Published Date: Feb 26, 2011
OUT OF THE BLUE
Does new novelist Ayesha Salman have the magic touch?
The author must keep his mouth shut when his work starts to speak, says Nietzsche. After attending the 3rd Karachi Literature Festival, one imagines the depressing corollary to that is, until the work actually starts speaking, the author must talk about it as much as possible. Amongst the clutch of Pakistani writers chattering about their books and peddling their wares this year was Ayesha Salman, author of the intriguingly named Blue Dust. No, the title is not a reference to 70s eye makeup trends, nor is this a sci fi/fantasy about a planet with cerulean sand.
I meet Salman on the first day of the festival at the Carlton Hotel, picking her out amongst twittering aunties, tweeting journalists and plain old twits as she sprawls on a sofa in the lobby in what she has described over the phone as a “black dress”.
The publisher’s website says that Blue Dust is “an emotional, philosophical and cultural journey that maps the relationships, dreams, hopes and fears of three generations of a family.” Thinking that unnecessarily cryptic, I ask Salman to give me an idea of what the book is about. “It’s about the human condition, really,” she replies airily, in tone that is vaguely British and definitely jarring. “It’s about sexual repression, all kinds of discrimination, child abuse and about all those things that even the most enlightened and educated one of us we would rather just shove under the carpet. And this book is meant to provoke people to think in a way which opens them up to talking about stuff.”
Clearly, there’s little of importance that Salman has omitted to mention in her first book. Despite repeated prompting, I get no closer to an understanding of what the story is about or who the characters are. If Mohammed Hanif has mastered his grasp on the obvious, Salman’s talent must lie in making even the clearest and simplest things appear confusing. There is no question you can ask her which will not leave you foggier than before. Salman makes a living working as an editor for a think tank and for someone who deals in words, she is oddly clumsy with hers. She describes vodka as a ‘varicose liquid’, contends that Milan Kundera is not a magical realist, and weaves elaborately inarticulate responses to perfectly straightforward queries. One wonders what will prompt the average Pakistani reader — who appears firmly focussed on political and social issues — to pick up her “philosophical and psychological novel”.
“I know a lot of people are writing about these issues but the way I’ve written this novel is very different. There is some magical realism in it and as the novel progresses, the line between fantasy and reality blurs a little bit and then you ask these philosophical questions. The storyline goes on and it’s quite clear what happens to all the characters but the way the story is told is unreal, so in that way it is a unique way of looking at things,” says Salman.
But why, I press, in a country where people find it hard to understand even satire, why magical realism? “I’m interested in magical realism because to me it seems so real,” is Salman’s baffling response. “I grew up reading people like Milan Kundera, Camus, Kafka and even Hardy and I’ve always been fascinated by experimentalism in literature. I’m a poet as well — this novel is quite poetic too — and my poetry has been published in the UK. For the future, I would like to weave poetry into the prose and experiment a lot more — maybe the play form and poetry.”
Amongst the current crop of Pakistani writers, no one impresses her very much, except Aamer Hussein, whose book she hasn’t yet read, but who seems to her to be a magical realist. The rest, according to Salman, don’t bother to think out of the box. “I think [they] tend to churn out the same political and social issues over and over. Okay fine, these are important issues but talk about them in a different way, use different tools, take a risk. Indian writers do it; Pakistani writers don’t. I think it’s our colonial mentality.”
More trenchantly, Salman criticises the elitism of Pakistani writing, the aloofness and formality which is a result of focussing on the political at the cost of the personal. “It’s become a very popular trend to talk about the political and use that as a platform to sell your book. Well, I’m not gonna do that,” she declares. Instead, she prefers to keep the focus on the smaller issues, things that happen in our own houses and are considered an embarrassment to talk about, experiences never mentioned in public.
“You will find village women readily share their experiences, tell their stories, but these elite women never admit to the things they go through. But I’m ready to talk about it. Am I going to become a leper, dirty or polluted, because I talk about my experiences?”
Eventually, I circle back to the question nagging me for some time: what is ‘Blue Dust’?
“There’s a 14-year-old girl who’s going through something very bad in the novel and somebody forces her to have vodka with crushed Valium. That image of the blue dust of the Valium swirling in the varicose [sic] liquid is what made me think of blue dust. But once that image clicked, that idea of blue dust as a symbol of a lot of what goes on in the novel, became very poignant. It’s very dreamy. It’s very much about what you catch around you, the vapours around you and what they give you.”
One supposes that a writer is, by nature, more articulate in her writing than she is in speech. But after this build-up, one hopes this one doesn’t bite the dust.