Thinner than Skin could be a story about love and the search for identity. But it could as easily be a story about the impact of militancy on nomadic communities in northern Pakistan. How did you bring all this together? Nadir and Farhana travel to Kaghan but then it all unravels and there’s a moment at the end when the conflict becomes unimportant.
I’ve never mapped out a novel. I don’t really trust maps, because the lines change as soon you find them. As if the form of a novel itself demands that you stay open to change, open to surprises. All my novels have begun either with an image and/or a voice. With Thinner than Skin, the spark was an Ansel Adams photograph of a waterfall. The force of the torrent inspired a line that has stayed in the book. All the threads of a novel, at least for me, come together through sensory cues, through acts of faith. There is no plan except to feel my way through it.
You write about glacier mating. There’s an ice-bride and ice-groom which to me sounds magical but in some ways is reflective of Nadir and Farhana’s relationship, blowing hot and cold. How did you come up with this strange use of a metaphor that you play with throughout the book?
My first encounter with a glacier was on a visit to northern Pakistan years ago, and it was the same glacier that the characters in my book trek across to get to Lake Saiful Maluk. At the time, what struck me was the sheer physicality of it — the size, the slipperiness, the muddiness of footprints and jeep tracks, the crevices and knuckles and slopes. Things can live inside us a long time before we know they’re even there. It wasn’t till another visit that I learned the glaciers are named, and even given a personality, a gender and a wedding. The ceremony is mysterious and sacred. Naturally, this fascinated me. But even then I never thought to include it in a book. That process — from learning something amazing to finding it a home in my own small way — is also mysterious. I never know how one becomes the other.
Posts Tagged ‘Uzma Aslam Khan’
Just out this morning: the Man Asian Literary Prize’s long-list, and Uzma Aslam Khan’s newly released Thinner than Skin is on it! Congratulations to Uzma! and to all the writers listed. Press release below:
December 4, 2012
Novels showcasing the power of the writing emerging across the whole breadth of Asia were put on display today as the fifteen books longlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize were unveiled.
Nine different Asian countries are represented, many of them seen afresh through the eyes of women, migrants and story-tellers on the margins. The list also includes an early intricate and stunning book by Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, now appearing in English for the first time.
A fantastic new interview with Uzma Aslam Khan is just out in Pakistan’s Friday Times. Uzma’s fourth novel, Thinner than Skin, has just been released (for those who haven’t gotten it yet!); she also discusses her 2009 novel The Geometry of God:
AA: In the years since you wrote The Geometry of God, the country has seen some of the most gruesome attacks on religious minorities, including inhumane abuses of the blasphemy law. What is your perspective on this?
UAK: When The Geometry of God was completed in 2007, there were many documented cases of blasphemy charges being leveled against innocent civilians, particularly Ahmadis and Christians. My character Nana was not based directly on any one person, but I read several case studies, including those involving ridiculous spelling errors, word shuffling, rumor, and revisionism – including of Jinnah’s famous speech in which he emphatically declares us all “equal citizens of one State” – all of which I draw on in the book. And then last year it happened again: a Christian eighth-grader was accused of blasphemy for a spelling error in a poem. For a Pakistani writer, life imitates art all the time. When in the book Nana is falsely accused of blasphemy, he is also called an Ahmadi, as though calling someone this is an insult. His response is to refuse to wear it as an insult by refusing to say what he is. He says instead, “My faith is what they bury when they force me to expose it.” And I think that the increasingly furious pace of hate crimes against our religious minorities – from the attack on an Ahmadi mosque in Lahore on May 28, 2010, which should be declared a national day of mourning, to the assassinations of Shahbaz Bhatti and Salmaan Taseer, to the present-day case of young Rimsha Masih – all of this, on top of terrorizing those already vulnerable in our society, makes us all guilty, for two reasons. First, for staying silent about what we know to be wrong. And second, because we are all forced to say what we are, all the time. We can’t even get our passport renewed without ‘confessing’ to not being Ahmadis. I’ve even been asked my religion while registering for a blood test. And to whom are we always in need of confessing? Not to God, but to a bunch of people who call themselves the state. If this were a civilized land, faith would be private and proof against those we know are playing God would be public. But in Pakistan, it’s the other way around: Faith is public and proof is private.
Read the rest here.
My my, this blog has been quiet. But now some great news: Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner than Skin is just back from the printers. We’re enormously excited and honored to be publishing Uzma’s fourth novel, the first since her stunning The Geometry of God—one of Clockroot’s first books and according to Kirkus Reviews one of the best books of 2009.
A little advance praise for Thinner than Skin:
“In gorgeous prose, Khan writes about Pakistan, a land of breathtaking beauty, and the complex relationships between people who are weighted with grief and estrangement. As her characters’ lives play out against the backdrop of the external world whose violence gradually closes in on them, Khan brilliantly probes the fatal limitations of human understanding. A novel of great lucidity and tenderness, filled with splendid descriptions of the land, the people who have always inhabited it, and those who are irresistibly drawn to it.”
—Therese Soukar Chehade
“Smart, fierce, and poignant: perhaps the most exciting novel yet by this very talented writer.”
You can read an excerpt of Thinner than Skin here in the Daily Star, as well as in the soon-to-be-released fall issue of the Massachusetts Review (print only! but why not get a copy of such a great magazine?). An excerpt also appeared in Granta‘s widely celebrated recent issue on Pakistan. As always, please contact us if you’d like a review or desk copy. I’ll close with a little more about the novel itself:
In the wilds of Northern Pakistan, where glaciers are born of mating ice, two young lovers shatter the tenuous peace of a nomadic community
Thinner than Skin is a riveting novel about identity and belonging. It’s also a love story: between Nadir, a Pakistani man trying to make his way as a photographer in America, and Farhana, a Pakistani-American woman who wants to return to a country she’s never seen. Together Nadir and Farhana journey to Pakistan, accompanied by one of her colleagues—who will join her in studying Pakistan’s extraordinary glaciers—and by Nadir’s oldest friend. But they are not the only interlopers here: a suspect in a recent bombing has arrived just before them, and the authorities’ hunt for him casts a dangerous shadow over their journey. It is here, in this magnificent landscape—where glaciers are born of mating ice—that a chance meeting with a young nomad will change their lives, and the lives of those around them, forever.
Thinner than Skin is a haunting tribute to these lands, and to the nomadic life of the indigenous people there, where China encroaches and Pakistanis, Uzbeks, Russians, Chinese, and Afghans all come together to trade. It is a work of piercing beauty and intelligence, and an urgent novel for our times.
This week the online journal asianamlitfans brings this review of The Geometry of God, by Stephen Hong Sohn. Here’s an excerpt:
“The novel focuses on four main characters: Amal and Mehwish, two sisters; Zahoor, their grandfather and proponent of evolutionary theory; and finally Noman, an individual who, over the course of the novel, comes to change his political viewpoints in relation to scientific inquiry. The most interesting aspect of the novel to me personally was the extensive exploration of evolutionary theory as it relates to cetaceans, which have been theorized to have descended actually from land mammals. Thus, while it is commonly understood by evolutionary scientists that all complex life originated from the oceans, cetaceans and sirenians and other such mammalian species tied to the sea, took the interesting approach of returning to that location. Thus, Amal is pivotal in that she discovers an important bone connected to what one might call a “bridge species” or “missing link” between land mammals and sea mammals. Like the famed archaeopteryx, the limbed bird that apparently exhibited the transition between lizards and birds, the “dog-whale” bone, found in Pakistan, incites interest in evolutionary theories in a place often inhospitable to such scientific ideas. In some sense, the major conflicts that arise in this text are between science and Islam, between women and career trajectories; thus Khan tackles salient and productive topics. … Khan has a poet’s ear for language and there will be moments where you will find yourself pausing to grapple with what is being said. One of my favorite passages: “The rain glows loud. I get the smell of Lahore I usually only get in summer, when it’s so hot people water their driveways. They turn on the hose to crack the whip on heat. And then that smell: of watered roads, of the earth opening up its maw, of tension released. Vapors slide over my tongue and deep into my lungs. It’s the smell of the fertile tunnels of Lahore’s past” (329). This imagery and these descriptions offered to us by Nomad vividly illustrate how characters are consistently embedded in an archaeologically inflected consciousness. Field dig sites located in remote geographies and dense urbanscapes alike become sites of excavation. A rich, multi-layered novel.”
Also let me excerpt from a review just out in the new print issue of Calyx:
Uzma Aslam Khan’s fourth novel, The Geometry of God, the first book published by Clockroot Books, more than adequately fulfills the publisher’s interest in fostering urgent, disorienting, vivid writing. In her latest work, Khan challenges the reader in multiple ways to make sense of the world she depicts in her pages. Her creative and exuberant use of language (Urdu and Punjabi words included) delights and puzzles us, and makes us think from start to finish.
In The Geometry of God, Khan’s literary landscape and sensibilities differ from those of the majority of female South Asian writers, except in her exploration of familial affection and forbidden romantic love. She plumbs female and filial repression as well as the struggle of science versus religion. Khan is most compelling in the latter, sometimes providing colorful dialogue to show the tension, irony, and silliness inherent in deprecating reason. …
The story, set in Islamabad and Lahore during the troubled era of Zia-ul-Haq in the eighties and nineties, follows the lives of two remarkable sisters—the younger one blind and the other a budding paleontologist—and a man named Noman. The novel unfolds through their voices in first-person narrative which, along with Khan’s employment of the present tense, gives the book an immediacy that keeps readers engaged. The first chapter rightly begins with the eight-year-old Amal’s voice since her life dominates the pages. We are drawn in by the child’s intelligent perspective…
Living in a repressive society, Amal has the good fortune to have Zahoor as a grandfather—not just because he is a paleontologist but also because she’s exposed to stimulating conversations, including debates about religion and science. Her childhood discovery of the ear fossil of the primitive whale, Pakicetus, or dog-whale as she likes to refer to it, is a major event in the scientific world. As a young woman, Amal becomes Pakistan’s sole female paleontologist, which is no easy feat since she has to tolerate the attitudes of male colleagues and the Islamic restrictions under Zia’s regime. Mehwish’s narrative reveals how she senses what happens around her and conveys her imperfect grasp of language, which Khan dexterously manipulates to add to the wordplay prevalant throughout the novel…
The only male voice in the story is Noman’s, though in the first half of the novel we get Zahoor’s perspective as well. Noman’s involvement with the Party of Creation (which wants to discredit science to Islam’s advantage) sets him on a course that will entangle his destiny with Zahoor and his granddaughters. …
Reading The Geometry of God is akin to being immersed in the sea of Khan’s language.
VIDA has just released a much-discussed report on the ratios of male and female contributors in prominent publications, including, for book reviews, percentages of books by men and women reviewed. At Slate Meghan O’Rourke has a good summary discussion; see also Percival Everett’s thoughts here. I was particularly interested to find that the New York Review of Books, which I read almost cover to cover every issue, publishes male to female contributors at a distressing rate of 5.9 to 1, and only about 20% of the books they review are by women—all this distressing in itself & distressing because, despite my idea of myself as someone deeply attuned to these issues, I never noticed.
At the Literary Saloon, Michael Orthofer has done a quick tally of translations published in 2010, according to Three Percent’s highly useful translation database (for which we should all thank Chad Post, yet again!). Orthofer notes that: “in 2010 slightly less than 20 per cent of the books listed there are by women: i.e. there’s a huge sex-imbalance in terms of what gets translated.” This is something I’ve wondered about, but unfortunately only idly. Belletrista—”a site promoting women-authored literature from around the world”— had once written Clockroot, after reviewing several of our titles, to inquire about the translation rates of women writers vs. men writers, and I was able to say nothing more informative than that I too would be interested to see some figures. A rough scan of the 2009 titles—not scientifically done, I’m sorry—comes out with about the same ratio as Orthofer’s for 2010, somewhere around 20%. This surprises me in that most translations are published by smaller presses—indies and university presses—whom I would have thought particularly attentive to such issues. Perhaps gender often gets relegated to more mainstream publishing discussions (?), and we as small, internationally focused presses can become more concerned about aesthetic and linguistic/cultural diversity, putting gender issues to the side? I’m not sure.
When Clockroot first got going, behind scenes we often joked about how without meaning to we seemed to be only publishing women writers: early on we had signed only works by Ersi Sotiropoulos, Margarita Karapanou, Adania Shibli, Uzma Aslam Khan. I suppose that, all things being equal, we seem to gravitate toward women writers (should I note for the record that both Pam and I are in fact women?). I believe that Interlink has done a fine job publishing women writers through its twenty years—though I don’t have any figures on hand, and it would take some time to gather them (but I think of the involvement of Salma Khadra Jayyusi, and Interlink’s devotion to prominent writers such as Sahar Khalifeh and Sefi Atta). As it is, of the thirteen books on Clockroot’s list, eight are by women, five by men (two of these were originally written in English, both by women). This includes of course multiple works by repeat authors. It’s a small sample, but it is nice to feel ahead of the game.
I’d be interested in hearing from translators and editors of presses that publish translations about this issue. I suspect—without any data—that most of the submissions we receive at Interlink & Clockroot are works by men. But how many more? What role do agencies, grants, and foreign cultural ministries play in promoting men vs. women writers? How do translators interact with this issue? I myself have often wondered if there may be more women translating men than men translating women—I have no basis for thinking this other than again, a vague impression. What have reviewers noticed, both at larger and smaller venues? What role do sales play, or perceptions of which books sell? Note, for instance, this Guardian article (which mentions Uzma Aslam Khan) on “Pakistan’s literary boy’s club,” which wonders why
the media portrayal of Pakistan’s “new crop of literary stars” has disturbingly begun to focus its attention on what western reviewers are calling “the top four”: Daniyal Mueenuddin, Mohsin Hamid, Nadeem Aslam and Mohammed Hanif. Pakistani women have been writing for just as long and just as much as the men, so why is the “new crop” being portrayed by the western media as a boys’ club?
Notes for a future discussion, then? Many thanks to all those who have done the good work of gathering the figures mentioned.
WHAT THEY never tell you about a land under siege is that it becomes like a person with bipolar disorder. It suffers short bursts of hyperactivity between long periods of lethargy. That is what they never show on television. All they show are riots and protests and bomb blasts. They never show monotony. Monotony is for those who live in it. Not for those who watch. Or so Mr Shahid thought one morning, while driving to work in his once-white Toyota. He was certain he was reaching the point where he would do anything to break the monotony…
To further mark the publication of Granta‘s new issue on Pakistan, Ollie Brock interviews Uzma Aslam Khan and Aamer Hussein on Urdu literature (and, as Uzma adds, on literature in the many other languages of Pakistan). Here’s a little bit from Uzma, on one of her favorite Urdu writers:
[Saadat Hasan Manto‘s] short story “Toba Tek Singh” was my closest glimpse of the scars of Partition that my father never shared with us. His family came to Lahore in 1947 from a tiny village near Amritsar; his grandparents were beheaded before his mother’s eyes. I think he let his children see his past through reading “Toba Tek Singh,” a satirical account of the inmates of a mental asylum who have nowhere to go at Partition, but are forever left in limbo, between Pakistan and India.
The story made me deeply suspicious of easy categorization, particularly along ethnic and religious lines. It also made me understand that I come from a country that wasn’t shaped by those who migrated to it, like my parents, nor by the many indigenous tribes who’d lived there long before any one presumed to scratch lines across their land. Mine is the first generation of writers to be born in Pakistan, so, like my parents, I also carry the weight of beginning. The need to look in Pakistan’s looking-glass and know the slippery ghosts of my history has been imperative for me as a writer. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped hungering to know my place in these chaotic layers. It’s the hunger to make up for what was never said. It’s the terror of being left as voiceless as the inmates of the asylum.
Read in full here—
For West Coast followers: Uzma Aslam Khan will be launching Granta 112: New Writing from Pakistan this weekend at the Bay Area’s Litquake festival—see her at the “Litcrawl” on October 9, 7:15 at the Modern Times Bookstore. Go see her for us, we wish we could be there.
And/or: catch Uzma at Revolution Books in Berkeley at 7 pm on October 12, where she might read from The Geometry of God and—maybe this is just a rumor I’m starting—perhaps from her new novel, from which her piece in Granta is excerpted.
If you’re local—head up to the Rendezvous this Sunday, where Emily Toder and James Haug will read as part of Slope Editions‘ reading series. Emily will read her own poetry (I’ve been awaiting her chapbook, Brushes With, just out from Tarpaulin Sky)— and maybe a taste of Doctor Pi, too. The reading’s at 5 (and stay for karaoke at 8 if you like…).
And to honor the spirit of international collaboration: I’ve somehow neglected to mention Emily’s co-chapbook, I Hear a Boat, which was released this summer with Joan Fleming’s Two Dreams in Which Things Are Taken as part of the Duets series. Duets is a project to pair poets from the US and New Zealand, publishing their work side-by-side in beautifully designed chapbooks—offering not just two servings of great poetry, but international collegiality & conversation.
Granta‘s fall 2010 issue features writing from Pakistan, including a new story, “Ice, Mating,” by Uzma Aslam Khan. It looks like a fantastic issue, can’t wait to see it! And Uzma will be at San Francisco’s Litquake festival in October, for those of you in the Bay Area; we’ll link to the schedule once it’s up.