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Monday July 15, 2024

‘Reading is an equally intimate process as writing’

By Zoya Anwer
December 03, 2018

Hitting the book shelves after a hiatus of seven years, Mohammed Hanif had his latest novel, ‘Red Birds’, launched at the British Council on Sunday evening.

Hosted by author and journalist Sanam Maher, the launch ceremony featured a discussion in which Hanif spoke about the writing process among other things. The novelist said the story was about a family trying to survive a post-war situation, a boy who had gone missing and a talking dog.

Hanif said he could not identify just one single moment where the idea of Red Birds originated in his mind. “It’s just that there was the first book, then the second and now it’s the third.” The novelist, however, gave some clues regarding what made him write the novel. “In the last four [or] five years, many people who were close to me passed away unexpectedly, and I was grieving,” he said, adding that his conversations and arguments with those dear ones appeared to him that they would never end, but suddenly such people were not there any more. “I would wonder if they took a bit of me away with them, and their voices in my head kept pestering me.”

Commenting on how he looked at the writing process, Hanif said: “Writing can get lonely because others don’t know what you’re doing, but more so, even you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Hanif also read an excerpt from the book that had lines about a character, 14-year-old Momo. The lines dealt with theft and how an apparent act of theft could be proved as theft if it could be covered through paperwork.

Speaking about the seven-year period after his last novel, ‘Our Lady of Alice Bhatti’, was launched in 2011, the novelist said the period was at first fumbling around in the dark and looking at a blank page after which a full-fledged creative process initiated.

“I had to make two of the characters meet each other, but not on Facebook or at a grocery store or on a dating website,” he said, adding that he greatly admired those writers who had a proper creative process with a wall full of sticky notes and strings connecting characters. “They have an entire wardrobe section for their characters and they know that the characters will meet on page 37, sleep on 67 and would hate each other a few pages later and regret meeting altogether.”

Referring to the talking dog in the book, Hanif said he had been ignoring the character for too long, barring him from barking, but finally he decided to let him speak and it turned out that it was more of a thinking dog than a talking one.

Comparing ‘Red Birds’ to the previous works of Hanif, Maher remarked that the recent novel required more work from the reader’s side. “I feel reading is an equally intimate process as writing. No two people can read the book the same way, no matter how close they are. They will have different views about it because each has their own politics, prejudices,” Hanif said.

When asked about the current situation of the country, Hanif initially answered he was not the right person to be asked about it. However, he spoke about the wave of enforced disappearances in the country, with more than 300 people gone missing in the past few months.

He also spoke about the prevailing censorship forcing journalists and writers to pull themselves back to their own heads, leading to self-censorship. “A publisher came to me some two years ago for translating ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ into Urdu. I met him recently and inquired about the status, and he told me I was smart enough. I assured him that it had been 10 years since the novel came out and nobody had bothered us. But he pointed out that sometimes they understand jokes 10 years late,” the novelist quipped.