Thursday, November 08, 2012

Uzma Aslam Khan's new book and her interview in The Friday Times

by Salman Hameed

I have posted here a multiple times about a whole crop of fantastic Pakistani writers (see earlier posts Granta - and a Flock of new Pakistani Writers and New Rock Star Authors). One of these authors, Uzma Aslam Khan, is now at Hampshire College (increasing the number of Pakistani origin faculty members by 100%). I first encountered Uzma's writing when I read her fantastic novel The Geometry of God. It directly dealt with issues of science and religion in Pakistan. She now has a new book out, Thinner Than Skin. Here is the description:
Thinner than Skin is a riveting novel about identity and belonging. It's also a love story: between a young Pakistani man trying to make his way as photographer in America, and the daughter of a Pakistani father and German mother brought up in the US, who wants to return to a country she's never seen. Together they make the trip to Pakistan, where a chance meeting with a young nomad changes their lives, and the lives of those around them, forever. The novel is also a love letter to the wilds of Northern Pakistan, to glaciers, to the old Silk Road, and to the nomadic life of the indigenous people in the Northern territories, where China encroaches and Pakistanis, Uzbeks, Russians, Chinese, and Afghans all come together to trade.
She was also interviewed recently in The Friday Times. Here is an excerpt where she talks about The Geometry of God, and as you will see that this is even relevant to the Lahore blasphemy mess engulfing Umair Asim and his family that I have been posting for this past week:

AA: What was more important for you in The Geometry of God: the ideological background of fundamentalism versus free-thinking or the complex relationships the characters developed in the novel? 
UAK:Definitely the characters. The first scene of The Geometry of God came to me as a voice. It was Amal's voice. From then on I kept hearing her, and then I heard Mehwish and Noman. It was through understanding the voices and their relationship to one another that the themes of the novel arose, and the philosophical questions grew more complex. 
AA: Was it fun, writing from Mehwish's perspective, inventing a whole personal language? 
UAK:Hugely. Hers were some of the most rewarding scenes I've ever written. Amal tells her that a language is like a whale, it comes from something else. It's Mehwish's ability to adapt that allows her to become, in many ways, the soul of the book - without her zest for word play, puns, drawings, and mischief, the book would lose much of its zauq.
AA: Would you like to say something about the role Nouman played in The Geometry of God, particularly his relationship with Zahoor? 
UAK:An Italian interviewer once described Noman's story as "an escalation, a crescendo of emotions." She said that just when it seemed he lacked a distinct identity capable of generous impulses and deep emotions, he became more than that. I liked her description.
Characters absorb us when they embody contradictions we're reluctant to forgive in real life, because, who isn't guilty of contradictions? I sometimes think I write to forgive. We have less time to call on our deeper, more forgiving impulses in our cold world of reality. But in fiction, we insist on doing just this. I hope Noman can be understood if seen in this universal light, as compelling because he's familiar in his weakness. At the same time, he's also a creature of the times. He says "I bat for both sides," a position not unknown to others of General Zia's generation. In public he's one thing, in private he's another. During Zia's reign, the line between private and public was scratched with a hard, angry fist, just as all lines were: between men and women, faith and reason, worship and blasphemy, west and east. Zia's legacy is a dichotomous world.
And here is the part that directly connects to the absurdity of blasphemy charges that have been leveled against Umair Asim, his father, and the school teacher, Arfa Iftikhar. It is

AA: In the years since you wrote The Geometry of God, the country has seen some of the most gruesome attacks on religious minorities, including inhumane abuses of the blasphemy law. What is your perspective on this? 
UAK: When The Geometry of God was completed in 2007, there were many documented cases of blasphemy charges being leveled against innocent civilians, particularly Ahmadis and Christians. My character Nana was not based directly on any one person, but I read several case studies, including those involving ridiculous spelling errors, word shuffling, rumor, and revisionism - including of Jinnah's famous speech in which he emphatically declares us all "equal citizens of one State" - all of which I draw on in the book. And then last year it happened again: a Christian eighth-grader was accused of blasphemy for a spelling error in a poem. For a Pakistani writer, life imitates art all the time. When in the book Nana is falsely accused of blasphemy, he is also called an Ahmadi, as though calling someone this is an insult. His response is to refuse to wear it as an insult by refusing to say what he is. He says instead, "My faith is what they bury when they force me to expose it." And I think that the increasingly furious pace of hate crimes against our religious minorities - from the attack on an Ahmadi mosque in Lahore on May 28, 2010, which should be declared a national day of mourning, to the assassinations of Shahbaz Bhatti and Salmaan Taseer, to the present-day case of young Rimsha Masih - all of this, on top of terrorizing those already vulnerable in our society, makes us all guilty, for two reasons. First, for staying silent about what we know to be wrong. And second, because we are all forced to say what we are, all the time. We can't even get our passport renewed without 'confessing' to not being Ahmadis. I've even been asked my religion while registering for a blood test. And to whom are we always in need of confessing? Not to God, but to a bunch of people who call themselves the state. If this were a civilized land, faith would be private and proof against those we know are playing God would be public. But in Pakistan, it's the other way around: Faith is public and proof is private. 
I cannot agree more with her. Please read the full interview here. And if you are around, she is doing a book reading tonight at Booklink Booksellers at Thornes Marketplace in Northampton, MA at 6:30pm.


Anonymous said...

Dr Ali's new book on science and religion -- God is not a Delusion.

But no interview this time. :)

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