Writing Matters: In Conversation with Aamer Hussein
By Sucharita Dutta-Asane
Aamer Hussein was born in Karachi in 1955 and moved to London in 1970. He has been writing short stories since the mid-80’s and has been anthologized across multiple languages. He has written six short story collections, a novella Another Gulmohar Tree and a novel The Cloud Messenger. A master of lyrical writing, his knowledge of languages and cultures informs his story telling. His most recent book Love and its Seasons has been published by Mulfran Press, UK.
Sucharita Dutta-Asane (SDA): Aamer Hussein ji, welcome to Kitaab, and thank you for agreeing to this interview.
Your writing is an inspiration in its lyrical intensity, its telling use of fables and folktales and in the knowledge of cultures and languages that layer your stories and their vast range of characters. They explore rich inner worlds with compassion and empathy that require intense involvement with the characters. This cannot come easily to any writer. How do you approach your writing? Do you usually know what you will write and how you will write it, or do you follow a process that is organic, the story and its characters leading you by the hand?
Aamer Hussein: I’d say that in most cases it does lead me by the hand. I sit down with an image, a line or an impulse, then the story takes un-imagined pathways and the characters do things I had no idea they were planning to do. Often the end is in sight when I begin and I do often know what I want to write, for example when I use a traditional story as a template, or when, as in my new collection, I was inspired by my mother’s diary about her singing; but there is always an element of surprise even in the process of retelling. And in what we now call life writing, there is the crucial question of arranging memories in a pattern and seeing what they reveal, which often is surprising.
SDA: The search for ‘home’ and the inevitable running away from it, the rootless-ness and at times the aimless wandering – this theme and its traces can be found across most of your short fiction as well as in Another Gulmohar Tree and The Cloud Messenger. What does ‘home’ mean to you as a writer and as somebody witnessing the evolving concept of exile and refuge in the world today? Does language, rather than any kind of physical manifestation, contain the sense of ‘home’ / homecoming?
AH: I’m wary of talking about multiple homes but in this case I must. There’s Karachi, the city I was born in and to which I often return (I’m going back in a fortnight), which remains home in some visceral sense – that location between desert and Arabian Sea is where my clay belongs. It’s at the seaside there, near where my father and grandfather lived, that I feel that sense of homecoming. I ran away from it for many years and now I keep running back. There’s London where I’ve worked and lived all my adult life, but I only feel at ‘home’ in my neighbourhood by a canal and in a small, central part of the city where I once studied and taught. I also have a lost maternal ‘home’ where my grandparents lived in Indore. So yes: I wander among my homes and my notions of home. I’m not in any way an exile or a refugee; today I feel like a fairly privileged expat. Yes, language as well – or rather the page on which I write, where I look for a landing place. That place too is ambivalent, as I read Urdu when I feel homesick, but rarely write in my mother tongue from any sense of nostalgia; English seems to be my memory-language, so yes, that’s a home too. Urdu is a retreat.
SDA: In The Cloud Messenger language seems to be a character with multiple layers waiting to be discovered. In Another Gulmohar Tree, Usman says, ‘You don’t choose the language you write in, it chooses you.’ With your polyglot sensibility and sensitivities, how important has this knowledge of languages been for your writing? Has it created creative dilemmas for you or given a sense of freedom that has helped your storytelling?
AH: My feeling of being trapped in a language that wasn’t naturally mine was one of the original spurs that made me write both fiction and essays. I admired writers like the Egyptian Najib Mahfouz and Indonesian Pramoedya Ananta Toer who were rooted in their own linguistic traditions and my great inspiration was Pakistan’s Faiz. (I always read, and listened to, Urdu poetry.) I was also affected by accounts of writers who felt they couldn’t express themselves in their mother tongue; they strengthened my resolve to gain some prowess in mine, as I ultimately did; I couldn’t write fluently in Urdu then but do now. I used to read a lot in translation, and in all the languages I knew, so I probably brought an element of multilingualism into my English that people might have mistaken as a South Asian echo, though I don’t think it was. So the narrator of The Cloud Messenger is in some sense a translator. However, I was reading Ismat Chughtai in Urdu and Nirmal Verma in Hindi (not in translation) at an early stage in my writing life (I started at 30, so a few years later), and also read Amrita Pritam and later Intizar Husain’s work, so I was mostly definitely aware of the forms of the modern South Asian story.
I also felt that English couldn’t contain many of the nuances of my experience, which meant to an extent my turning away from the SA fiction in English label. At 36 I became quite a voracious reader of Urdu fiction. All that ‘vernacular’ reading can only have enriched my fiction: while postcolonial writers were writing back to Empire, I was more often writing home to the countries and language(s) I felt laid claim to me. Eventually I had to write in Urdu for my own sake, though that did take me until I was in my fifties – Qurratulain Hyder, a family friend who wrote bilingually for much of her life, set the example: why stay with one language when you can have two? But unlike her I can’t translate myself between languages with any ease, and usually require a translator or a co-translator to do so.
SDA: In Asia, fantasy has guided storytelling; indeed, very often it is the essence of our storytelling. Speculative fiction, as a genre that has gained prominence more recently in world fiction, has found a way to convey reality by creating something larger and completely different than realistic fiction. In your books too, we often find fables that set up an alternative narrative or convey what characters find difficult to express. Do you think this mode of storytelling, fables and myths, the speculative format has become important to convey reality in the world as we experience it today?
AH: Yes, Asian traditions of storytelling are too often neglected when we discuss the western genesis of the novel and the short story, and ignore the genres of romance (verse and prose), fantasy and tale, of which we have Indian, Persian, Arabic and East Asian variants. I’m not sure that speculative fiction has become more important – more commercially viable or mainstream perhaps? I was reading The Woman Warrior with a class the other day – it’s mostly made up of fables and fantasy – and realized not only that it’s 40 years old but that it is also a close contemporary of Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber. Then of course there were Calvino and Borges exploring fable and fantasy, and in Urdu the two Hussains, Khalida and Initizar, turning fairy tales upside down, inside out and on their heads.
Traditional tales have always been an important component of my reading and writing life; I can’t say that recent trends have influenced that at all. Recently I’ve composed a lot of parabolic texts which may unconsciously be influenced by a feeling that readers like, and are open to, those forms; but consciously I write them because I can tell a whole story in a page or two. I am hugely influenced in this by the French scholar Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch’s renditions of Sufi tales and parables. I recently loved Ishiguro’s Buried Giant but can’t say it has in any way influenced the direction I’m taking, which veers between stark life writing, retelling traditional stories, and creating works of pure imagination which is the most enjoyable task of the three. As for speculative fiction: I’m not well up on the trend, and the one futuristic piece I wrote – ‘Hibiscus Days’, way back in ’86, which was originally a dystopia set in an imagined land – lay incomplete for twenty years until I set it where it should always have been set, during Zia’s military regime in Pakistan in the 80s, and it was finally published in Insomnia.
SDA: Cloud Messenger can be read through singular moments that lie between mundane movements. So for example, the arrival of a letter, seemingly insignificant, or the sudden, almost epiphany-like dip in the relationship between Marco and Mehran that holds its own story, the casual revelation of affection or disloyalty, the search for meaning through language and the inevitable frustration… there are so many intense and insightful moments that weave through the book. It’s tempting to think of it as semi-autobiographical. How much of Mehran’s journey – especially the intellectual part – is inspired by a personal journey?
AH: Mehran’s journey is reasonably close to mine until he’s about 28, especially the university years. Having said that, I sang and performed in my teens and early twenties, and folk music was my passion; that was an outlet Mehran never had. Later, I began to write stories, and at 30 literature became my passion. I also began to review fiction professionally in my early 30s. My path was only a little slower than I wanted it to be; I never really felt until I was about 35 that I might be ready to publish a book of stories fairly soon, largely compelled by peer pressure; and my first book came out when I was 38, which wasn’t really very late given the particular calendar of my life, divided at it was then and until much later between professional necessities and vocational urges – teaching and reviewing here; writing there (at weekends and on holidays). I was an accidental writer!
Ismat Chughtai, in her great novel Terhi Lakeer, opted not to make her protagonist an artist of any sort; I was hugely influenced by that creative decision as it’s more inclusive of the common reader, but also intrigued by what one of my translators told me – that he expressed his artistic urges vicariously through translation, and I thought that impulse would be fascinating to explore. Mehran has a much more academic approach to literature and language than I ever did. Having said which, I don’t really find The Cloud Messenger an entirely successful or cathartic work. Perhaps because in the end Mehran is such a slacker and produces little till he’s over 50! And unlike me he allows his relationships to overwhelm him. Oh, yes, and I did lose two beloved women friends to death, as he does, an experience that may have been the real reason I wanted to write a book about how romantic notions of literature never guide you through life. But Marco’s a composite character, created as a shadow-double of Mehran….
SDA: When you revisit your stories, do you ever feel the need to completely alter what you have written, to tell it differently?
AH: Let’s go back to The Cloud Messenger. I think it was a few months after it was published – though I’m not sure – that I wrote the story ‘Love and the Seasons’, to create a protagonist who was much more like the me I was in my 20s than Mehran, because everyone was mistaking me for the latter and driving me crazy! I’m happy with that story; its protagonist reappeared in ‘The Swan’s Wife’, written the following year.
More seriously I have, in two cases, written stories from life which I’ve told and retold three times each, throughout the span of my career, because in each version there was something missing. I leave it to readers to find out which ones. (I’ve done with them now the truth’s told.) Otherwise I’ve only once twice reworked a story in its entirety – ‘Hibiscus Days’, which I mentioned above, and ‘The Colour of a Loved Person’s Eyes’ very early in my career, which expanded from a fragment into something bigger and much more layered. Otherwise revisiting one story might make me pull out a strand to weave into another; but no, the stories are mostly fine as they are and where they are; I approach them now as a mere reader and I can barely even recognize the author of some of them.
SDA: As a writer and an editor, I ask this question from either side of the writer-editor continuity. The writer creates, the editor sharpens the creation. As Stephen King says, ‘To write is human. To edit is divine.’ Can you share with us your experience of working on your books with your editors?
AH: I started by selling individual stories to anthologies and journals; I was only very lightly edited, but for my second collection of stories I worked with the wonderful Mai Ghoussoub on making short stories as long as they needed to be, and learnt a lot about expanding where required as I had a tendency to skim and soar rather than to dig and delve. But Mai told me halfway through my third collection I’d learnt what I needed to; apart from the most superficial cosmetic touches there wasn’t anything an editor could do . So no, I can’t really say much about this until we come to the only novel I’ve written which I was made to expand and then compress, add scenes and situations to and delete characters from – a bit nightmarish, really, not a process I’d like to repeat, though I hear it’s what most novelists have to go through with agents and editors. With collections there’s the question of sequence – editors can be very helpful, as I found when I worked with G.S. Ajitha on 37 Bridges (HarperCollins). And in the case of my latest collection, Love and its Seasons, the editor-publisher Leona Medlin – herself a fine poet – nurtured the entire concept from start to finish, reading and approving each new story in its earliest draft. She also selected images from my personal collections, including photographs I’d taken on my phone, to illustrate my stories, which makes the book unique in my work.
SDA: Your reading is eclectic, across cultures and languages, from Persian to writing from the American south. Is there any writing technique, style, subject that you wish you had used in your stories but did not? Who are your major literary influences?
AH: I wish I’d been a better poet as, in English, I probably read more poetry than prose. I once wrote an elaborate plan for a mystery set in post-Partition Karachi – I’d love to write a spoof mystery but don’t think I ever will. Otherwise I’ve covered more than I ever wanted to as so much crept into my fiction like rain through a leaky roof.
My influences have changed over the years, but the abiding one over the last quarter century has been Qurratulain Hyder. Otherwise, among my favourite short story writers: Lu Xun, Tanizaki, Akutagawa, Marguerite Yourcenar, Isak Dinesen, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Umar Kayam, Vaikkom Mhd Bashir; some of Mahasweta Debi, Ghulam Abbas, Intizar Hussain, Khalida Hussain and of course Chughtai…. endless.
Among novelists, Cesare Pavese, Han Suyin, Mahfouz, Pramoedya and Assia Djebar stand out as early influences. Recently, I admired the novels of Nisar Aziz Butt in Urdu, but I discovered her too late to call her an influence. Earlier I mentioned Eva de Vitray, whose work on Islamic mysticism is an enormous guiding light.
SDA: In your introduction to Qurratulain Hyder’s Fireflies in the Mist (Aakhir-i-Shab ke Humsafar), you write of her (Annie khala) influence on your reading at a young age. Would you like to tell us how she shaped your early literary choices?
AH: She taught me a lot about modern and contemporary Urdu literature from about 1990; earlier than that she gave me her own translations into English of her stories to read, and also guided me through much of her own work – I took her for granted before she grabbed me by the ear and made me read her: at first her stories and then her novels. She also taught me that it was alright to be a writer; but never to take that role too seriously.
SDA: The longer works you have written carry the tautness of your short stories, their understated lyrical movement. As a writer of mainly short fiction, what urge leads you to the novel and novella? Which do you find more satisfying?
AH: No urge at all. Gulmohar was only ever meant to be a story and reads like one with its epiphanic climax. It grew and grew quite organically; fine by me if the longer of its two narratives is termed a long short story, but that’s a tautological phrase – and I also don’t think anything longer than 10,000 words is a short story, so novella you may call it! Then there’s the additional prologue of interwoven stories; the book’s formally a short novel, I guess. The Cloud Messenger on the other hand was meant to be – and originally was – a 90-page novella, but the dictates of publishing forced me to make it longer. It certainly isn’t a novella by my reckoning because it’s over 200 pages long (after substantial cuts of a subplot about the narrator’s great-uncle, a writer of the 1930s). Only in recent years is 200 pages considered short for a novel. I prefer to work in the shorter forms – I used to say there was no story I wanted to use more than thirty pages to tell, and I once hacked away the last several pages of a story, ‘The Blue Direction’; now I would feel bored after writing about twenty and start reining myself in.
SDA: How important is discipline in writing? What is your writing discipline? Is it possible for the writer to be nomadic in her writing routine?
AH: I am nomadic when I write fiction – anytime, anywhere – but disciplined when I edit; I attack the text first thing in the morning and carry on until lunch time, and then perhaps return to it for the afternoon if I’m not exhausted or tempted to rush out to the library or for coffee with a friend. When I’m writing a commissioned article or essay I begin work on it with my first cup of tea, often at 6 or 7 a.m., and carry on for three or four hours until I have a decent draft and then edit – radically, if needed – after rereading it. I really don’t like to spend more than half a working day on a newspaper article, but stories have their own momentum. They can take a day, or many years: just yesterday I completed one I’d abandoned over a year ago. I hate making a fetish of routine, though: I have no need to write every day and don’t though after a period of silence I begin to want to work on something, anything; even a column.
SDA: You’ve published with small, independent publishers as well as with established ‘big’ houses. What would you tell writers caught between wanting to be published by the ‘big’ publishers and choosing to go with independent publishers?
AH: Those of my books that were published by ‘big’ houses in the subcontinent were usually bought from my independent British publishers, Telegram, with whom I had a good relationship until about 2011, but they didn’t want to publish another collection of my short fiction. Luckily, a new house in Pakistan, Readings, commissioned one which came out in 2014, largely composed of stories that had been published in journals over the last two or three years, when I returned to the short form with renewed energy after those years of working on longer texts. I’d also written a number of Urdu stories which appeared in translation in this book, The Swan’s Wife. It was published in an expanded edition as 37 Bridges in India the following year, an experience I greatly enjoyed, as it meant working with a keen and enthusiastic editor. This year, a British/Welsh boutique publisher, Mulfran, commissioned and published a tiny new book in a limited edition of 250 copies. I don’t know where I’ll go with my fiction next; no publisher, to be honest, is rushing after me for a new book of stories, and I haven’t the energy or inclination to pursue anyone, big or small. I’ll just keep writing and publishing stories as and when I’m asked; luckily there’s no dearth of literary journals commissioning for new work! I think that’s how short story writers and poets function, text by text.
As for young writers: I shrink away from the current preoccupation with celebrity, publicity and big advances; when I attend festivals it’s to meet my readers and – to a lesser extent –my fellow writers. (The chance to travel and the occasional decent cheque are also an impetus.) I dislike elbowing anyone or having my corns stepped on, but public appearances are only a tiny part of my life, something I try to treat with a degree of professionalism and move on.
Read Aamer Hussein’s short story ‘The Name’ from his latest collection Love and Its Seasons (Mulfran Press, UK) here.