Usman Ahmed chats with author Soniah Kamal on writing her debut novel, The Isolated Incident. From growing up in the late 80â€™s, liberal views on LGBTQ rights and promises made to her grandfather, the talented writer opens up about her mental and spiritual journey back to a childhood in Kashmir.
What was it like, emotionally, to go back in time and write about Kashmir?
I had to dip into my memories of visiting Kashmir as a child in order to write Billyâ€™s own momentous summer vacation visit, as well as Zariâ€™s chapters there. While it was delightful to dig deep into memory, digging deep also means a sad nostalgia and longing for a time and place long gone and never coming back
Who inspires you?
As I wrote in a recent essay, The Reluctant Writer, I never wanted to become a writer. However I hear voices in my head and they compel me to tell their stories.
What do you think social media â€“ twitter, fb – has done for the world of women?
Thanks to social media the women of the world will no longer be silenced about the world of women. Social media has opened up vast new avenues where it is possible for every voice, every story, every injustice and every triumph to get out there and be heard.
Can you tell me a little more about your parents?
My father is a chartered accountant and my mother an anesthesiologist. I grew up in England and Saudi Arabia and identify as a Third Culture Kid. In retrospect I can appreciate how tough immigrant parenting is and how hard my parents must have found it given that was as outspoken as could be. But they were always welcoming to my friends no matter class, race, religion, anything, and taught me to always be fair. These are values I live by and parent by.
What school did you go to?
Lahore Grammar School for my Senior Cambridge and LACAS for my A levels and Kinnaird College for a little while before I left for the U.S. It was a different time back in the late 80s and early 90s and my not wanting to play coy in order to grab a rich scion, or my absolute refusal to employ flattery in order to get ahead, or my liberal views on LGBTQ rights were considered very weird. Peers would ask â€˜well what if your kids are gay?â€™ and Iâ€™d say â€˜that would be absolutely okâ€™ and then Iâ€™d get a lecture about why it should not be ok at all. But Iâ€™ve always believed that life is hard enough and home should be the one place you are accepted unconditionally.
What do you remember most about your time in Kashmir?
Fig orchards. Plucking plump, sun warmed figs from my one of my Khalaâ€™s fruit orchards in a village called Arihal. You know that scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door to the colors and wonders of Oz, thatâ€™s what Kashmir was like for me– warmth and camaraderie of extended family set in a Technicolor land.
Are you a writer who conducts all your research before you sit down to write the story?
For me, another word for research is procrastination. I can procrastinate all day long forever and ever.
As someone who was born in Lahore, lived in London and Jeddah, and attended college in the United States, how have all of these places influenced your writing?
I learned at a very early age that no one country or family has a claim on wisdom or stupidity. This universality of human nature really informs my characters.
Do you ever experience writerâ€™s block?
All the time! Going deep into my emotions in order to capture a characterâ€™s emotional reality and then staying immersed for long periods of time in often difficult places is never fun.
What are the best books youâ€™ve read recently?
Perennial favorites remain â€˜Girl Troubleâ€™ by Holly Goddard Jones and â€˜The Outcastâ€™ by Sadie Jones.
An Isolated incident is a story of haunting memories and yearnings of a home lost, of a faith continuously tested and questioned and of a love that blossoms against all odds, what inspired you to write about such a journey?
My grandfather came from Kashmir to Pakistan in 1947. When he was old and unwell, he asked me to promise him that I would write about Kashmir. I think he thought I was going to be a journalist. Instead I fulfilled my promise by writing a novel. Had I not promised him, I might have quit ages ago.
Zari Zoon is full of longing and been through the worst of times. I can’t stop thinking about her. How did she and her story come to you?
My Khalas from Kashmir were visiting Lahore one summer, visits I write about in my essay Kashmir Calling. They mentioned how a knock late at night could be either militant or military. How either way it was terrifying, especially if you had young girls at home. Zari and her story was born at that moment.
Your characterâ€™s voices are incredible, and they think so much about everything. Do you find yourself particularly drawn to people/characters who live highly examined lives?
Thank you. I bring an obsessive need to see all perspectives into my writing, as they say in Urdu â€˜baal ki khaal nikalnaâ€™. This enables my characters to be nuanced and see the world in grays instead of stark black, white and red.
Have you ever used elements of people in your own life in your book. If so, did their objections (or imagined objections) inspire Zariâ€™s?
I use names of loved ones for secondary characters and so in An Isolated Incident my childrenâ€™s namesâ€”Buraaq, Indus and Miraageâ€”appear. I did ask my brother, Fahad, if I could name my not very nice character Fahad after him. Heâ€™s so nice, he said yes.
What are some of the best responses youâ€™ve gotten from readers to your work?
Stories parented me growing up and I think as a writer you hope your words can touch readers in some way. Iâ€™ve been truly blessed. Readers write to me all the time saying how An Isolated Incident has changed their life, how theyâ€™ll never see that world in the same way again, how they read it twice, thrice back to back, how the concept of kindness in the novel effects them. Another vital theme in the novel is the meaning of â€˜sorryâ€™. Is sorry the most impotent word in the world or can it lead to healing? I get passionate emails debating this. All these are huge compliments.