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INTERVIEW: Nafisa Haji

September 23, 2012


Nafisa Haji is the author of The Sweetness of Tears and The Writing on My Forehead. She lives in California. 

What are you reading these days?

For pleasure, The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman, a riveting retelling of the ancient story of Masada and a poignant lesson on the power of storytelling from a tradition that has spent thousands of years successfully passing stories down from one generation to another. For research and work on the two books I am currently writing I am reading One Woman's Jihad: Nana Asma'u, Scholar and Scribe by Beverly B. Mack and Jean Boyd, Incognito by David Eagleman, and The Tell-Tale Brain by V. S. Ramachandran. And, with my son at bedtime, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

Which books are on your bedside table?

Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World by David Brion Davis and The Arabian Nights are on the top of the tower.

Which titles are on your bucket list of books?

Ah! So many books and so little time. I would like to think of myself as living too much in the moment to have a bucket list. That said, War and Peace comes to mind.

What is the one book/author you feel everyone must read? Why?

I tend to recommend all of Dorothy Dunnett's novels often… swashbuckling, adventurous romps through the 15th and 16th centuries written with a humanistic (and slightly orientalist) sensibility by a brilliant and sadistic author — the kind who takes you on emotional roller coasters (one of which caused me to once throw a volume against a wall in protest) and who is merciless in the kind of intellectual demands made on the reader, throwing in lines of medieval poetry in many languages with no translations provided. If your ego can take the bruising, I have yet to find a reading experience as wholly immersing as the one the great Dorothy Dunnett manages to create.

On another note entirely, I love the poetry of Hafiz. In particular, inaccuracies notwithstanding, I enjoy the translations of Daniel Ladinsky whose humourous and irreverent tone I suspect would have been approved of by the master himself.

What are you planning to reread?

Well, Dorothy Dunnett's novels, of course. Along with all of Austen's titles... her books I return to again and again, especially when I am writing. I find myself re-reading novels less as I get older... a result of knowing that the sands of time are pouring out, I suppose… but poetry is something I go back to more and more. Hafiz, Rumi, Blake, Dickinson.

What is the one book you read because you thought it would make you appear smarter?

As I get older, appearances seem to matter less and less. So, it is without shame that I admit that there are whole chapters in Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe that, no matter how much I would like to claim to have understood, I did not. This does not cause me the anxiety it once would have. The inverse, however, the fear of looking “dumb” is not something I have yet fully outgrown. So, there are many, many books I have read which I won't admit to having spent any time with my nose inside. An example of such a guilty pleasure? Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series... oh the shame, and oh, how they have made me laugh!

What is the one book you started reading but could not finish?

Proust. To help motivate me on this front, I have made references to Proust in one of the novels I am currently working on in the hopes of shaming myself into finally reading him. I'll keep you posted on how this works out.

What is your favourite childhood book or story?

There are too many to list but I have the advantage of having re-read many of them in recent years, as bedtime read-alouds with my son. One he and I have read together more than once, and which I don't think I could ever tire of, no matter how many years old I get, is Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne, a lifetime of wisdom rolled into all of those cuddly characters, whose personality types I see in people around me every day, including myself.