From the opening few pages of reading a Nadeem Aslam novel, I knew his writing was something to treasure and behold. Serendipitously, I used my then-day job to bring the Pakistan-born, British-educated-and-domiciled Aslam over the Pond to be a featured guest at the then-annual South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival (SALTAF) at the Smithsonian Institution. In SALTAF‘s eight-year history at the Smithsonian, Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers – published stateside just in time for his appearance –is the only book that has ever sold out its sizable inventory before the lunch break. Never before or since has another SALTAF author commanded such exceptional sales.
The Smithsonian reading public’s sophisticated taste resonated far beyond: Maps for Lost Lovers won the Kiriyama Prize, was longlisted for the Booker, shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Award, and named a New York Times Notable Book. Maps is a contemplative, intimate look at a Pakistani community in northern England – self-named “Dasht-e-Tanhaii,” meaning “The Wilderness of Solitude” or “The Desert of Loneliness” – where a pair of unmarried lovers go missing. Five months later, the woman’s brothers are charged with their murder, and the man’s older brother must bring not only the families, but their reeling community, back together.
After discovering Maps, I instantly declared groupie status: Aslam is one of less-than-a-handful of personal favorite authors whose latest title causes nervous paralysis. For fear of the potentially long wait ahead until the next book (because there must always be a next book!), I agonize for months, even years, before actually daring to open certain authors’ newest titles.
Three years following Maps, in 2008, The Wasted Vigil hit U.S. shelves; I waited almost five years to finally read the novel. In fact, until I had this year’s The Blind Man’s Garden in hand, I couldn’t even peek at Vigil‘s first page. What I eventually discovered was a book of extremes: Aslam wields his language like a weapon, his mellifluous prose in cutting contrast to the horrific acts witnessed in the name of God, patriotism, honor, truth, and even love. Weaving in and out of the turbulent decades of Afghanistan’s modern history, Vigil gathers the interconnected stories of four disparate lost souls – Marcus, a septuagenarian British ex-pat doctor; Lara, a Russian widow searching for her late brother; David, a former CIA operative; and Casa, an injured young fundamentalist Muslim.
Aslam traveled extensively through Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to write Vigil, as well as interviewing some 200 Afghan refugees living in Britain. His international, peripatetic background places Aslam simultaneously on both “sides” of an incomprehensible conflict; that unique dissonance imbues Vigil with its unfathomable opposites – its terror and beauty, its deception and truth, its abhorrent hatred and unconditional love.
With Vigil finished, I might have hoarded the promising potential of Aslam’s Garden for a few more years (as it was, I had the galley for a good six months before its publication date) – had I not been assigned this interview. As a bonus, I also had a copy of Aslam’s 1993 first novel, Season of the Rainbirds, which finally made its stateside debut in March of this year two decades after its British publication, clearly timed to overlap with the May publication of Garden.
Dovetailing the reading of Aslam’s first and latest books reveals unexpected parallels. Rainbirds – spare and atmospheric – proves to be a character study of a remote Pakistani village’s inhabitants after the murder of one of its leading citizens. Garden is another detailed, careful observation of a not-so-dissimilar isolated town in Pakistan, the spotlight shrunken onto a single extended family and what happens when two sons – one by birth, the other by informal adoption – disappear. Garden tunnels deep into the tragic “war on terror” to examine the very lives of the individuals who must live through (or not) the shattering decisions of faraway leaders, governments, and regimes. When one brother secretly decides to go to Afghanistan in hopes of caring for the human collateral damage from the post-9/11 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the other immediately decides to join him. Together (and too soon apart), they embark on a harrowing journey of Odyssean feats in an attempt to return home.
For readers who have experienced Aslam before (and the apt word really is “experience”), you’ll recognize (and be awed by) his mesmerizing prose in Garden. Of course that sense of awe comes at a high price for me: as grateful as I am for the one-to-one opportunity to chat, I remain bereft that preparing for our authorly exchange cost me all lingering comfort of knowing I still had more Aslam to read. Now having finished his entire oeuvre, I wait (and wait and wait). Patience is not my virtue.
Is it true that you write your novels by hand? Is that why I’ll have to wait so long for the next book? And how, if ever, does the computer play a part in your writing process?
I write the first draft longhand. There is a feeling of direct contact with the paper through the nib. And the words seem to be flowing from my mind into my hand, then down the pen, and onto the page – blood becoming ink. But after the first draft, I move everything onto the computer, mainly for editing. (I use an eight-year-old Dell laptop, very heavy and gray.) I print out each chapter in three font sizes: First in 12-point, which is my usual size. Then in eight-point – which is the smallest size available, so there are more words in each line – and therefore the eye reads faster, instinctively. The eye, in its hurry to get to the end of each line, takes in more words – so you think not about individual words but about the overall narrative and the storyline, the pacing. Then I print the chapter in 14-point – which means there are fewer words in each line, so the eye slows down, and you do think about every word – the weight of it, the lightness of it. [... click here for sooooo much more]
Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Nadeem Aslam,” Bookslut.com, July 2013