An Interview With Aamer Hussein

And so another interview with a man who is classy, has a great penmanship and I recommend, Another Gulmohar Tree to all. A must read. So here is my interview (via email again) with Aamer Hussein:

Q; I was intrigued about the title used for this novella. Could you please let us know how did the title come about?
A;The book was originally titled Puzzled Angels, after something a Pakistani writer said to me about the characters of my previous book of stories, Insomnia (also published by Penguin). The gulmohar tree wasalways there in the story- perhaps because it was ubiquitous in the Karachi of my childhood, and I spent a lot of my free time reading up on a branch of one – but it was only while I was writing the book that I discovered that the tree was brought to the subcontinent from Madagascar, and it became a perfect metaphor for my protagonists’ lives. Actually it was the poet Ruth Padel who suggested the title to me; she said that by the end of the book Usman and Lydia weren’t puzzled any more.

Q: To me this book seemed autobiographical in many ways. Was it? What inspired you to write about love amongst different cultures?
A: Nothing really autobiographical about it, except, perhaps, the glimpses of Karachi, particularly the neighbourhood in which Usman and Lydia build thir yhome, and the art world I knew as a child. However, the story ends in 1962 when I was been barely seven, and the Karachi I remember was changing dramatically.The second part of your question is both tricky and simple; it’s hard to say why one is drawn to a particular subject. However, there were two famous Eruropean women artists, Anna Molka and Esther Rahim, working in Pakistan in thr period; a third, Christian Vlasto (the wife of an acclaimed writer) changed her name to Zainab Ghulam Abbas, did wonderful illustrations for children, and retold traditional stories in a fine book of Pakistani folktales. I took my inspiration from thrm, but the story came to me before I knew them and is in essence imaginary, though its trimmings are historical.

Q I loved the part about the children not knowing how to speak Urdu fluently in the book. Was that delibrate? Did you also have to struggle to master the language?
A: Urdu was the first language I remember speaking; but I learnt the English alphabet at five and Urdu at about eight, so my reading in English was far more fluent when I was growing up. Now I’m pretty much bilingual as a speaker and a reader.

Q; The book starts with fables, which I wished were more in the book. The connection of them to the story was brilliantly executed. Was there any specific reason to write in fables?
A: Usman in my story responds to the poliical climate by writing fables. My plan was to rewrite the classical story of thr Crocodile King with a modern twist but I got carried away and wove in other tales, too. But I think there are just enough for my book and adding any more would have overloaded the book.

Q: Who are your favourite authors?

A; From the subcontinent, I love the novels and stories of Qurratulain Hyder and the short fictions of Shafiq-ur-Rahman, among others. I admire Vaikom Bashir, Two of my favouritr novels are Cesare Pavese’s Thr Moon and thr Bonfire and Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights. I love the short stories of Isak Dinesen and the Japanese Tanizaki and Akutagawa.

Q: I know it sounds rather banal, however one book you wish you had written and why?

A; I’m by predilection a writer of short fiction. So: some of the stories of Hyder in her collection Pathjhar ki Avaaz (translated as Thr sound of Autumn Leaves): the title story and the novella ‘Exiles’, for example. .

Q: What are you currently working on?

A; I’m working on the final draft of a novel, The Cloud Messenger, which will be published in England next year.

Q; What are you currently reading?

A: Salvador Dali’s Hidden Faces; Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes; a biography of the photographer Dorothea Lange.

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