Sunday, August 8, 2010
Adnan Mahmutović talks to me about reading with a pen, Beverley Hills 90210, and a girl named Fatima.
Hullo and a huge welcome, Adnan, thank you for visiting snowlikethought and for taking the time to answer my questions about your novel Thinner than a Hair.
AM: Thank you for giving me this space.
RF: Your novel is the most stimulating, thought provoking and enjoyable yet moving book I have read this year and I found myself making notes and circling text, marking pages the whole way through because there was so much in there which I wanted to know more about or which triggered a thought or made a connection, and yet, on the surface your book tells a very simple story.
AM: I have to tell my wife I’m not the only one who reads with a pen. While she’d say I destroy books, I think the very drive to mark memorable things is the greatest compliment I can give to a writer. So thank you for scribbling in my book.
RF: As with all great books, I like to start from the end. The blurb on the back reads:
[t]old in the first person voice of a young woman coming of age as her country falls into war and hatred, the deceptively simple narrative takes the reader on a journey across landscapes, political boundaries, assumptions and emotions.
The story of Fatima is not a complex story on first impressions and yet it deals with some intricately difficult themes, and as I read your book (very quickly, in one sitting) I was struck by how plainly, matter of factly and with simple eloquence, you dealt with, in essence, genocide. It isn’t a subject matter for the faint of heart but what was amazing to me as a reader was that Thinner than a Hair didn’t read as a “war book” but as one girl’s right of passage and I wondered how difficult it was to achieve this so called simplicity; was it something you set out to do or did the story tell itself?
AM: It was incredibly hard. The war is such a powerful thing in itself, it overshadows everything. By this I mean certain features of a war, certain ever-repeating horrors prevent us from seeing the full complexity of it all, prevent us from seeing the ‘how’ of life. If everything I’ve written so far is somehow tied to the war in Bosnia, I have first and foremost wanted to depict the part of the iceberg under the surface.
Historiography, especially that of genocide, seems to attract certain stereotypes and sanctioned forms of narrating them. The writers feel obliged to tell certain things and omit some less attractive events, as if these would diminish the feelings, the pain, the importance of both remembering and forgetting of that which has happened. I always felt that telling a different story would give me a better sense of it all. I love one sentence from Beloved which is repeated several times “This is not a story to pass on.” When I think about it, I’m puzzled, what does “story” refer to? The history of slavery? Yes, but also love, sisterly jealousy, children’s games, and boredom. Does the latter invalidate or enrich the former? To take my ‘history’ as an example, my uncle was in a concentration camp, a small one, in a town just a few miles from where I lived. There were battles over there, we could hear explosions after air raids, and yet for months nothing happened in my city. It was incredibly boring. A terrifyingly unproductive time. I felt like grabbing a rifle many times even though I was a boy. Same thing in Sweden. No war, but nothing happened for months on end.
RF: I once read that the difference between war and genocide is that in war women and children are accidental casualties, whereas in genocide they are the primary targets and I thought of Aziz’s “disability” and was, am, intrigued to know if there was a connection here, as a means of making Aziz a target through gender also?
AM: This definition of genocide sounds true for Bosnia, no doubt. It was in fact that “targeting” that made me start writing. I wanted to understand how all these women actually came out sane and stronger. Early on I wrote a story “She Looked so Cheerful” which is one of the few that recounts an event that happened in my family. What made a rape victim smile? A refusal to let this trauma take charge of life? Having a character who is in-between, sex-wise, gender-wise, was for me a way of exploring potentiality. He becomes a soldier and yet he could just as well be, and in fact is in many ways, a target of this calculated genocide. My question was, if his “disability” was discovered, wouldn’t he be a target of his own fellow soldiers as well?
RF: I thought about how you cut through gender stereotypes and assumptions, was Aziz’s “disability” a means of breaking down barriers of difference – just as Aziz is neither clearly male or female in a stereotypical clearly defined way – is Aziz more than a metaphor for being mixed; un-labelled, un-pin-pointable? Or a way of showing that labels and religious labels, just as gender terms, are only ever needed to discriminate and do not matter in day to day life?
AM: I’d say the latter. During the war everything had a label. I needed to depict a life in which these labels broke down, or rather were hard to apply. For this reason my heart skips a beat when someone asks me how to label my book.
RF: Gender, for me, is not a male female binary but more a spectrum, possibly on the line of an inverse bell curve with more standard male female types on the outer ends and less typical convergences as you move towards the centre. Do you think racism and sexism (particularly against women) work on the same principles?
AM: I couldn’t agree more. While we constantly make abstraction and form types, in my view, maintaining these takes a great effort. This is where a lot of negative energy is boiling: the conflict between how things really are and how we want them to be. I think one of the greatest books that shows how both racism and sexism work on the same principles is Morrison’s Beloved. Everything I’ve written was in that spirit, or at least an effort to attune to it.
RF: Again with the “simple narrative” there’s a line spoken by the character called Elvis where he says:
But if you haven’t noticed, there’s a war going on. You don’t just walk into somebody’s office and ask for a passport. You need connections, bribes, you know what I mean? Money talks, brandy talks, VCRs and TV sets talk. Deutsch marks, dollars, and pounds untie all tongues. These things make even the Gordian knot a child’s game.
(Mahmutović, 2010. p96)
and my eye was first drawn to the Gordian knot and I thought what a brilliant metaphor that is for both your book and the issues at its core. But there are so many off-shoots of thought from that one image, such as how many other cultural references there are within the book which are not of Bosnia or associated with Muslims in any clear linear way but which, if you go back far enough you see where all these cultures are so similar at their roots and this was what I thought was the real beauty of your book; the way it not only transcends supposed cultural boundaries, but also points out clearly the artifice or insubstantial basis of the boundaries themselves. But then my eye fell on the words “pounds untie all tongues” and I wanted you to talk to me a little about this line, also.
AM: While many things in the book probably have to do with my Swedish education, and moreover my studies of literatures in English (rather than English literature), it’s important to emphasise that Bosnian culture is not tied to any one religion, ethnicity, or political creed. Many people who we today denote as Christians or Muslim were, for the most part, Communist. Bosnians of any religion have been affected by other religious texts, traditions, and folklore. Russian and English literature has been a great part of our education. Talking about a Gordian knot or any Biblical reference is perfectly natural for me. It doesn’t take an extra effort, except when I try to do something new with these things. It would be much harder, and as you say ‘artificial’ to try and draw boundaries. All boundaries are artificial, no doubt. At the same time we should not refrain from talking about differences. There is danger in politicising cultural differences, and turning them into boundaries.
I guess you reacted to the use of the British currency in Elvis’ line. Bosnians have always had a peculiar penchant for Deutsch Mark, and nowadays Bosnian Mark has the same value as the German currency. In the 80s and 90s the Yugoslavian currency ‘Dinar’ had no value. A loaf of bread cost like two-three million dinar. As much as they could, people used German, British, Swiss, American money. When we had to bribe our way from Bosnia we tried to sell whatever we had in our house. We had to get Deutsch Marks because the soldiers wouldn’t have anything else.
RF: Back to the Gordian knot for a moment: you make a lot of references to imagery throughout the book. Here are some things which I noticed on what could be termed a biblical theme:
“Aziz was like a rib I’d torn out of my body. It was bent like a soft penis, yet hard. I’ve never been able to make it straight, for fear it would break.” (p78)
“Instead of an answer, Father closed himself in his shed, banging on wood and metal, sawing, filing, making something; I have no idea what, an ark perhaps.” (p93)
“Perhaps I walked the entire way back, out of my mind. Perhaps an angel carried me on its back.” (p126)
And these on a philosophical theme perhaps:
“That was how my father fell, like a tree trunk, like a country; the world should have shaken when he hit the ground with his flushed face.” (p128)
“The pen snapped in two sharp pieces and cut my hand as I reread what I had jotted down.” (p128)
“The town was strangely silent about the blowing up of the mosque and the imam’s death. It was such a simple and clear evil, and all chatter ceased. The entire mosque building was levelled except for the minaret, which looked like a broken pencil.” (p 72)
It is some of the strongest and most exquisite imagery I have come across, particularly the last example, (the pen is mightier than the sword came to mind and was promptly inverted) and this was, I thought, what I would carry of your writing to tell others about. Your strength, for me, as a writer, is your ability to note grand events in an understated way; making the events seem poignant not because of their gravity but because of their beauty even in failing.
And, one final quote, if I may be permitted an indulgence:
Mum didn’t say a word about refugees […] She peered into the closet and at the two sole hangers with a sweater on each.
I expected a slap on the head, or at least some shouting. I hated her silence. I wanted her to be strong and alive even if that meant I’d get regular portions of nagging and scolding instead of meals.
She said through a laugh, “You saved these two I made for you.”
She ran towards me and kissed me all over the face. I was so drenched in her milk-smelling saliva I needed a towel to wipe it off, but I didn’t dry my face. I let the traces of her kisses dry so I could smell them when distant explosions woke me up at night.
Does writing like this come naturally to you or do you have to work at it, edit and pare down to achieve the maximum of showing with the least telling?
AM: There’s nothing harder than tracing my steps back to the origins or even the very process. A good answer would be ‘I don’t know.’ But, that’d be a lie. I am very conscious of some narrative gestures like putting images in contrast, using old hackneyed images to say something different. I assume the reader will at least subconsciously recognise some things, but then I feel I must not fully meet the expectations. There has to be a surprise of sorts, either in terms of imagery, or action, or paragraph structure. The ‘rib’ is something I did with a lot of thought. I didn’t want to go into the entire difference between Islam and Christianity in terms of the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib. The Qur’an never mentions the rib. Eve is never the culprit in that original drama. However, I once heard a story which said women were created from Adam’s rib, which was not perfectly ‘straight’. If one tries to make it straight, it’ll break. If one doesn’t try, it’ll remain bent. I wanted to reverse the places, especially since Fatima is unsure if Aziz is fully ‘straight’, whether he’s a man or a woman. It puts an entirely different spin on the sex and gender issue.
Sometimes I test images until it feels right but often I use something that surprises myself, like the pen thing, or a scene from the film I made where the character does something with incredible symbolic potential but at the same time it is very much a gut reaction. After the screening the audience was intent on interpreting that scene, and the beauty of it was that I didn’t have the authority over its meaning. Everyone had a personal interpretation and they were all right. I guess I experienced the famous ‘death of the author.’ Anyway, to answer your question, sometimes those powerful instances come easy and sometimes there’s a lot of ‘conscious’ work behind it all.
RF: What I was most impressed with in your book was the way I came away from it feeling like I had read a much larger book and I think this was, in part, due to your skill for using double edged imagery and how you manage to tell so much by omittance, by framing what is missing from the picture to make it stand out all the more. I think of the TV here: US television show Beverly Hills 90210 (nicely timed - all new version now out), being beamed into Bosnian tellies and yet where are the Bosnian, or other, shows being shown? But you never make such obvious comparisons in the book and it is all the more powerful for it.
I remember the war unfolding, as a seventeen year old British girl, on the news and it seemed like it was in another world, unconnected to my life in any way. There was a strong sense that the world, and I in it, was little more than a bystander and that the troubles in Bosnia were little more than a show unfolding on the TV set. So it was staggering to read the lines in your book about the TV sets and the way you simply, yet deftly, posit the notion that the West was preoccupied with itself and that, just as Aziz and Fatima watched the US show on their TV, the rest of the world was doing just the same. And I thought how brilliant that this book will get inside homes the way the cable shows do and what an impossible to ignore instalment it will be, but did any of this even cross your mind as you wrote Thinner than a Hair? How much were you conscious of the TV as metaphor?
Do you think the news provides misrepresentation of cultures in the same way as shows such as 90210 do?
AM: I wasn’t very conscious of that. I realised it much later when I asked myself why in the world did I write an entire scene around that show. As an afterthought it struck me as irrelevant? Why not depict a battle or a concentration camp? But I stuck to my rule ‘Don’t exclude that which seems trivial. It probably isn’t. Wait and see how it plays with the other things.’ I remembered hiding in my attic where I had a small TV set and a VCR watching Beverly Hills and action movies with Schwarzenegger and Stallone whenever there was power. Terminator and Rambo were really quite great for killing time. Hiding all the time, doing nothing, was devastating. We swapped pirated movies any chance we got. I think your idea that Bosnians watching American shows and Americans doing it at the same it is brilliant. There’s another crux with television. The war was quite different in different parts of Bosnia. In my city we had no direct experience of the war as it was in Sarajevo, or Srebrenica. We heard it on the news, just like you did. We talk about it as ‘one’ thing, as ‘Bosnian’ experience, but it’s actually very different for different people. We were in the middle of it, and yet also partly detached.
RF: Well, Adnan, we started this interview with the blurb on the back of your book and I wondered if we could end it with the title on the front. Could you first say a little about where it comes from and why you chose it?
There is a similar passage in the Katha Upanishad:
Arise, awake, and learn by approaching the exalted ones,
for that path is sharp as a razor’s edge, impassable,
and hard to go by, say the wise.
(Katha Upanishad – 1.3.14)
This provided the title and epigraph ([t]he sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard) for W. Somerset Maugham’s novel: The Razor’s Edge, thus again, for me, showing similarities, rather than differences, in all cultures, and I wanted to ask, finally, what lasting thought you would like readers to take away from this interview?
AM: Very interesting references. I wasn’t aware of them. I relied on the story about the Sirat bridge that leads to the afterworld. It’s thinner than a hair and sharper than a sword. The path to Salvation is hard. In the novel this higher path has its more material, immediate counterpart, the pure survival. I guess my question is, given what Fatima does in order to survive, how do we imagine her walking on such a bridge as Sirat, how do we judge her, do we judge her at all?
What any reader should notice in such an interview as this is the way a good reader can challenge a writer on his own ground and make the entire reading experience a great deal richer. A reader is not just some sponge that suck in whatever is served to her or him, but always partly a co-author of meanings and ideas in any work.
RF: Thank you so much, Adnan, for giving me so much to think about and for your book which I am certain will go on to become a very important text. I've thoroughly enjoyed interviewing you.
AM: Thank you for asking me such brilliant questions. This has been a great pleasure.
Thinner than a Hair is published by Cinnamon Press and is available from their website and from Amazon.
Catch up with the rest of Adnan's book tour at the following:
Kathryn Magendie at http://tendergraces.blogspot.com/
Vanessa Gebbie at http://vanessagebbiesnews.blogspot.com/
Valerie O’Riordan at http://not-exactly-true.blogspot.com/
Caroline M Davis at http://advancingpoetry.blogspot.com/
Nik Perring at http://nikperring.blogspot.com/
Tom Vowler at http://oldenoughnovel.blogspot.com/
Joakim Jahlmar at http://the-mad-swede.blogspot.com/
Tania Hershman at http://titaniawrites.blogspot.com/