When I first read Invitation, I was mindblown by the writing. I got in touch with the publicity representative and she in turn got me in touch with the author and here is the interview for you readers. Hope you enjoy it. You can read the review of the book here
1. Could you tell me a little more about the inception of the title for the book?
The novel went through several working titles, but none of them actually worked. It was quite tedious. But ‘Invitation’ was the title of one of the sections, and when it came time to decide on a final title when the manuscript was going out, I thought about ‘Invitation’ and asked myself if this title captured some essence of the book. I decided that it did.
2. Invitation is a book with many layers. Did you start off by ideating so many layers for the book?
You know, in fact, the challenge throughout was actually getting rid of several layers. This may be something that first-time novelists are especially vulnerable to – the urge to fill the book with everything, as if this is the only chance you have. Throughout, I realized that I was writing many parallel stories that may have worked individually, but not within the architecture of this novel – there were some major characters, who I loved, who I eventually had to give the boot. Hopefully I can resurrect them in later work. There was also a lot more about Shahbaz’s past in Paris. Now you see his past selectively, through a filter, and I think that works much better in this case since this is not your big bildungsroman. So, yes, I was always writing a big book, because it’s big books that have influenced me. It remains, as you say, multi-layered, but I actually see it as far tighter than it was in earlier drafts.
3. With so many Pakistani writers in the limelight, how difficult or easy was it for you to make your presence felt or your voice heard?
On the one hand, Pakistani writers are getting unprecedented attention, which of course is productive and allows someone like me to reach a large audience. On the other hand, it’s a little awkward as well. I have a few friends from the U.S. and elsewhere trying to get their work published, and they often tease me and say, “You’re lucky you’re a Pakistani writer.” The suggestion is that you owe your success as much to this interest in the phenomenon of ‘Pakistani writing’ as to individual talent. This sounds unfair, and yet there may be some truth to it. A mild concern I have is that the attention sometimes shifts from a discussion of the individual book, towards this phenomenon of ‘Pakistani writing’ so that we’re talking about a historical or cultural event rather than the novels themselves. But, ultimately, if your book is strong, it will be the story, the characters, and the language that people will remember long after their interest in this little ‘boom’ subsides.
4. Why is this presumption that Pakistani writers will churn out “a certain kind of story, “the certain kind of novel”? When do you think this will stop?
Well, the most welcome aspect of this whole Pakistani boom or renaissance, or whatever you want to call it, is that the work is so different. Kamila Shamsie’s work is very different to Daniyal Mueenuddin’s, which is very different to Nadeem Aslam’s, which is very different to Mohammad Hanif’s, which is very different to H.M. Naqvi’s… I could keep going. I think you’re right in that there seems to be an expectation that a Pakistani writer will address the major concerns like terrorism, gender inequality, tradition and custom, but I think there are similar expectations for writers everywhere. If you’re writing about New York, for example, you’d have to make a very conscious decision not to address the events of 9/11. If you were a German writer writing after World War II, you couldn’t not address the Nazi experience in some way. So, yes, people will expect to see this theme or that theme in the literature coming out of a particular time or place, but it’s important for writers not to bother about that, not to service those expectations. So far, it’s refreshing to see such varied work out of the Pakistani experience.
5. What role does “the sexual” play in your book considering that it is out there and for all to read and imagine?
A basic fact about the sex in this novel is that it’s certainly not good sex. On the contrary, it’s seedy and demeaning – and by that, I mean demeaning for Shahbaz. It’s not there to titillate and it’s not gratuitous, but reveals much more about Shahbaz, a guy who hasn’t figured out how to engage with women, or how to express masculinity. You have this character who is, throughout, unable to take action, who keeps everything bottled up, who remains silent when he should speak up, who’d prefer not to know and not to reveal too much. But where he is completely naked, figuratively and often literally, is in his dealings with women, whether it’s Malika the dancer, or the many prostitutes he pays for. For him, sex provides solace, in some cases a sense of power… but above all I think the scenes reveal his contempt towards himself and his own situation.
6. How does the cover capture the essence of your book? This was one thing I was struggling to understand…
I wanted something to capture the cabaret, one of the central venues in the story. We toyed with a couple of options, all very striking, but this one also conveyed a sense of mystery, of the hidden or not-quite-revealed, that I thought was apt.
7. Shehryar’s Top 10 All-time favourite books
How about 5 (after that it gets a little tough)?
- Herzog (Bellow); 2. Waiting for the Barbarians (Coetzee); 3. Midnight’s Children (Rushdie); 4. Remains of the Day (Ishiguro); 5. In a Free State (Naipaul)
8. So how did it feel when you finally finished writing the book?
I forget who originally said it, but he’s quoted in John Banville’s The Sea: a work of art is never finished, only abandoned. It was a great feeling to get the first draft done, in that the story now had a beginning and end. But what happens in between was always shifting, being reworked, and I don’t know how many ‘final’ drafts there were. I have to confess that I still think of it as an evolving thing, that in subsequent editions, this or that may be tweaked. I don’t know if I actually will, but the mere possibility keeps the book alive in my head. Also, even when you’ve finished work on the text, the project is still unfinished, in that now the book’s got to get out there, be read, be talked about. I go through spells of excitement and of vulnerability, because it remains a very personal work, a big part of me, that is now public property in a sense. But, overall, it’s a great feeling for the story to be a thing in the world — and an addictive one, which may be why I’m going through the torture all over again in writing a second novel.
9. Why did you pick the 70’s as the backdrop for your book?
Originally, and for some time, this story didn’t have a specific setting, even a time period, but it did involve the narrator’s return from West to East, and about his very idiosyncratic pursuit of a sense of citizenship. At the same time – and this was when I was still in college – I was learning more about this very fascinating period in Pakistan’s history when popular protests in the late 60s were in large part responsible for the end of a military regime and the country’s first democratic transition. In a moment like that, people end up questioning the basics – what it means to be a citizen, what it means to be a nation, what one’s responsibilities are to the state and to fellow citizens, and what the state’s responsibilities are to the citizen. This was the perfect backdrop to Shahbaz’s story, and once I put him in that clutter, I decided I liked the results. Also, I’ve always been a close reader of the State-of-the-Nation novel, and have always wanted to take on big public events in a literary way. In Pakistan, two of those events, the lessons of which still haunt us, are the country’s breakup in 1971 because of a failure to honor diversity and democracy, and the hanging of the country’s first elected prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in 1979. In retrospect, I think it was inevitable that I would use them in my first novel.
10. Your advice to both writers and readers…
To both: keep reading. Read enormous amounts. If a book is not working for you, don’t feel obliged to finish because there are too many great books to read and there’s no time to waste on a book you’re not enjoying. But, at the risk of contradicting myself, read challenging stuff. Read books that expand your vocabulary (literal and figurative), your way of examining human life, your appetite for life, books that show you what all is possible in literature. I have similarly simple advice just for writers: write! Get the words on the page, treat it like something mechanical rather than something mystical – don’t wait for that state of grace, that inspiring moment when the words just gush. There’s no such thing. Give yourself a daily word target, and then treat it like a job, don’t get up until it’s done. Even if what comes out if drivel that you’ll later discard, the point is to enter a regular rhythm, get pages piled up, and worry about making it good later.
You can also purchase the book here