Interview: Zia Haider Rahman

The Bangladeshi-British writer on news versus novels, swapping rural poverty for Wall Street, and “the power of story on the human mind”: Guernica

ZiaThe American physicist Richard P. Feynman once spoke of the “difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.” It’s a distinction that seems important in Zia Haider Rahman’s first novel, In The Light Of What We Know, which spans several decades and flies us between London, New York, Islamabad, and Kabul. Many of the characters have had the chance to get acquainted with Yale University’s motto, “Lux et Veritas.” But few have had the bone-deep experience of poverty and struggle that can lead to a different kind of knowing—an awareness that there are things you can’t be taught in the Ivy League; that there are different lights and different truths depending on matters of simple caprice: “the circumstances of our parents, the home and inheritance, the unearned talents…” Some kinds of knowledge go no deeper than language—are unaccompanied by experience or empathy—and the novel’s most memorable zingers are reserved for “that breed of international development experts unsparing in its love for all humanity but having no interest in people.”

Rahman’s subject is education and the divisiveness of class, and along the way he offers us riffs on warfare, philosophy, geopolitics, and Wall Street. The novel is anchored by a character named Zafar, who, like Rahman himself, was born poor, in a rural part of Bangladesh—“a corner of that corner of the world.” Like Rahman, he was then moved to England by parents who couldn’t speak much English. Both the author and his character have a father who worked as a London bus conductor and both author and character managed—against all the expectations set by their backgrounds—to end up at Oxford University, where excellence at mathematics pushed them into lucrative careers in finance.

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