Finding your voice as a writer

Finding your voice  as a writer


nown as the Pakistani pioneer of the English-language short story, Aamer Hussein was born in 1955 in Karachi. He moved to London when he was in his teens. His work has been widely anthologised in many languages including Spanish, Arabic, Japanese and Urdu. He is the author of the short story collections, Mirror to the Sun, This Other Salt, Turquoise, Cactus Town and other stories, Insomnia, and Another Gulmohar Tree (a novella that was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize) and The Cloud Messenger. His recent publications are a collection of his Urdu short stories, Zindagi say Pehlay and a book called Restless.

Robert Anthony Siegel is the author of a memoir, Criminals: My Family’s Life on Both Sides of the Law, and two novels, All the Money in the World and All Will Be Revealed. His works have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian, The Paris Review, The Oxford American, Tin House, and Ploughshares, among other magazines. He has been a Fulbright scholar in Taiwan, a Mombukagakusho Fellow in Japan, a Writing Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Centre in Provincetown, and a Paul Engle Fellow at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Other awards he has received include O Henry and Pushcart Prizes.

In this exclusive interview with The News on Sunday, Aamer Hussein and Robert Anthony Siegel discuss the significance for a writer to find their unique voice, developing a sarcastic/ humorous voice and the many difficulties of self-representation in a work of fiction.

The News on Sunday (TNS): How would you define an author’s voice in fiction?

Aamer Hussein (AH): I can best answer this with an example. Two days I go reread A Blue Tale, by an old favourite, Marguerite Yourcenar, which was never published as a collection in her lifetime, possibly because she dismissed it as juvenilia. There are, indeed, flaws in structure and composition, but the voice is there. It’s there. On the other hand, if you read the very young Shafiq-ur-Rahman’s earliest stories [that were written] in a romantic vein, you’d hardly guess, except for a few hints, that he will become the ebullient, witty and very original author of Himaqaten. Voice (or voices, because some writers like Junichiro Tanizaki or Qurratulain Hyder are brilliant ventriloquists) for me is the ineffable quality that sets certain writers apart – not the self-indulgent stylistic monotony that characterises some writers, or a driving urge to right wrongs that is the hallmark of others, but a certain blend of timbre, vision and perspective that makes them unique.

Robert Anthony Siegel (RAS): I like to think of voice as the sound of the person behind the words. It combines all the disparate things that go into being an expressive person who communicates thoughts and feelings about the world in a unique way, through language. Tone (earnest or ironic, comic or tragic) is part of that mix, but so is the writer’s range of reference, habits of perception, values and personality (serious or funny, sentimental or stoic). Ultimately, voice is so essential to our experience of other people – and of literature – that it is hard to parse. Voice is the reason that, when your mother calls you on the phone, she doesn’t have to say, “This is your mother.” She just starts talking.

TNS: Why is it significant for a writer to find their voice?

AH: Because at the outset they may be derivative, naïve or too likely to digress from one style to another, or just unsure of what they really want to say or how to say it. There are others who, however, have a force right from the start – albeit crude – that makes their voice entirely their own. I’m thinking of two budding Pakistani writers I know.

RAS: Voice is so crucial because literature starts with the hunger we feel to connect with another human being. The reader wants to hear a story, of course, but on a deeper level, what he or she really wants is to know the narrator who is telling the story. That impulse is only natural because it is impossible to separate a story from the person who tells it to us. The story can only happen through voice.

TNS: In your essay, The Artist and His Muses, you talk about your surrogate that appears with different names in different stories. How difficult is self-representation? How does a writer deal with this situation?

AH: The surrogate that appears in different stories is because I felt that I was a very ordinary witness of my own time, who just happened to have some very interesting encounters and experiences, which made it easy for readers to identify with me. I was often writing about that time and thought it would be a shame to waste my lived experiences, so I gave them to surrogates who may not have much in common with me emotionally. I didn’t want to be limited to confessions or need a mouthpiece: those protagonists are composites of truth and imagination, and my own feelings are often filtered through more than one of my characters. My primary interest was in fiction, not life writing. I never really needed to put the question of self-representation to myself until, in my mid-forties, I wrote about my childhood and youth. The first time I did was in a commissioned essay, This Day’s Work, about the places that formed me and an overview of my writing life. Then Electric Shadows, a story I told in my own voice as Aamer, covers a little over a year in my life – 1965-1966 – when crucial events – a war between India and Pakistan during which my father, who was on a stopover from Sri Lanka, got stranded in Bombay for its entire duration, and then an illness in the family – crucially changed the course of my adolescence. I ended the story with an unhousing from Karachi, where I had lived all my life; that was to be followed by a four-year period of moves from country to country which eventually brought me here to London (as you see in Restless, a piece I wrote for Granta a decade later, which is the title piece of my new book). I found Electric Shadows quite hard but I was writing about the early end of a childhood, not about my adult self, and felt no need at all to disguise anything. Cactus Town, the book for which I wrote this story, was my conscious attempt to recapture the Karachi I had known. This was in response to a novel by a British journalist I’d read which I thought misrepresented Pakistan, and in that sense, I’m representing the social ethos that formed me rather than my unique self. I was also made aware of a Pakistani readership by the circumstances of publication: OUP Karachi, an intro by Muneeza Shamsie. It was my official debut as a Pakistani writer and by then I’d started engaging with Urdu influences which I’m sure made stories like Cactus Town and The Needlewoman’s Calendar different from earlier stories. The poet Fahmida Riaz saw the collection as an attempt to redeem Pakistan and everyday Muslims from current stereotypes, particularly after 9/11 as my book came out soon after, so I suppose her subjective reading enlarges the frame of representation.

Much later, from my 50s onwards when I wanted to memorialise lost friends, I consciously adopted an adult autobiographical persona, a mirror rather than a mask, to depict how relationships with significant others had influenced my being in the world. Such pieces, for example, Annie, were not exactly confessional. My Urdu stories, which I wrote in my late-ish 50s, had a strongly autobiographical drift because Asif Farrukhi asked me to write five stories from the same point of view, and later a sixth. Their narrator definitely resembles me. Two of these stories are about lost friends and there’s a humorous piece about how I came to write in Urdu. But even among those stories, there are two in which the narrator is only an observer of other lives, so his voice changes.

Recently, I’ve touched on tragedy and illness in my own life and as well as on public crisis – the lockdowns in Kashmir, Brexit, the pandemic – in both memoirs and in autofictions, which has meant a degree of self-revelation, but they are really just as much about ‘seeking balance in a changing world’ as about disclosure, as a critic pointed about a much older collection. Zindagi say pehlay, which uses one of my surrogate narrators, is a case in point; you can see glimpses of my worldview in the paintings of LM and the protagonist Murad’s emotional reaction to them. I think all writers deal with the situation of representation in their own strategic ways. I don’t think I could tell the story of my life from A to Z.

TNS: In your award-winning story, The Right Imaginary Person, you suggest the possibility of creating a person who could speak for a writer. How difficult is self-representation? How does a writer deal with this situation?

RAS: I’m fascinated by the way that fiction teaches us how to speak the truth, and how our imaginations allow us to be more fully real in the world. The story you mention, The Right Imaginary Person, is about learning how to speak honestly with other people – finding your voice, in other words. The paradox around which the story revolves is that emotional honesty doesn’t come naturally; it’s something we must learn how to do. Sometimes, it requires a leap of imagination like the one we make in fiction. My main character, Ben, finds his voice by reimagining himself as “the right imaginary person” who can tell the story we are now reading. Ben isn’t me – the facts of our lives are mostly different – but his search for a voice mirrors my own, which means that he is my “right imaginary person.”

TNS: Your most recent book, Restless: Instead of an Autobiography, is perhaps an acknowledgement of this difficulty? How does a writer develop that constant fictional voice for oneself that allows readers to see the writer in his/ her characters and at the same the writer to feel unburdened and free?

AH: Restless juxtaposes pieces of fiction with nonfiction and asks readers to find their own answers; though we arranged the genres in separate sections there are overlaps, for example, A Convalescence which my editor included in the fiction section, though it’s told in my own voice with myself and real figures from my life wandering in and out undisguised. It’s not even semi-fiction. Only the voice makes it appear to be! I do address the problem of memory – which is a kind of fiction – in my final piece, The Yellow Notebook. The risk with Restless was of getting utterly bored – after the experiments and freedoms of my previous three collections – by the sound of my own memories which is why, right from the start, I agreed to collect my memoirs only if they could be interspersed with fiction, some of which might appear tangential and quirky to the reader. I suppose the musical motif in that book is the elegiac voice of many of the stories.

I feel most free and unburdened when I create fictional characters: only their existential baggage burdens me. It’s more a case of empathy than of listening to my own voice. Usman in Gulmohar is nothing like me, though his wife Lydia shares my restless and somewhat diffuse way of working with distractions from the quotidian. Saadia in The Angelic Disposition goes through Partition, which took place eight years before my birth. There’s the young Javanese Islamist Narto and his agnostic mother Sundari in Your Children who, though fictions of my mind, are completely real to me. The Italo-Pakistani painter Marya in The Tree at The Limit whose life story is told in a documentary voice over, or Ghazali in The Man from Beni Mora who is presented as a character in a TV play, or the old doctor and his friend who exchange views about Pakistani society in an unstoppable dialogue in Two old friends: all these characters are inventions and share little or nothing of my life, my political views, or even, in some cases, my native language. When I ‘borrow’ one of my friends for a story I feel obliged to make sure that not a word will offend them! Lady of the Lotus is taken with her permission from my mother’s diary so the voice you hear is hers. My English parables and my later Urdu stories about children, youth and animals are narrated in a detached impersonal voice which confirms to me that the writer I am is revealed in the language of my fiction, the sequence and selection of events, the view of history, not in explicitly the characters. It’s in my choice of theme and, ultimately, of the genre, that you will find me, rather than in my attempt to perform within the range of my own vocal register.

TNS: Representing one’s family is seen as more difficult than representing oneself. Your brilliant memoir Criminals: My Family’s Life on Both Sides of the Law speaks truths about the “lies that held the family together”. Does voice play any significant role in the representation of one’s family in a work of creative nonfiction?

RAS: Of course, nonfiction is just as voice-driven as fiction, and for the exact same reason: you cannot separate the story and the storyteller. In my memoir, Criminals, I tried to get the facts straight, knowing that the facts would sometimes seem harsh, but I also wanted to convey my love for my family – and that love would have to come through the voice.

TNS: Does developing a sarcastic/ humorous voice help in getting the bitter truths out to the world?

RAS: I believe that if you have a sad story to tell, you should tell it as a comedy. That will make the sad parts feel even sadder for the reader. It will also give you the imaginative space you need to soar above.

The interviewer is the author of the novel, Sasa, and four books of academic and   literary translation.A collection of his Urdu short stories, Maati Kahay Kumhar Say is currently in press. His short story, Kill All the Bats, was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Finding your voice as a writer