“I’ve always tried to do something I haven’t done before, because I have a low boredom threshold,” Salman Rushdie says while seated in the book-lined conference room at the Wylie Agency. “There was certainly a point in my life where I guess I could have written a version of Midnight’s Children every two years and it would have been fine—except I would have wanted to shoot myself!” Instead, in the 38 years since his Booker-winning breakthrough novel was published, the writer has ranged over a variety of styles and subjects, such as the code of honor underpinning Pakistani society in Shame and what he describes as “the Eastern fabulist tradition” in his 2016 novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.
Rushdie takes another journey into unexplored territory in Quichotte, which will be published by Random House in September and was recently long-listed for the Booker. Inspired by Cervantes’s Don Quixote, the novel portrays an elderly traveling salesman “deranged by reality television” who falls in love with the host of a daytime talk show whom he has never met. As Quichotte (the name he takes in letters to his beloved) travels across the country to meet Miss Salma R, a parallel plot concerns the writer who created him; these twin story lines eventually converge in a fantastical ending that tips its hat to some of the science fiction tales Rushdie loved as a boy.
“It comes from the literary tradition of the picaresque novel, combined with a certain kind of modernist playfulness,” Rushdie says. “There’s quite a lot of Joyce in it. This was a scary book for me to write, because I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to pull it off. There are these two narrative lines, which echo and mirror and talk to each other. I knew that the thing that would make the book work was if by the end they could merge, and I really wasn’t sure how to do that for a long time. I was quite nervous about it.”
Rushdie adds, “Normally I don’t show anyone a work in progress, but in this case when I had written 50 or 60 pages of the first draft, I actually asked Andrew Wylie [his agent] to read it. I said, ‘Look, this is very weird, but I need to know if it’s good weird or bad weird.’ And he said, ‘I don’t know where you’re going to go with this, because it could go in a lot of directions, but what I can say is that it’s the funniest thing of yours that I’ve read.’ That was comforting, and I’m pleased to see in the early responses that a lot of people have been finding it very funny.”
Rushdie says that he originally intended Quichotte to be “a road novel about this crazy old coot and his imaginary kid sidekick [Rushdie’s riff on Cervantes’s Sancho Panza].” He adds, “This other story just showed up, and I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to see where it leads.’ I reserved the right to take it out, but it just grew and became more and more important. Somebody said that the book you finish is never the book you began, and it was true with this story line. One of the things I liked about it was that, whereas the Quichotte story line is comic and playful, the author story line is much more emotional.”
“I used to be much more of a planner,” Rushdie says. “When I started out, I would have to have a lot of architecture before I could start putting flesh on it. Now I understand much more clearly the magic that happens on the page: the thing you didn’t expect, the thing you couldn’t have thought of when you were making a plan. When a book is working, the characters take over. I’ve often thought about the process as being more one of listening than of making; you sit there and listen to the people you’ve made up, they tell you what they need, and then you try and give it to them.”
Rushdie also used to be much more defensive about his work, he acknowledges. “I would say, ‘Whose name is on the book? Your name? No. As far as I know, it’s not your name it’s my name, so I get to decide.’ ” Considerably mellowed at age 72, he notes, “I’ve gone from that position to feeling that I’ll take all the help I can get, and I’m lucky that I have one of the great old-school editors.”
The editor in question is Random House publisher and editor-in-chief Susan Kamil. “She’s got the whole world to run,” her appreciative author remarks, “but she made amazing amounts of time for me. One day, she came over to my place and we spent six hours going through Quichotte. I didn’t always agree or do what she suggested, but she’s a very, very good reader and I always listen to what she has to say.”
Rushdie takes pleasure in listening to the many voices that have broadened the horizons of English-language literature in the decades since he came to England from his native India to attend boarding school. He lived in London after receiving an MA from Cambridge University and found himself in the middle of an explosion of expatriate literary energy. “In the 1970s,” he says, “a whole bunch of writers who came from all over the place—Kazuo Ishiguro, Timothy Moe, Ben Okri, Caryl Phillips—suddenly found themselves in the middle of the conversation about English literature.”
Rushdie was part of that conversation; indeed, he says, smiling ruefully, The Satanic Verses was intended as an immigrant novel. “It was my first attempt to write about leaving the East and arriving in the West. When it came out, one critic said—I’m paraphrasing—‘What is all this stuff about Muslims doing in a London novel?’ Now, of course, that question has been answered by history.”
Moving to the U.S. around the turn of the 21st century, Rushdie says he saw the same multicultural energy. “Immigrant literature from all over the world is now becoming American literature. You have all these wonderful Vietnamese writers, Nigerian writers, Chinese writers; the traditional American immigrant literature, which was Jewish, Eastern European, or Italian, is now enormously expanded. Well, that’s me, too; I showed up with other stories in my baggage.”
“Multiply rooted like an old banyan tree,” is how the Indian American author in Quichotte refers to himself. “That’s become the normal thing,” Rushdie adds in conversation. “I think of someone like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, as much American as she is Nigerian but very much rooted in both places. For a writer that is a blessing; it gives you the ability to see the world in more ways. If you look at the last half-century, I think this is the most interesting thing that’s happened in the English-language novel. One of the things that’s nicest about being the old guy in the room is that many of these writers are very complimentary about the value of my work to them. It’s a river, this thing; you get things from the people who came before, and hopefully people take things from you and go on.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
The idea of Pakistan instantly conjures clichéd headlines and images: angry bearded men protesting, and questions about how Osama Bin Laden managed to hide in the country. Over the past decade, the discourse on Pakistan has been stuck in a time warp: a nuclear weapon-armed country on the perpetual brink of collapse.
It isn’t surprising then, that writing on Pakistan features the same. At bookstores in Washington, DC and elsewhere, ominously-titled books are a constant: Descent into Chaos, Deadly Embrace, and Eye of the Storm.
In his novel Shame, Salman Rushdie describes the country, newly formed in 1947 when India was split apart after the British withdrew and handed over power to the new India and Pakistan, as “moth-eaten.” Pakistan is, Rushdie writes, “a country so improbable that it could almost exist.”
While no one denies that the country is in a dire state, Pakistani fiction writers are working at making sense of Pakistan, with subtlety, nuance, and colorful tales far beyond the reach of the foreign correspondent.
As author and historian William Dalyrmple puts it, Pakistan has always needed explaining, “When (author) Nadeem Aslam first came to the Jaipur Literature Festival, he said that we need to write about Pakistan as if we are writing with a burning quill. I think that provides the energy that fuels the engine of Pakistani writing. Just like Latin America in crisis in the 1970s produced remarkable writing from authors like Marquez. In Pakistan today, the situation is so fragile, so complex, so much in need of understanding and explanation and clarity.”
A sense of this need for clarity came from the buzz surrounding journalist Mohammed Hanif’s debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes. Set in the 1980s, the book provides a fictional account of General Zia-ul-Haq’s reign and his death in a plane crash. The crash was real, as was the iron grip that Zia held over the country. The wry story, with an Air Force officer as the protagonist, made one wonder if Hanif’s version of events was actually true. The author is routinely questioned at book readings if he has written a journalistic account of the events.
The release of A Case of Exploding Mangoes prompted many to wonder if Pakistan was the next hot spot for English-language fiction. But this was far from the first novel that originated from the country. In the 1960s, Zulfiqar Ghose wrote The Murder of Aziz Khan, a heart-wrenching tale of life and death in a village in Punjab. In the 1980s and 1990s, Bapsi Sidhwa wrote a series of novels chronicling stories of the Zoroastrian community in Pakistan, set against the backdrop of the division of the Indian subscontinent in 1947 or in the U.S in the 1970s. In 1997, Mohsin Hamid published Moth Smoke, based on the differences between the haves and have-nots of Lahore, and in 2007 The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a tale of a man who turns to religion. Kamila Shamsie developed a cult following for her poignant tales of characters from the elite Karachi.
Growing interest in fiction from Pakistan appears to have coincided with a tumultuous time in the country’s history: Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the resignation of General Pervez Musharraf after nine years of rule and a war against militants in the tribal regions of the country. A Case of Exploding Mangoes was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and was followed by a flurry of new books that made headlines worldwide.
In 2009, Daniyal Mueenuddin, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, published his collection of short stories In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. Mueenuddin, a Yale Law graduate, is a farmer by profession. The short stories, set primarily in rural Punjab, provided a glimpse into life away from the big cities, on farmlands where landowners held sway, and sex was used as a means of influence.
But why is it important to read fiction from Pakistan to understand the country? While books will sell on their own merit, there is an urgent need to make sense of the country and the region as a whole. Foreign correspondents parachute in and out of the country, and are largely limited to the cities, but authors with varied and rich backgrounds have tried to portray life drawn from their own experiences.
However, the release of fiction books from Pakistan has often been termed as a remarkable event at a time when the country is grappling with militancy.
Aysha Raja, a bookseller and publicist based in Lahore, says that in the past few years, the foreign press has viewed fiction from Pakistan through a geopolitical lens. “In addition to being a fallacy it has hurt fiction writing in Pakistan by suggesting the ‘geopolitical context’ as a tantalizing device. There is some evidence to suggest that readers, at least in Pakistan, are becoming increasingly weary of this theme.”
“There are many difficulties to being a writer in Pakistan, but it is also a gift. It provides exciting stuff to writers which more comfortable Western Europeans, and to a certain extent, comfortable Indians don’t have. And there isn’t that great fiction coming out of India at the moment,” says Dalrymple, adding that while India has been producing great non-fiction work, the Pakistani novelist is well ahead of its Indian counterpart at the moment.
But there may be some truth to the cliché that fiction is being produced in a country with near-daily terrorist attacks. “I have now become so hardened that I just need a desk to be able to write, so surroundings no longer matter. But it matters that these surroundings be somewhat peaceful: that is why I have moved from Karachi to Lahore,” says Musharraf Ali Farooqi. Farooqi published his first novel The Story of a Widow, after the success of his translations of two epic tales: The Adventures of Amir Hamza and Hoshruba. He has just published a children’s book, Tik Tik, The Master of Time. His latest novel Between Clay and Dust is a tale of wrestlers and courtesans set in Lahore, once a prominent city in the Mughal empire that is considered the cultural capital of Pakistan. Farooqi’s characters are not exotic; he painstakingly presents them as ordinary people just trying to do the right thing, with base emotions: pride, anger, empathy. The novel was shortlisted for the Man Asian Prize in January this year. Farooqi says the shortlisting has spurred interest in the book from American publishers He is currently working on two books. “One is about the Anti-Christ launching himself in Karachi (my estimation of Pakistan’s political situation can be read here). The other one is about a group of book lovers spread across the globe who join forces to revive a beloved institution.”
In 2011, Jamil Ahmad, a retired government official, released his debut novel The Wandering Falcon, which he actually wrote when he was serving in the 1970s but was released when he was over the age of 70. Ahmad’s book chronicles life away from the urban centers – in the mountains of Waziristan and the deserts of Balochistan — with stories of people that one can’t access in the mainstream press.
In the last month, both Karachi and Lahore have played host to literature festivals, with authors attending from the U.S., England and India. New novels, Pakistani-born author Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden and Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia are being released this year. A film adaptation of Hamid’s bestselling book The Reluctant Fundamentalist, helmed by Amelia director Mira Nair, is set to premiere in 2013. The New York Review Books has also just published a translation of Basti, Urdu writer Intizar Husain’s novel on the partition of the Indian subcontinent. With these releases, one hopes that more aspiring writers will emerge and open up a dialogue without the shadow of Pakistani politics or terrorism hanging over it.