THE WRITING LIFE ... Mohammed HANIF
DELICIOUSLY JUICY AND ANARCHIC
JANET TAY talks to MOHAMMED HANIF about his Man Booker Prize-longlisted novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, a darkly comic attempt at explaining the mysterious death of Pakistan’s military dictator General Zia ul-Haq in a 1988 plane crash
FORMER AIR FORCE PILOT turned journalist and playwright Mohammed Hanif was born in Okara, Pakistan, in 1965. After leaving the Pakistan Air Force Academy to pursue a career in journalism, he worked for Newsline, India Today and The Washington Post. He has written plays for the stage and screen, including a critically acclaimed BBC drama and the feature film The Long Night. A graduate of the University of East Anglia’s creative writing programme, he is currently head of the BBC’s Urdu Service and lives in London. A Case of Exploding Mangoes is the overall winner of the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel.
Could you tell us a little about your background, such as where you were born and raised?
I was born in a village in central Pakistan. I attended a school in that village and stayed there till I turned 16.
In your article about your experience in the Pakistan Air Force Academy, you said that you come from a farming family. What led you to join the Pakistan Air Force Academy?
Boredom, I guess. There wasn’t much of an education culture in my family so there were no elders around to advise me on what to do with my life. Then I saw this Air Force recruitment advertisement in the newspaper. It looked really exotic, I applied and got in.
After you left the Air Force, you pursued a career in journalism, wrote for the theatre and television, and you are now also a novelist. Do you prefer to write journalistic pieces or fiction, or do you like them equally? Do you approach them in the same way or do you have to put on different hats when you write different genres?
I like doing journalistic pieces when I have something to report or an opinion to share. It usually works well when I travel to a new place and try to understand a new issue. With fiction you have to rely on your imagination. You have to keep going back to it in the hope that a new facet of the story will be revealed to you. You do use a different muscle when doing journalism and a different one when writing fiction.
A Case of Exploding Mangoes was longlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, shortlisted for the 2008 Guardian First Book Award, won the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book for Europe and South Asia, and is also the overall winner of the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. How do you feel about your book being critically acclaimed and noticed by so many book awards?
It feels nice, of course, and you hope that by getting these nominations the book will find a few more readers.
How long did you take to plan your first novel? Did you know that you would end up writing a novel like A Case of Exploding Mangoes?
I had thought about it for a very long time but the actual writing took two and a half years. I had an idea about the tone and texture of the book and I also knew how it would end. But everything else I had to figure out.
You must be attending many literary festivals now that you’ve published your first novel. Do you take to these events like a duck to water or are you still getting used to them?
They all tend to be quite different. I went to some in the U.K. and those were all full of middle-aged, middle-class, polite people. But then I went to the Jaipur Literature Festival which was more like a carnival with lots of young people and celebrity hunters thrown in. In Shanghai you hardly saw any Chinese people at the festival. Most of the people who turned up were expats. So every festival tends to have its own flavour.
Was the road to publishing your novel a difficult one? Did it take you a long time to find an agent or a publisher?
It worked out quite smoothly after I had found an agent. Within a few weeks she had found more than a dozen publishers in different countries. I guess I was lucky.
You are a graduate of the University of East Anglia’s creative writing programme. Do you think this helped to speed up the completion of your novel? Was being in the programme also useful for locating potential agents and publishers? What was it like having to juggle a full-time job and writing a novel as well as attending the UEA programme?
It did give me the space and time to think about my book. It also taught me how to read my own work. I used to be pretty bad at that. I am not sure if it helped me find a publisher but it did give me the confidence to look for one. I think when you are working as well as writing you are better disciplined. You kind of know that you have to try and do a little bit more in your free time. On the other hand, give me a whole free day and I won’t know what to do with it.
I liked your story about the neglected library in the Pakistan Air Force Academy where you got the keys to it from the librarian and chose books to borrow quite indiscriminately, but was nevertheless exposed to a wealth of literature by great authors—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Gabriel García Márquez, William Faulkner and Salman Rushdie. Would you say that was one of your first steps towards discovering your love for books and writing?
Yes, it was. There was definitely an element of discovery to it. And it wasn’t just the literary books that I read. I read lots of thrillers, lots of military nonfiction as well. And since I read without any guidance or any critical framework, so there was an element of guilty pleasure in that reading.
Who are your favourite authors and are any of them a great influence on your writing? What book(s) are you reading at the moment?
Too many to list here but I’ll try anyway. Truman Capote, J.G. Ballard, Vladimir Nabokov, Jane Austen, John Le Carre, Mario Vargas Llosa and Jorge Luis Borges. These days I am reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
You were based in London for 12 years before returning to Karachi. In your article about returning to Pakistan, “Karachi Calling,” in The Guardian of June 24, 2008, you said you call yourself a ‘Karachiite’ because that’s where you “found love and work and the sea.” Are you a ‘Karachiite’ when you write and how important is identity to you as an author?
I don’t think I am much of a Karachiite when I write. I’m a man of a certain age and a certain colour, and was born into a certain faith and in a certain place. My attempt to tell stories is my attempt to find my true place in the world and not bogged down by all the identities I have mentioned above. But I am sure all these identities feed into my writing.
Authors like V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi have often written on the issue of identity in their fiction and nonfiction, especially with regard to being a product of colonisation and living with prejudices and preconceptions of Indian identity in British culture. Was this an issue that you also had to grapple with when you were living in London?
I came to London when I was already a grownup, married and a professional. I did confront some of those prejudices that you mentioned but they didn’t affect me the way they affect a person who is born to Asian parents in London or moved there at a very early age.
Does place matter to you when you write? Would it be easier for you to write about Pakistan in London and vice versa?
I think writing is a struggle everywhere and your postal address doesn’t change that.
What is your writing process like? Do you have a designated place or desk, or can you write anywhere as long as you have a laptop handy?
I do have a designated desk but I hardly ever spend more than ten minutes there. I usually end up writing in cafés, airport lounges, or trains. I usually scribble in notebooks and it’s only when I have filled a few pages I move to my laptop.
Are you working on your second novel? If so, would you mind telling us briefly what it’s about?
Yes, I am, but I have barely started, so there is not much to tell. I have no idea what it’s about. I think it’s about a beautiful nurse who is in love with the wrong guy. It’s also about faith and work. I was joking with a friend the other day who asked me the same question: I said it’s The Da Vinci Code set in Karachi’s sewerage system.
Reproduced from the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2009 and Singapore Writers Festival 2009 issues of Quill magazine