Q. Did your novel, The Scatter Here is too Great start life as a set of short stories or did you know when writing from the outset you were writing a novel – what would you say is the fundamental difference between the two?
They started off as individual stories that started speaking to each other. Then they started arguing and yelling at each other. By the end of it, they got together and gave birth to some other stories. How well they all get along is a question that’s still moot though.
I am not particularly invested in the genres. For me there are only shorter and longer stories, and each of them allows certain things that the other form doesn’t. Some of the most important books in my reading life have been books that are composed of fragments or shorter stories. I am thinking of Aleksandar Hemon’s The Question of Bruno, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles. In each of these books, the least interesting question for me is whether it is a novel or a bunch of stories. What’s much more interesting is to ask what the fragments are doing alone and then together and then as a whole.
Q. We’ve been able to follow your journey as a new voice for some time. Was there a pressure (internal or external) to write something ‘ground-breaking’ for your debut?
Thank you for following me but I have been blissfully unaware of such a following. Writing for me is to try and be most honest to oneself and one’s experience of the world in its broadest sense. Other pressures are more or less meaningless.
Q. What was the writing process like for you, from writing your first draft to final proof?
It varies from story to story, really. Every story creates its own process. Certain stories in The Scatter Here Is Too Great took me up to five years to write, while others arrive fully formed. One of the things about my writing process is that I switch between languages. I write some bits of my stories in Urdu and then re-write them in English. I revert to Urdu when I am stuck.
Q. The novel – while relatively short – is full of stories and characters. Each story has its own protagonist, who seek out adventure. Then, there is the bomb blast that connects them in some way. I love the concept of giving strangers a story. When a tragic event of some kind is reported, deaths and injuries are only a number. A statistic. What ideas were you exploring here?
I was using this structure to think about two ideas. One is the idea of perspectives. I believe we can never know reality; all we have are perspectives on it. But we have to take these perspectives seriously because these determine people’s lives: their sadnesses, happinesses, their most important decisions in life and so on. I also wanted to emphasize that there is a fragment of truth in each perspective which is inaccessible in another way of seeing the world.
The second idea is of connections. It never ceases to amaze me how impossibly connected we all are. A gun going off in one part of the world can lead to devastation across the globe in another person’s life. If one lives in cities, it is extremely clear but for some reason isn’t explored as much – perhaps, because the conventional novel form doesn’t allow it. (The gunshot reference is, of course, from the utterly remarkable movie, Babel by the Alejandro González Iñárritu. He is one artist who has been exploring this idea in his work with astonishing brilliance and success.)
Q. You write about violence, and more so, the threat of violence which never ceases (until the very end). Do you think as a writer, writing from Pakistan about Pakistan, that it’s difficult to run away from?
Amitava Kumar, in a recent essay on writing, said something I agree with. He said, ‘A writer’s task today, more than ever before, has become one of making sense of violence. This, too, is an act of translation. Particularly because a writer often has to respond imaginatively to a report of violence from a part of the world other than the one in which he or she is living.’ The news of violence in Pakistan is like background noise until it happens to somebody or somewhere close to you. Then it’s terrifyingly real. As a writer, one has to deal with it in either case. Because it’s there even when it is just distant news. It frames how one lives and thinks about oneself and one’s surroundings and people in one’s neighborhood.
Q. In the same vein, do you think we’re all running away from something, even if, in the end, that something is ourselves?
It’s a very general question but yes. We don’t confront the painful and disturbing until we really, really have to. And one job of fiction, to quote David Foster Wallace, is to ‘comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable’.
Q. Your characters are ordinary people. What is it about the stories of ordinary people that interest you?
The great secret of ordinariness is that it’s like the smell in your mother’s room: commonplace but at the same time, incredibly powerful in its evocation of empathy. Chekhov, a writer who inspired me to write fiction, above all, taught me this lesson. Whenever I reread his works I realize his genius is not to sentimentally elevate the insignificance of his characters but to emphasize it. More crucially, he allowed us to empathize with their clumsy failings, petty longings and ironic self-delusions which sometimes they did not understand themselves. In his manner of looking at drunks, soldiers, adulterers, hungry peasants, he infused their mundane outward situations with an unmistakable richness. He treated ordinary lives, in other words, with unvarnished dignity.
Q. Tell us more about Comrade Sukhansaz – where did the inspiration for him come from. He sees himself as a revolutionary but is ridiculed by the youths on the bus. What does he represent?
During my college days, I did some activism and met a lot of old school communists who had dedicated their lives to a cause which left them with broken families and scarred bodies. Meeting and speaking with them was an emotional experience for me for many reasons. I felt I could relate to their passion for lost causes.
Q. What I loved about the novel is that stories mean something and are ever-present. They are in the lives of all your characters and they shape, inspire and influence. It’s really the stories that connect everyone above all else. They offer hope in a broken world. Do you think we still value writers, writing, reading and stories in our digitally switched on world?
I don’t think we can ever do without stories or storytellers because that’s how our minds work. So irrespective of how digital or fast-paced the world becomes, we will always need stories in order to make sense of the reality we inhabit, to know what numbers and facts mean. However, it is also true that the role of storytellers is expanding from fiction writers. Journalism and long-form non-fiction are doing some of the most urgent and compelling storytelling of our times. So a fiction writer’s role becomes more than simply storytelling: it is also to investigate fundamental philosophical questions.
Q. Thinking specifically about the literary scene in Pakistan, what excites you and what are your hopes for the near future?
The most exciting thing is that a lot is happening. Young people are writing, reading, there is a lot of buzz. I do hope however that there develops a more robust multi-lingual literary scene, where participants are fluent in more than a single language. I say this because Pakistan has many different languages and literary traditions and all could enrich each other by conversing more. Right now, the English language writers get most of press while writers writing in other languages are marginalized. I hope more forums and cultural institutions develop to give space to writers in other languages too.
Bilal Tanweer was born and raised in Karachi. His fiction, poetry and translations have appeared in various international journals including Granta,Vallum, The Caravan and Words Without Borders. He was selected as a Granta new voice in 2011 and was named an Honorary Fellow of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He lives in Lahore.