Interviews

The Prelude Speaks to Osama Siddique-Team Prelude

Dr. Osama Siddique’s debut but innovative work Snuffing Out The Moon is scattered over centuries of transition and development of human civilization and produce some very fundamental questions regarding existence and doom, freedom and tyranny, assent and dissent, doubt and belief. The story takes a beginning from 2084 BCE in Indus Valley Civilization and travels across the centuries and ends in 2084 CE. The narrative is extended to more than 4000 years and writer gives us a fragmented and episodic work to brood over it. The writer’s imagination and vision is fertile enough to look at past to understand the present and to predict the future. The Prelude endeavored to explore his vision and views and also tried to bring something more personal to public space.

The Prelude: After achieving great success in world of legal expertise, how and why did you enter into a world which is absolutely fictional? I mean writing a novel. 

I don’t know how successful I have been, but I am somewhat satisfied that I genuinely tried to do my bit and contribute. As to your question, the more you grow older, and hopefully wiser, the more you realize that life is much more complex than we think. That necessitates looking at it from different angles, exploring new horizons and seeking fresh insights. I have always been interested in different disciplines and have found restricting oneself only to a few specializations to be very stifling. History and literature, I specially realized are fundamentally important domains and one can’t really develop a more profound view of things unless one explores them with some seriousness. I have also always been very attracted to fiction. I have found it a marvelous mode for capturing the human experience. So you could say that all these background factors persuaded me to write historical fiction in order to connect the present to the past (and the future) and to look at human stories from different perspectives. Underlying it all was also my appreciation for the idea and the ideal of justice – something which we often mistakenly equate with the law. In all my years of being associated with the law in different capacities I came across a huge gulf between the two. That too motivated me to move outside the system and examine it from there in terms of how it often perpetuated the very opposite of justice.

The Prelude : Your debut work is a very rare example of stylistic innovation as far as Pakistani literature in English is concerned but we also find distinct influence of Qurat ul Ain Haider’s River of Fire. Do you feel that , consciously or unconsciously, that book influenced your work as well?

We are all influenced by our observations, the stories we heard or read when we were younger and through the course of our lives, and a thousand other conscious and sub-conscious experiences. Qurat ul Ain Haider is of course an important influence and there is some similarity of approach and structure in the sense of multiple eras with different stories (three in her case and six in mine) but there the similarity ends. Her characters repeat/reincarnate in different eras whereas mine are distinct; her philosophical preoccupations and observations are different from mine; and, there are other examples. She of course remains a huge inspiration and someone I look up to as she is a true master. But so much else also inspired what I wrote – for instance, folk tales and poems from our region as well the grand epics like Alif Laila, Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, Tilism-e-Hoshruba, Hatim Tai, Fasana-e-Ajaib as well as Urdu poetry. At the same time, there are multiple influences also from global literature whether Western, South American, African or Asian. For instance, you will see hints of magic realism which has been fascinatingly employed by South American writers. You will also observe a certain use of satire and irony which I was inspired to write as a big fan of Dickens and Twain. I aspire also to a certain earthiness and organic character to the narrative that I find in the great African novels. Lots of good fiction has come out of South Asia that has helped develop an indigenous idiom and multiple local styles which allow for writers to write with a natural flair but without having to or sounding like an English writer. So you see I owe my debt of gratitude to many, as all writers do who care to admit. I do love the somewhat fragmented, story emerging from a story, loosely linked style of writing that goes back and forth and draws on myth, lore, history and poetry and weaves it with realistic as well as impressionistic portrayals of life.

The Prelude :Pakistani writers who write in English language are often criticized for their approach and representation of their homeland. Do you think that this criticism is unjustified? 

I think it is important to develop an informed critical discourse in general and we should not just accept things purely on hype or because they have been well publicized, or they meet the expectations and tastes of a certain section of privileged society here or abroad. At the same time, the spirit of such critique I strongly feel should be to generate dialogue and greater understanding of the art and craft of literature as well as its underlying politics and sociology. Criticism for the sake of criticism or criticism of a book just because we don’t like the writer or the social stratum that he or she belongs to is unfair. Even otherwise undue criticism would be very counter-productive in a milieu where writers and books and reading in general are rare. If anything we need many more voices and many more books. It is true that to a certain extent our fiction in English is gauged by many on the basis of its reception in the West rather than on its inherent merit. It is also true that to a great extent the Western publishing world selects and showcases certain voices and certain kinds of books and narratives. However, this shows nothing but our collective disempowerment which manifests in so many other ways as well. And who is to blame for it? Afterall, how much do we invest in books, writers, libraries and publishing houses? How much attention and significance do we attach to them? Both State and society? When you don’t write and showcase your own stories, others define and write them for you. When you neglect telling your own stories and telling them well, others start determining what your stories are and thus defining who you really are.

The Prelude :Your debut novel Snuffing Out the Moon received positive reviews from critics and readers for its style and wide range. Which fundamental questions did you try to pose in Snuffing Out the Moon? 

I am fascinated by the idea of time which remains a mystery to me. I don’t think it is linear and modern science also talks about its circularity, that it can be bent or is elliptical, as well as that it is essentially illusionary and depends on our perspective. That raises huge questions which I try and explore in my book. I have also been fascinated by the rise and fall of civilizations and whether we keep repeating history – within this the notion of justice and exploitation also intrigue me and I wonder whether it is in human nature to keep manufacturing systems of apartheid and exploitation despite progressing in other ways such as technology, political systems, social organization etc. What role does religion play in all of this? And is evil a human construct, something incarnate or an internal unchangeable facet of our personality. So as you can see, I did not have a straight-forward linear story to tell. Instead, there are multiple themes and I try and explore these through characters fictional, semi-fictional and historical through multiple stories of fantasy, fear, love, hate and ultimately also dissent against what is unjust. For it is the dissenters who in many ways formulate history and take us forward. As is perhaps apparent, it is not a conventional novel, but it does offer different things to people with different interests – history, culture, civilizations, the human experience, political systems, archaeology, natural habitats, technology etc. At the same time, situated as it is in this land it celebrates its antiquity, its diversity and its beauty. I am delighted that it has attracted so many readers. In a couple of months when the Pakistani English edition as well as the exciting Urdu translation comes out, I hope to find many more.

The Prelude :What is the role of a writer in this age of globalization? 

Writers are as diverse in their personality and motivations as life is varied and multifarious. That is why we have such a vast array of good and bad books. At one level, I don’t want to ascribe a role to a writer as writing in my mind equates with freedom whereas role assignment can and has been frequently used to put restrictions on thought and speech. But if we were to insist upon the idea I would say the role of the writer in the age of globalization is no different from any other age – fundamentally, it remains perceiving, attempting to understand, and capturing in  words the complex nuances, the diversity and the wonder of the human experience (in some cases even that of non-human experience, may it be animals or plants or cyborgs). The personal goodness of a writer may not necessarily make her or him a good writer and the lack of goodness would not ensure that the writing is bad. We have to decouple writing from the writers. However, writers’ personalities, mindsets, psychologies and ideologies of course reflect through their writing and what is glorified in one age can be condemned in another.

If you look at the history of fiction so many great books have been written on so many different themes and in such different ways and motivated by such different reasons that it is hard to pin down a particular role for writers. Sometimes they crystalize reality. Sometimes they fantasize about pasts and futures utopic or dystopic. Sometimes they comment, critique or satire and sometimes they just observe. Hence different books can be wonderful for very different reasons. This is what makes the act of writing so full of options and so close to the act of creation. Globalization is a complex modern phenomenon and yet underlying it are many typical human aspirations, caprices and contestations. A writer’s primary motivation would be to simply comprehend this complexity and its outcomes. Thereafter there are many roads that can be travelled.

Also, I don’t think a writer should be a pamphleteer – his is neither the job of the patriot nor the mere castigator. At the same time, much of the world’s literature has been critical of the times and milieus in which it was written and thus makes a vital contribution to our understanding and the impetus for change. At the same time, almost all of it has involved reflection and is not merely emotive. Ultimately writing is judged on the basis of its craft, structure, use of language, aesthetics, effectiveness and depth of observation, empathy and understanding. That is what we ought to be keeping in mind while gauging the merits of any writing.

The Prelude: Our academia is very disappointed about the future of Pakistan. We would like to know your views about the challenges we are going to face on the ideological front. 

Well I am someone who always remains hopeful. That is why my novel draws inspiration from Faiz sahib’s line and is called Snuffing Out the Moon – because I do believe that the human will and endeavor to progress and to improve its lot cannot be quashed. We have been through terrible centuries and the human experience has been full of pain and suffering but there have also been bright eras and one always strives for things to change for the better. At another level, I have learnt to do whatever I can and dissociate myself from empty cynical conversations and endless negativity. The question is what we have done ourselves to change things for the positive, to help others and to build systems and institutions. There are so many ways to contribute and we carry on due to all those who do more and talk less. It is a matter of perspective. Some people look around and all they see are the scoundrels; others look around and find who are inspirational and adding real value. And especially those who are keener to create than criticize. To think critically is a virtue but to be merely critical is a bane. When we have more people who think in terms of giving and creating rather than entitlements and a misplaced sense of significance, things will start getting better.

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