Interview: Bilal Tanweer

Bilal Tanweer is our latest New Voice, with his story ‘After That, We Are Ignorant’, published yesterday. Here, Bilal tells Ollie Brock about about his book of connected stories, of which ‘After That, We Are Ignorant’ is one, and the importance of voice in his fiction.

OB: You’re both a writer and a translator. Which came first? Do they exercise completely different parts of your brain, or is it similar work?

BT: Fiction writing came first, although it came very late – during the sophomore year of my undergraduate studies. I started translating even later, when I wanted to win a translation competition during my MFA at Columbia. Much to my surprise, I enjoyed it immensely and have been translating ever since. It also anchors me, keeps me thinking about words, writing and language.

For me, translating is very much like writing itself; and like every other translator, I also feel that literary translation is underrated and underappreciated (and underpaid) for the amount of imaginative and technical labour it requires. One has to make a lot of choices that are similar to writing fiction, and many that are specific to translation itself. On the whole, it could be as imaginative an enterprise as any other creative endeavour. William Weaver once used the metaphor of a performance for translation: you must act out the text in a different language. Ultimately, I feel every good translator is a writer first. Yes, translating can be tedious and oppressive if you don’t find some kind of personal affinity with the work you’re translating, or if you don’t believe in it. If you love the work, it’s like travelling to a new country with the person you love. At heart, I think, all good translators are like writers: they want to share something important, something urgent, something beautiful with the world.

The book I just finished translating (and sent out to a few publishers – fingers crossed!), a humorous novel from Urdu, Love in Chakiwara (and Other Such Adventures), I enjoyed translating immensely because I found a connection with the narrator’s voice – mischievous, oppressed, trying to show spine to somebody who is openly fleecing him but cannot do so because he also admires and hero-worships him. Great fun!

The story we’ve featured has a very distinctive style: a rough, brazen monologue from an angry, rather cruel narrator. What inspired it?

In my writing, the voice is the primary concern for me, and most of the time I construct everything else from it. My influences are mainly from Urdu poetry, and for this story, Karachi street language. The writer I go back to for voice is N. M. Rashed, one of the pioneers of modernist poetry and free verse in Urdu, and also among its finest practitioners. His poetry started making sense to me when I understood the voice. It also made me realize how important voice is for my own writing. I was also influenced a lot by Grace Paley’s stories. Goodbye and Good Luck is one of my favourites.

It’s interesting you consider that narrator to be ‘cruel’. I think it comes from the fact that he is vehemently a know-it-all guy, who is not prone to being surprised – at least he won’t admit to being surprised. So whatever he narrates, it will be with the intention to entertain, with the pretence that he knows and understands everything perfectly well. Perhaps the cruelty also comes from the fact that he’s ostensibly enjoying what he’s narrating. But this could simply be his way of telling the story. He might be performing for an audience who would not have it any other way.

The bomb-blast of the ending seems to deny all meaning to the encounter on the bus. Is this deliberate? Does it reflect something about life in Pakistan?

This story is part of a larger work. The bomb blast at the end ties it to the other stories in the same book, which are all about the same bomb blast. The book is 80 per cent done. It is deliberate, yes, because the book is trying to show a host of different characters and how they are affected by the blast.

I am not sure if it reflects anything about Pakistan except that there is an occasional bomb blast somewhere and people just factor that risk into their lives and go on with their business.

Our last issue’s theme was Pakistan, and it brought together some of the country’s finest novelists and non-fiction authors. Does it feel like a good time to be a Pakistani writer?

I do think that a sense of community is healthy in all circumstances. I also feel that all the Pakistani writers I’ve known (almost all of them!) are incredibly generous and supportive and helpful. I wrote my first story for Kamila Shamsie’s workshop and since then, she has been one of my key supporters and mentors. For the last two years or so, Musharraf Ali Farooqi has been unbelievably kind and helpful, especially with the translations but also with just about everything else.

Is it a good time? It certainly feels good to know that if you write something worthwhile, there is an audience for it, although I am not sure how much of that applies to short stories because agents and publishers tend to gravitate towards novels. The international audience – I am told repeatedly, and by reliable sources – has no appetite for Pakistani or South Asian short stories.

Tell us a little about what you’re working on now.

I finished the translation of Love in Chakiwara last month, a humorous Urdu novel considered to be one of the milestones of Urdu humorous fiction. Now I am writing the final two chapters of my Karachi book, of which ‘After That, We Are Ignorant’, is the opening chapter. Another chapter appeared in The Life’s Too Short Literary Review last year. ■

Read ‘After That, We Are Ignorant’ here, or visit our New Voices section for a full list of stories and interviews.

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