An Interview with Tamim Ansary

Aysegul Savas

SB: How about change in Afghanistan?

TA: Afghanistan is not at all now what it was when I was there. And the Islam that’s going on there is a break from that Islam as it was practiced when I was there. I was subjected to the oppression to conformist principles of Islam but that was also indistinguishable from the conformist impulse of that society. Afghans would have had a hard time distinguishing culture from Islam. Since then, people like my brother— Western converts to radical Islam— are converting to an Islam of which the doctrines can be specifically known to anyone that comes into it. It’s very rigidly codified. Whatever question you have, you can look it up. Whereas if you wanted to be sure you weren’t violating the rules and you were fitting and being a good Muslim in the old Afghan way, you wouldn’t be able to look it up. You’d have to just live there and absorb the sense of it and after a while you would intuit how to behave. So that’s a different thing.

In fiction it’s the same thing. It doesn’t involve as much reading and research but it does involve being in your characters’ situations, and pondering and thinking about them.

Is that your process of writing?

TA: My first novel, which is unpublished, is about six characters who work on a counterculture newspaper, from the time when the newspaper is flourishing to the time when it dies. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. I spent a long time trying to imagine who my characters were. That involved drawing them, and getting clippings from newspapers to determine them. I imagined histories for them—who were their parents, what happened to them that was definitive, what hurt them, what do they want, what are their secrets, what are they not telling anybody? I wrote up all these pages for these people and eventually I got to a point where I wanted to just make some notes about what had occurred to me might happen between these people, and those notes sometimes turned into conversations, and I just kept doing that until I felt that I had written up every conversation these people were going to have in the book. Then I read over what I had discarded and what I had kept, and I went on from there.

SB: How about The Widow’s Husband?

TA: The Widow’s Husband didn’t quite happen that way. I thought I wanted to write a novel set in modern times, about some Afghans who go back and try to reclaim their land. Afghans were doing this and to me there was an interesting issue about whether land actually belongs to you when you’ve left and other people have suffered and died and are now living on that land. So that was my intention. When I started to think whom this might have happened to, I began to think who their parents were and who their other forbearers were and as I thought about that, I began to compare the lives of each generation back to the history of that time so that I could more readily imagine what their lives might have been.  As I went back that way, all of a sudden I saw in my mind a Malang (Sufi saint) coming down a hill and I asked, “Who is that guy?” I thought about the four or five generations back that I’d gone and calculated that this would be around 1840, around the time when the British came. And so I thought, “Where was he and where were the British when this happened?” And then I also had an image of the Malang beating the shit out of a couple of British guys and then running barefoot. The rest of it sort of came naturally.

SB: How many times did you revise the novel before the final version?

TA: Well I think revision is such a constant process that I can’t talk about “times”. My process is not that I revise the whole thing, read it, then revise again. There was so much I added and subtracted. Later in the process I gave the book to my daughter who is a brilliant critic and she said that it was really the story of the widow, and I think she was right. But by then it was too late because I had written it all but I added more stuff about her, though not enough.

The other part of the process is that I believe one shouldn’t write by scrupulously constructing sentences. I put a lot of work into figuring out how to write the best sentences I could write. If you write that way, fixing each sentence as you go, you’re never going to write anything good. It won’t have voice and it won’t have flow. But I think all of that work that I put in did help me to develop my instrument so that it’s there without me thinking about it. I don’t think that happens by itself. You have to really work a long time and very hard to develop that part of your craft to write pure, simple, complex, syntactically powerful prose. I find that for a lot of people that come to my workshop, it’s at the level of sentences that they are struggling. Their sentences are not doing what they want them to do. They’re trying to play a song with a flute that doesn’t have the holes in the right place.

SB: You’re saying that if you concentrate scrupulously on sentences, then you can’t have a flow, but if you can’t construct sentences, then your basic instrument is broken, then you can’t have a flow either.

TA: That’s right. You have to get your sentence constructing ability to a point where you’re not thinking about it when you’re writing. I think the final ingredient in writing is voice and flow and what enables you to write with voice and make your writing flow is itself a process that’s unrelated to grammar, syntax, diction, vocabulary, all those things. It is a process that involves getting yourself so concentrated on what you’re going to say that you’re not thinking about how you’re saying it, so that who you are comes through. You have to get to where you’re being who you are.

SB: Sounds like a Sufi idea!

TA: Yes, I suppose.

SB: Did you have a specific image in mind when you were writing West of Kabul East of New York?

TA: West of Kabul was part of the book I’m writing now, but I carved it out and published it separately after September 11. My idea was to write about three seminal road trips I had taken. Through the telling of the trips I wanted to tell the story of my life. As I was doing that, I realized that I hadn’t included the journey that brought me from Afghanistan to America. Why did I not even register that as an important trip? I realized I had not thought about Afghanistan since I left. I wondered what I remembered of that time. For a year I wrote anything I could remember of Afghanistan. I had no plan for what I was going to do with it. Then, after September 11, I thought just that material was a book in itself, about my bicultural upbringing. And I took that road trip—going back to the Muslim world, falling in love with Debbie and marrying her— I took that one out and made it into a book.

SB: What about the other book?

TA: It is another memoir about the twelve years in Portland when I was a hippy. For the writing of that, I try to generate material that isn’t structured. It’s just me talking to my mythical other self about these things that I remember. I’ve reshaped two of the three parts and they’re finished work. The third part I didn’t do that way. I started with an idea of what I wanted to do and it didn’t work. Now I’m drowning in my failure. So I can’t move forward until I pretend I never wrote it and start over and try to remember the real thing.              

SB: You mention reading biased, Western history books as a child. What fiction books were you reading?

TA: I only read fiction in English and I read voluminously. We had a little bookshelf of books my parents had brought back from America and I read everything there. Somehow we had a complete set of The Book of Knowledge, which is an Encyclopedia for kids. I read all of that. And from an early age, I was sort of a prodigy so I read Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill… I read all of that when I was about ten. I read everything I could get my hands on.

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