The Bangladeshi-British writer on news versus novels, swapping rural poverty for Wall Street, and “the power of story on the human mind.”
Image by Katherine Anne Rose
The American physicist Richard P. Feynman once spoke of the “difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.” It’s a distinction that seems important in Zia Haider Rahman’s first novel, In The Light Of What We Know, which spans several decades and flies us between London, New York, Islamabad, and Kabul. Many of the characters have had the chance to get acquainted with Yale University’s motto, “Lux et Veritas.” But few have had the bone-deep experience of poverty and struggle that can lead to a different kind of knowing—an awareness that there are things you can’t be taught in the Ivy League; that there are different lights and different truths depending on matters of simple caprice: “the circumstances of our parents, the home and inheritance, the unearned talents…” Some kinds of knowledge go no deeper than language—are unaccompanied by experience or empathy—and the novel’s most memorable zingers are reserved for “that breed of international development experts unsparing in its love for all humanity but having no interest in people.”
Rahman’s subject is education and the divisiveness of class, and along the way he offers us riffs on warfare, philosophy, geopolitics, and Wall Street. The novel is anchored by a character named Zafar, who, like Rahman himself, was born poor, in a rural part of Bangladesh—“a corner of that corner of the world.” Like Rahman, he was then moved to England by parents who couldn’t speak much English. Both the author and his character have a father who worked as a London bus conductor and both author and character managed—against all the expectations set by their backgrounds—to end up at Oxford University, where excellence at mathematics pushed them into lucrative careers in finance.
What the novel evokes beautifully is the transformation education can offer a person, and the sense of not-belonging that such a transformation, once achieved, might entail. “I have been full of anger my whole life,” Zafar tells our narrator near the end of the novel, “and if I’ve seemed to you or anyone else as having been as calm as the kind of thinking that mathematics demands, then it is only because the anger had yet to find expression.” It is the subtlety of this portrait of class and knowledge, of estrangement from past selves, that has already won the book high praise from the likes of James Wood in The New Yorker and Amitava Kumar in the New York Times.
In the interview that follows, conducted via email over a number of days in June, Rahman shares his views on why the most important kinds of knowledge—in literature as in life—“make it a little more difficult for us to consign ‘other people’ to our tidy boxes.”
—Jonathan Lee for Guernica
Guernica: In the book you explore the financial crisis and the war in Afghanistan, mixing the personal with the political. Novels can be useful as well as beautiful, and I wondered: What do you think novels can bring to our understanding of world events that news articles and nonfiction books perhaps can’t?
Zia Haider Rahman: There’s a risk here of making facile or overreaching claims on behalf of fiction. It might not be the case that novels are capable of bringing anything to our understanding of world events, or for that matter, that news articles are capable either. But I think that one thing that novels can do is alter our stance, a little, in relation to what we read in the news media. News has a way of distancing us from events, even as it informs us about them. News articles almost always present both the event and the responses at the same time—how is President Obama or Congress responding to the events? I think this reflects a deep need we have to feel that things are under control and that events are subject to our influence.
Another effect of news articles is that the events, however frightening, can thus be consigned to the box of things that happen to other people, not us, and that we are doing things to bring them under control. This is the diet we’re fed all the time, so we acculturate to it. And news must, in turn, follow the form to which we—our bodies—are accustomed: describe the event, incite the fear, then say how it’s being addressed, how the herd’s alpha males are dealing with it.
Novels are not bound by the rules of reportage. Far from it. They’re predicated on delivering experience.
Guernica: And novels aren’t bound to follow that pattern—the form to which our bodies or minds are accustomed? The structure you describe feels like the structure of a great many novels. To translate that form into the sometimes ugly language of creative writing classes: set the scene, introduce a conflict, offer some resolution, and then give a reassuring glance up into the future.
Zia Haider Rahman: I agree, but the difference does not lie in the things that news does that novels do not do, but in the things that novels do that news cannot do. In other words, this basic technique of news—just one among many—is something a novel can use, but a novel can deploy a multitude of other techniques also. Novels are not bound by the rules of reportage. Far from it. They’re predicated on delivering experience. Of course, they seem to abide by certain basic rules, but these are no more restrictive than the law of gravity is in constraining the variety of living things on the planet. By delivering experience, novels can alter the stance we adopt toward news—not much, I’m sure, but they can make it a little more difficult for us to consign “other people” to our tidy boxes. Widening our imaginative life might—it’s not hard to imagine—also develop our ability to contemplate counterfactuals and our capacity to speculate about how things might differ from how they’re being represented.
Also, a novel is grounded firmly in the personal. Waugh described fiction as “experiences totally transformed,” and Naipaul explicitly endorses that perspective. Two points follow from this. If an author’s experience has taken her, obliquely or centrally, to such events as make news then that experience could be, if Waugh and Naipaul are right, material for her fiction. The second point is that news cannot be personal. Big magazine features might attempt it, but they are constrained by an established form. The novel is not. The personal quality of a novel—irrespective of the technical point of view—already puts the reader in a different relationship to the material—or world events, as you call it. It overcomes the problem of domain-dependence, a habituation in how we think that is conditioned by irrelevant circumstances: when we go to the gym we might take the elevator to go up two floors; but if it’s exercise we’re after, why not take the stairs? The form of the novel and its personal quality can shift the domain and alter our stance toward events, perhaps even our understanding of them. But I think I’m already speculating. Without even soft evidence, I can’t be sure my claims are more than wishful thinking.
Guernica: The difference between what we know and what we imagine we know seems to be at the heart of the book. At one point a character tells your narrator that Harvard’s motto is “Veritas” and Yale’s is “Lux et Veritas. Light and truth.” What interests you about that space between light and truth, about the idea that illuminating a given thing doesn’t necessarily take us closer to knowing the truth of it?
Zia Haider Rahman: This is a huge topic and is the backbone of the whole novel. Much of everything else is refracted through the lens of the question “How do you know?”
I think the only right thing to do is to give a very short answer. There are a variety of ways in which a wedge is driven between the reality of the world outside, the motion of atoms, and our conception of what is there. Some of it has to do with what we’re told, some of it to do with sensibilities that might be described as cultural, some of it to do with habit, some to do with heuristics we, as Homo sapiens, invoke because we cannot do otherwise—to name just a few of the impediments.
I’m interested in how a person forms her beliefs, how that happens. Beliefs of all kinds make up the animating force in each of us. Without them we would be paralyzed, lifeless—the glove without the hand.
I am sympathetic to the kind of faith that does not evangelize or raise banners but is the faith drawn on by a lone human being as a means of support.
Guernica: Unless I’ve got the wrong Zia Haider Rahman, you used to write sometimes for The Guardian. In one piece in 2007 in which you took Richard Dawkins and some other vocal atheists to task, you wrote: “A few years ago a friend of mine, a young Jew, died. His friends and family gathered in a north London cemetery on a misty winter morning. While we waited, a member of the congregation approached us offering a skullcap but apologising for having only one to spare. I reached out, grasping for it. One of the huddled group of friends joked that I’d probably feel warmer. ‘No,’ I replied, fixing the tiny cap on my head, ‘I feel less naked before God.’” Is faith—faith of some kind—an important part of your life, and perhaps of your writing?
Zia Haider Rahman: I did indeed write a few pieces for the press but stopped over five years ago. I found that my views changed, in some cases almost as soon as I’d expressed them, but I also saw myself being championed by people whose company I shunned. The piece you refer to might, however, be one of the few pieces that accurately reflects my current thinking.
I am sympathetic to the kind of faith that does not evangelize or raise banners but is the faith drawn on by a lone human being as a means of support or as an organizing principle or even as mere practice. It is faith that is born of humility and an understanding of one’s own frailty. I can recognize it because I have met many people who exhibit this kind of faith. They are not prone to shout and consequently this sort of faith is often not recognized as widespread, still less as one of the dominant forms. The loudest are the ones who are heard. I’m not sure, however, that what I have amounts to faith in the sense commonly understood. I have difficulty understanding the function of the word “believe” in the realm of faith, a basic term in the grammar of every creed.
Guernica: Do you remember which parts of the book came to you first—some of the initial impulses and early sketched scenes?
Zia Haider Rahman: The opening image came to me first—a man appearing at the doorstep of an old friend after some years. The rest came very quickly, before I even settled down to write. I don’t actually need to be writing in order to feel that something useful is happening. I make furniture—to widen the point—and can spend a long time thinking about the form of a particular piece to a very high degree of detail and about the process that I would have to go through, so that, for instance, I have a sense where end grain will appear exposed and what tools I’ll have to use or whether I’ll need to fashion a tool. I used to think that the reason I was comfortable simply with thinking about an activity, in the sense that I felt that I was making progress, was to do with my mathematical background, which required just thinking for long stretches, perhaps now and again jotting down a cluster of symbols as an aide-mémoire. I say that I used to think so because I now suspect a more basic matter of temperament has something to do with it.
One thing that might be of interest is that about three months in, when I realized that the novel was going to be long, I decided to write the end. I then went through the novel and wrote a number of scenes scattered throughout the novel, chosen because they would serve a certain purpose.
Guernica: Why take that approach?
Zia Haider Rahman: When I saw that it would take me some years to write the book, I became concerned that I would change as a human being during that time and that this change would be reflected in an altering of the fundamental tone or key of the novel. While I knew that there would be varied storytelling and changes in mood and so on, I did not want the underlying tone to seem as if it had disappeared. I wanted a way of consolidating it in my own mind also, and writing certain scenes that would necessarily reflect that tone was a way of reinforcing it mentally and making it more resilient to the changes in me that would necessarily take place over the time it would take to write the book. Recently, I heard another writer say that he pins a fundamental paragraph to the wall in front of him for much the same reason.
Guernica: Do you remember any other key turning points during the writing process, moments when everything seemed to change or a clear path emerged?
Zia Haider Rahman: None on the macro scale, but a multitude at a smaller level. I am at my happiest when I’m problem solving and a large part of writing is for me a lovely labor in problem solving. Every act of discovery in writing involves a process of figuring out why I’m not seeing what I need to see. Niggling feelings, discomforts, a sense that you’ve forgotten or overlooked something, a sudden curiosity about what if here?—these are priceless. They are the bases of problems and lead the way.
I still believe that pure mathematics is the most creative thing that humanity does, though I am no longer a part of it.
Guernica: I like that definition of what writing is to you—“a lovely labor in problem solving.” You’ve worked in investment banking and human rights. You’ve studied mathematics, among other pursuits. Have these fed into how you solve problems on the page?
Zia Haider Rahman: The banking and human rights had a direct effect in terms of content, although of course only certain aspects of those experiences earned a space in the book. The mathematics is the odd one, odd because I’m not sure how to measure its effect. It is so fundamental to my outlook on everything and yet I’m not even sure how. It must be because in my formative years it was everything to me, the single place of beauty in my life, and of breathtaking beauty at that. I still believe that pure mathematics is the most creative thing that humanity does, though I am no longer a part of it.
The mathematical tilt remains basic to my epistemological perspective, my howling plea in the still of night for epistemic humility. Mathematics gave me that as, also, did the difficulty I had in talking to my parents. How proofs are conceived is unfathomable. Clearly, there are certain conditions in which the revelation takes place. You have to think and think, then try some thinking or take another approach, and think. And did I tell you that you have to think again? But then zap! Suddenly a proof appears. It’s like a magic trick. Except it’s not, because in a magic trick the magician knows where the rabbit came from. It’s a magic trick in which even the magician doesn’t know how she did it.
Guernica: The difficulty in talking to your parents—in what way do you think that fed into your writing?
Zia Haider Rahman: Yes, I thought you might pick that up. Undeniably, it’s had a huge influence on my perspective on communication and writing. My parents have always had a very limited command of English. Of course, when we first arrived in the UK, none of us spoke English, but it’s much easier for a child to pick up languages. But the problem was not a lack of English; the problem was poor communication in any language. Remember, my parents came from rural Bangladesh with little education. It was alarming for them, I’m sure, to watch their boy very quickly exhaust whatever ability they had to teach the child something. And then there was the fact that my parents were entirely unpredictable and what they said very unreliable, which meant I became very attuned to the range of other signals human beings give out—body language or what Freud graphically called the “betrayal [that] oozes out of him at every pore,” betrayal, that is, of what they really mean. I have that to this day, and it makes conversation exhausting because I’m listening not just to the words of the person in front of me but also to their body. It’s as if there are two radio stations on at the same time. I’m used to it but it’s still tiring. It’s much easier in the company of friends or if, say, I’m walking with a person, in which case it’s harder to look at them.
I could go on. I could talk about the lack of the subjunctive in our household and how it sent me into contortions in order to achieve the same effect. I could talk about the numberless ways in which language came under my scrutiny in order to be able to make it usable simply to talk to my parents, but let’s leave it there.
Guernica: I wondered how quickly you settled on the first-person point of view, and what you feel first-person narration can achieve in a book like this that third-person narration perhaps can’t.
Zia Haider Rahman: I don’t want you to think that I’m being willfully obtuse, but I’ve never really grasped how point of view could be regarded as a matter of choice independent of story. Point of view is intimately interwoven into the story that you want to tell—it is an aspect of it. Which is to say that if an author wrote two versions of opening paragraphs, say, one in first person and the other in third person, the choice between the two is not a mere choice between two different points of view, but a choice between two wholly different stories.
The story that grew in my mind, and which felt necessary to tell, is one driven by a narrator recounting his conversations with his long-lost friend, this enigmatic figure. An integral part of the story is the fact that the narrator wants to tell it. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the mariner’s story is told by the mariner, and that very fact is important to understanding the whole. Nevertheless there were certain incidental advantages in adopting that perspective—a first-person stance which shifts between the narrator and Zafar. In certain circumstances, a close third-person point of view can sometimes feel lacking in compassion.
Guernica: For instance?
Zia Haider Rahman: For instance, where the character is unreliable in some way or somehow lacking in self-awareness or fails to see something that is visible to the reader or has some kind of perceptual shortfall. The more fundamental issue with third person is the question: Who is doing the perceiving? The author? But the conceit of all fiction is that there is no author. W. G. Sebald had, as I understand it, misgivings about third person for these sorts of reasons.
But I don’t want to suggest that first person is the only right perspective. It can even create difficulties. For instance, I have a passage in which the narrator retells the story of a cherished bicycle he had as a boy that disappeared. He gets through the story without seeing that his mother was having an affair because his eye is on the bicycle. But that’s not enough. The information in the story has to be transfigured through the metaphor of a chain and lock that his father insists on buying to go with the replacement bicycle. It is important to remain true to the story, a first-person one, even if it means that some things become a little harder to reach.
There is no “the reader,” there are only readers, and they are as varied as people.
Guernica: Can you talk a little about your interest in epigraphs? Each chapter wears a chapter number, a chapter title, and a series of epigraphs. Was there ever a fear—notwithstanding the fact that the epigraphs emerge as snippets of wisdom that have been important to Zafar—that they would seem intrusive to the reader? Or, perhaps appropriately given your subject matter, too knowing?
Zia Haider Rahman: No and no. First of all, the epigraphs in this novel do not have the same status as epigraphs usually do in novels. Ordinarily they are evidence of the writer peeking in from behind the curtain, but here they are brought in by the narrator, having been in most instances culled by him from Zafar’s notebooks, and this is made clear in the novel. Moreover, toward the end of the book, the epigraphs of a particular chapter take the weight of storytelling and a disclosure is made through them. Zafar has handed over notebooks, which provide a source of knowledge to the narrator, knowledge about Zafar and his interests, and knowledge too of what others have said or written, as recorded by Zafar, of things that are important to Zafar. It should not surprise anyone that Zafar had notebooks—it’s in keeping with his character—and it should not surprise anyone that the narrator would be drawn to and would draw out passages in them—that’s in keeping with the narrator’s character, which is to a degree shallow, unreliable, and hugely compromised—though not fatally.
“The reader” that you mention is a useful and even necessary handle for conversation about craft, but opening the door to the reader while the enterprise of writing is underway is disastrous—or I think it would be for me. There is no “the reader,” there are only readers, and they are as varied as people. So which readers do you let in? And when they disagree which one do you heed? Listening to people discussing a novel can be very interesting, if you’ve read whatever novel is being discussed. No one, it seems, ever says, “This is a great book but I didn’t like it.” Taking a little time to think about why this might be has been very liberating.
My own disposition is to trust the reader. Of course, there’s a line between trusting the reader and expecting her to read your mind. That’s where a friend or an editor comes in. A great editor will tell you straight when you’ve drifted into the latter territory.
Guernica: In Guernica last year Aleksandar Hemon told his interviewer that “In some way there is no real life. It’s always the story of your life that you’re living.” You too seem interested in the extent to which the real is unreal, and in the ways in which we arrange our own lives in the telling. How did you go about developing the subtle structure for each storyline within the novel, and making the idea of structure part of the story?
Zia Haider Rahman: I agree entirely with Hemon, insofar as you’ve quoted him accurately. Our interaction with our friends, for instance, is in large part an interaction with representations in our own head of the people before us. That’s why a friend can surprise or disappoint us. Betrayal, as you know, is at the heart of this novel.
But there is another answer to your question. The structuring of the novel involved more basic things, such as Post-it notes and card and an offcut of unused linoleum I found in a dumpster that served as a corkboard, except it could be rolled up which made it portable and that was handy since I was very itinerant during the writing of this novel—technically, of no fixed abode. But Post-it notes and corkboards are just about giving a physical dimension to something going on in the head, sometimes because it’s hard to keep track of things.
Guernica: Every month there’s a new article announcing the death of the novel. The question is old but it keeps on coming up. Do you feel you’re working within a dead or dying form, something you need to try to revive?
Zia Haider Rahman: No, I don’t feel that way, but it’s conceivable that the novel might be a dying form. I don’t know how to make a prediction here but I do have some ideas about what needs to be considered before any prognosis can be made. Novels need readers of a certain kind, people who are patient and enjoy immersing themselves in another perspective for uninterrupted stretches of time. Reading habits might well be changing. People who pay for novels might overlap significantly with those who engage in Twitter and Facebook. These things and even plain-vanilla email seems to be fracturing time for many, leaving people to work in snatches between communications. Even when they are not responding to a message, people might carry an apprehension that keeps their attention divided, rather like a parent in a playground who may be talking to a friend but who still has half his mind on his child or a woman who has one eye on her handbag while dining in a restaurant. Gossip evidently serves a valuable human function—in the cave, we need to know about our friends and potential enemies—and an appetite for or a strong drive to acquire gossip is vital when actually getting information is hard and involves traveling and meeting up with people. Only a strong drive enables us to make the effort.
But the technology broadens an individual’s social field massively and at the same time makes it much, much easier and cheaper to consume gossip. We have the same appetite for gossip, but now its acquisition is even easier than grabbing sugary and fatty foods off a supermarket shelf. And look where that got us. When you watch people in public desperately punching away at their machines, it’s hard not to think of addictions.
The broader risk, by the way, is not only that reading fiction will be squeezed but that anything that requires patience and relinquishing the quotidian will be diminished. The good news, of course, is that we now make deep and valuable friendships with thousands of people whom we know intimately and care about. Andy Borowitz writes that “there is a fine line between social networking and wasting your fucking life.”
Guernica: Let’s turn to your life, wasted or not. We recently released an issue of Guernica themed “Class in America,” and it seems to me your novel is one of very few I’ve read recently that deals prominently with the divisiveness of class. Can you talk a little about that in relation to your own life experience? You were born in Bangladesh, as I understand it, and came to England as a boy after the war for independence, and ended up in the elite corridors of Oxford and Yale.
Zia Haider Rahman: As I recall, there have been studies concluding that most people mostly know people only within their own social class—although such a conclusion would hardly surprise anyone. I think there’s evidence to suggest that it’s even narrower—the great majority of friends of Ivy Leaguers, for instance, are Ivy Leaguers. This narrows the pool of people who can write fiction cutting across class boundaries that’s informed by their own personal experience. Of course, an English aristocrat might have some contact with the staff downstairs and could adequately say a thing or two about inter-class dramas unfolding in the household. But something less parochial might be harder to come by. This is relevant because stories about the divisiveness of class are by definition stories that straddle class boundaries. A story about a miner in a mining town is not obviously one that speaks to the divisiveness of class. In other words, class doesn’t just divide us in the world but it also divides us in the stories we’re presented.
Guernica: But what about your own life? Let’s turn to that, in so far as it’s relevant to your work.
Zia Haider Rahman: One problem I have with talking about myself in the context of class divisiveness is that I can be—and indeed have been—used by others to demonstrate its absence and that it’s only a matter of hard work to move upward socially. After all, how could I complain about anything, if the retort is: “But look where you got to? It can’t be all that bad.” But this is nonsense as an argument quite aside from its empirical absurdity because no single case can invalidate a statistical claim. A poison can hardly be called safe if for some reason specific to me it’s ineffective against, say, my body. But the power of story on the human mind is such that anecdote is often more persuasive than numbers. That’s why news stories often concretize the impact of a change in government policy by following the story of one person.
We have sent men to stand on the moon and claim it for mankind…. And yet we do not seem to have the heart to be fair.
I had a tough childhood, yes. I was born in rural Bangladesh to parents who had had no education beyond high school. We moved to the UK where I grew up in poverty, in some of the worst conditions in a developed economy, before moving to the projects—heaven—and I went to unremarkable schools before going to university. My father was a bus conductor first and then a waiter, and my mother a seamstress.
Until I reached my late teens, there was not enough money for luxuries—a holiday, a car, or a computer. I learned how to program a computer, in fact, by reading a book. I used to write down programs in a notebook and a few years later when we were able to buy a computer, I typed in my programs to see if they worked. They did. I was lucky. I had an indefatigable curiosity about everything. But why should my fate have depended upon that? Why does the curiosity of a child born into the lowest classes have to overcome everything put in his or her way to mute that curiosity, when a child born to parents with access to the advantages of life will have his meager curiosity kindled and nurtured? The unfairness is horrifying when it is properly understood as an unfairness meted out on children, on infants, on babies.
Is this the best we can do? We have sent men to stand on the moon and claim it for mankind. In fewer than five clicks I can speak to my two-year-old godson in Paris. I can see the moving image of his face as I make him laugh and he can see mine. We can make works of art of such stupefying beauty that grown men stop and weep. And yet. And yet we do not seem to have the heart to be fair.
Guernica: This sounds facile, I know, but I’m interested—did you enjoy writing this book?
Zia Haider Rahman: I did enjoy the process, if being fully absorbed, in the flow, and constantly thinking creatively amounts to enjoyment. It wasn’t like eating ice cream but there was never a dull moment.
There was a period of a few months, however, when I had a dreadful physical pain. I had just started writing a particular section of the novel and was initially worried that it would affect my work. I was woken by awful nightmares; the pain was there even in the middle of the night. But the writing somehow went along fine even though painkillers did little to blunt the ache. It seemed obvious to me that the nightmares must be the result of not sleeping well which in turn must be due to the pain. I saw several doctors, tests were performed, nothing came of them, and the medics were mystified.
It was two days after I finished writing the section that the penny dropped. The pain had suddenly disappeared and so too had the nightmares. I’d got things muddled. The pain and the nightmares were both psychosomatic. And it was all driven by the material in the section I was writing. And it was bloody obvious. Without issuing a spoiler, I’ll say no more, other than noting that during this period I still enjoyed the work, even though my body seemed to be rebelling against it.
Guernica: And despite the rebellions of your body, is writing essential to who you are—will there be more books?
Zia Haider Rahman: Writing is indeed essential to me. And I am working on the next book. But the two questions are not inherently related. I have been writing for a long time but not for publication. I’m sure there are many, many people who do the same. The rewards of writing are in the process and not the product—not just for me but for others I have met.
The twentieth century saw a professionalization of fiction writing, particularly in its second half and particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world—not so much mainland Europe, for example. This professionalization is a tragedy. Hand in hand with this—and I have no idea what the causal relations are—there has been a rise in the idea of The Author, so that today one often has the impression that what’s selling the book is not the book but the author. There is snobbery in the idea that the modern cult of celebrity has not touched the lofty realm of letters. We are like visitors to a garden or flower show who wander the pathways and do not notice the beautiful flora but instead exchange murmurs about the appearance of the soil. This sounds cute, possibly even perspicacious in some way, until you hear what the soil is saying: Thank you for the attention but did you see what I made? Did you marvel at the colors? Did you draw in the scent? Have you tasted the varied fruits of this here earth?
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