JAIPUR (Reuters) - Born in Pakistan and raised in Britain, Nadeem Aslam’s writing, drawn from a life lived with one foot in the war on terror in his birthplace and neighbouring Afghanistan, has made him one of South Asia’s most celebrated writers.
In his new novel, “The Blind Man’s Garden,” Aslam again returns to those countries in the months after the September 11 attacks, to portray the terror that gripped a region that was blind to the forces behind the turmoil.
He spoke to Reuters on the sidelines of the recent Jaipur Literature Festival about the impact of his upbringing, the backdrop of the war on terror on his work, and his plans to write about female infanticide in his next novel.
Q: “The Blind Man’s Garden” is set in Afghanistan and Pakistan. How has the war on terror affected your writing?
A: A number of writers have said that on that day (September 11, 2001), they looked at the book they were working on and said “This is worthless because the real thing is out there.”
Yet, when I looked at the TV screens when 9/11 happened, I said that’s my book, the one I wrote and the one I’m writing now. The issues that came to surface that day were there in my life, in the first page of my first novel.
Novels that come out of a land that’s in turmoil, where the various hierarchies are quite rigid, and people are struggling within that system, are just more interesting. Britain has Mr Cameron’s financial crisis, but it really isn’t Afghanistan. In my writing, that background of explosions and turmoil is lowered, and we are left with human figures whose hearts are in conflict. These happen to be the times, the background.
Q: And how does fiction work with that background?
A: What fiction does is create a human being from the ground up. It tells you what shoes he likes to wear. What he felt on his first day of school. When you take that person away and you torture him, the reader feels something.
In non-fiction, when you say, “During the 1980s, in the Zia regime, X number of people were tortured in Pakistan”, it is not the job of the non-fiction writer to tell you what it feels to be tortured. This is what fiction does.
Q: Your national identity must influence your writing. How do you define it?
A: There are some machines, some gadgets, on which it says Made in China, Assembled in Germany. I was made in the east and assembled in the west. Any numbers of my firsts happened here, with childhood. But any number of my important firsts happened in the UK. My first love. So I can’t really decide. In my study is a map I have made myself. I cut out Pakistan’s shape from the globe and England’s shape and put them together. The Grand Trunk Road passes from Peshawar, goes through the Khyber pass, becomes the Khyber bridge, and emerges in Newcastle. That is my country.
Q: Do you write for a Pakistani or a British audience?
A: My main audience are always my characters. They are the ones who will judge me and view me, as it were. Beyond that there is no-one else.
Writing that matters is always writing on a mirror. When you are writing it, your own face is staring out through the writing. But once you finish and hand it to the reader, it’s not your face, it’s the reader’s face looking out, as opposed to writing on a photograph.
Q: The “war on terror” appears to be coming to a close. What issues will your next book deal with?
A: Great writing comes from human conflict. I always begin with a subject matter. I want to write about female infanticide. I went to Pakistan recently... someone asked me if I have children. I said, “No and I don’t think I ever will”. I said, “I think of my books as my children.” This educated man said, “Yes. Your books that sell well will be your sons, and your books that flop will be your daughters.” If the war on terror is sorted out tomorrow, there are a huge number of challenges that remain, that we need to talk about. We need to talk about female infanticide.