Uzma Aslam Khan is the author of four novels, Trespassing, The Geometry of God, Nobel Rot and, most recently, Thinner than Skin, longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Trespassing was shortlisted for the 2003 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and The Geometry of God was one of the Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2009, winning a bronze medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, 2010. Khan explains that she wrote her first complete story about a princess and her horse when she was six. “I was living in London at the time and a lot of English girls take riding lessons. Because I loved horses, I wanted to as well, but my family couldn’t afford it. So instead I wrote a story.” Here she talks about her new novel.
Thinner than Skin could be a story about love and the search for identity. But it could as easily be a story about the impact of militancy on nomadic communities in northern Pakistan. How did you bring all this together? Nadir and Farhana travel to Kaghan but then it all unravels and there’s a moment at the end when the conflict becomes unimportant.
I’ve never mapped out a novel. I don’t really trust maps, because the lines change as soon you find them. As if the form of a novel itself demands that you stay open to change, open to surprises. All my novels have begun either with an image and/or a voice. With Thinner than Skin, the spark was an Ansel Adams photograph of a waterfall. The force of the torrent inspired a line that has stayed in the book. All the threads of a novel, at least for me, come together through sensory cues, through acts of faith. There is no plan except to feel my way through it.
You write about glacier mating. There’s an ice-bride and ice-groom which to me sounds magical but in some ways is reflective of Nadir and Farhana’s relationship, blowing hot and cold. How did you come up with this strange use of a metaphor that you play with throughout the book?
My first encounter with a glacier was on a visit to northern Pakistan years ago, and it was the same glacier that the characters in my book trek across to get to Lake Saiful Maluk. At the time, what struck me was the sheer physicality of it — the size, the slipperiness, the muddiness of footprints and jeep tracks, the crevices and knuckles and slopes. Things can live inside us a long time before we know they’re even there. It wasn’t till another visit that I learned the glaciers are named, and even given a personality, a gender and a wedding. The ceremony is mysterious and sacred. Naturally, this fascinated me. But even then I never thought to include it in a book. That process — from learning something amazing to finding it a home in my own small way — is also mysterious. I never know how one becomes the other.
Tell me about your experiences while travelling through northern Pakistan and what then led to the novel being set in this region.
I’ve travelled in northern Pakistan, though not as much as I’d like, but certainly to Kaghan, Hunza and Gilgit. I’m someone who’s happiest in the natural world, not the world of drawing rooms, which I’ve always been skilled at avoiding. It’s the physical earth — the flowers and the smells, the rain and the light — that moves and grounds me the most. But coming back to the book, Ghafoor isn’t based on any one person I’ve met, though in Gilgit there are so many traders to and from all over Central Asia; it’s a fascinating corridor. I did encounter men who might have been him. At least that’s what my imagination told me. Nor is Maryam based on any one person from Kaghan Valley, though on the shores of Lake Saiful Maluk I met several families of goat herders camped there for the summer, and as I said earlier, things live in us a long time before we even know it. It isn’t clear to me why, about five years ago, I started thinking more about the valley and about the semi-nomadic Gujjar herders. What I know is that the power of their lifestyle — the way their migration was dependent on the seasons, the way they spoke to their animals, the fluidity of their religion — and most of all, the way the sedentary people of the valley spoke of them, started to obsess me. Coincidentally, I got to talking to someone on a plane who was from the area, and when I asked him to tell me more about the herders, he expressed both admiration and disdain for their free-spiritedness. A story started to take clearer shape.
Your novel also deals explicitly with sexual desire and acts of betrayal.
Details are what writers work with. And love, lust, sex and betrayal all demand detailed details.
You once mentioned years ago that your literary agent at the time wanted you to rework a female character in Noble Rot to appear more like a Jemima Khan-type but you refused. Is it easier to publish in the West today as a Pakistani writer in English than it was when you wrote your first novel?
Well, yes and no. I don’t presume to understand the global market. I never have had nor likely will have a Jemima Khan-type character, and maybe that’s why all three of my books with homes in the West have found very different homes, and taken different periods of time to find them. Also, because my books take four to six years to write, by the time a new one is submitted, the market has changed. That’s another good reason to not concern myself with the market. As is this: rejections have come in all colours. For instance, editors called the women in The Geometry of God unbelievable for being “too strong”, while an editor found Nadir in Thinner than Skin unbelievable for being “too sensitive”. One day I’ll compile a list of the most entertaining rebuffs and perhaps try to sell it — with a manly pseudonym.