
Pakistani author Uzma Aslam Khan on her writing, creativity and the emergence of Pakistani writers on the global stage.
Multi-layered responses: Uzma Aslam Khan’s writing is a reaction to her environment.
She defies all preconceived notions of author: no unkempt looks, no long pauses. And an easy affability that is almost beguiling. Unusual for an author, Uzma Aslam Khan maintains her blog with consistency and candour. She even has warm pictures of herself crossing a bridge that is at best precarious! She is almost too intrepid for a writer! Then she writes at a pace that allows her to soak in things all around: some of which in turn find their way into her writing!
Born in Lahore and grew up in Karachi, earlier this year she penned The Geometry of God. Her earlier novel, Trespassing, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize Eurasia Region and translated into 13 languages. A regular contributor to journals across the world, she fields questions regarding her writing, the emergence of Pakistani writers, and her response to emerging challenges.
Your writing has a rare mix of sensuality and contemporary socio-political. How do you arrive at this matrix?
It’s not a science; I never know where I’m going with a story till I sink in it, and yes, the process of sinking is a very sensual one.
Do you see yourself as a socio-political realist who talks of specific human relationships against the wider contemporary global canvas?
I see myself as a novelist. My work is a response to my environment, and that response is multilayered. I grew up under General Zia-ul Haq. That was my transition from childhood to adulthood. I studied at an English medium convent and, during Independence Day ‘festivities’, I remember marching between an icon of Jesus and Mary, which I associated with our colonial past; and the Islamic flag, which I associated with our military present. And I’d wonder if anybody understood how any of it happened. I’m still wondering how it happened. I doubt I’ve ever been able to stop marching between the two icons of imperialism and militarism.
What I understand now is that the hunger to know my place in these chaotic layers helped make me a writer. It’s the hunger to make up for what was never said. Does this make me a realist? I hope not, because that sounds so dull. Human relationships? Absolutely. They confound me every day so I keep writing about them.
Pakistani writers are arriving on the global stage, winning new acclaim. How do you look at the phenomenon?
It’s a relief. It’s a worry. A relief because Pakistan has a lot of creative talent, for which it has seldom won much international recognition. My concern is two-fold. First, those currently enjoying acclaim are mostly from the Diaspora. My second concern is that the three Pakistani or Pakistani-British writers of my generation to receive the most acclaim in recent years are all men: Mohsin Hamid, Nadeem Aslam, and Mohammad Hanif.
For male writers of Muslim origin, the parameters aren’t as rigid as women. Yes, some are weaving stories around bearded mullahs, but hardly all. In contrast, the list of known Muslim women writers who aren’t writing about browbeaten housewives and burqa-clad girls is tiny. The West wants only that image, little else. Only two women writers of Muslim origin have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and both live in the U.K.! Coincidence or pattern? I hope it’s a coincidence. But you know, forgive me if I’m making an obvious oversight, but how many internationally known Indian women writers are Muslim?
Interestingly, even as we notice the better recognition for Pakistani writers internationally, most of them are based in the West. And they don’t often talk of the country of their residence. Do you see it as deliberate or just a writer’s great familiarity?
Living along the colonial meridian of the North Atlantic has become part of the ‘job description’. The logic goes something like this: “If you live, say, in Pakistan, and develop your work independently of our approval and taste, you can’t possibly be any good!” In the post 9/11 world, the colonial legacy has only gotten stronger. I know of many South Asian writers who’ve come under tremendous pressure to edit their work in a manner that, I believe, squeezes the narrative into a familiar western mould. Currently what we’re seeing is, at best, what Gandhi wanted in the 1920s: Dominion Status. We are nowhere near what Subhas Chandra Bose wanted: Complete Independence. I wonder how many writers of South Asian origin even desire Complete Independence.
One constant in your work has been your ability to talk of human intimacy without losing sight of the larger plot. However, does not the frankness in depiction of sexuality detract from the larger merit of your work?
Oh, I hope not. Since when is sexual frankness a detraction? All three books have frank sex scenes, told from the points of view of both men and women. Some people have gotten offended and even belligerent. Others have enjoyed those scenes.
You had once described yourself as a caterpillar writer, linking threads. Can you elaborate?
I think I’ll switch to a metaphor better suited to my newest book, The Geometry of God and speak not of threads but of angles. The book has many parts that work (or should work) together as a whole, its three main characters each have a distinct voice and point of view. Many writers, when they sit down to write, ask: what happens and whose story is it? Since none of my books has ever had a central character, for me the questions that drive the narrative are: who’s looking at what happens, who isn’t, and what are the differences in their ways of seeing? What fascinates me is how individual perspective shapes collective perspective, how the same events seen from different eyes are interpreted differently, sometimes even, over time, by the same pair of eyes, because memory has a way of reshaping events. It’s in this reshaping that the structure or geometry of my current novel emerged. Writing for me is almost a three-dimensional, physical act. I have to be able to see the structure I’m building the way I would expect to see a sculpture or a building: from many different angles. That is the only way I can hope to bring all the facets together.
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