Interview: I See You by Ishtiyaq Shukri

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Shukri discusses his new novel, I See You, with Jonathan Amid. The interview took place in June of 2014.

Title: I See You
Author: Ishtiyaq Shukri
Publisher: Jacana
ISBN: 9781431408757

Buy a copy of I See You at Kalahari.com

Ishtiyaq, it is a real pleasure to have read The Silent Minaret and now I See You. It has been ten years since the publication of The Silent Minaret. For those unfamiliar with your travels, where have you been all this time? Which countries have you visited, and where have you made your home? Do you see yourself as South African, or rather as a “global” citizen?

I’ve always travelled, since a very early age. My first road trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town was when I was two weeks old. I got my first passport when I was seven. Lesotho was my first international destination. I knew immediately I was in another country. Yes, there was the landscape and the dress and the cold. But it was the black faces on billboards, and the comingling of black and white people, those were the things that stood out. As they say, travel broadens the mind – even at age seven – and I’ve never forgotten that trip.

Southern Africa, Nigeria and Egypt followed, Egypt being my first experience outside the English-speaking world. How English speakers assume the Englishness of the world. The realisation that Egypt is not called Egypt in Egypt made me realise that I knew only the English version of people, places and events. I realised that my education had been unreliable, so I threw it out and went back to square one, starting with Arabic classes. Britain, Western Europe and the United States came later.

In recent years I’ve been based in the Middle East – the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Oman – and have travelled in Jordan, Syria, Yemen and back to Egypt. India is also special because I finished The Silent Minaret there. South Africa and the UK are regular destinations, too. So over the years I’ve come to experience “home” less as a house or even a nation state, and more as a feeling – the feeling when the unfamiliar becomes familiar, when an immigration officer at a quiet border post in the desert says, “I remember you. Welcome back.” The thrill of learning something new about oneself in the middle of nowhere, and the kick of being understood in a “foreign” language. Having said that, the word “foreign” has fallen from my vocabulary. The more one travels, the less one needs it. It’s just excess baggage.

I don’t believe in the nation state. “My” passport is South African. In fact, it belongs to the South African government, and I say “my” passport because it can be withdrawn at any time. It’s there in the small print. London, India, Palestine, Oman and Yemen – they are all versions of home as well, where arriving feels like a homecoming because my experiences there have shaped my life. Katharine Clifton puts this best in Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient: “We die containing the richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves … I believe in such cartography – to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on a building. We are communal histories, communal books … All I desired was to walk on such an earth that had no maps.” I’d readily present immigration officials with my copy of The English Patient, if it would get me through. I am the people I know, the books I have read, the countries in which I have lived – and very nearly died. In January I visited the Yemeni island of Socotra. It is truly the most remarkable place I’ve even been to.

The Silent Minaret was characterised by overwhelmingly lyrical and evocative imagery, coupled with a variety of incisive socio-political insights. How do you balance the need or desire to write beautifully or in an affectively powerful way with the kind of complex socio-political views you wish to express? What do you find beautiful in the world, and what angers and distresses you most?

Anger is dangerous. It achieves nothing worthwhile. Yes, it may be an impulse, but it must not be the process or the work. I’d say injustice is what distresses me most. Depriving people of their dignity. Yours is a more diplomatic version of the question the interviewer asks Tariq in Your Most Precious Things: “Tariq photographs horror well. How would you respond to that?” I think one needs to stick at it, to put in the hours and to keep practising, especially when your subject matter is “complex” or fraught. You have to refine, you have to edit, and you have to rewrite. Otherwise it’s all raw footage, and there’s no aesthetic in that. People shrink away from raw footage. It’s too much, like clubbing your viewer over the head. Like clubbing myself over the head, because I am also my own first reader. I read what I have written before anybody else. So where’s the aesthetic that makes it appeal to me? If it doesn’t appeal to me, I can’t expect it to appeal to someone else, so it ends up in the bin.

I find beauty in the written word, obviously. I’ve been rereading Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things again, and have been reminded of its striking similes. Roy has been called the “god of similes”. In the novel, blood “spills out like a secret”, insects “appear like ideas”, and new teeth wait inside gums “like words in a pen”. For me, who grew up in dour apartheid South Africa where the billboards and the literary canon were overwhelmingly white, it was the inventive beauty of Midnight’s Children that flashed like an ethnic flare across a bland white sky. When Saleem Sinai, having been born at midnight, describes the hour of his birth – “Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came” – I was reborn, too. That an Indian – so invisible in South African literature at that time, and only ever appearing as the shopkeeper – that an Indian could have such a messianic birth, well it just stopped my own clocks. Midnight’s Children, for the beauty and novelty of its language, was my year zero. It made me realise that literature could be about people like me. It was also the book that made me want to write.

Music is also very important, like that of the Lebanese singer Fairouz, and her song Atini Al Nay wa Ghani, based on a poem by Khalil Gibran. Her voice, the lyrics, the melody – something happens to me whenever I hear this song. Architecture too, especially the Umayyad Mosques in Damascus. The site has been a place of worship since the Iron Age. The Romans turned it into the Temple of Jupiter. In the Christian era the temple became the Cathedral of John the Baptist, whose head is buried there. When Syria became Muslim, the cathedral became the Ummayad Mosque. The head of Hussein – grandson of the prophet – was kept here too, making it a sacred place of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims alike. This building contains our communal history, going back to the dawn of time. Its beauty and antiquity stopped me in my tracks and made me bow down like no other before or since. The Ummayad Mosque in Aleppo has a similar heritage. After the Romans it became the Cathedral of St Helena. But it has been severely damaged by war, and its 11th-century minaret was destroyed in 2013. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and now – like most of Aleppo, one of the world’s oldest cities – it lies in ruins. When this war in Syria is over, we will stand back and say, “What have we done?” I say “we”, because it’s not Syria’s war, or Iraq’s war, or the DRC’s war. They are our wars, they brutalise all of us, and diminish our shared humanity.

Do you see yourself as a political writer in any way? How does I See You continue the forms of interrogation of power you presented so powerfully in The Silent Minaret? How does I See You differ from its predecessor?

Your question suggests that I’m received as a political writer, and that makes me smile, because when I first started scribbling what would become The Silent Minaret, somewhere in my mind was the idea that I was going to write an a-political novel – whatever that may be. I think I’d just become fed-up with apartheid really. To me it was just such a waste of time and resources and opportunities. Judging people by colour is just such a primitive concept, I just wanted to be done with it as soon as possible, and move on somewhere, anywhere, so long as it did not entail crass and primitive notions of race. And in the end my attempt to write this “a-political” novel produced The Silent Minaret! But while the minaret focused on Britain, I See You focuses more on South Africa. That wasn’t an easy task. It’s relatively easy to criticise the north. But being critical of the south, that’s another story. I think I See You tackles power, whether it be north or south.

Ishtiyaq Shukri (photo: www.winternachten.nl)

Both Doctor Leila Mashal and war photographer Tariq Hassan are carefully drawn, deeply passionate people. Who inspired their characters, how did they develop in the writing process, and how did they surprise you? Which minor character in the novel came to play an unexpected or important role as the writing progressed?

Landau haunted the manuscript almost from the start, hovering silently in the shadows, although to what end did not become clear till relatively late in the writing process. I was horrified when his purpose was revealed. The chapter titled “Sister Slice” is the oldest, and was followed by “Two Images”, also written very early on. I was delighted when Monica emerged from these chapters, articulate, talented and strong. She just inspires me and fills me with hope. So of the minor characters as you call them – even though they are essential to the plot – Monica and Landau were full of surprises.

But Leila was the biggest surprise. Initially, she was an immigrant who spoke no English. Versions of the manuscript in which Leila is mute date back to 2008. Traces of that incarnation of Leila remain in phrases like “a quiet wife”. The winter of 2008 was a long and bleak one for me as a writer. By that time I was back in my study in London. I was desperate, and I had become stuck like a man sinking into quicksand, struggling and becoming more and more mired in a manuscript that would not move. It really felt like that. It was agony. But then early in the spring of 2009 I had a breakthrough with Leila’s trip to Cairo. It was simple: she needed to speak. And once Leila had a voice, there was no stopping her. The catharsis was so real it was like a weight had been lifted. Leila, as you know, has a lot to say, and I could almost feel her boxing me around the ears for having kept her muted all those years.

Tariq arose out of my collaboration with a South Korean photographer and documentary filmmaker in the West Bank. He was in there to shoot a documentary film about Palestinian refugees, but his cameraman flipped just days into the project. Despite his military background, Palestine was too much for him, and he returned to Seoul, leaving my associate stranded. In the end he had to shoot video footage, and gave me his camera to shoot photography. It was my first official exposure to professional journalistic photography. My learning curve was steep. We worked day and night for months, shooting by day, editing and having long conversations by night. I don’t remember sleeping during that time.

In my opinion, I See You is politically engaged and engaging to the extent that much of it reads with the raw power of documentary film, or some of the best non-fiction. Can fiction truly help to address the injustices of this world, and if so, how? How important is writing in your life?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if fiction could make the world a more just place? But as that famous WS Gilbert quote from The Mikado goes, “I’m really very sorry for you all, but it’s an unjust world, and virtue is triumphant only in theatrical performances.” I think fiction, like documentary, can only record and reveal. I’m not sure that it can do more than that. I cannot change other people, and I can’t change the world. My duty is to show up at my desk everyday and do the work. Writing is very important to me. It’s how I process things and make sense of the world. When I don’t write, I become agitated and ill at ease.

Tell us a little, if you would, about the writing process and about the possibilities that having a photographer as a protagonist allow for?

I’d say that writing starts with reading. If you don’t read, you cannot hope to write. But reading is receptive, which makes it easier. Writing is productive, which makes it harder. It is easier to consume than to produce. But two novels later, and I don’t have all the answers to the writing process. However, I think it is true that books choose their authors, not the other way round, and that characters start to write themselves, like Leila for example, once she started to speak. The writer should spend time with his characters, getting to know them, just like he would with the real people in his life. For the most part one has to rewrite and rewrite until it’s right. As the famous Louis Brandeis quote goes: “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.” But sometimes it comes fully formed, and one sits back an wonders, “Where did that come from?” It’s such a thrill when that happens, but it’s rare. The chapter entitled “Your Most Precious Things” was like that; it came virtually fully formed and almost in one sitting. But most of the time it’s just hard work, word for word. Or as Hemingway put it, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” The last decade since the publication of The Silent Minaret has been characterised by war, conflict and financial instability. Having a war photographer as a protagonist allowed me to explore those themes intimately, and to “bring them home” to South Africa in a more tangible way. Writing photography, translating images into words, presented interesting challenges, like smelling colour, or tasting sound, a kind of mixing of the senses.

What were the biggest challenges in writing the strong female voice of Leila?

Having faith and confidence in one’s characters is big challenge. I’ve spoken about the incarnations of Leila’s character. Of course, while she was dormant, the other strands of the novel progressed, and the more it took shape, the more I became aware of the gap, and the louder Leila’s silence became. I realised I had to set aside my notion of Leila because it wasn’t working, and start again. That’s quite a terrifying prospect, like leaving a skyscraper dangling while you return to dig up and rebuild the foundations. Frances in The Silent Minaret underwent a similar transformation. Originally, she had been a hostile and cantankerous old bat, and it didn’t matter to her what had become of Issa because she detested him from the start. But however unnerving it is, one must listen to one’s characters when they bend over your shoulder in the middle of the night and whisper into your ear , “This isn’t me. I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t say that.” Writing Leila’s speech at Wits was, I think, the hardest single chapter to write. It took months of research and many more months to write and rewrite. There was the content to get right, and also the tone. But harder than that was the challenge of getting written prose to sound like spoken oration. We don’t write as we speak, and Leila’s speech, though “spoken” to an audience, would in reality be read by readers. It had to work and satisfy on both levels. The challenge was waiting for Leila, getting to know her, until she finally emerged, “(l)ike a diamond into the light”, as Tariq puts it. To quote George Carlin: “The caterpillar does the work, but the butterfly gets the publicity. ”

What do you see as the biggest challenges to democracy and freedom in South Africa twenty years after apartheid?

Inequality. It drags countries down, keeps them behind, and deprives people of their potential. And security. We’ve swapped the dream of freedom for the fetish of security – high walls, electric fences, armed response. They don’t buy security, never mind freedom. They create laagers into which people retreat, like malls, cluster housing and compounds. The problem with the laager is, what happens when you want to leave? What about when you have to step out into the real world? We’re creating a truly terrifying landscape in South Africa, one of havens and hovels that are drifting further and further apart, straining the few bridges that still try to span them. I fear that eventually the bridges will snap, and these dimensions will evolve into different worlds of privilege and privation. The recent film Elysium captures this well. I also found it interesting that the only actual national emblem in the film is the South African flag on the mercenary ship. Of course this is also disturbing, that even in a post-apocalyptic world of Hollywood sci-fi the mercenaries are South African.

Finally, I See You is resolutely and intensely personal, and all the more moving for that fact. In which ways is this novel a labour of love, and what will come after?

Novels take time, and writing requires complete commitment. Do it only if you love it, if you absolutely have to, otherwise it will be torture. I write because I feel compelled to. There are times in the middle of the night when I just have to get up and write. I don’t have a choice. I’m not sure what will come next. I’ve started scribbling – I’m always scribbling  – but I’m keeping an open mind. Somehow, in the end I don’t think I’ll have much of a say in the matter. In many ways being a writer is like being a wallflower: you hang around on the edges until a story comes along and asks you to dance.

Thanks again for taking the time to answer these questions. Your novels are indeed works of art that help us to live with more empathy, humility and grace.

Thank you very much.

Click here to preview writing from I See You.

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