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Aamer Hussein: ‘I have no need to strew cultural clues through my fictions’

Pakistani writer Aamer Hussein on the burden of politics in his short stories

Karachi-born and London-based Aamer Hussein has over the decades made the shorter narrative form his own, to consistent acclaim and with multiple collections (including Turquoise and Another Gulmohar Tree) and the novella The Cloud Messenger. Here he talks about writing in the “terse, compressed mode” and the reader he has in mind when he writes:

Your narratives usually roam various cultures, countries, Pakistan, India, England… is this drawn from your own life’s geography?

Yes. I was born in Pakistan, but visited my grandparents in India often as a child, and studied in Ooty, Tamil Nadu, as a teenager. I flew to London from Bombay at 15. I now move back and forth between London and Karachi but have, at various times, been attached to Italy and Spain, and travelled twice through Indonesia. Such settings play an important part in many of my stories.

What is it about the short story form that draws you? Is there a sense that tenderness of emotion is more effectively conveyed through the shorter narrative?

You put that beautifully! Yes, but my love for poetry’s brevity was perhaps one reason why I was drawn to the form from the start — and the feeling that the destination’s in sight before you begin, though there are several different routes of arrival. I also love folklore and traditional tales, which are often narrated in a terse, compressed mode.

Is there a reader you have in mind when you write? Is this a question that the South Asian writer is too unfairly burdened with? Or is it, in fact, a question that South Asian writers do not think through sufficiently?

I rather liked Colette’s comment to the effect that she wrote for a few friends and let others look over her shoulder. But I probably changed. And since my last three books have been published first in South Asia, I am obviously aware of the connection I have with my readership on home-ground, and have no need to strew cultural clues through my fictions. I also write in Urdu, though mostly about the West, which adds a new flavour to vernacular fiction for a Pakistani audience.

Do you think there is a burden of politics (in terms to ideology or power equations) on writers especially today?

I do. We have to answer the weirdest questions about our ideology, especially migrants like myself. I personally don’t use my fiction as a vehicle to carry my political preoccupations (i.e. Brexit) though I am sure you’ll find them there. I think Pakistani writers are burdened with the political question to a greater extent than their Indian contemporaries. But since I occupy an odd interstitial space, I don’t represent any one constituency in my fiction, except, in default mode, the slight beleaguered Muslim migrant in Europe.

But is a gardener, a painter or a potter forced to identify his/ her politics in quite the same way? S/he uses materials that suit the metier. Telling stories is an essential part of our lives and stories aren’t always teleologies. Who’s to say a psychological or spiritual truth is any less important than a sociopolitical one?

For someone who has written short stories so abundantly, would it be possible to identify a favourite of yours?

I realised the other day that my own favourite collection is my fourth, Insomnia, and I also have a liking for my most popular book, Another Gulmohar Tree, the novella I wrote rather quickly with no particular fuss. So the works of about a decade ago!

Among other, later stories, I’d pick ‘Love and its Seasons’ from 37 Bridges; and from my latest, Hermitage, which was published in Karachi this year, the title story, as well as a story called ‘The Lady of the Lotus’ which was based on my mother’s diary notes of her training in shastriya sangeet. I’m doing something new in this book: borrowing from mystic poets, history, etc, and often using my own photographs to create a visual background to the texts.

May I also ask you about your work in collecting and editing previously unpublished writing by Attia Hosain (Distant Traveller: New and Collected Fiction)?

A labour of love! Attia’s daughter found unpublished and lost stories, and an excerpt from an unfinished novel she had told me about, which we compiled; and in agreement with her editor, we also included my favourite stories from her collection Phoenix Fled, which I think contains some of her finest work.

I think Sunlight on a Broken Column is a world classic and deserves far more public, rather than academic, attention than it has received.

Aamer Hussein will be speaking at The Hindu Lit for Life 2019. To be held on January 12, 13 & 14, at the Lady Andal School premises, Harrington Road, Chennai. Visit www.thehindulfl.com to register

mini.kapoor@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 9:19:27 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/lit-for-life/aamer-hussein-i-have-no-need-to-strew-cultural-clues-through-my-fictions/article25796597.ece

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