Archive for September, 2009

In Fragments: The Geometry of God with Uzma Aslam Khan

Friday, September 25th, 2009

uzmaweb1You’re probably really excited about the Clockroot release of The Geometry of God. You are probably sitting at your computer, checking this blog, waiting for the right moment to inquire about when the book will arrive safely, soundly to your waiting arms.  After all, books are important friends. They are valuable guests at your party.  You want to know if this book is right for you, if it will comfort you or prop your door or make you cry or act as a miniature end-table for your hot tea.   You want to know if Uzma Aslam Khan is going to be your new favorite author, or at least the new favorite author of the week. And in times of recession– in what the stern people on television call “this economic crisis”– you want to make sure you put your money where your heart is.

I was lucky. I got to read the book before you did, dear Clockroot blog readership, and I am pleased with the results.  For days afterwards I thought of the questions I’d ask Uzma.  I wanted the questions to be unbearably smart.  When approaching a book that has three smart narrators, three distinct voices constructing one smart story, it’s hard to ask a smart question.  Still, this must be a sign of a book worth its salt; the questions linger even after the answers become apparent.

Given the current political climate in Pakistan, do you see The Geometry of God playing a role in providing access to outsiders?  Meaning, do you see your novel as taking part in a larger political discussion?

In some ways, perhaps. The retrospect I mentioned above is also our own real, political present. The book is set during the 1980s Afghan War and its long, painful and comical fallout through the 1990s. We’re still living in the fallout, as well as that of an additional war. So it’s as if we’re looking at that debris from this debris, and finding patterns that keep repeating themselves. I wonder if non-Pakistanis will see these patterns, find reason to say, “Oh! I recognize it!” and find as much reason to say, “Oh! That isn’t what I expected at all!” I hope the book will elicit both kinds of responses, even concomitantly.

In writing this novel, what necessitated having three narrators? Was this more of an aesthetic choice or a practical choice?

When I started The Geometry of God, I set three mock challenges for myself: the first was to have only one central character, the second was to keep it short, and the third was to keep the structure linear, so there was a clear beginning, middle and an end. I failed on all three counts.

The main characters, Amal, Mehwish and Noman, each have their own distinct voice and their own distinct point of view – but why three? Well, what they taught me is that while many writers, when they sit down to write, ask the question “what happens?” for me, the question that drives the narrative is less “what happens?” and more “who’s looking at what happens, who isn’t, and what are the differences in their ways of seeing?”

I was propelled in part by the mystery of how individual perspective shapes collective perspective, how the same events seen from different eyes are interpreted differently, sometimes even, over time, by the same pair of eyes, because memory has a way of reshaping events. So, there is no one central character in the book. In fact, none of my books has ever had a central character. My books have no leaders. They only have influences.

Could you talk a little about the choice you made to disrupt the chronological narrative towards the latter part of the book?

Ah, so now we come to my third failure. Jokes aside, I really did want to tell a linear tale. I don’t know why, maybe because my last book, Trespassing, was so circular too, and as a reader I find it so neat and pleasing to go from point A to point B to point C. As a writer, I would like to give the same pleasing sensation to my readers, and yet I seem to lead them all over the place. I’ve come to realize that for me to set a book in Pakistan and tell it in straight lines would feel very false.

I come from a country in fragments.As in real life so in fiction: the challenge is to make the fragments work together as a whole. The challenge intensifies as the narrative progresses because it’s always at the apex of upheaval that everything visibly crumbles, and then we don’t have time to pick up the pieces and re-examine them, re-fit them, as it were.

The geometry only makes sense in retrospect. It’s the retrospect that becomes the new geometry.


“The Pinball King” at the Brooklyn Rail

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

In other news from Brooklyn: Ersi Sotiropoulos’s short story “The Pinball King,” translated by Karen Emmerich, is up at the always fantastic Brooklyn Rail this month. Have a look—

More on Brooklyn

Thursday, September 17th, 2009


A person I’ve never met before took this picture of our table. If you missed the bookfair (or spent it standing behind a table), check out Sarahana’s blog post at Hooves on the Turf.


Brooklyn Book Festival

Friday, September 11th, 2009


Join us this Sunday, September 13, at the fabulous Brooklyn Book Festival, outside in the sun. Look for our burlap banner, embroidered with my grandmother’s yarn, at Booth 52. Which must be near Booth 51, where I’m planning to renew my subscription to n+1. Oh, there will be many ways on Sunday to lighten your wallet and fill your backpack: Do come!


“What I mean by transcendental is just over there, not here”

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

Another extraordinary reading last night at Schoen Books: Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop. I had the perfect, almost chilling experiencing of having read and been in love with Curves to the Apple all summer, and then when a page from the end, getting to hear the author herself read from it. Keith Waldrop read from Transcendental Studies. Is it too much to say I have never been so mesmerized at a reading? Great American poetry, experienced elbow to elbow with its creators, stuffed all together among the piles of books in that old firehouse, next to mannequins that smelled disarmingly grandmotherly (“mothballs and guilt,” someone said, edging away a little), a spread of chocolate covered pretzels, cheese, and seltzer in the back, and at the end, a box full of homegrown tomatoes, Please, everyone, take one home, was the announcement. I bought a copy of Kafka’s Der Prozess, saying this time truly I would resurrect my German. Well, that’s the best book in German, I was told by the Schoen Books folks, let’s have coffee and read it together. All this making me feel something warm and elusive and persistent about what it is to stuff everyday life and literature into one room and watch as they settle in to become one for a time, as they listen hard to each other, as they wander off separately to the bookshelves or bar at the end of the night.  Tomato in each hand.


Ersi Sotiropoulos at CAT, part II

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

As a follow-up to my earlier post, the Center for the Art of Translation’s interview with Karen Emmerich about translating Landscape with Dog and Other Stories is now up, check it (and the great blog) out. A favorite passage:

[Karen Emmerich:] … In these stories specifically, plot often seems incidental, secondary to language and to image. It isn’t poetic language, in the usual understanding of that phrase. It’s often very flat, very bare-bones. And the stories sometimes seem like a series of still-lives, freeze frames that show a life or a relationship—from the most involved to the most tenuous—captured at a particular moment, in a particular (sometimes disturbing or estranging, but often tender and fragile) configuration.

SE: … What kind of challenges does this pose to you as the translator? In prose that has been this carefully worked, do you feel like you can adequately bring across things like rhythm and sound?

KE: It’s enormously challenging as a translator—you don’t feel the kind of freedom you sometimes do, with fiction writers for whom plot drives a piece. You have an added sense of responsibility. Not necessarily to rhythm and sound, in this case, but to phrasing. If every word belongs where it is, what do you do when all the words go away and you have to find new ones to take their place?