INTERVIEW: ‘THE JOB OF THE NOVELIST IS TO CREATE A WORLD. THE QUESTION IS, DOES IT RING TRUE?’— MIRZA WAHEED
Mirza Waheed is a novelist and journalist from Kashmir. He speaks to Eos about his recently released novel Tell Her Everything
Your first two novels, The Collaborator and The Book of Gold Leaves, were set in Kashmir while the latest is set in an anonymous location and has nothing to do with Kashmir. Are you done writing about Kashmir?
I am never done with writing about Kashmir. As a novelist, [when] a premise gets into your head, sometimes it takes hold of your mind, sometimes not. This one did. Nearly five years ago, I found myself thinking a lot about a man such as Dr K; a man who works really hard as an immigrant to London from a small town in India. I wondered, what if such a man achieves everything he set out to achieve — as many immigrants hope when they leave home for a better life. Over the course of the novel, he convinces himself that everything he has done, he’s done it for his daughter. But when he is about 60, living alone in London, he realises that he does not have the love of the very daughter he worked for. He thinks keeping her away from him was the best thing for her. Meanwhile, the daughter wonders what is it with men who are convinced that they know what’s best for their daughters or for the women in their life.
When this happened, I thought ‘here’s a story’, and went with it. It wasn’t as if one day I decided I wasn’t going to write on Kashmir. That’s not how I work.
There’s a question of authenticity when novelists write about the place they come from. You’ve spent decades in London, yet readers would perhaps think you’re more authentic when writing about Kashmir, rather than London. What do you make of this?
Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire has a part set in Syria, a chunk set in Turkey. I’m sure she’s been to Turkey, but she’s not been to Syria. Yet that part [about Syria] is very credible. That’s the job of the novelist, to create a world. The question is, does it ring true? Does it work? I don’t mean in terms of realism; I mean whether it works within the world of the novel and whether it is credible. That’s what matters. If I’m writing about London, I don’t ask myself whether I have to make it authentic. The question is whether it’s working for the story and whether it’s true to the story.
I find the novel a fascinating form. You can do anything with it and you can take it anywhere. There is a lot from my childhood and Kashmir where I grew up, but there is life after that. I spent eight years in Delhi where I went to university. I’ve spent the past 18 years in London. All these things inform my sensibility.
Dr K works in a hospital in an unnamed town; is it a Middle Eastern country where amputations for offences are a reality?
It could be anywhere. I don’t recall the precise moment when I decided to keep the town unnamed. But I was aware that this sort of thing could happen anywhere in the world. There is a penal system in America, Iran, the Far East, Pakistan and India. I became interested in the idea of corporal justice. Dr K asks this question, “Have not we all done these things in order to dispense justice?” He thinks of crucifixion and Jesus Christ. He tries to place himself in that larger world, which is not limited to one place. He says we’ve always done it, we like to watch it. He begins to imagine himself as just a small cog in a large, wide, historical system. That was the idea behind the town remaining unnamed.
Tell Her Everything is a morbid read, yet keeps the reader hooked as well. Does the writer’s mood affect how the novel comes out on the pages?
The subject matter determines the language, the kind of character you’re writing. Tell Her Everything is a first-person narrative, so the character can’t say things poetically since he isn’t that kind of person. He’s not a poet, so he would not talk about his life in lyrical language. There is a quasi-philosophical track that he uses to justify his life and actions. When you have that kind of character, the language has to correspond to it.
Why choose the monologue technique?
It is Dr K’s life story and he is rehearsing how he would narrate it. The possibilities of the form excited me — the idea that this man also imagines what’s in his daughter’s head, the questions she would ask and his own replies to those questions. So within the fictional world, there is another fictional world. It’s this fictional conversation that excited me and drove me forward.
Your protagonist is a doctor, you are not; how much research was needed to write this character?
I did some research on the internet, but not a lot was needed since his job is not a specialty. But when the book was done, my publishers did get a surgeon to read it. He was okay with it. Also, I didn’t want it to be research heavy. I wanted the novel to stay in Dr K’s head because he was thinking within himself. I wanted to stay it within him.
Do you feel the pressure of bringing out a novel, from readers, publishers or your own self?
I like to take my time. I started writing The Collaborator in 2007 and it came out in 2011. The Book of Gold Leaves came out in 2015. When you have a little daughter, there isn’t enough time to write and then you suddenly realise that writing the book is not the primary activity of your day; it’s looking after the child. I wrote this novel when my daughter allowed me to write. But then she started going to the childminder and I had, like, half a day to myself. This was also a difficult book to write and I took my time.
Does being a journalist inform or influence the themes you choose?
I used to be a practicing journalist until 2011; I was an editor at the BBC and quit to write full time. That has given me some freedom because I don’t have a day job and I’m not dealing with daily news every day. I’ve been a journalist for a long time and of course I read about current affairs. But does my journalism inform my work? Yes and no. Because fiction requires a completely different part of your brain and the form is completely different [from journalism]. Journalism is more instant; your writing is published the next day or the next week. [With fiction], you have more freedom and you’re inventing stuff — a more fascinating aspect of novel writing. But it also requires more hard work.
The interviewer is a member of staff
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 5th, 2019