Shot to fame with his maiden novel The Half Mother, Shahnaz Bashir, Kashmiri writer and academician, has authored yet another book: Scattered Souls. The book is a collection of short stories and is published by Fourth Estate HarperCollins Publishers. In an email interview, Kashmir Narrator correspondent Nayeem Rather asks the author about his new book in particular and writing in general.
Nayeem Rather (NR): Well, let’s begin with the basics, why do you write? What is it that drives you to write?
Shahnaz Bashir (SB): My basic instinct is to write. Of course, a cause, money, adulation and fame are what writers write for but they can’t happen without the instinct. The vent that I need to articulate the deepest levels of my consciousness drives me to write. When not writing, I sing; I sing well.
NR: In Scattered Souls there are some characters like Bilal, Sakena, Dr. Imtiyaz and Insha who appear in many stories. Why so?
SB: The stories in Scattered Souls are interlinked. The connections between the stories have been determined by the interdependent diversity in suffering that run through disparate, scattered individuals as a thread, enabling each character a full role in relation to the other. But that is not how it was planned. It emerged while writing them. For instance, when I wrote the story of the ex-militant and there was a mention of his daughter, long after having written it, the daughter hit me as an individual character. What can be the life of an ex-militant’s daughter now? I imagined. Then what his wife could go through without him and further then the other ordinary, non-blood relations. That is how scatteredness and convergence emerged out of each other.
NR: Kashmir has a very rich tradition of its folklore and oral storytelling. Some writers, like Chinua Achebe, have used folklore extensively. You don’t seem interested in using the tradition?
SB: Paradoxically, Achebe defended English language (a language of colonisers) and even the title of his first great novel Things Fall Apart was borrowed from the first part of WB Yeats’ rebellious verse (Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…), which is from his modernist poem The Second Coming. The poem attacked, rather mocked, the British Empire and the foundations of colonisation in the beginning of the Irish War for independence after 1919. The poem countenances the disintegration of the centre of European civilisation after WWI. Now intriguingly the title of Achebe’s first novel, the masterpiece, Things Fall Apart is from a modernist approach to resistance literature fraught with Igbo folklore and written in the language of the coloniser that which is in turn resisted against. What an unfortunate, inevitable dependency! Likewise, our folklore too is full of tales, subtly narrating the sufferings of subjects under many cruel monarchs. I grew up in the nineties when folklore was more reminisced as history by elders in Kashmir rather than impressed as a future input to literature. Baandd Pather was impatiently looked down upon as a regressive art used by a certain section of rural troupes as a mean to almost beg for money and food in the times when, interestingly, modernity had set into the Kashmir society, the TV had already taken over from the radio and Video Cassette Players (VCPs) had begun to become a rage, later joined by cable network in late nineties. It damaged the essence of the metaphor, and realism had to dominate the subtle. A complex which a strong structure of neo-colonisation managed to denigrate with regionalism and modernity. In my childhood, I was only able to learn some broken remnants of Gulistaan-Bostaan and Gulrez from my paternal grandfather. I have used that in The Half Mother, my first book, to the best of my knowledge. In childhood, I would never be allowed to properly listen to a baandd wailing in our courtyard or reaching the climax, and even he would also hasten in anticipation of disinterested spectators. All this and then the urgent requirement of a new narrative affected learning of folklore. Now, gauging the importance of daastaangoyi, I retrospectively try to capture its essence but only through its loss. And that becomes another tale. Another tragic art! Maybe, a realistic, anachronistic approach to a lost metaphor of suffering.
NR: In your stories like “Theft” and “Transistor” you seem to do the social commentary and other stories like “Country–Capital” are political in nature. Do you think that a writer should have political commitment? And how does a writer balance between the aesthetics of art of writing and his/her political engagement?
SB: Not a single word I write is apolitical in nature or intention. Writing itself is an act of politics but literature is a metaphor to that politics. Politically social or socially political, I can never write without such formula in my mind. I have long begun to hate too much of aesthetic, personally, and I think those who use it massively, believing that intentional aesthetic is not political, also want to convey a statement of their literary politics that they believe in the politics of aesthetic. Language, you consciously know, is a tool. An idea is something that you want to drive with the tool. Without the tool you can’t drive but the purpose is not the tool (language), it’s the idea. In a way, language itself is an idea and vice versa, but the point at which you don’t show how they are different, you end up either writing too much of aesthetics or too much of philosophy and both are not literature of course. The function of literature is to dress up a writer’s political commitments with beautiful metaphors, winding plots and paradoxical characters. Whatever the genre or technique, whether realism or surrealism, if a writing is rutted in smoothly flowing prose and no substance and idea then it is, what I call, fake literature.
NR: James Baldwin once said that “One writes only from one thing—One’s own experience”. Do you write from and about your experience?
SB: I write mostly from four things: imagination, observation, experience and knowledge. All these four come into interplay because my consciousness is always at work in all the four directions. Experience is an outcome of the very act of experiencing whose implications you apply in the present. I write from the four things I mentioned, and sometimes from inexperience too. Intriguingly, writing from inexperience is actually writing what you only know about and something that can be subjected to a manipulation through imagination. And that’s how all meaningful fiction is written. Baldwin’s idea of “experience as source” is from his first non-fiction book Notes of a Native Son which I have not read but just know about. And this “experience as source” idea is suitable to non-fiction yet still inappropriately. Even creative non-fiction has to be treated with certain literary elements at places, where the expression of experience ought to be sometimes altered with imagination, to achieve the required craft.
NR: Hermann Melville had the idea that writing is like breathing; you take in the ideas, you transform them and you get out it in writing? Are there any influences, if yes, then who do you think influenced you as a writer?
SB: Melville is right but there is something more to it. We breathe dust and smoke too. As somebody said you are what you read. And that is true to a large extent. Those who read superficial literature produce superficial writing too. The question is in what atmosphere and circumstances the writer grows up. And a writer’s social background can also determine his choices and needs in reading. Nobokov says Dostoevsky is not a great writer because of the latter’s parochial approach to depressive literature. Nobokov says so because his own upbringing was in an aristocratic atmosphere. Dostoevsky suffered imprisonment, was nearly executed in Siberia, suffered severe fits of epilepsy throughout his life, starved and gambled at times to make the two ends meet, saw the revolutionary and downtrodden life in Russia inside out. Now imagine the literature both Dostoevsky and Nobokov would produce. Dostoevsky would obviously be bleak and Nobokov has to really try hard to be serious. Once when his wife Anna Snitkina asked Dostoevsky whether he would also write happy books, the latter in his response asked what happy had happened in his life? I grew up in turbulent, sad times like all the youths from my generation. My social upbringing was full of hardships. I’m mostly influenced by three greatest Russian writers over all: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov. In Dostoevsky’s own words: Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.
NR: Reading your work, especially fiction, I found that there is a huge influence of journalism on it like on the stories “The Woman Who Became Her Own Husband” and “The Gravestone”? Do you too feel the same?
SB: Margaret Atwood’s brilliant novel The Blind Assassin is dotted with chapters that are actually fictional hard news reports. She uses them cleverly to quicken the plot. Now none would say there is a huge influence of journalism on her novel because she is not directly into journalism. I have been practicing and teaching journalism for more than a decade now. So why do I have to write fiction? That gives rise to the serious questions of essence of fiction, the essence of imagination. There are certain real stories that writing them in fiction would ruin them and there are certain stories that cannot be done justice within non-fiction. Now naturally, on occasions, my writing has to have journalistic reflections because if they don’t then the journalism I do and teach would be fake. And then the next important questions would be: why my writing should not be influenced by journalism? Is it bad to have journalism as an influence on literature? In the age of plotlessness in literature, why I can’t have journalism as influence? While I deal with the ironical reality in a work of fiction, I surprisingly discover in it later a credibility that the influence of journalism lends to it. Many of my non-Kashmiri readers told and wrote to me that they would not have believed the truth in my fiction unless it had influences of journalism that worked like a “matter-of-fact engine” in it. And if by influence of journalism you mean summarisation then I also find such influences on Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s works too. The portions and passages where, Tolstoy summarises Levin’s pastoral life or Karenin’s character or Kitty’s parents’ in Anna Karenina. Or even the transitions in Ivan’s life in the The Death of Ivan Illych. Tolstoy’s short stories vividly too evince influence of journalism. Then there are Dostoevsky’s details and explanations of, suppose, Pulcheria Alexandrovna’s and Dounia Alexandrovna’s lives in Crime and Punishment. Even if there hadn’t been such examples I would still have it in my work at certain places to quicken the plot.
NR: Do you think there is a difference between storytelling and writing stories?
SB: It doesn’t need a small dabbler like me to distinguish between storytelling and story writing. There is a stark difference. Oral tradition that involves daastaangoyi is a successful storytelling. I say successful because unless they work fine through verbal narration. Yet story writing is different because certain stories might not work well in oral narration. You can’t tell Brother’s Karamazov or even merely read it the way a certain reader reads Sidney Sheldon or Robert Ludlum but you really have to study it. And sometimes be surprised at sentences like “God is the pain of fear of death”. This sentence should make a good reader slam the book (Brothers Karamazov) shut for sometime and then make him breathe deep. Such a sentence has to be really read, studied, analysed and digested well. It can’t merely be told. Well, but I agree that people sometimes literally refer to writing itself as storytelling or to a writer as storyteller.
NR: In a place where the state tries to appropriate and destroy memory, do you think that writing serves as a tool to reclaim the memory and bring a kind of ‘salvation’?
SB: I agree more than one thousand per cent. Not only reclaim but it’s a tool to preserve and archive the memory. Writing works like a great vent. I write non-fiction mostly when I am really angry and feel helpless. All the great works of memory we read now are the proof of its preservation and expression. The conflict between Britain and France we have been reading in a classic like A Tale of Two Cities is because journalist Charles Dickens wrote them more than a hundred years ago. Tolstoy’s epic tome War and Peace is about Napoleonic wars. Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun is about what happened in middle east just fifty or sixty years ago.
NR: You dabble with the relationship between life and memory. So what do you think is the relationship between memory, life and writing?
SB: Yes, I do. This question is at once simple and complex. My safest and shortest response to it would be that the relationship is better evident from the writing of a writer. Why does a writer spend the precious hours of his/her life in writing about his/her past? See all the three things in the question: “life”, “writing” and “past” won’t hold any meaning if there is no “why” but, strangely, the “why” has no meaning of its own here unless something happens to it: “life”, “writing” and “past”. To sum it up and that too in Dostoevsky’s words from White Nights: But how could you live and have no story to tell?