Interviewed by Sana Hussain & Maryam Piracha
Aamer Hussein began writing in the mid-eighties. Since then he has written five collections of short stories, a novella titled ‘Another Gulmohar Tree’ and a novel, ‘The Cloud Messenger’. While technically part of the generation of contemporary Pakistani writers, he distances himself from the labels that are associated with them. He elaborates more on this and his views on the craft of writing, Pakistan’s literary presence, and the pertinence of online literary journals in an interview with The Missing Slate.
So first of all, how has ILF been for you?
Well, it’s really sort of waking up I think. The audiences have decided, perhaps because it’s a holiday, to come. The two halls I’ve been to have been full. I had the morning session about the Urdu short story which was fairly well attended, [despite being] early in the morning. Then I went to another one with Zehra Nigah and Intizar Hussain talking about traditional genres and it was absolutely packed. And you feel with each session it could actually go on longer.
Do you feel that festivals like these are helping foster a much needed literary culture in Pakistan?
I really hope so, because in a way we’re surrounded by books, we’re surrounded by people who represent the books. We have a chance for debate; we’re meeting our readers, which is wonderful.
It’s the common perception that Pakistanis have very little affinity for books or reading. But when you come to events like these you see that this perception is not actually true.
I was here in January as well, giving a couple of talks, but because of the strikes and stuff they weren’t as well attended as they might have been. But the people who did turn up, who braved the barricades and so on, were very enthusiastic and very well read… in terms of my work, they had read it very carefully and asked interesting good questions. So it was better to have a small audience that was well-versed in what I had done than a general audience that doesn’t ask specific questions.
So we’ve read that you’re fluent in almost seven languages?
Listen, I speak about three or four languages. I speak Urdu, English and Italian pretty well; Spanish okay, French okay. I read all of them and I write three or four of them, as well as Hindi and Persian.
How does this ability to read and write in more than just Urdu and English come into play in your writings? And do you think being multi-lingual makes you a better writer?
First of all, very much so, because it means that unlike other English language writers who know English better than their own language, whichever that might be, I’ve had all these different cultures nourishing me. Particularly in the case of French, you know a lot of good work from Africa is written in French, North Africa plus West Africa, and I’ve read a lot of that literature so it has influenced both my cultural outlook and probably the way I use the English language. Italian as well.
I translate a little bit. I’ve edited translations and I’ve written about them.
Do you feel that in order to be a good translator you have to be a good writer first?
I think so. Very often you need two translators to perfect one text, one who knows the language well and one who is a good writer.
How do you think Pakistani literature in English has evolved since you first started writing?
You know, it doesn’t seem to me such a dramatic evolution. It’s just so that we suddenly saw a group of writers converge and I think that, you know the publication of Granta brought together writers and made it all visible. First of all there’s continuity between Indian writing in English and Pakistani writing in English, lots of people might have attended the same universities in England or the States. A lot of us in the Diaspora particularly, have interacted with each other over the years. And if you think of Nadeem Aslam, he started in the mid-nineties, ‘93. We had books out in the same year. Kamila [Shamsie] had her first book out in ’98, I think. Mohsin [Hamid], at the end of ‘99. So there were at least the four of us who emerged in the nineties. After which 2001 and 9/11 created a kind of visibility. But it’s not as if the Pakistani writers suddenly decided, “Oh 9/11 has just happened so I have to start writing”. They were there, they were writing, it’s just that 9/11 gave them a particular label.
And drew attention to them.
And drew attention to them. Personally I feel I come from an earlier time. I don’t share a trajectory with them, even though some of them might be quite near to me in age. But I think the trajectory I don’t share is the task that’s been given to them, these are the twenty first century writers, these are the new Pakistani writers, they’re the ones who’re dealing with the crisis in Pakistan. I feel you know, leave me [to] my own little quiet space.
You know, responsibility is at the core of one’s being. We express responsibility in very different ways. I don’t think the responsibility is to be a journalist, because we have good journalists, we have good women journalists, we have good men journalists. I don’t feel a writer has to be a journalist. I would rather be reading a book by Hafiz or Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai than reading political analysis. I don’t think that it’s my duty as a writer to read every book about Pakistan; to know about current events, yes. It informs your work in a kind of oblique way.
You know I feel that I haven’t read enough Pakistani fiction. I have to be very clear about that, one has limited time and as you grow older you tend to want to look back and read books you’ve missed out on. I haven’t read much of Mohammed Hanif, I haven’t read Shehryar Fazli’s book, I haven’t read Uzma Aslam Khan and I was telling someone earlier, three or four of them, (I probably won’t name them today) are friends of mine, so obviously I read their books, I know what goes into them, I know they’re not trying to manipulate their audience. But they do feel very passionately about their country.
Do you think that due to the increased focus on Pakistan following 9/11, young writers feel the need to write about certain socio-political topics?
I don’t think they deliberately start to write about it but I think the publishers who probably buy books are looking for that angle, how it connects with Pakistan, how it connects with the Taliban, how it connects with the violence in the country and so on. And perhaps Mohsin Hamid’s new book, in which he refused to name the country, was a reaction to that.
As someone who is involved in online literary journals, what do you think about the role they play in furthering literature, specifically online?
I think they play a great role; to have literary journals is constructive, and would especially be so if they could do more to bring together literary cultures that have become divorced from each other. I think of Urdu and the regional languages and of English. One seems to have this regional, parochial, provincial label attached to it and the other one seems to be cosmopolitan or international. Actually a lot of Urdu writing is every bit as international as the writing in English.
That actually leads to another question we discussed, in your opinion does travelling and exposure play a role in good writing or is it essential for good writing?
Would you be shocked if I said, not necessarily? Because I think some people have written wonderfully just living absolutely [to] the core of their own place and they’ve written about huge issues.
So you would say sensitivity and imagination are more important factors?
Yes, sensitivity and perception. I mean human nature changes according to political context only in its behavior and its manifestations, but [otherwise] it’s just pretty much the same.
Any advice or words of wisdom for young writers, aside from reading?
This is what I would say, just read as much as you can. Because I think critics and journalists need to be aware of all the contexts of a book but they also need to be aware of the context from which the writer is emerging. Each individual writer has his/her own trajectory and I think if you read their books carefully you’ll understand that, rather than pinning a label on the book, which the book is not going to be able to live up to.
And what about advice for new writers and new novelists?
You know it always sounds like such a cliché but one of them is just write close to your own experience, start from there. Not about yourself but start from what you know. Start from what you love, start from what you believe in.
Sana Hussain is Features Editor and Maryam Piracha is Editor-in-Chief of the magazine.
Photo Credit: IBN Live.