About The Author
Nadeem Aslam was born in Pakistan, the son of a political fim maker. His family moved to Huddersfield not long after his uncle, a journalist, was imprisoned by the regime of General Zia.
Having left university to become a writer, he pubished his first novel, Season of the Rainbirds, in 1993. Set in a village in Pakistan, the story centres on a sack of letters, lost in train crash nearly two decades before, that suddenly rematerialises, bringing intrigue with their contents. It was the first piece of creative writing he'd done in English and won a Betty Trask award and the Author's Club First Novel Award.
It took him six years to write the first chapter of his next novel, Maps for Lost Lovers, which was published in 2004. In an unnamed community in the north of England, where many Muslims grapple with their identity so far from where their families originated, two lovers have gone missing; many suspect an honour killing. The book won the Encore Award for second novels and Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize.
His thirs novel, The Wasted Vigil, was set amid the current conflict in Afghanistan. It brings together a Russian woman searching for her brother last seen when the Russians invaded, an Englishman whose sister is also missing, a young man being trained by Al-Qaeda and his teacher, and two Americans whose presence is a little harder to explain. The novel was longlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize.
His latest novel is The Blind Man's Garden, set in the months following the attacks of 11th September 2011. Two foster brothers travel from Pakistan to Afghanistan to offer their medical and engineering skills to the Taliban forces, believing that they will be able to avoid being drawn into the heart of the conflict. The family they leave behind, already scarred by mistakes in the past, now lives in a region controlled by Islamic fundamentalists, who tolerate no dissent.
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Nadeem explains why he needed to tape his eyes shut to write about blindness, why every sentence is a political statement and what he'd like to say to Barack Obama.
Questions & Answers
You often write in extreme isolation, eschewing all contact for weeks or and even blacking out your windows. What advantages does this bring to the writing process for you?
It is a habit I developed when I was younger and had no money. In order to make the best use of the time I had I wished to eradicate distractions, as much as possible. I was quite a dreamy adolescent and I think part of it still survives - I can stare out of the window for a long time, get lost in the movements of an insect. So I would black out the windows and stay in and write. Once I was writing an episode set in summer in Maps for Lost Lovers - I went out into the garden for the first time in about a week and couldn't understand why it was snowing, how it could be cold.
By mentioning the lack of money - as I do above - I don't wish to frighten any potential novelist. An artist is never poor. True, I had no money, but at the very core of my being I never doubted that I could write, that I had a story to tell.
Foster brothers Jeo and Mikal are clear that they are offering their engineering and medical skills in Afghanistan, not joining the Taliban in combat. What accounts for this subtle distinction in their way of thinking?
On the second page of The Blind Man's Garden you would read the sentence, 'The logic is that there are no innocent people in a guilty nation.' Jeo and Mikal are equally opposed to the Taliban and the USA's attack on Afghanistan. What accounts for this distinction? They are decent human being. Jeo's values are derived from Islam - the gentler side of his parents' religion - and Mikal's from his parents' political engagement.
The idea of consequence entered my life through Islam - as a child I was told that if you do a bad thing the consequences would be bad. If you do good, the consequences would be good. I am referring of course to Heaven and Hell, Sin and Virtue. There are any number of ways through which these ideas can enter a child's life - secular as well as religious. I am just explaining how these lessons came to me - given my social background and the household I was born into - and it was through Islam. (I am perfectly aware of how religion can be corrupted, what psychological damage the idea of Divine punishment and Divine reward might cause - but that is a different conversation.)
As for politics - several of my uncles and my father were people of the left in Pakistan. I am deeply grateful to my father for having instilled in me a contempt for money, for profit. So it was through my father's family that I acquired the idea of engaging collectively with the problems of the world. As opposed to doing it alone - which is a non-political stance. I always say that I vote every time I write a sentence.
While writing the book, you taped up your fingers to simulate what it would be like to have had some cut off, as happens to Mikal, and covered your eyes for days at a time to understand blindness better. What do you feel such experiments added to your writing that might not have been present if you had used more conventional research techniques?
There was no conventional method of research available to me in the above two instances. I wanted to see whether Mikal could smoke a cigarette with his first finger cut off, if he could fire a gun. Who could I have asked this? So I made my own first finger unavailable to me by taping it down. I bought a toy gun to see if he could fire a gun.
As for blindness - again it was necessity. I am quite hesitant as a person. I don't have the character or the temperament that could enable me to meet a visually-impaired person and begin to ask them intimate questions. I couldn't find many good books about blindness that described the day to day experiences. So I decided to find out for myself. And the experience seeped into the entire book - When Mikal is being held in the black-walled room in the CIA's prison, he experiences intense hallucinations, surrounded by all that blackness with no light - I experienced that when my eyes were taped shut. People (even those who can see) are always reaching out in The Blind Man's Garden - extending their hands, touching other human beings. I believe that wouldn't be there if I hadn't taped shut my eyes. At one point Rohan - the blind man of the title - says, 'When I want to remember the colour red I will touch something warm.' That happened to me - my hand accidentally touched a warm surface and my head flooded with red. One day I heard rain and I made my way slowly to the window and put out my hand - the drops falling on my palm caused an image of twinkling stars to appear in my mind. And now Rohan says, 'And when I want to remember the twinkling of stars I will put my hand out into the falling rain.'
But I must stress that no amount of research is of value if it is not presented to the reader with grace and skill and beauty in the novel. What a writer goes through to make the book is irrelevant. At one level art must be convincing to you without a shred of knowledge about the artist's life.
You're well versed in classical Urdu literature, which is dominated by poetry. Does that account for the lyricism of your prose?
I am grateful for my knowledge of Urdu. I don't just have the 26 letters of English - I have the 38 letters of Urdu too. My alphabet is bigger. I feel that. As for lyricism - I don't sit down to write in any particular way. It's not as though one writes a non-lyrical page and then decides to add 20 grams of lyricism to it - or 30 ounces of political thought and 5 drops of emotional intensity. Language is a deeply private thing - it comes as it comes. I get as much pleasure from looking at an apple as from eating it - so my books are visual. On of the things I remember about The Divine Comedy is that Beatrice has emerald eyes. This is my sensibility. One must not examine these things too much. John Banville said about Nabokov that he did not write in English: 'he wrote in a private secret language that was mysteriously comprehensible to English-speaking readers.' That I think is true to all writers to an extent.
The Blind Man's Garden makes it clear that most people in Pakistan know America and the West only through the Government and clerics. Which aspects of Pakistan and its people do you think the West is most uninformed about?
This single long sentence is from my novella 'Leila in the Wilderness', which appeared in Granta 112: Pakistan:
A train traverses Pakistan...
...past the basement snooker clubs full of teenagers, past the mosque whose mullah had decreed polio vaccination a Western conspiracy but had then made announcements in its favour after his own little daughter was taken by the disease, past the house of a dying man whose five children could not come to the deathbed because they had sought asylum in Western countries, past the policeman who stopped by the roadside to take a deep drag from a hashish smoker's cigarette, past cart donkeys no bigger than goats who were pulling monumental loads along thoroughfares where humans were being beaten and abused in prisons, madhouses, schools and orphanages, past the words on the back of a rickshaw that playfully warned the driver behind it: Don't come too near or love will result, past the dark skinned woman who had used so much skin-bleaching cream that although she was now pale, she bruised at the merest of touches, past the college boy reading a novel in which the only detailed descriptions occurred during sex and torture or during sexual torture, past the beggars whose bodies had been devoured by hunger, past the green ponds above which insects the size of tin-openers were flying, past the towns and cities and villages of his immense homeland of heartbreaking beauty, containing saints and sinners and a gentle religion, kind mothers and dutiful fathers who indulged their obedient children, its crimson dawns and its blue-smoke dusks, and its unforgivable cruelty, its jasmine flowers that lived as briefly as bursts of laughter and its minarets from where Allah was pleaded with to send the monsoon rains, and from where Allah was pleaded with to end the monsoon rains, and its unforgivable dishonesty, its rich for whom the poor died shallower deaths, its poor to whom only stories about hunger seemed true, its snowblind mountains and sunbruned deserts and beehives producing honey as sweet as the sound of Urdu, and its unforgivable brutality, and its unforgivable dishonesty, and its unforgivable cruelty, past the boy sending a text message to the girl he loved, past the two shopkeepers arguing about a cricket match that took place twenty years ago, past the clerk who was having to go and work abroad ('I love Pakistan but Pakistan doesn't love me back and is forcing me to leave!'), past the government-run schools where the teachers taught only the barest minimum so the pupils would be forced to hire them for private tuition, past the girl pasting a new picture into her Aishwarya Rai scrapbook, past the crossroads decorated with giant fibreglass replicas of the mountain under which Pakistan's nuclear bombs were tested, past the men unworthy of the rights their women conferred on them, past the trucks painted with the colours of jewels, past the six-year-olds selling Made in China prayer mats at traffic lights, past the ten-year-olds working in steel foundries, past the poet who was a voice in everyone's head telling them what they already knew, past the narrow alleys of the bazaars where it was possible to get caught in human traffic jams and stand immobile for half an hour, past the fields of sorghum and sugarcane and pearl millet, past the most beautiful, surpassingly generous and honest people under the sky, past the mausoleum of a saint who arrived on a visit and was murdered because the people knew his grave would bring pilgrims and trade to their village, past the men and women for whom it was impossible to believe that there was no God and that He wasn't looking after them, because how else could they have been spared the poverty, destruction and random violence that lay all around them?
One of your characters responds to his interrogator at Guantanamo Bay, 'Do you want me to base my opinion of your people on the ones I have met here?' How is the American base viewed in Pakistan?
The first sentence of The Blind Man's Garden is 'History is the third parent.' A Pakistani person's opinion of America and the West is based on facts, on history (as well as on conspiracy theories). People read the papers, listen to the news. According to the latest figures (September 2012) just one in 50 of the so-called 'surgical strikes' carried out by the CIA drones in Pakistan's tribal areas is killing a militant. One in 50. In order to kill one militant 49 innocent Pakistanis are being murdered. Baitullah Mehsood, the Taliban leader, was killed in 2009 by a drone strike - it was the 17th attempt on his life, and the previous 16 had killed upwards of 500 innocents. Pakistanis know this. When Trayvon Martin - the African American teenager - was shot dead last year in Miami on suspicion of being a burglar, I wept for him and for his family. President Obama appeared on TV and said, 'If I had a son he would look like Trayvon Martin.' This is not to take anything away from dear Trayvon's death, but I would like to say to President Obama, 'With due respect, sir, if I had a son he would look like one of the 49 people your drones are butchering in Pakistan - on suspicion of being a terrorist, if they are lucky. Normally they are just collateral damage.'
On a promotional tour for The Wasted Vigil, you read the same passage to American and Pakistani audiences, and were accused of being anti-American by the former and a CIA agent by the latter. Does those polar reactions make you feel that you are offering an accurate portrayal of the current relationship between Islam and the West?
To an extent. These are polar reactions - but there is an entire range of opinion in between. I also get letters and emails from Pakistanis saying they don't agree with the fundamentalists in my novel; and from Americans who say that they know their governments' policies are wrong.
I never lose hope - I am not a believer but I do remember that in Islam it is a sin to lose hope. You are not allowed to despair. This is why suicide bombing were such a problematic issue for the fundamentalists - suicide is a sin. So they have circumvented it by saying they are not 'suicide bombings', they are 'martyrdom bombings.'
So I can't lose hope about anything - East-West, Islam etc. I think despair has to be earned. If you were to say to me the world is damaged beyond repair, suitable only for the rubbish heap, I would want to see a record of what you did to change things, to repair it. You are not allowed to make that statement unless you have tried a 100 times to make things better - if you have failed again and again and again I might be willing to respect your opinion. I can't take empty complaints seriously. The fact of the matter is that if you are the kind of person who has tried to alter things 100 times, you would still say, 'Let me try one more time.' You would never give up. Only the complacent ones, the bourgeoisie, the privileged ones, would say, 'Throw this thing call life onto the rubbish heap.'