Q: What inspired you to write The Blind Man’s Garden? A: We have lived through an extraordinary decade, beginning with 9/11 and ending with the Arab Spring—and between that we have the war on terror, the call to jihad, the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the murder of Benazir Bhutto, the killing of Osama bin Laden. A clash seems to have occurred between an incomplete understanding of the East and an incomplete understanding of the West. Not long ago on Google I typed in the words ‘Pakistan is’ and the four autofill choices I was given were: Evil, Stupid, Dangerous, A terrorist country. I typed in ‘America is’ and the choices given were: Not the World, Evil, Not a country but a business. So when I began writing The Blind Man’s Garden I wanted to find a story that could hold as many of these elements as possible, without losing shape as fiction. A novelist doesn’t tell you what to think, he tells you what to think about.
Q: In the novel foster-brothers Jeo and Mikal go to Afghanistan to offer medical skills, not joining the Taliban in combat. Could you explain their motivations? A: They are decent human beings. Jeo’s values are derived from Islam—the gentler side of his parents’ religion—and Mikal’s from his parents’ political engagement.
The motivations of both Jeo and Mikal’s have roots in my own background. The idea of consequence entered my own life through Islam—as a child I was told that if you do a bad thing the consequences would be bad. If you do good, the consequences would be good. I am referring of course to Heaven and Hell, Sin and Virtue. There are any number of ways through which these ideas can enter a child’s life, secular as well as religious. I am just explaining how these lessons came to me—given my social background and the household I was born into—and it was through Islam. (I am perfectly aware of how religion can be corrupted, what psychological damage the idea of Divine punishment and Divine reward might cause—but that is a different conversation.)
As for Mikal and politics, several of my uncles and my father were people of the left in Pakistan. I am deeply grateful to my father for having instilled in me a contempt for money, for profit. So it was through my father’s family that I acquired the idea of engaging collectively with the problems of the world, as opposed to doing it alone, which is a non-political stance. I always say that I vote every time I write a sentence.
Q: Tell us about your writing process. A: I often write in isolation, avoiding all contact for weeks and months, and even blacking out my windows. It is a habit I developed when I was younger and had no money. In order to make the best use of the time I had, I wished to eradicate distractions as much as possible. I was quite a dreamy adolescent and I think part of it still survives—I can get lost in the movements of an insect or watch the falling rain. So I would black out the windows and stay in and write. Once I was writing an episode set in summer in Maps for Lost Lovers—I went out into the garden for the first time in about a week and couldn’t understand why it was snowing, how it could be cold.
Q: Mikal and Jeo’s adoptive father, Rohan, is slowly losing his vision throughout the novel. How did you prepare yourself to write about his experience? A: There was no conventional method of research available to me. I arranged meetings with visually impaired people, but I don’t have the temperament that could enable me to ask a blind person really intimate questions. I wanted to know whether blindness is white, whether it is black, or silver, or golden. I couldn’t find many good books about blindness that described the day to day experiences. A year went by and I had no information. So I decided to tape shut my eyes for a week and live like that 24/7. I did it again the following year, and then again the year after that. The book took four and a half years to write so in total I was without my eyes for three weeks.
At the end of the first week when I took off the tape I was shocked to find myself covered in bruises: they were everywhere—my face, my neck, my chest, arms, belly, shins. It was as though I had been assaulted without my knowing it. I had been bumping into things over the previous week and had forgotten that each blow was leaving a record on my body.
And the experience of taping shut my eyes seeped into the entire book. For example, when Mikal is being held in the black-walled room in the CIA’s prison, he experiences intense hallucinations, surrounded by all that blackness with no light—I experienced that when my eyes were taped shut. People (even those who can see) are always reaching out in The Blind Man’s Garden—extending their hands, touching other human beings. I believe that wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t taped shut my eyes. At one point Rohan, the blind man of the title, says, “When I want to remember the colour red I will touch something warm.” That happened to me—my hand accidentally touched a warm surface and my head flooded with red. One day I heard rain and I made my way slowly to the window and put out my hand—the drops falling on my palm caused an image of twinkling stars to appear in my mind. And now Rohan says, “And when I want to remember the twinkling of stars I will put my hand out into the falling rain.”
Q: You were born in Pakistan and moved to England at the age of 14. How did your experience inform your writing? A: I am grateful for my knowledge of Urdu, Pakistan’s national language. I don’t just have the 26 letters of English—I have the 38 letters of Urdu too. My alphabet is bigger. Readers often speak of the melancholy lyricism of my books and wonder about the influence of Urdu poetry. But I don’t sit down to write in any particular way. It’s not as though one writes a non-lyrical page and then decides to add 20 grams of lyricism to it, or 30 ounces of political thought and 5 drops of emotional intensity. Language is a deeply private thing—it comes as it comes. I get as much pleasure from looking at an apple as from eating it, so my books are visual. One of the things I remember about The Divine Comedy is that Beatrice has emerald eyes. This is my sensibility. One must not examine these things too much. John Banville said about Nabokov that he did not write in English: “he wrote in a private secret language that was mysteriously comprehensible to English-speaking readers.” That I think is true to all writers to an extent.
Q: When Jeo hears tank shells and gunfire for the first time, another man says to him, “The world sounds like this all the time, we just don’t hear it. Then sometimes in some places we do.” What do you mean by this? A: I think we—the ordinary citizens—are lied to and lied about by those in power. George Orwell wrote in 1946 that political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” And now we are living in an era where terms like “extraordinary rendition” are used to refer to what is in fact “kidnapping”; and “enhanced interrogation” is used for “torture.” I was also thinking of terms like “Cold War”. The Cold War was cold only for the privileged places of the planet—in other words, the West. It got pretty hot over there in the Third World, where all the blood was spilled.
Q: What can Americans who lived through 9/11 learn from this book? A: When my previous novel, The Wasted Vigil, was published, I read the same passage to American and Pakistani audiences, and was accused of being anti-American by the former and a CIA agent by the latter. These are polar reactions, but there is an entire range of opinion in between. I also get letters and emails from Pakistanis saying they don’t agree with the fundamentalists in my novel; and from Americans who say that they know their governments’ policies are wrong.
But I never lose hope. I am not a believer in any faith, but I do remember that in Islam it is a sin to lose hope. You are not allowed to despair. This is why suicide bombings were such a problematic issue for the fundamentalists: suicide is a sin. So they have circumvented it by saying they are not “suicide bombings”, they are “martyrdom bombings.”
So I can’t lose hope about anything: East-West, Islam etc. I think despair has to be earned. If you were to say to me the world is damaged beyond repair, suitable only for the rubbish heap, I would want to see a record of what you did to change things, to repair it. You are not allowed to make that statement unless you have tried a hundred times to make things better—if you have failed again and again and again I might be willing to respect your opinion. I can’t take empty complaints seriously. The fact of the matter is that if you are the kind of person who has tried to alter things a hundred times, you would still say, “Let me try one more time.” You would never give up. Only the complacent ones, the bourgeoisie, the privileged ones, would say, “Throw this thing called life onto the rubbish heap.”
I do hope that readers take away the message of hope about the current difficulties in the Muslim world.
FOR BOOKING INFORMATION: Erica Hinsley email@example.com / 212-572-2018