“You never feel completely secure when writing about blasphemy!”-Osman Haneef
In conversation with author Osman Haneef, about his debut novel Blasphemy (Published by Readomania, April 2020) and his inspiration behind it all.
Osman Haneef dons many hats with equal élan. He has worked as TV actor, a strategy consultant, and a diplomatic adviser, and was selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2017. Recently, he made his debut as an author with Blasphemy.
Haneef’s debut story of a Christian boy in Pakistan accused of blasphemy is gut-wrenching and thought-provoking. As noted writer and journalist Aatish Taseer says, ‘In this novel of quiet creeping horror, Haneef forces us to confront the supreme evil that lies at the heart of Pakistan’s Blasphemy law.‘
Team Kitaab was in conversation with him recently, where we spoke about his debut novel, his inspiration behind it and the journey so far, before giving us a glimpse of what’s in store for his readers in future.
Team Kitaab: Was it a conscious decision to write a book on blasphemy, a Pakistani law which has been a matter of concern for a while now?
No, not at first. I wrote the initial draft without a strong sense of the narrative arc or central conflict. But as I wrote, my mind kept coming back to a blasphemy case from the 1990s. In the case, an illiterate teenage boy, Salamat Masih, was accused of writing blasphemous statements on the wall of a mosque in a village in Punjab. There was no physical evidence, and the witnesses were unreliable, and some were even illiterate. Eventually, the conviction was overturned, and Masih fled to Germany.
However, the injustice of an obviously innocent young boy wrongfully convicted in this Kafkaesque court proceeding stayed with me. And unfortunately, whether it’s Asia Bibi, Rashid Rahman, or now, Junaid Hafeez, the topic has stayed relevant. And as I wrote, these characters came to me, and found their way into the story. I sometimes wonder if being a writer is like being a medium. One is trying to channel the voices of imaginary characters in parallel worlds, and tell their stories.
Team Kitaab: As the book deals with the sensitive topic of blasphemy, did it ever happen that you wanted to quit this project midway fearing the consequences? Also, how was your experience of getting published with this book? Were publishers open to take up this book?
You never feel completely secure when writing about blasphemy. After all, Salman Taseer, the Governor of Punjab was murdered by his own bodyguard, for taking a very moderate and reasonable position towards the law. But if those of us with the ability to write about these topics, don’t out of fear, then we cede the debate to the most extreme elements of society.
Those of us with the power to do so, need to speak for those who don’t. If we don’t confront them while we can, it will soon be too late. I had the opportunity to ask Elif Shafak if she had any advice for writing about a controversial topic that may lead to a backlash. She told me to not think about the reaction because that would inhibit the writing. So that’s what I tried to do.
Real change won’t be easy, but anything worthwhile rarely ever is.
In the early days, when I was seeking representation for the manuscript in the UK, a highly respected agent told me that no one would touch my novel because after Salman Rushdie, no one wanted to represent a book dealing with blasphemy. I tried to explain that my book wasn’t blasphemous, though the climax centred on a blasphemy trial. The agent made the point that the people who issue fatwas, aren’t very discerning.
After a few more rejections, I decided to send it to agents in India. Within days of receiving the manuscript, Sherna Khambatta offered to represent the manuscript. We then sent it to different publishers in India. I don’t know if the topic put off publishers in India. However, there were instances where publishers made verbal offers that were then rescinded for no particular reason. Eventually the novel found a home with Readomania, and a publisher and editorial team that understood the novel and its potential.
Team Kitaab: Across the globe we have ample instances of authors being threatened or killed due to their writings on sensitive topics. What are your thoughts on this censorship for writers?
I studied in the US and UK on a scholarship, and lived as a Muslim for many years in Europe and the US. When I first moved, I remember thinking it was ridiculous that the West didn’t stop pastors from burning the Koran or didn’t discourage the publication of inflammatory comics (that weren’t very funny anyway). But living in the Middle East and South Asia, I have also come to appreciate the dangers of giving the state the authority to censor speech.
Censorship of speech quickly leads down a slippery slope where individuals are unable to speak out about injustice and criticize the government. A society where no one can criticize the state is a society with no accountability. It is better to allow free speech, and educate people to think critically, improve digital literacy, and inhabit values of tolerance to mitigate the negative effects of this access.
It is better to allow free speech, and educate people to think critically, improve digital literacy, and inhabit values of tolerance to mitigate the negative effects of this access.
Neo Nazis shouldn’t be ignored because of censorship, they should be ignored because the public should recognize how vile and abhorrent their ideals are to society and so there should be limited demand for their ideas. There should be virtually no censorship of speech with the exception of libel laws, limits on hate speech, and limits on speech inciting violence.
Team Kitaab: Across the world, blasphemy is punishable by death in 13 countries and anti-blasphemy laws exist in 32 countries. Likewise, there are many such laws which globally might seem outdated or unnecessary but are being practiced in particular regions and countries. This has impacted a lot of innocent lives negatively. How do you think can we address this issue?
Citizens of countries with unjust laws need to lobby and call for reform. These laws, though often invoking the need to protect the divine, are all man made. These laws are an abomination, and it is important for those who can speak out, to do so.
Every country will have its own unique challenges and I can’t speak to them all. However, a combination of fundraising and supporting human rights lawyers, campaigners, and organizations, who fight for persecuted individuals and champion broader structural reforms are essential. Individuals should vote for candidates who have more progressive and inclusive platforms, and they should march and protest for reform.
Real change won’t be easy, but anything worthwhile rarely ever is.
Team Kitaab: You are a tech-entrepreneur, an activist and an author. How much do the former two roles impact your role as a writer?
An author’s experiences, either consciously or unconsciously, feed into their novels. Stories and people, events or turns of phrase, are all perfect fodder for stories.
As an activist, I became especially interested in the evolution of the blasphemy law, and how it was used to persecute the innocent, and that very clearly has implications for the novel that I wrote.
I don’t think that my work in tech has as clear of a link on the subject matter but it did make me more open to collaboration and feedback.
Team Kitaab: I loved the characters in Blasphemy. Each one is extremely unique with a sharp character arc. Also, the multiple layers it has in terms of exploring romance, tragedy, socio-political experiences etc. added to the narrative brilliantly. Given the amount of research a book like this would have taken, are any of them inspired from real life?
The characters are simultaneously completely authentic and completely fictional.
I have borrowed from real people. But there is no single individual that is captured in a single character in the novel. Instead, characters are combinations of different stories and traits, exaggerated for dramatic purposes.
Team Kitaab: What are you working on currently?
I am working on a novel, tentatively titled The Great Pretender, which follows a group of Pakistani teenagers who investigate a murder in Islamabad and end up discovering hidden truths that test their friendship and tear their world apart. Similar to the Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, although the narrator and protagonists are teenagers, the novel is written for adults and readers who enjoy book club fiction and mysteries, and it highlights broader social issues.
A final note.
I have been fortunate to have had many mentors, teachers, and friends over the years who have all contributed to me becoming a better writer and author. However, my love for books (which I think is the foundation for any author) came about because of my father’s obsession with books and our frequent trips to the old book stores that littered Islamabad. That was the most fun “outing” for me. I vividly recall the smell of old books, and exploring stacks of comics and novels, looking for hidden gems. It’s the reason I dedicated the novel to him.
He died from late-stage cancer recently and I had been helping look after him in the lockdown. It is hard to see a parent slowly pass away, and to deal with the breakdown of his body so intimately. He also had a form of Alzheimers so he couldn’t retain new information for too long. It was challenging. But I would tell him about the novel, and he would smile and be excited for me, and say how I had accomplished something that he always wanted to do. He would soon forget. I would share the news with him again, he would smile, and the cycle would repeat. In the end, I am glad that I was able to share the news of the publication and its early success with the person who inspired me to write.
Grab your copy from Amazon