"I want to get to the voice of my characters"

December 8, 2013

Farah Zia in conversation with Bilal Tanweer about his debut novel, teaching of creative writing and other things

Six years ago, when I met Bilal Tanweer for the first time, he stood out among people his age. Here was someone interested in literature who wasn’t reading Manto in translation. That was, of course, lowering of expectations on my part for someone who thought Naiyer Masud was one of the greatest fiction writers in Urdu and would swear by the poetry of Noon Meem Rashed. He could pull off an interesting journalistic piece (Tell tale Magicians) making comparisons between the magic realism of Intizar Husain and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

It was only a matter of time before he was awarded the Fulbright Scholarship to study Fiction Writing (MFA) at Columbia University. He came back and created a slot for Creative Writing at LUMS which is unique because of the prestige that Bilal Tanweer brings to this programme. Not just that, this is the only place that offers workshop-style, craft-based literature, courses where students are taught by practice.

His debut novel The Scatter Here is Too Great may be set in Karachi but, in his words, he is happy with his teaching job "for the quality of students and the intellectual conversation between me and my colleagues. It helps you test out your ideas with some terrifically smart people who care about the same things as you."

We meet in LUMS on a bright sunny morning to discuss his novel. Comfortably perched on his seat surrounded by fiction and poetry books lined in the shelves, Bilal Tanweer seems pleased with what he has achieved in The Scatter…

The News on Sunday: At one point in the novel, the character of the writer says ‘So I wrote in fragments…’ At another point ‘We were all just broken parts and so were our stories, True stories are fragments’. As a reader I felt it describes your novel too. So was it the connections between stories that turned it into a novel?

Bilal Tanweer: These quotes are from the final part of the novel where the character of the writer who is actually putting these fragments together has a shift in his understanding. He realises that fragments might be true but you need a larger narrative -- in order to make sense of the world, to make sense of your connection to the world or how you imagine yourself and other people in relation to each other. So he tries to assemble a narrative but it’s still in fragments. It’s both an admittance of his defeat and admitting to the need that you need a larger narrative to get sense of the reality you’re living in. So that’s the struggle.

But if you have a narrative like this novel where you are trying to narrate so many different stories, and you are trying to get close to so many different perspectives, you cannot form that holistic narrative that one is used to reading. So you will have a kind of fragmentary narrative. But the hope is that it will help you get the larger picture as well.

TNS: One thing that struck me was the way you have experimented with language.

BT: I am very much interested in language. Some of my favourite writers are those who use language to convey sense of a larger reality. For me, in that particular sense, the voice is very important. I want to get to the voice of my characters because if you get to the right voice, you have gotten to the character. The voice embodies the character in some sense but it also embodies the audience that this voice is talking to. It was very important for me that you are telling the stories to somebody and those who are being talked to are also very important.

TNS: Your book has been described as a blood-soaked love letter to Karachi.

BT: (laughs): That’s (Mohammed) Hanif’s sensationalism.

TNS: But everybody seems to be referring to the violence part. How do you associate violence with Karachi? Is that the predominant sense about that city?

BT: It certainly is not.

TNS: Because I felt the first serious engagement with violence came only after the ambulance driver experienced it and nearly lost his mind. But that was much later in the novel.

BT: It’s not the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about Karachi or the second or the third or fourth or fifth. But the funny thing is that it’s always there. Even if you think about the first girl you had a crush on (a lot of these stories are autobiographical in some sense, like when you are bunking from school to run off to the sea, all of those things). So the possibility of violence is always there and that’s what I wanted to engage with -- not so much the violence itself but the possibility of it. It does play on your mind when in Karachi.

It’s funny because it plays out in all sorts of different ways. A bomb blast happens and, as one of my friends said, somebody would say "Oh, I will miss my manicure appointment". So that’s how violence affects so many people in Karachi. For some people it gets more real, for others it is real, like that ambulance driver. They have to deal with it head on.

I really wanted to engage with violence from a range of perspectives. And also the various strategies we all use in order to cope with it. I live four to five months of my time in Karachi every year and, amazingly, each time I learn something new about how people cope. It is quite fascinating to me how people normalise these things in their heads. So much of violence is not normal in any country of the world but people appear to have normalised it somehow and I am also interested in that.

TNS: You just said in passing that many of these stories are autobiographical. What about your characters? Are they drawn from real life too?

BT: Yes. All the voices are of people I know intimately. For instance, the blackboard and the little kid. Long time back I taught this poor little boy who had a learning problem and he would lose his mind and curse his father and teachers out. So this was a game that I invented for him and with him -- of imagining a blackboard to help him learn spellings. And then it took a life of its own and he would tell me other things he did with the blackboard in his lunch break etc.

TNS: I thought this was the most moving part. Did you consciously put it in the beginning of the novel?

BT: The arrangement of it took some time. Earlier I had a different formal arrangement. I had the three writer sections together and likewise for the three Sadeq and Sukhansaz sections. Then there was long conversation between me and the editors about how best to arrange them.

TNS: Are you happy with the new arrangement?

BT: I am actually happier with this because it does show the progressive enlarging of perspective of the writer as well. The only thing is that some people might not make that connection. But that’s okay.

TNS: So why set the novel in Karachi?

BT: That’s my obsession, honestly. I have lived at other places too but I realise as I have grown up that I always imagined the world with reference to Karachi. That’s my primary reference. That’s how I understand things. For instance, if you say a big road and a small road, the big and the small road in my head are roads from Karachi. That’s the city I imagine and that’s the city I care about most, for whatever reason. Maybe because I have grown up there and some of my strongest memories are from Karachi.

TNS: The father-son relationship seems like a leitmotif. Somewhere it appears resolved, at other places it isn’t. Was that something you were doing consciously?

BT: Earlier it wasn’t conscious but as I went along I realised this was something that I felt for very deeply. I don’t know what that means. It’s something that draws so much emotion from me. While writing, I felt it was very hard for me emotionally to write certain parts. Some of those bits are autobiographical too.

TNS: Another recurrent object is the bus. Is it possible to imagine and experience the real Karachi without sitting on a bus?

BT: I have travelled such a large part of my life in Karachi travelling on buses; in fact all of my younger years. For me, some of the most dramatic things happened there and they happen on such a routine basis. I don’t think I have even exhausted my bus stories. There are so many more.

A bus is such an interesting kind of a setting. I just find it so rife with drama, rife with small kindnesses that people do to each other. Also some really weird creepy things happen there. In Karachi, once in a bus, you expect to spend substantial amounts of time; you develop interesting conversations, you meet interesting people who do all sorts of crazy things.

TNS: You have also studied creative writing formally at Columbia. Tell us how much does teaching of creative writing help a person to write? What did you learn from it?

BT: In an MFA programme, you study literature for formal aspects of a work: language, structure, literary effects. But quite often if you focus solely on form, your work can lose meaning and instinct, and writing becomes only a game involving the writer (and his ego) and the reader. My training at Columbia taught me to deepen my appreciation and pleasure of language and form, and I studied with some terrific writers who mentored me, but it took me some years to realise and understand the themes I was grappling with, and more importantly, ‘why’ I was writing -- and that too, writing fiction. Those also became some of the questions I explored in this novel.

TNS: Did that unlearning form a part of your teaching at LUMS?

BT: We live in such a strange moment when there is so much attention on writers, some of them have become celebrities. Because of the attention, it seems as if writing becomes a kind of an exercise you do in order for other things to happen -- in order to make money, in order for you to become famous. But that’s not the reason why any serious writer I would imagine does it. One, because there are easier ways of doing it; and two, you don’t spend six years writing something hoping that after this you might become famous. I try to tell my students all these things.

My unlearning is very much a part of my teaching as well. My pedagogical approach has evolved in response to that. Earlier on, when I started teaching, I had barred any discussion of meaning. I would focus on my readings of text -- on form, structure and language primarily and not on their interpretation of it. It was strictly a craft-based discussion of it. But, with time, I made meaning an integral part of the discussion. But the students’ interpretation must be based on a strong or close reading of the text itself. That’s the sort of training that I try to give to my students.

TNS: Are you thinking about your next novel?

BT: I have been thinking about it for the last one year, since I finished this one. Thinking about it is actually so much more pleasurable than actually writing it. All I can say at the moment that it is also going to be a Karachi book.

Also read the review of the novel in our Literati section.

"I want to get to the voice of my characters"