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Robin Yassin-Kassab

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Interview with Mohsin Hamid

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mohsin-hamidIt was a pleasure to interview Mohsin Hamid, author of ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ and ‘Exit West’, for the National. This here is the less edited version.

How did you become a writer? Put another way, why do you write?

I’ve always been a fantasist. Like many children, I used to play make-believe, and I still spend several hours a day living in my imagination. Why didn’t I grow out of it? Most people do, or at least are happy for their imaginings to be guided – they enter worlds made by others, in books or films.

I suspect it’s because I’m uncomfortable with the world as it is. I am mixed and mongrelised. I’ve lived my life between Pakistan, the UK and the US, so I’m foreign everywhere. Then, as I get older, my parents’ generation is passing away. Like everyone, I can’t provide the level of security for my children I’d like to. I experience the vulnerability that we all share.

I’m the type of person who requires unreal activity in order to function. If I don’t write fiction for extended periods I become unsettled, anxious, uncertain. I’m less of a pain to be around when I’m writing.

Your writing is distinguished by its clarity. The prose seems effortless, and the volumes are fairly thin. Yet once you told me a novel takes seven years to write. So how much rewriting is necessary?

My first two novels took seven years each. The third took six, and the fourth only four. I start with some ideas. I explore and build them up. I write an outline and fill notebooks. I even write a draft. Oftentimes these ideas don’t work, or they lead to a dead end. Then I may write a draft which shares no words with the first but is nevertheless influenced by it. The first draft of “Exit West” looked like the final product – the first time it happened – though many ideas from the draft were abandoned. I start with something that demands engagement. As I deal with it, my thoughts begin to clarify.

I’m fortunate in having honest readers – my wife first, but also my agent, and editors. And I write for an imaginary reader, not Pakistani or American, not male or female. In other words, I write novels that I’d like to read, that leave a lot open. I write half-novels if you like, not very long, which leave space for the reader to react and imagine.

Your writing, though very accessible, is often formally adventurous. What does form mean to you?

Form is the starting point. I use it in the same way poets used to use metre and rhyme, not as a restriction but as a set of rules to produce inspiration. Form makes possible the kind of story that readers can relate to intuitively. Form brings with it rhythms and patterns. Even if these are not evident, the way the mind works means they are helpful. Form provides vital architecture. The correct form depends on the nature of the story. This is what I must figure out: what’s the story about? What form suits it? What language fits the form?

You see, I don’t accept the notion that there is a stable thing called reality which the novel simply reflects. Humans are complex bio-chemical machines, and reality blurs quickly. What parts of me are talking to what parts of you? My construct of myself is a fiction. I often behave in ways that contradict this fiction. Through form, the novel can reveal the way in which reality is constructed, and how our selves themselves are constructed. Form allows writer and reader to enter a shared domain. We are aware it’s made up, so it can be still more potent than what we call reality.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 3, 2017 at 11:19 pm

Posted in book review, Interview, Pakistan

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In Dawn

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As an apology for not posting anything for so long, I’m putting up this interview with me conducted by Muneeza Shamsie and published in Pakistan’s Dawn. There are a couple of inaccuracies: I spent a year and a few months in Pakistan in the early 90s, not two years, and it’s mainly been book reviews rather than political analysis that I’ve contributed to British newspapers.

Novelist, editor and journalist, Robin Yassin-Kassab has worked and travelled around the globe — in England, France, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Oman and Pakistan. But his travels beyond Europe began with Islamabad. He arrived in the 1990’s at the invitation of a Pakistani friend and stayed for two years working as a journalist for an English daily. This winter he returned to Pakistan to conduct creative writing workshops at the Karachi Literature Festival and spoke with passion on the Arab Spring and the political situation in Syria.

In his critically acclaimed novel, The Road from Damascus (2009), Yassin-Kassab discusses multiculturalism, racism and radicalisation in Britain and the larger conflicts in the Middle East through the portrayal of Sami, a British Syrian, and Muntaha, his Iraqi-born wife. The novel examines debates between religious and secular concepts of Arab nationhood and comments on the use of state terror by totalitarian regimes.

During a trip to Damascus, Sami discovers an uncle who had been the victim of prolonged imprisonment and torture. Deeply disturbed, Sami returns to his wife but retreats from their matrimonial tensions, disappears from home and falls into rapid decline. The narrative builds in London in the aftermath of 9/11 and talks about Muntaha’s traumatic childhood, including her escape to Britain from Iraq with her father and brother.

Yassin-Kassab now lives in Scotland and contributes political analyses to The Guardian, The Independent, The Times and Prospect Magazine among others. He co-edits the website PULSE and the journal The Critical Muslim. He is working on his second novel.

Here he talks to Books&Authors about his novel, the writing process and the evolving situation in the Middle East.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 29, 2012 at 10:19 am

Posted in Pakistan

Tagged with , ,

The Karachi Literature Festival

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I’ve recently come back from an excellent three weeks in Pakistan visiting universities, farms, shrines and old friends. I started at the Karachi Literature Festival. In the session below, I, Stefan Weidner and Anouar Benmalek discuss the Arab Spring.

Here’s me doing a creative writing class at the festival. Part one. And part two. It’s probably very boring to watch on video except perhaps for the less formal question and answer at the end.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 22, 2012 at 11:28 pm

Posted in Arabism, Pakistan, Syria

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti

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This review was written for the Guardian.

“These Muslas,” says Joseph Bhatti, father of Alice, “will make you clean their shit and then complain that you stink.” This is pretty close to the mark. Pakistan won’t forget the low-caste origins of most of its Christians, or ‘Choohras’, who constitute an ‘untouchable’ sweeper and maid class. In recent decades, with the rise of increasingly intolerant forms of Islam, the Choohra plight has worsened. Christians are victims of obscene ‘blasphemy’ laws and frequent sectarian violence. The outside world is often ignorant of the minority’s very existence.

How refreshing, therefore, that Mohammed Hanif, Booker-listed author of ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ and perhaps Pakistan’s brightest English-language voice, has chosen to view his country through the eyes of a (lapsed) Christian – the eponymous Alice Bhatti, a hard-nosed, warm-hearted nurse, too beautiful for her own good, also nifty with a razor blade.

Her lover and foil is the ‘Musla’ Teddy Butt, a thigh-waxing, body-building, Mauser-packing lowlife. Teddy works unofficially for the Gentlemen’s Squad, a police unit somewhat darker than the Keystone Cops staffed by partially reformed rapists, torturers and sharpshooters.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 8, 2011 at 11:27 am

Posted in book review, Pakistan

Tagged with

You People

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My contribution to the Journal of Postcolonial Writing’s Pakistan Special.

Seventeen years ago, as a very young man, I arrived in Karachi. Apart from six months in Beirut in my babyhood, this was my first time outside Europe. I didn’t know what to expect, although I had stereotypes from my British experience of what a Pakistani was (a Mirpuri, with brown skin and eyes, probably a cab driver).

The airport was spacious and anonymous, until the exit. Here tens of faces squashed against the glass doors, most of them cab drivers trying to make a personal connection. I was offered hashish in the cab, taken to an expensive hotel – which I refused – then to a hotel for cockroaches, but very cheap and very friendly. The man at the desk had black skin and blue eyes.

I liked Karachi. It was bustling, lively and engaging. The food was spicy and the weather was pleasantly hot. There appeared to be no social restraint on spontaneous conversation with strangers. It wasn’t Britain. I was pleased to find a word or two of Arabic helped greatly.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 28, 2011 at 9:20 pm

Posted in Pakistan

The Murder of Salmaan Taseer

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Salmaan Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, has been shot dead by one of his own security detail for the supposed crime of defending Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman threatened with execution under Pakistan’s blasphemy law. The law was introduced by the British and given extra teeth by military dictator Zia ul-Haq, and is commonly used for the pursuit of grudges against the weak. The most disturbing aspect of Taseer’s murder is that both puritanical Deobandi and traditionalist ‘Sufi’ Barelvi religious leaderships have expressed support for it. Many Pakistanis are lionising Taseer’s murderer. For decades sections of Pakistan’s ruling elite have peddled religio-nationalist chauvinism as a stop-gap substitute for social justice. The result is today’s ugly combination of elite and mob rule. I reviewed a book by Taseer’s son here. Below, novelist Mohammed Hanif reports from Karachi:

Minutes after the murder of the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province Salmaan Taseer I saw a veteran Urdu columnist on a news channel. He was being what, in breaking news jargon, is called a “presenter’s friend”. “It is sad of course that this has happened but . . .”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 6, 2011 at 10:59 am

Posted in Pakistan

Tagged with ,

I Refuse to Buy a Poppy

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05_11_09-Steve-Bell

Steve Bell

Yesterday five British soldiers were shot dead by an Afghan policeman. Just as they keep promising that they’ve reached ‘decisive turning points’ in their battle with the Afghan resistance, British military officials immediately vowed that the ‘rogue’ policeman would be caught. Today the Taliban reports that the policeman is safe with them, and that he’s been greeted with flowers.

Our glorious patriotic press responds. Amusingly, the Daily Mail headline wrings its hands and squawks, “What kind of war IS this?” Because some people aren’t playing by the rules, you see. Instead of sitting quietly in their villages waiting for the drone attack, or perhaps sending their kids out to accept sweets and modernity from a rosy-cheeked English lad, some barbarians are actually shooting back at the invaders. How very unBritish. (To be fair to the Mail – which has never been fair to anyone – it does seem to be taking an anti-war stance today). Other sections of the media worry about the ‘loyalty’ of Afghan troops, as if love for foreign occupiers is a realistic standard of loyalty. Still others, even more clever, psychoanalyse the policeman, wondering if an argument with his commander pushed him to a moment of madness. But it really isn’t that complicated, as anybody who disabuses themselves of imperialist delusion can see. Very simply, people don’t like foreigners striding around their streets and fields with guns and assumptions of superiority. Afghans will kill British troops as surely as Britons would kill Afghan troops if they occupied this country.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

November 5, 2009 at 6:12 pm