The prize-winning novelist on learning English by copying out Moby Dick, politics in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and his compulsion to write from a terrorist’s perspective.
Photo courtesy Richard Lea-Hair
Since his first novel, Season of the Rainbirds, was published in Britain in 1993, Nadeem Aslam has written three more: the Encore Award-winning Maps for Lost Lovers (2004), The Wasted Vigil (2008), and this year’s The Blind Man’s Garden. After a twenty year wait, his debut is finally due to be published in the United States. “That is how long it can take,” Aslam reflects. “But you have to keep going.”
The Blind Man’s Garden is a seemingly impartial account of two Pakistani foster brothers who enter Afghanistan to aid the injured, and the fallout from that voyage, which irrevocably changes their lives and the lives of their family. Lending a voice to the almost-brothers, their family, both Taliban and American soldiers, The Blind Man’s Garden is an ambitious, modern love story with an eye on the war on terror.
Talking to Aslam, it becomes quickly apparent how much of what one might consider a normal life he has sacrificed for his work. He dropped out of his final year of studies for a biochemistry degree to begin writing in English. For The Blind Man’s Garden, he taped his eyes shut for three weeks in order to better understand what a character who had lost his sight was experiencing, and ended up covered in bruises. “We shouldn’t romanticize writing too much,” he says.
I spoke with Aslam via phone, from his home in London. He describes his work with genuine enthusiasm, an engaged and engaging conversationalist who frequently interjects, enthusiastically, mid-sentence. The day’s big news was about Edward Snowden, then stranded in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo International Airport and waiting to hear about the status of his requests for asylum while the world’s political players decided what to do with him. In some ways, Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden concerns itself with similar notions: the small man believing he might make a difference, the likely futility of instituting significant change, the knowledge one gains in attempting the difficult thing, in making an avoidable decision.
—Michael E. Halmshaw for Guernica
Guernica: One of the things you do in The Blind Man’s Garden is take on almost every possible perspective the story permits: that of a believer, a non-believer, someone entirely subscribed to Jihadist ideology, an American soldier, and so on. Was it important to you from the outset to do that?
Nadeem Aslam: Absolutely. It’s a story about two brothers who go off to war, and I was interested in them being bystanders. But as the book goes on we meet people who say, “Yes, I do want to go and fight in Afghanistan.” I wanted to enter the terrorist mindset.
I’ve been to the madrassas in Pakistan. I’ve been to the so-called terrorist training camps, and I’ve talked to the people who are there. And you don’t have to go to Pakistan to meet people who have trained as terrorists. In the north of England, I went to give a reading and my taxi driver was a young chap of Pakistani descent. He asked me what I did. I said I’m a writer, writing a book about Afghanistan and Pakistan, and I am currently working on a chapter about boys who become radicalized at a madrassa. And he grinned and said, “Shall I tell you something? I went to one of those training camps. But I came back after a year and a half.”
Guernica: Why did he go to the training camp?
Nadeem Aslam: I asked him. And of course there were the usual reasons. Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. The drone attacks.
Much of the world seems to have heard about the drone attacks only in the last year or so. But we in Pakistan have been actively trying to bring the attention of the world to the drone attacks since 2005. You should read about a journalist named Hayatullah Khan. In 2005, an Al-Qaeda commander Abu Hamza Rabia was killed in North Waziristan and the Pakistani authorities said he died in a accidental blast at an an explosives factory. The journalist, Hayatullah Khan, photographed what were fragments of an American Hellfire missile, and this led to protests at the infringement of Pakistani territory by US forces.
On December 5, 2005, Hayatullah Khan was kidnapped. His brother witnessed the abduction. Nobody knew what happened to him and then in June 2006 his tortured body was found by the roadside, still handcuffed. No police investigation ever took place. His widow said in an interview that her husband knew he was in danger—and she claimed to know people who were involved in his murder. On November 17, 2007 a bomb went off outside her house and she was killed, leaving their five children orphaned.
The official line was that there were no drones operating above Pakistan. Yet people were protesting. A few months ago, before Pervez Musharaff went back to Pakistan, he gave an interview in which he finally said, “Yes, we had an agreement with the United States to use our airspace back in 2005.”
So would someone please ask Musharaff who is responsible for Hayatullah Khan’s murder, and the murder of his wife? When you talk to the people who’ve been at these terrorist training camps, this is what they want to know.
So if there was a surprise it wasn’t about the fact that people torture, it was that the West does—with its claims of freedom and democracy and human rights.
Guernica: And what you would like to know.
Nadeem Aslam: Yes. I’m not on anybody’s side. But we need to keep an eye on both your government and my government. Sometimes you pick up the newspaper and you think it’s Cain and Abel out there. But sometimes it feels as though it’s Cain against Cain. You can’t tell who’s the good guy.
Today I’ve been thinking and reading about Edward Snowden. There is a beautiful verse from a Pakistani poet Parveen Shakir who said, “to refer to autumn as autumn is not an act of treachery towards the garden.” That is how I feel.
The things we have seen over the past ten or fifteen years are extraordinary. This strange “war on terror” and this call to Jihad. It wasn’t a surprise when I saw those images from Abu Ghraib, the evidence that people torture and mistreat people in prison. You can go to the nearest police station in Pakistan and see worse things happening to people being held there. As terrible as those images from Abu Ghraib were, those were—I don’t mean to diminish the suffering—quite tame compared with things that happen in Pakistani prisons. How a thief is made to confess.
So if there was a surprise it wasn’t about the fact that people torture, it was that the West does—with its claims of freedom and democracy and human rights. Immediately after 9/11, a great cry went up across half the world, that the Muslim world needs to go through something called “enlightenment.” And then all the principles of enlightenment that the West was so proud of, they were abandoned. Look what happened in Abu Ghraib, look what’s happening with the hunger strikers in Guantánamo Bay, and the NSA.
Cézanne painted trees not because he was interested in botany. My books seem to be about the war on terror. Within this thing called the war on terror, what am I trying to do? It’s to see, to ask questions. How is a good person altered?
Guernica: In The Blind Man’s Garden, you cover so much of the good and the bad that people are doing in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And the characters rarely seem to pass judgement on these things. Do you see yourself as creating a record of these incidents, rather than judging? Is that where your obligation as a writer lies?
Nadeem Aslam: I don’t think anyone knows which side Homer is on in The Iliad. Yes, this new book and the previous one, The Wasted Vigil, are about the war on terror. But Cézanne painted trees not because he was interested in botany. My books seem to be about the war on terror. Within this thing called the war on terror, what am I trying to do? It’s to see, to ask questions. How is a good person altered? How does a bad person behave? Frequently, circumstances don’t change people: they simply reveal the person’s character. Yes, I write about the war on terror, but ultimately, that thing is put away.
Guernica: Is your family religious?
Nadeem Aslam: My mother is a believer. She believes in the literal word of the Koran. She believes—and she has to believe—that there is an angel sitting on her right shoulder and an angel sitting on her left shoulder. And every time she does a good thing, the angel on the right writes down that deed in a ledger. And every time she does a bad thing, the angel on the left writes in a ledger. And after she’s dead, and after Judgement Day has come, she will be resurrected and those two ledgers will be presented to God, and God will say, “On June the 9th, 2012, you said this—explain yourself. And on September 9th, 1984, you said this—explain yourself.” She believes these things. People sometimes talk about the magical quality of my writing. If I were to write about someone like my mother, would I be writing realism or magical realism?
As far as my mother is concerned, no suspension of disbelief is in play. Jonah was inside the whale. It is not a metaphor. The Garden of Eden existed. It is not a metaphor. A hundred years from now, two hundred years from now, a million years from now, she will be pulled out of the earth alive and she will stand before her God. These things are not metaphors to her. Pakistan, and, I am sure, the United States, is full of people who believe that kind of thing. As a writer it becomes a challenge, to see if I can put it down on the page.
And is the Koran discredited in terms of what has happened with terrorism? In 2011, if you remember, the Norwegian mass murderer, Anders Breivik, put together a so-called manifesto, and in that he quoted John Stuart Mill. Now, what are we going to do? Discredit everything John Stuart Mill said, just because a terrorist happens to quote him?
Guernica: Something interesting about religious texts is the fact they require some personal intervention on the part of the reader or the believer.
Nadeem Aslam: There’s a wonderful story in a compendium of tales called Kalila-o-Dimna. A king trains a monkey to be his bodyguard. One day the king is asleep and an ant crawls onto his chest. The monkey, thinking the king is in danger, picks up a knife, and in trying to stab the ant, actually kills the king. I think this is what we have. Al-Qaeda are saying that Islam is in danger from the West, and the American administration is telling us that Western values and freedoms are in danger from Islam. I think we need to keep an eye on these monkeys.
Guernica: Keeping an eye on the monkeys seems something The Blind Man’s Garden does throughout.
Nadeem Aslam: This book is about love. People always say to me that my books are very melancholy, very sad, even bleak. I am aware that I work in the tragic mode. Plenty of people don’t. They write comic novels. I am not one of them. I like to put people under pressure within a certain set of circumstances and see how that reveals their true character.
There are some writers who want to leave politics out of their novels. I don’t. Any number of writers: Dostoevsky, Orwell, Milosz, Tolstoy, Gordimer, Garcia Marquez, V.S. Naipaul; any number of them have made use of politics in their books. Political horror is at the center of the New Testament, isn’t it? What is the story of the death of Christ if looked at through secular eyes, if not about the corruption and compromises within the political system? Cynthia Ozick reviewed J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K in the New York Times when it was published, and in the first sentence she states that “the literature of conscience is about the bewilderment of the naïve.” The people we consider mentally defective, the children, the powerless, the people who actually ask the question: why? Why is the world this way? I think at the deepest level, that is what I am trying to do, to ask the question why.
Guernica: Perhaps it’s a somewhat diagonal comparison, but in a sense, in its exploration of ethical concerns and perhaps in the momentum and language, too, The Blind Man’s Garden reminded me of Cormac McCarthy.
Nadeem Aslam: He’s a writer I love. His sentences are the closest thing I know to an electric shock. They are energy made visible. Cormac McCarthy, Faulkner, are very important to me. When I came to Britain and I didn’t have any English, I slowly learned English by copying out great books. One of the books was As I Lay Dying, another was Moby Dick. I copied out these whole books by hand. I wanted to see how they were put together.
Guernica: How did you come by this idea of copying out great books?
Nadeem Aslam: I would copy out entire sentences and then entire paragraphs. And before you knew it I’d say, “I need to copy out this entire chapter.” And then one thing led to another. I copied out Beloved. Lolita. McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
Guernica: This was a formative part of your education as a writer, this copying.
Nadeem Aslam: I didn’t come to Britain with much English. I went to university to read sciences. To study sciences, your English doesn’t need to be that good. You need to assimilate facts and reproduce them—if it happens to be in clumsy English it doesn’t really matter. But in my third year I realized my English was good enough to do what I wanted to do—which was to write. I dropped out in my third year and I began writing the first novel, which took eleven months to write.
At a tangent to what we’re talking about—this really is a message to the young writers out there—my first novel was published in Britain in February 1993. It was published in America for the first time in March 2013. Twenty years later. That is how long it can take. But you have to keep going.
Guernica: And then it was eleven years, from writing your first novel, until the release of your second novel, Maps for Lost Lovers. It seems you’re a model of perseverance. Eleven years that—we won’t say you spent writing—but that you spent on this novel?
Nadeem Aslam: But my sister and sisters-in-law are bringing up children—there can’t be a day when they are not mothers. They cannot take a day off. They are models of perseverance, not me. There are people in my life, and all around the planet, who go out to work doing jobs that they don’t like, but they’re doing it because they have to feed their family. I think that’s the greatest form of nobility there is, that you do something which you don’t want to do because you want to feed someone else, because you want to clothe someone else and put a roof over their head.
Guernica: How did you support yourself in those eleven years between books?
Nadeem Aslam: The advance for the first novel—it was only published in Britain, initially—was £1000. This was in 1993. But when the book was published it won a number of awards. That money was good, but eventually it ran out. Then I was working on construction sites, and as an usher for a while and also in a bar. It was fine, it was good work. I would work and it brought me money which I could use to buy books and to keep my room warm while I wrote.
But being young was one thing I wanted to explore in The Blind Man’s Garden. My first novel was published when I was in my twenties, and I wrote it when I was in my twenties. But almost all of the main characters in it are middle-aged. That’s more or less true of my second and the third novels. It’s only in this new book, now that I’m an older man myself, that I’ve chosen to write about younger people, because I think that real reverence is due only the young. I’ve said so many times we underestimate the grief of the young in this world. They are constantly being told “Oh grow up,” “Get over it.” [Laughs.]
Guernica: In terms of the language in The Blind Man’s Garden, the physical sensations seemed always spot on. I’ve read that you taped your eyes shut for three weeks to “experience” Rohan’s blindness. But it’s more, too. That feeling of being out after nightfall, or of making your way after a particular injury. Do you have a good memory for these things? Is this experience?
Nadeem Aslam: I’ve kept a journal since I was about twenty. And I write everything in it that I find interesting during a day. A sight, a view, an interesting sound. And I have one hundred and seventeen notebooks now.
So think about the first chapter of The Blind Man’s Garden. I wrote it, and then more or less randomly picked up a notebook and looked at the first thing that was written on its first page. Could I use that anywhere in the chapter? No. And so I moved on to observation number two. If it was useable I scrawled it onto the chapter, and made a small cross next to it in the notebook so that I won’t use it again. And then I moved onto observation number three, number four: that is how you go through the entire notebook and take out things for the chapter. And that notebook might be from when I was twenty-three or thirty-five. And then you pick up the next notebook, and the next.
And you transfer the chapter onto to the computer, and print it out, and then edit it—removing things that you initially thought belonged there. You put these back into the notebook to use later—because it’s not a bad thought or bad image, it just doesn’t belong here. That is how I make my books. In that way, The Blind Man’s Garden has thoughts, feelings, emotions, ideas, that come from when I was twenty. And that is true of all of my books. Everything that I have been up to today, including talking to you, will go into a novel at some point.
There is a poem by Raymond Carver called “His Bathrobe Pocket Full of Notes.” The poem is made up of these random observations. And I think this is what Raymond Carver himself must have done. That you think of something and quickly write it down in the corner of a newspaper, and pocket it.
Guernica: Henry Miller wrote some wonderful things about memory, a writer’s memory. He once wrote, “I make a note to write it out at the first opportunity, so as to be done with it, so as to bury it once and for all. I make the note—and I forget it with alacrity.” It could be bragging, but he makes forgetting sound like a joy, a privilege.
Nadeem Aslam: This is interesting—with me it’s the other way round. For me, I feel slightly panicky if I see something interesting and I don’t find a place for it in one of my books.
I asked my brother what would you do if a deer appeared in the garden? He said, I would call my wife and sons and say come have a look, and I would take a photograph and send it to you. I would do these things, but I would need to find a place for that magical moment in one of my books, too. Until then, I won’t feel fully satisfied.
That is the novel—the visible part. But the hidden part is me. The writer should remain in the darkness and the silence as much as possible.
Guernica: What is your writing routine?
Nadeem Aslam: I usually sleep during the day and write at night. I get up at eleven o’clock at night. I’m at my desk by midnight. I work until seven or eight in the morning. There is a wonderful, rich silence. I always think of the silence and darkness of a plant’s roots inside the earth. And that’s me, drawing nourishment. And you send everything into the world above, where the plant is—the fruit, the flowers, and the leaves. That is the novel—the visible part. But the hidden part is me. The writer should remain in the darkness and the silence as much as possible.
Guernica: How did you come by this nocturnal writing routine?
Nadeem Aslam: It was quite practical. When I was writing Maps for Lost Lovers, I ended up living next to some very noisy people and I couldn’t afford to move. So during the day I would sleep with earplugs in, and at night—when they were asleep—I would get up and write. And I’ve never really lost that habit.
Guernica: So as you write you get to witness the beginning of the day: cars starting, people coming and going.
Nadeem Aslam: That’s right.
Guernica: Maybe—is it a stretch?—there is a sense of the sun coming up in your novel, of working towards the sunrise. There’s some hope in the end of the book.
Nadeem Aslam: That’s a beautiful image. There is a sense of lightness when you’ve been working. You enter a state of grace before you begin to work. And what happens in that state, I don’t want to examine too much. But I know when I get up and go to my study, everyone in the world is in the room with me. All the concerns of the day, the headlines in the news, everything I’ve heard, my family, my friends, people I don’t know—everything and everyone is there. But as I begin to work, slowly, quietly, people begin to leave. And eventually it is just me and the work. And I have to say that ultimately even I leave. Only the work remains.
I don’t know how my books are written, and I don’t want to examine the process too much. If you see the statue of a veiled maiden, you mustn’t try to chip away the veil to see the face underneath. The mystery is all there is.