THE SUNDAY INTERVIEW Magazine

‘Writing is really an interruption of reading...’

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Author Zia Haider Rahman discusses his writing style, influences and concept of identity.

Zia Haider Rahman was born in rural Bangladesh. He moved to the United Kingdom before his sixth birthday and was raised in a derelict squat before moving to state housing. His father was a waiter; his mother a seamstress. Zia won a scholarship to read mathematics at Balliol College, Oxford, and completed graduate studies at Cambridge, Munich and Yale universities. After working as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs on Wall Street, he turned to practising as an international financial lawyer before moving to human rights work. Rahman’s recently released debut novel In the Light of What we Know has been hailed as a masterpiece. Excerpts from an interview:

How much time did it take from manuscript to printed book?

Many of the ideas and images in this novel have been percolating for a long time. The first draft was about the same in length as the final one, as I recall. Before I began revising, my editor made suggestions conceding that those comments might actually increase the length of the novel by ten per cent. In the end, I decided to make a few small cuts, so the word count did not change much between the first draft and what is there now in the printed book. From final manuscript to printed book, it took about three to four months.

How many notebooks did you maintain to create this?

As a matter of routine, I have always kept notebooks, jotting down ideas and things of interest. I used to try to keep track of them. While writing the novel, my note-taking activity increased hugely. The research was done in various places. Some of it was done on the internet. The libraries I used were the British Library in London, the New York Public Library and the library of a small town in upstate New York, near Yaddo (a foundation for writers, artists and composers, where I wrote most of the novel).

Who are the authors and writing styles/traditions that have influenced you?

Over the years, many books and authors have had an emotional impact on me, although whether and how they might have influenced my writing is, in most cases, harder to see. To name a few: Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, David Adams Richards’ Mercy Among the Children, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Sebald’s Austerlitz, many of Philip Roth’s novels and Coetzee’s, James Baldwin’s. Writing is really an interruption of reading and vice-versa.

You have a lot of epigraphs in the novel but they seem to be used in an unusual way. What is their purpose?

Ordinarily in novels, epigraphs are evidence of the writer peeking in from behind the curtain; here, the narrator has actively included them after retrieving them — or most of them — from Zafar's notebooks, as he himself explains. The epigraphs actually do a job of storytelling. Described in this way here — and not encountered in the course of reading — it might seem like the assignment of epigraphs to and by the narrator is a breach of a convention of the novel.

At a time when it is easy to Google for information, why did you introduce extensive footnotes in the text?

The narrator himself does precisely that — goes to Internet search engines in order to look things up. The narrator simply doesn’t want to omit something that Zafar said or wrote and yet cannot justify to himself the inclusion of the material in the main body of text. The footnotes—their presence, form and the kind of material they include—are an example of what emerges from the first person perspective here. In a third person narration, they might not have emerged in a necessary way.

How did your training in mathematics impact your manuscript drafts and plot structure?

Mathematics is fundamental to my outlook on very many things and in ways that I cannot easily measure. In my formative years it was everything to me, the single place of beauty in my life, and of breathtaking beauty at that. The mathematical tilt remains basic to my epistemological perspective, my insistence on reasons for a claim—reasons that that are capable of yielding to interrogation. Mathematics gave me that.

The analogy between cartography and translation is a fascinating concept on the art of representation via illustrations and word. How do you view your novel in the light of this theory?

In the novel, the narrator relates Zafar’s observations on one underlying similarity between map projections and the translation of poetry. Both involve choices about what to preserve and what to let go. Moreover — and this is crucial — in both cases, a decision to preserve one thing limits, or even destroys, the freedom to preserve others. The similarity of the two enterprises speaks to the pervasiveness of an underlying point: in order to gain access to the world, we undertake an activity of representing it that necessarily involves destruction. There are several themes in the novel but its backbone is to do with the status and nature and limits of knowledge.

Would you say that In the Light of What We Know explores the concept of a “global or an immigrant” novel?

I remember walking into a famous independent bookshop in New York a few years ago and discovering that under fiction they had an “Asian writers” section, as well as other ethnically or regionally defined categories. This sort of arrangement is not uncommon. The geographic and cultural categories into which novels are placed, often because of an identity assigned by people other than the author, is driven by a market that has become habituated to conceiving of literature in terms of these categories. The root of the problem is a word: novel. The novel is such an expansive menagerie, holding such varied beasts, that a taxonomy is inevitable because it is useful. But the expansiveness of the idea of a novel gives rise to all manner of problems.

Whereas in your novel there are many epigraphs drawing the reader’s attention to the Bangladeshi women raped during conflict. Please comment.

What is there to say that hasn't been said already? Tahmima Anam, the distinguished Bangladeshi novelist, has written evocatively about the plight of the Birangonas. But one finds oneself still asking: who is listening? Every aspect of the suffering that these women have been through at the hands of Pakistani soldiers and Bangladeshi collaborators is stomach-churning. But it galls me to think that after rape and violence during the war many of them returned to communities that turned their backs on them.

How would you identify yourself — by country of origin or domicile or a bit of both like Zafar who is perceived as “Anglo-Bangla”?

I am often asked where I'm from—in Europe, mainly because of my skin color, and in the US, mainly because of my British accent. I know that this is the case because in the US when I say that I was born in Bangladesh, nine times out of ten, an American probes further to get an explanation of the accent. But if, instead, I tell Americans that I grew up in the UK, there seem to be no further questions. I have long sought a sense of belonging to a place, something lacking in my psyche. The insufficiency is not without its advantages, of course. I think it keeps one a little removed from things, which is a helpful vantage from which to observe. And this slight dislocation can make for interesting personal experiences. The cost is brutal. Human beings need roots, perhaps not all humans, but I rather suspect it is the norm to attach to a piece of land, to the ground that will one day take us back.

You are represented by the legendary Andrew Wylie, a dream beginning for a debut author. How did this come to pass?

I was introduced to the agency by a mutual acquaintance.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2020 5:06:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/writing-is-really-an-interruption-of-reading/article6228449.ece

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