“My novels are my way of saying to the cruel, unjust people in the world, ‘You think you got away with it?!’” A Nadeem Aslam novel can be many things. You could read it for the poetry or the hypnotic imagery; the immediacy of its events or the relevance of its anxieties; its rich historicity or its cultural authenticity. However, if there’s one consistent thread that runs through his five novels, it is this Pakistani author’s need to tell the stories of ordinary people and the courage they call upon everyday. “I have no interest in the rich. They can sort out their own problems,” he says.
Aslam’s family was forced to flee the tyrannical president Zia-ul-Haq’s Pakistan when he was a teenager and move to Britain, where he still lives. He started writing at an early age and when he decided to become a working writer (his words) he sought out VS Naipaul’s publisher from an address printed in a copy of A Bend In The River (Knopf, 1979). It worked. His debut novel Season Of The Rainbirds (Vintage, 1993) won the Betty Trask Award, but it was his second book, Maps For Lost Lovers (Vintage, 2004), that established his reputation as a lyrical chronicler of the immigrant experience. The book, which gives us a glimpse into the lives of working-class Pakistanis in Britain, took 11 years to write.
When he’s in the middle of a novel, Aslam spends all night writing, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I called him at 9am for our chat about his latest book, The Golden Legend (Penguin Random House), out this month. I was met with a polite, soft-spoken voice that was incredibly compelling. His conversation carried observations on everything from Botticelli’s ‘Madonna del Libro’ to an anecdote about Gabriel Garcia Marquez meeting a CIA whistleblower, but was illustrated with an empathy for the minutiae of normal life, like the gestures his aunt makes while haggling for vegetables in Pakistan. “I think you’re one of the gentlest souls I have ever spoken to,” I gushed at the end of the call. In retrospect, I could have handled that better. But I doubt anyone could return unmoved from a conversation with Nadeem Aslam.
ELLE: Nine o’clock seems rather early for a writer to begin their day.
Nadeem Aslam: (Laughs) When I’m writing, and I’m writing at the moment, I sleep through the afternoon and evening, wake up at 11pm and I’m at my desk by midnight. I write from midnight to about 7am or 8am. So you have actually called me at the ideal time.
ELLE: Even a bit of lazy research reveals that your writing process is a very intense, almost monastic, one.
NA: I like working at night, everything is saturated with stillness. I feel that I’m the only one awake, keeping an eye on the world. My process is just a way of intensifying the original impulse, whatever it was that compelled me to write the book. You have to isolate yourself with that original idea, then weave a cocoon around yourself and the idea, so that the two of you are alone.
ELLE: What was the original impulse behind your latest novel, The Golden Legend?
NA: I was working on my previous novel The Blind Man’s Garden (Knopf, 2013) in January 2011, when Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, was murdered by his bodyguard for objecting to Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Innocent people are dead because of that law; entire neighbourhoods have been reduced to ashes by mobs accusing Christians of blasphemy. Just last year, a Christian couple was thrown into a furnace by a mob that believed it had the sanction of the state. The afternoon that Governor (Taseer) was killed, I began to make notes about the novel that became The Golden Legend.
ELLE: The novel packs in so many themes beyond the blasphemy laws, though.
NA: This original impulse deepened and widened, and the novel came to be about power and powerlessness. What does it mean to be powerless? I wanted to find out who is powerful and powerless between men and women, between the East and West, between the State and its citizens.
ELLE: What were the books that influenced you as you wrote this one?
NA: When I was researching the novel, I chanced upon a 13th-century book called The Golden Legend, which is a collection of stories about the lives of Christian saints. The extraordinary thing about the book was the number of times rape was used as a weapon against women. A woman would be asked to renounce Christianity and when she didn’t, she would be ‘sold to a brothel’. Or she would be forced to ‘marry a brute’—we all know what that means. Many of these women then disguised themselves as men and ran off to join the monastery. I knew I wanted that text to underlie my more contemporary story.
ELLE: How important is it for you to engage politically with current events as an author?
NA: I have always said that I feel I have no imagination. There are so many incidents in the novel that I simply couldn’t have made up. The story of the Kashmiri character was largely based on a Kashmiri I met in Pakistan, who’d come to train in a militant camp, but eventually left because he was disgusted by it. I asked him why he was there and he told me about how an Indian soldier had beaten his pregnant sister so savagely that her baby was born with a broken arm. Now, who could make this thing up? But unlike real life, a novel has to have characters, language, pace and style. Taking the events of real life and bringing them into the landscape of a novel is like shifting a lake from one place to another with a teaspoon.
ELLE: The novel also evokes a rich, textured history of Islam, with its references to Cordoba and thinkers like Averroes and Avicenna, at a time when the religion is overwhelmingly represented as inflexibleand monolithic.
NA: ISIS and the Taliban are insulting the history of an entire religion. As if the Muslim world hasn’t had challenges and crises before that we couldn’t solve without cutting off people’s heads! We have been through far worse than this, but we have never lost our dignity or our honour. One of the promising things in recent times is a growing awareness of the idea of the ‘cultural Muslim’.
ELLE: What does Islam mean to you?
NA: Marxism and Islam are the two strands of my DNA. I got Marxism from my father and my uncles, and Islam from my mother’s side of the family. Religion, for me, was always about consequence: if you do something bad, something bad will happen to you. If you do something good, you can enter paradise.
ELLE: There are moments in your book that are sublime even when describing a grim reality. The easy description here would be ‘magic realism’, but your work is more natural, somehow. How do youwalk that line?
NA: That’s an interesting point and I think it’s related to the previous question about religion. I’m not religious; I’m an atheist. But I also have a mother who is a believer, who believes that when Judgement Day comes, she will be pulled out of the earth and made to stand before God, who will judge her. Now you might say this is a completely irrational human being, but this is also the person who laid down in my consciousness my very first notions of what compassion and love are. Like her, most people hold a supernatural understanding of the world—how can I shut myself off from writing about them? What is realism, then? I’ve always said that I don’t use the novel in its Western form; and I don’t use the English language as a Westerner would, because I carry the awareness of another world. In India and Pakistan, we have a word, ‘rasa’, which means the flavour of existence. It’s a hard word to translate.
The Golden Legend (Penguin Random House) is out this month.