I imagine and write in a locally grounded way: Bilal Tanweer
There are many ways to summarise a life, the usual one being the chronological method. If we apply that on Bilal Tanweer’s life, it does not make uninteresting story on the surface.A bright person like him is likely to have academic success, so you almost expect the chronology to neatly holdtogether: English-medium schooling; graduation from the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS); a Masters in Fine Arts and a Fulbright Fellowship at Columbia University in New York; an Iowa Writers’ Workshop residency and then, a novel titled The Scatter Here is Too Great.
The novel is being promoted by one of the most prestigious British literary agencies, Aitken Alexander Associates and has been accepted by such big publishing houses as Random House, India,and Harper Collins, US.This success story is interesting if your reference point is foreign. Such a reference point has led many writers to specifically address the Western audiences who have rarely accepted and praised Pakistanis writing in English even though some Pakistanis have been writing in English, globally and locally, for decades. Tanweer’s references are local and he is more comfortable in Karachi and Lahore than in New York. And this is what makes his personal story interesting.During a recent interview with the Herald, he offered a pleasant smelling mix of elaichi and saunf (cardamom and fennel seeds), which he keeps handy in a jar at his LUMS faculty office,in Lahore, like a desi intellectual meeting globalisation at his own terms. The excerpts of the interview follow:
Saeed ur Rehman. How do you situate your work? Is it local?
Bilal Tanweer. I interpret the world through my local references. Many times, in Manhattan, during my sleep, I thought the alarms of the firetrucks were actually prayer calls. I look at an American highway and think of the Islamabad-Lahore motorway. I am comfortable with both Urdu and English and have translated Ibn-e-Safi’s novel Khaufnak Imarat, which was published as The House of Fear. So I move between English and Urdu without any problem. I begin a story in English and, if a narrative arc is proving too tough to crack, I try to understand the plot by writing it out in Urdu. My references are local and I have not translated a lot of Urdu expressions in my work. You can find Urdu expressions such as ‘oye’,‘yaar’ and ‘Quran khawani’ as they exist in Urdu. So, I imagine and write in a locally grounded way.
Rehman. Are you writing for the cosmopolitan reader in the West?
Tanweer. My first audience is my own self, then, the bilingual readers of South Asia and everybody else comes later.
Rehman. Who are the authors who have influenced your work?
Tanweer. I am very passionate about Eastern European poetry translated into English. I love Polish and Russian writers. I am an aashiq (lover) of Tolstoy and sometimes I even try to write like Chekhov. Now, I also like a lot of American writers; for example, David Foster Wallace and Denis Johnson. Johnson writes about the underbelly of drug addiction a lot.
Rehman. There is another author who writes about that side of life: Charles Bukowski. How do you find his work?
Tanweer. He is very good but he has written a lot of rubbish as well. That is what happens when you take your readers for granted. You should never take your audience for granted. He is not careful with his craft. He has some absolutely brilliant flashes here and there but he does not respect his audience; he is sloppy with his craft.
Rehman. Whose craft do you admire?
Tanweer. Every story in my book is an attempt by me to have a conversation with another author. For instance, I am trying to talk to Denis Johnson in one story. In another story,written in second person narration, I am attempting to respond to the voice of David Foster Wallace. Calvino’s Invisible Cities is as dear to me as Aleksandar Hemon’s work. My work is an engagement, from a very local Pakistani perspective,with the work of all these writers. Another author whose work I am trying to respond to is Bruno Schulz, especially his book The Street of Crocodiles.
Rehman. You have spoken of a lotof authors you admire. What about the authors who you don't find inspiring enough?
Tanweer. Somehow, J M Coetzee does not do much for me. I love the first part of The Life and Times of Michael K but it becomes a drag when the main character keeps on eating lizards and pumpkins for a hundred or so pages. Some of my friends say they love Coetzee and they cry a lot when they read him but somehow he does not do much for me. Nietzsche is another author who does not resonate with me. I love Kant but not Nietzsche.
Rehman. Are you happy with the kind of response your book has generated?
Tanweer. I am more than grateful. My translated work did not get this kind of response.
Rehman. In this age, the author is also responsible for his own publicity. You have to show up for book launches and talks. How do you feel about that?
Tanweer. I don't mind that. Through such events, you get a chance to meet like-minded people. For example, when I went to Goa for a book launch, I got to re-meet and spend a lot of time with Ranjit Hoskote, a fabulous poet, art critic and cultural theorist. I recommend the translation of Kashmiri poet Lal Ded, titled I, Lalla. He [Hoskote] has written about 20 books and not a single book is carelessly produced.
Rehman. The Scatter Here is Too Great is about a city and, I think, people should not talk about countries as such now. When you visit a country, you actually visit a city. You rarely visit a country.
Tanweer. Yes, absolutely. I am a cities person. I don't think I should say I have seen Peru. I should say I have seen Lima. So I am glad that I have seen Istanbul, Granada, Lima, London, New York and San Francisco. I love Goa.
Rehman. You studied in New York. How was that?
Tanweer. I was not happy in New York and wanted to come back to Pakistan. If there is a state called happiness, I have only experienced it in Lahore and Karachi. I don't know why I feel like that. There is a certain level of generalised anxiety that I used to feel in New York. I have not felt that here since I came back. I am coming to this realisation just now that physical spaces define you in ways that you cannot comprehend. Places create certain emotive responses. I had no memories in New York, so I felt a strange type of anxiety.
Rehman. But you can create memories wherever you live long enough...
Tanweer. Other people have these dreams and aspirations of settling elsewhere and waiting for memories to build. I have no such aspirations. I am not applying anywhere for a long-term project or residency. I just go out of Pakistan to see how people live but otherwise I am very happy here. And because there are no memories and no emotive connection, I don't feel the need to be at a place and wait for an emotive response to develop.
I even understand an external reality through local references. I don't explain anything in my characters or stories through foreign references. Some other writers, who write in English are not grounded in the local reality and use external references. But my references are local. I have my Manto and Ibn-e-Safi covered.
Rehman. Do you think that the local writer who writes in English has a duty to engage the stereotypical representations of Pakistan? Some writers talk to the coloniser and others address the neocolonial masters. What is your position on this?
Tanweer. Some writers do engage with those things but that is not my battle. I am not concerned about creating the great Afghani novel or the great Pakistani novel in English or the great post-colonial novel. I am only interested in writing a good book about Karachi and that too about a very specific class in Karachi.
Rehman. Which class are you talking about?
Tanweer. The very middle of the middle class in Karachi and a very local reality: The bus drivers, the vendors, and the crowd-gathering, smooth-talking street performers.
Rehman. What are your plans in the future?
Tanweer. I have to plan my next Karachi book.
Rehman. How many books can you write about Karachi?
Tanweer. As long as I can write.
Rehman. You are teaching in Lahore now. Do you think you will write a book about Lahore one day?
Tanweer. I don't know Lahore that well.
This article was published in the Herald's February 2014 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.