Friday, 6 November 2015

Triskele talks to Tamim Sadikali

Tamim Sadikali is the author of Dear Infidel, a book which takes us into the heart of a British Asian family celebrating Eid ul-Fitr, the Islamic feast that marks the end of Ramazan, the month of fasting. The place is northwest London and the time is November 2004, eighteen months into the second Iraq war and seven months before London’s 7/7 bombings, and four cousins – two pairs of brothers who rarely see each other – foregather at the house of one of their parents.

Catriona Troth reviewed Dear Infidel for Book Muse UK a couple of months ago. She wrote that it, "does what the media has so singularly failed to do - show us shades and variations within the British Muslim community. Not between extremists and others – but within one ordinary family."

Here she talks to its author.

Hi Tamim. I’ve just realised that you, like me, are a Warwick-maths-graduate-turned-author. So I have to begin by asking you about your journey from mathematician to author. Was writing always part of your life?

Ha! Small world… But I’ve only became bohemian with middle-age. In my late teens I was a dictionary-definition geek: whilst most ventured out and ‘experimented’ with life, I’d stay in and go through S-level pure maths papers for fun. Eventually I hit my own brick wall with the subject and fell out of love with it. And it was only in my late twenties, well after I’d graduated and started a career in software, that writing fiction just sort of happened. I remember the moment well – I was in the kitchen of my parent’s house late one evening, on my own, and I just began writing a scene that come in my head…scribbling, really. Over the next few days I kept on scribbling and before I knew it, I had ten thousand words worth of scribbles.

Dear Infidel is set in the very specific time period between the 9/11 attacks in New York and the 7/7 bombings in London, when the news was full of brutal images of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. We get the sense that your characters know they are living on the lip of a volcano.

Was the idea for the book born at this time, or was it necessary to achieve a certain distance before you could write about it?

Definitely the latter. 9/11 started something whose tentacles have fanned out – continue to fan out. Going back to maths, this is chaos theory: with random storms still blowing, knocking over whole countries as well as vulnerable individuals. It took time for the charge set in motion to detonate, and thereafter, to observe and make sense of that domino effect.

The book has five narrators - four cousins, plus one spouse. (For those who haven’t read it yet, there is Pasha, living in leafy Cheshire with his English girlfriend, disillusioned with Islam but nostalgic for the trappings of his culture; Aadam, successful enough, fond of the British, but tormented by the daily bombardment of news from the war; Nasneen, his wife, a sexually frustrated feminist in the process of rediscovering her religion; Salman, the most religious of the four men, desperate to bring his children up in a true understanding of Islam; and poor, lost Imtiaz, locked in a cage of his own making.) 

How did you go about developing a distinct outlook and voice for each of them? Were some of them easier to write than others?

I aimed for a few, inter-related things: that the characters should be holistic (and therefore believable), and that the author’s hand should be undetectable. Put another way, that none of them should be my mouthpiece.

When I was writing, I consciously became each character – crawled under his or her skin. (There are writing exercises to support this – answering Qs like: what’s ‘X’s favourite movie/food/drink? Who would ‘X’ vote for? How would ‘X’ spend a lazy Sunday afternoon?) As time went on, this became surprisingly easy: to think like a fundamentalist, a Westernized playboy, a porn addict. Once I understood each of them – their outlook and basic motivations – writing as them became surprisingly easy.

One of the moments I love in Dear Infidel is when the cousins all stop to watch a few minutes from a Carry On film. In that moment, they seem utterly British. A few minutes later, it is a Bollywood film that captures their attention. The juxtaposition of those two things seems to distil, and celebrate, the positive side of the second generation immigrant experience. Was that your intention with that scene, and did it take you a long while to find the right elements to encapsulate that?

No, I wasn’t deliberately demonstrating their British credentials – but I’m heartened that this was your interpretation.

These characters are indelibly British: whether it’s those much trumpeted ‘British values’, or British humour, they need no leap of imagination to connect. That they are, hand-in-hand, being pulled by opposing and yet equally irresistible forces, doesn’t override or erase or trump or subvert their Britishness. Regardless of what anyone thinks – even what they themselves think – they are, and forever will be, both British and Muslim. That tension will ebb and flow, manifesting itself both negatively and positively – but they’ll always find Carry On films funny. I guess there’s a message in that.

I kept thinking, as I read, that I would eventually understand why you chose the title, Dear Infidel, but it remains somewhat enigmatic to the end. The title, like the narrator in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, seems to reach out of the book and address the reader directly, but the rest of the book does not. How did you come to choose it and what does it represent for you?

In art, you can say things that you just can’t get away with elsewhere. That said, you may have smoked me out here… When I started writing this novel, I intended it to be some magnum opus on the Muslim/non-Muslim faultline. But then I simply let the blank page take me wherever it wanted, and discovered that I was less interested in ‘Muslim issues’ than I initially realised.

Whilst I touch upon some ‘Muslim’ subjects: hijab, religious schools, terrorism,… - the payload is not in covering these per se, but in illuminating how the coverage of them unsettles the individual. And as this small unsettling is repeated, pretty much every day, this Butterfly effect leads to personal chaos. It’s this that I wanted to communicate – and principally to the non-Muslim reader. The title, Dear Infidel, is a non-literal/tongue-in-cheek expression of this sentiment.

None of your characters finds any real resolution at the end of the book. And in the decade since the book was set, things can hardly be said to have got better for Muslims in the UK or the rest of the world. How optimistic/pessimistic are you for the real life Aadams/Nazneens/Salmans/Imtiazs/Pashas they represent?

I’ve never bought into Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations theory. Rather, what I see is a clash of extremisms: a lunatic strain of Muslim thinking and neo-colonialism, feeding off each other in a symbiotic relationship, and all the while draining the middle ground. I’m pessimistic.

Following the publication earlier this year of Writing the Future: Black and Asian Writers and Publishers in the UK Market Place, there has been a great deal of discussion about diversity within the publishing industry itself, and within the books it chooses to promote. What steps do you think the industry needs to take to get more BAME voices heard?

This is a very tricky question – personally, I’m against positive discrimination. I’d rather have no platform at all, than be given one out of charity.

That said, the conservative tastes of the book buying public is a thing of woe. But if the existential nausea of a 25 year old Cosmo girl is what gets tills ringing, is it really the publishing industry’s role to change that? Honestly, I don’t know.

Like all industries, publishing is reactive: it identifies a pattern and then milks it. How many times have we read a double-page spread on ‘ exciting new voice’, only to realise that they are ‘exciting’ because their dad played polo with Prince Charles? Or that they are the next brown face to drop on the radar in the wake of Zadie Smith and Monica Ali..? If the industry is happy to engage in these forms of positive discrimination, they might as well share the love.

Can you recommend some books by BAME writers that you think deserve to be much better known?

I reviewed a couple of titles for Bookmunch recently that I thought were excellent: The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah and One Point Two Billion by Mahesh Rao.

You’re sitting in your favourite writing place. What can you see around you?

No-one. Not a soul. I don’t need blue skies and a beach, or a misty mountaintop. All I crave is splendid isolation…to be far from the madding crowd.

Thank you, Tamim!

You can read Catriona's full review of Dear Infidel on Book Muse UK

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