Wasafiri Wonders: Tabish Khair
‘I suspect that we, as a species, have a drive to make sense and to make beauty, optimally at the same time.’
Ever wondered what your favourite writer’s first drafts look like? Or which book they love that nobody’s heard of? Wasafiri Wonders is a series that asks these questions for you.
Tabish Khair is a poet, novelist and critic who was born and educated in Gaya, a small town in North India. In the 1990s, he worked in Delhi as a staff reporter for The Times of India. He now lives in Denmark, where he is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Aarhus. His recent novels include How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position (HarperCollins, Interlink and Corsair 2014), Just Another Jihadi Jane (Penguin/Periscope 2016; Interlink 2017) and Night of Happiness (Picador, 2018). Translated into various languages, Khair has won or been shortlisted for major poetry and fiction prizes in six countries.
1. Describe your first drafts in one sentence.
A bit like having arrived after driving in the dark and trusting desperately that your headlights don’t flicker off.
2. Tell us about your writing rituals.
I don’t have any. You need space and time to have rituals. I write when I can, which is not often and not regular, because of my other responsibilities.
3. What themes do you gravitate towards and why?
Nothing consciously, at least not when I start writing. But looking back at my work, I can say that all of them deal, in different ways, with matters like difference, conflict, identity, violence, meaning. Why? I suspect that we, as a species, have a drive to make sense and to make beauty, optimally at the same time.
4. Tell us about your newest work.
A book on literature and fundamentalism, written for an intelligent non-academic readership. Still in progress. My last novel was Night of Happiness, a kind of literary thriller or ghost story about two men making sense, in very different ways, of a situation (in contemporary India) that does not make sense.
5. What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
No one ever advised me on writing. I did not grow up in writerly or arty circles. But my father, a small-town doctor who encouraged my writing but strongly dissuaded me from becoming a writer, suggested to me, once he got used to my decision: ‘Good writing seems to be like doing good in the world: you do what you can and what you should, and throw it in a well.’
6. What is your favourite book or pamphlet published in the past year and why?
I hate specifying an absolute favourite (as literature, like life, is not that clear-cut), but if I have to, I would say Johann Hari’s Lost Connections.
7. What is a classic you recently read for the first time?
The Mahabharata. But I had read chunks of it in the past too.
8. What is a book or pamphlet you love that no one else has heard of?
A. N. Das’s Changel: The Biography of a Village.
9. If your newest work were a music album, what would it be and how would it sound?
A blend of country and ghazal, I think. Something slow, and with audio clarity. Or a combination of classical rock (think Bruce Springsteen) and qawwali (think Sabri Brothers), which would be faster, harder but would also have audio clarity. Because I am tired of the valorisation of noise.
10. Which books or authors are relevant reads in our political climate —or one you’d recommend to current world leaders?
Emmanuel Levinas, Karl Marx, Joseph Conrad, Asadullah Khan Ghalib, Edward W. Said, Byung-Chul Han, Judith Butler, Martha Nussbaum, and a few others, but they would be far beyond the competency of world leaders today, so I suggest something simpler, shorter but as effective and useful: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Tabish Khair’s Night of Happiness (Picador, 2018) is reviewed in issue 99 of Wasafiri.