Though The Cloud Messenger is Aamer Hussein’s first novel, it comes after five collections of stories and a novella, Another Gulmohar Tree. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, but a long-time resident of London, Hussein has dramatized the sorts of encounters between and within cultures that reflect his own facility in seven languages. He writes with intelligent restraint about the experience of displacement, but also the indelible richness of wherever we like to think of as home. The Cloud Messenger draws on his own unsentimental education as a student of Farsi to create a romance about language and the unexpected life that reading and translating can take. Last year, we met to discuss the Granta anthology of writing from and about Pakistan at his home in West London.
Could you begin by explaining your background?
I’m from Karachi, third-generation in almost an accidental way, because both my grandfather and father were born there, even though they hadn’t lived there very much until after partition because of certain historical … mishaps, you might say. My mother is from Northern India and from a much more traditional family, although her father was an academic.
My own background is very mixed, but all my education was English until I left Pakistan. At the same time, both languages were spoken at home and both parents were practicing believers. Yet we had no sense of confusion about our belonging. It was only when we left the country that we realized how Western we were.
How did you come by your literary ambitions?
As much as I would like to think that I had a literary mission—well, I would have liked to sing! My literary ambitions emerged as an undergraduate reading Persian. From that I flipped to psychology because I had been told that if I studied Jung, I would understand the religious culture I came from. But he really didn’t help! So then I went to Freud, and then to the existentialists and the phenomenologists and then I started writing—but then I suppose that writing was in an unconscious way. The writing really came to me at twenty-nine. It was a way of assembling experience.
Did you identify with a particular language tradition? Did you feel uncomfortable using English?
On the one hand, why would I have studied Persian in England if I hadn’t felt I was becoming monolingual? On the other hand, I don’t remember feeling guilty about using English because it was what came to me. What I was much more concerned with was trying to decolonize the English I was using. Modernism did that for me. When I was reading Woolf or Beckett, they had a language that was beyond a classical idiom. At that time, it seemed to me a protest against an imperialist and hegemonic use of language. Later on, I discovered they were part of the project as well, and then I became more interested in bilingual writers. French became the language I was most interested in reading in—North African writers whose first language was French and the Vietnamese-born writer Marguerite Duras, who was supposed to be French but grew up speaking Vietnamese. I kept looking at her French to see if there was a gap there and I do feel that there is.
You’re very attracted to the idea of translation, or “cultural stammering” as you call it. In a memoir you wrote for Granta, national identities seem to proliferate in the milieu in which you lived when you first moved to London. You talk about Palestinians, Japanese friends, Colombians.
I had learned to expect that because I had grown up in a very cosmopolitan school in Karachi. My best mate was Japanese and, on the other side, there was a Norwegian girl who spoke better Urdu than I did, and there were Greeks and Canadians in the class.
There is this sense of cosmopolitanism in both Pakistani culture and Pakistani writing in general. Is that something that you sense is under threat?
I worry sometimes that Pakistani culture is a funny mixture, that in some ways it is too overly Westernized and in others too nostalgic for Islamic culture. On the one hand, there seems to be this very pious behavior on TV and, on the other hand, an unthinking and unquestioning admiration for Western forms. And somewhere in between the modernity of Pakistan and its nostalgia for tradition, we lose the sense of a vibrant new culture.
There is now a gathering of very talented Anglophone writers who happen to originate from Pakistan, many of whom appear in the Granta anthology. In an essay for the London Review of Books, Amit Chaudhuri asked, “What is Pakistani Writing?” and mentioned your work along with that of Nadeem Aslam, Kamila Shamsie, Bapsi Sidhwa, and Daniyal Muennuddin. What unites them?
The other point he was making was that writing like mine was impossible after September 11, because he thought that my world had gone. I was left baffled by that statement because the implication was that Pakistani literature was made valid only by September 11.
Do we have to think of it in this way? It’s as if contemporary writing should concern itself with global affairs, and much of it doesn’t, and much of it shouldn’t. Another problem I have is that this body of work reflects the experience of different generations. We all started to write at different points in our lives. Mohammed Hanif’s novel is set in the 1980s. I don’t see that as particularly innovative, but he’s using the novel to address a particular historical moment. Kamila Shamsie has addressed different periods of Pakistani history throughout her writing. Mohsin’s book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was very topical but at its heart was a love story. What I would say about books like Moth Smoke and Kamila’s first novels is that they came out in the 1990s. Much of what has been called Pakistani writing since then fulfills an interest that Western readers have in this supposed hotspot. There is this feeling that Pakistani history is embodied in its literature and some people will read between the lines of books to look for this even when it isn’t there. Much of that curiosity has to do with Islam and with how Muslim writers present themselves.
Does that then diminish the involvement that Western readers have with writers from Pakistan?
I hope not. I hope that when they read these books they find themselves involved with the story, the language, the quality of the writing, and they find that it isn’t as exotic as they thought it would be.
Is your understanding of Pakistani writing shaped by the presence of other nearby nations? V. S. Naipaul once said that for him, as someone of Indian descent, a language like Farsi has the same sort of authoritative cultural presence that Latin would for a European. Do you draw on neighboring literary and cultural traditions, like Iran, or even India?
Yes. If nothing else, the geography of India plays an important role in my writing. But I’m also very interested in folk songs and stories, oral histories, and so on.
Like the fables that open Another Gulmohar Tree?
Those fables are partly invented by me, partly already there. The story about the frog was something my father used to tell me when I was a child. It was through the frame of Western literature, through its forms, that I started to view Asiatic literature. All writers are migrants of a kind.
I wonder whether you could then say that your reading of modernist writers was informed by your experience of being an outsider?
It made me aware of being an outsider. You are who you are, you are someone who speaks two languages and yet you enter literature as if it was a self-enclosed world. You start to read Virginia Woolf or Beckett or Joyce, writers who I came to late, and think, They’re saying exactly what I want to say. Then you realize, I’m not in here. So in Mrs. Dalloway for instance, I would be Septimus. And yet I’m not Septimus because, given my class background in Pakistan, I would be considered superior to Mrs. Dalloway herself! That then makes you want to write about the world you’ve left behind.
Do you find that the converse of that is true, that you also find yourself identifying with the most unlikely people?
Yes, I always loved the fiction of the American South. I love Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, and Tennessee Williams.
There’s a passage in you writing where two different sorts of political writing are defined—the one being something close to agitprop, the other something which is more ambiguous, more difficult to reduce to single interpretations, and therefore somehow more subversive. Is that the sort of political writing you prefer? Would you say this is true of The Cloud Messenger, too?
The Cloud Messenger is very apolitical. It’s about language, expression. In this book, I allowed myself not to worry about politics.