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“The literary establishment does not recognise my condition”

Interview of Jamal Mahjoub

“The literary establishment does not recognise my condition”

Born in London in 1960, Jamal Mahjoub was originally trained as a geologist at the University of Sheffield after graduating from the Comboni College. While still a student, he began publishing stories and literary texts in magazines. He has penned seven books of literary fiction under his own name, and three crime novels under the pseudonym, ‘Parker Bilal’. His works include critically acclaimed novels that have been shortlisted and awarded a number of prizes. His first three novels Navigation of a Rainmaker (1989), Wings of Dust (1994) and In the Hour of Signs (1996) can loosely be read as a trilogy of political events in Sudan, as he explores hopes for a new, post-colonial setup. His other notable works include: Travelling with Djinns (2003), The Carrier (1998), and The Drift Latitudes (2006).

Adept at disguise — as is evident by his nom-de-plume, Parker Bilal — Mahjoub has lived a peripatetic life between continents. He lived in eight different cities in the UK, before moving on to Cairo, Khartoum, Aarhus, and Barcelona — he currently resides in Amsterdam. His triumph in his subtle, wise and moving novels is two-fold: not only does he unerringly locate the historical/political intensities that govern even the most personal relationships, he also understands that what will eventually survive of us is love and harmony.

In this interview conducted in Lahore on the sidelines of Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) 2019, he talks about juggling two identities, purpose of literature and how he reinvented himself as Parker Bilal, his alter ego. Excerpts follow:

The News on Sunday (TNS): You were born in 1960 in London. Being half-English half-Sudanese, where does your sense of identity come from vis-à-vis your diverse lineage?

Jamal Mahjoub (JM): I’ve always thought of my identity as quite fluid and writing as my way of reaching towards a sense of that fluidity. I think we no longer live in that static situation out of which the nation/state was created. On top of that, we’ve lived with the idea of a colonial construction. Sudan was colonised by the Egyptians, the Turks, and the British at a later stage, so you have one layer on top of another, which finalises in an entirely artificial shape or form. What we see on the map is what the country inherits. In that sense, the whole of independence project was doomed from the very start because it was an artificial construct and because the nation did not evolve out of the relationship between the peoples living within that country but was imposed from without.

If you look across the African continent at the Middle East, for example, you see the same artificial construct. That was intended to separate one group from another, into easily manageable and malleable structures for the convenience of the European powers that existed at the time. A lot of conflicts that we see today are borne entirely out of that.

I am a colonial construct; had there been no contact between Britain and Sudan, my father would not have been sent to London to look after students, and he would not have met my mother. What I find myself doing in my writing is speaking to both sides because I feel I am in a position to do so. Since my identity does not fit into a national bracket, I am forced to interrogate the ideas of both the British and Sudanese identities; which is this fluidity that I am talking about.

TNS: You’ve been quoted as saying: “Ian McEwan and Martin Amis describe worlds that were keenly defined as places where someone like myself would not fit in”. Is that a corollary of your fluid identity?

JM: It’s not the world I live in; it’s not the world I see around me; it does not reflect the world many of the people who I know actually live in. When I say it’s part of my job to interrogate assumptions made on both sides, particularly on the British side because I write in English and because those representations do not represent the world I live in, I also mean to highlight the fact that the literary establishment does not recognise my condition. It does not claim me as one of its own. Despite the fact that I write in English, they do not consider me a part of their ongoing literary canon, if you like.

There was a definite intellectual response to 9/11, which was a determination to reject the existence of not just jihadis but the whole concept of religion itself.

The old empires have more of a problem accepting change than, perhaps, someone like the United States which is, by definition, a country of immigrants. If I read somebody like Philip Roth, for instance, who describes the experience of the Jewish immigrants in New York, I can identify more easily with him than with the work of someone like McEwan or Amis. Britain has been particularly bad at adapting to this shift in politics and culture as it were. It’s gone from the old school to a kind of political correctness that in itself is sterile and ineffective. It doesn’t actually change anything but makes the right noises. There has to be a natural, organic evolution; there has to be a way in which these writers could gravitate towards some kind of a centre of the cultural sphere.

If you really want to go into the mechanics of how this happens, then we have to go back to Salman Rushdie and the fatwa. Up until that point, you had what they were calling: ‘The Empire Writes Back Group’. You had a surge in post-colonial writing. For the first time, it was becoming clear that such writing could have an audience beyond academic interest, and Rushdie was at the forefront. He then went on to write his controversial novel — the book that backfired very clearly because the people who he thought he was representing, which is the Muslim migrants from South Asia in Britain, largely reacted very violently to his work. The publishers began to ask themselves if they really understood what they were dealing with.

If you look at the writings that came after that or the ones that were given prominence, you begin to see a kind of resistance and the urge to get to something that is a lot less problematic. That decade from 1989 to 9/11 fascinates me because I think that that was a key moment in the cultural evolution.

TNS: Would you somehow agree with the observation that in terms of publishing, the kind of literature coming out today is mostly right wing?

JM: I am not sure about it being right wing but there has definitely been a conservative stream. We are talking about a world that has changed quite significantly in the last few decades. 9/11 produced opposition to what had existed before the fatwa and pre 9/11. The fatwa being an early footnote and 9/11 being the actual punctuation resulted in a very reactionary response to the idea of a multicultural society — a culture in which Islam had a presence that was benign and constructive and creative, and was part of what was evolving socially.

There was a definite intellectual response to 9/11, which was a determination to reject the existence of not just jihadis but the whole concept of religion itself. This is expressed by people like Christopher Hitchens, most remarkably, and by Richard Dawkins and in a more passive way by Martin Amis. They wrote with a prescribed backdrop which was the rejection of the idea of faith. I reserve the right to say that if people have a need for belief, then it’s not your place to tell them what to do.

Michel Houellebecq is a continuation of the same trend. He’s definitely right wing but he’s a misogynist too. There’s a lot of stuff in his books which is quite reactionary but the reason why his books have an audience and recognition is largely because they are a vocal denunciation of the existence of Islam within the French context. I really feel that there should be a cultural debate that should evolve in time with what is happening. This reactionary wing that has taken over and gained a lot of strength is stifling societies.

TNS: What are publishers looking for?

JM: What is palatable to the publishers and the general public is something which is benign enough to be acceptable, which contains an intrinsic denunciation, and which, at the same time, fulfils the kind of representation that political correctness demands.

You have to remember that the publishing world is 99.9 percent White. We are seeing the reaction of a narrow band of an educated, middle-class White elite who feel that they need to pay respect to the existence of other cultures and other races within their society, but would like to do so — post-Rushdie — in a benign and unthreatening way. One of the things that everyone talks about is the death of literature which is partly to do with the appeal and instantaneity of technology but it’s also partly to do with the fact that cultural spaces have shrunk, and literature, to some extent, has lost its vitality because of that fact. We have produced a kind of caramelised, smooth, easy-to-swallow material which is much easier to deal with and much easier to sell. That’s the bottom line.

TNS: Having said that a “novel cannot change the world”, what good are novels for?

JM: When I said that a novel couldn’t change the world, I was speaking to my younger self that did believe that writing a novel would or could have a profound impact. I don’t think that’s true anymore but I do think that we still need literature as an essential part of the human experience and human condition. Reading of literature, understanding of literature, the solitary pursuit of reading, of reflecting takes us back to the question of how literature has become less vital and less effective.

The purpose of literature has changed in the sense that people now look at literature to confirm their own identity and their own beliefs. Literature, as I understood it when I began reading, takes you to other worlds, and leads you into other minds, and into other places even if those places are uncomfortable or do not reflect your own worldview or your own existence. What is dangerous is that we get to the point where we dismiss literature as irrelevant; when it becomes simply something to entertain us, to make us feel better about ourselves, its relevance is lost. That’s when literature is going to die.

TNS: What has been your affinity with your Nubian background?

JM: One of the things that I disagree with profoundly is the concept of Sudanese culture produced by the Islamic Revival brought forth by Omar Bashir. Sudanese culture is not just Islam; people within that regime and those writing around it would like us to think that. Arabic is the language of ‘some’ people in the country — the language of the oppressor. My grandmother spoke Rotana, the Nubian language, and not Arabic. When you force people to speak one language and not the language they spoke as a child, then you are reducing the spectrum of that culture.

What Sudan has always had a problem with is diversity. If you reduce everything to the simple equation that Islam is the only culture, then you are denying the existence of what is there on the ground in Sudanese culture. Sudanese version of Islam is very different from the Saudi version, and yet because of political trends and financial incentives, Saudi Islam is being adopted in a very strong way. In order for us to get back to the idea of who we are, we need to interrogate this assumption. If we don’t, we are going to continue in this unbalanced way, stumbling around into the future with no real understanding of who we are and what we want. We live in an age of balms, of soft, comforting solutions.

TNS: You studied geology and became a writer. How did this shift occur?

JM: I always wanted to write novels but I didn’t believe that being a writer was a ‘thing’. In one of my books, I describe looking at a writer who was a friend of my father’s when I was a child, and thinking that that’s what I would want to do — sit behind a desk and write. I was very fond of reading, and I was lucky to live in a house that had books: Arabic books on politics in the Middle East and a lot of English books of fiction from all over the world, from Octavio Paz to Graham Greene. I started writing stories when I was at school, as a child, and I carried on writing occasionally.

I studied geology because for my father it was important that I (like my brothers) studied something that I could give back to Sudan. Geology seemed to be the subject that would give me vocation, and the opportunity to travel around the country. I just happened to be very badly suited to that subject. Eventually, I found out that there were a lot of unemployed geologists in Sudan upon my return.

I found it easier to write a novel about somebody doing the ideal job that I would imagine doing myself. I wrote my first novel that became an adventure story of a young man who is of a mixed background, who has no knowledge of his father’s country, and who travels to Sudan for the first time to find that part of himself. If I was writing that novel today, perhaps I would be writing about a young man travelling to join Daesh in Syria because that sense of looking for one’s identity that is not present where one is living has grown stronger in these thirty years ever since I wrote that book.

TNS: How would you compare Jamal Mahjoub to Parker Bilal?

JM: Parker Bilal is much more of a pragmatist, both in his view of the world and his approach to writing. The kind of audience I had been looking for through him is the audience that is more amenable to something that is not going to alienate them with some sense of high literary culture. I think it’s important for me to reach out to people who are not inside the comfort zone of any literary discourse that we find ourselves surrounded by.

For me, it was important to use another name because I needed to have that open space. There are still books that I want to write that are more of a concept, more ideas of experimentation. I am much interested in a book of non-fiction after A Line in the River, to continue in that direction. The other ideas that are more politically delineated, more about the immediacy of the current situation happening in the world, I can feed into Parker Bilal’s books. I have six books in there about Egypt, and hopefully four more. Another series that I am doing is set in London, which is a reflection of globalised London. It’s full of people who don’t speak English.

I am very weary of literary-festival-kind-of-an-audience which is not the people we should be talking to. I think there is a disconnect. It’s important for writing to have some kind of vitality but it should be connected somehow to the world in a direct way. For the audience at festivals, literature means some kind of self-validation. It gives you that sense that you are part of a higher culture. There is a serious issue here about culture. If it’s not really communicating with people, then we lose that ground; Literature is not in that space that it was in the 1950s and 1960s when it was a central part of cultural life. Literature has been elevated to a point where it is about people who have means, and who wish to indulge those means. It’s communicating within this close church. There is another popular culture out there I cannot even begin to communicate with: the world of reality TV, etc. There must be a middle ground where we have to keep struggling to hold on to that connection with people. Part of the reason why I started writing non-fiction was to get into these places where I would be talking to people who are from a different background.

Aasim Akhtar

aasim akhtar
The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad.

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