Aamer Hussein was born in Karachi. In 1970, at the age of 15, he moved to London to complete his education. He graduated from SOAS with an Honors degree in South Asian Studies. He simultaneously studied European languages. He began to publish short fiction in the 1980s. Mirror to the Sun, his first collection including new stories with others previously published in journals and anthologies, appeared in 1993. This was followed by several other collections including Cactus Town and Insomnia, and two novels, Another Gulmohar Tree (2009) and The Cloud Messenger (2011). He returned to shorter forms with The Swan’s Wife (2014) and Hermitage (2018). He has since published his first collection in Urdu and a volume of memoirs and autofiction, Restless (2021). His stories have been translated into Italian, French, Arabic, Japanese, and Urdu. Aamer was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2004 soon after the publication of Turquoise, his highly acclaimed 3rd collection. He was also a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement, The New Statesman, The Literary Review and The Independent for many years. He is currently a Senior Editor at Critical Muslim and a regular columnist for the literary pages of Dawn (Karachi). Aamer Hussein’s latest work is a selection of his stories, memoirs, and essays, entitled What is Saved (2023). 

Sheeraz: Many of your characters are seen walking, biking, sitting in a moving train, or planning to go somewhere (e.g., the protagonist of “37 Bridges”). This often corresponds with their mental miles across continents and years. What makes them go places? What makes them develop a sense of belongingness everywhere and nowhere?  

Aamer: Let us go back to beginnings. My mother was born in Indore in what was then called Princely India, but both her parents came from elsewhere. Though she retained many of the ways of Malwa, where she grew up, and was always nostalgic for its green spaces and its monsoon when she moved to Karachi after her marriage, she told me many years later that she always felt she did not belong in Indore. In Karachi, where she had a busy social life and dedicated herself to classical music and to women’s rights, she found the topography alien and spent much of her spare time planting flowers and fruit creating gardens with my little sister and me assisting her. I believe her children inherited her “sense of belongingness to everywhere and nowhere” though to tell the truth I do not think I belong everywhere. I began to feel like a stranger in the city of my birth when I was a child and often longed for rainy Malwa and its cold winters. Not one of us returned to live in Karachi once we left. I spent four formative years between the ages of 11 and 13 shuttling between Karachi, Indore and various Indian cities, until I spent 18 months studying in the Blue Mountains in South India before moving to London at 15. So I experienced a sense of inquietude at a very early age; although I spent many years trying to settle down in London, and didn’t begin to travel abroad till I was 20, I chose to belong nowhere. By chance or unconscious design, many of the friends of my youth were transients, wanderers, and exiles. At 21 I began to travel in Europe; at 26 I visited Bangladesh, where my sister lived, and since then I have frequently travelled back and forth between London and South Asia. Like my parents, who moved back and forth between their homelands all their lives, I put down some tentative roots in Karachi in the second decade of this century to assuage my sense of longing for a permanent home, but continue to move between languages in my writings and contrasting landscapes in my memories and anticipations. I suppose my characters’ constant flights reflect my own adult life and journeys. The title of my antimemoir, Restless, captures my writing self and to some extent my private world too. 

Sheeraz: Critics have read some of your characters as fictionalized real people (e.g., the protagonists of your novel, Another Gulmohar Tree as writer Ghulam Abbas and his Greek-Scottish-Romanian wife, Zainab or poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz and his British wife, Alys). To what extent is this reading correct? How do real people contribute to the development of fictional characters? How do you decide on what to allow of a real character to enter the narrative? How do you keep a fictional character different from the person that inspires it? 

Aamer: Fallacy. Faiz and Alys have nothing at all to do with my story. I did read “The Girl with Golden hair”, a story about a transcultural marriage by Ghulam Abbas, the unsatisfactory conclusion of which provoked me to start AGT as a rejoinder, but it was quite a while later, when I was well into the Karachi section of my story, that I discovered Zainab/Chris Abbas’s charming illustrations in a book of her husband’s poems and tales for children. Since I am not an illustrator, I found them enormously helpful in depicting a British woman’s attempt to give her pictures an unexotic Pakistani flavor. Usman is one of the most difficult characters I’ve ever created, and entirely unlike me; since I have read very little about Ghulam Abbas’s life, any resemblance between him and Usman owes all to happenstance. I later found out that Ghulam Abbas happily lived with two wives – now if I’d been writing about him, where would that have taken my story? In most cases, when a real person enters my story, they appear as themselves; for example, “The Lady of the Lotus” is drawn, with her approval and collaboration, from my mother’s diary. There are exceptions I can think of; my Urdu story “Zohra” (an English translation was included in The Swan’s Wife) was inspired by the tragic death of the very talented Lahore poet Hima Raza, and drew tears from the eyes of her sister when the latter heard it read out in their native Lahore. My friend, the late great Indonesian poet Toeti Heraty, asked to be portrayed in a story, and not only chose the name of her fictional self but loved the story “Insomnia” when she read it. Inspiration, however, usually comes from characteristics writers observe in the many people we meet, and indeed contradictory aspects of ourselves, not from fictionalizing any one person. When I went on to write about real people, I chose the form of the personal essay, a form I approached in my 60s with some trepidation and then increasing confidence: I’ve written about the role the writers Qurratulain Hyder and Han Suyin played in my life, on a note of elegy; and about encounters with Abdullah Hussein, Intizar Hussain, Fahmida Riaz, sadly in the form of obituaries. But my Karachi friends Mehreen, Taha and Shahbano appear as themselves in some pieces, as does my Chennai friend Mukund in “A Convalescence”, which is often read as fiction, but is actually fact, an experimental and time bending memoir; its dreamy quality derives from the large quantities of painkillers I was taking during the eponymous convalescence. There are one or two “lockdown” stories in Restless which trickily navigate the middle ground between genres, because I wanted to fictionalize myself in that time that slipped away from time, rather than follow a diaristic approach or a strict adherence to clock or calendar.   

Sheeraz: Most of your characters live in big cities (e.g., London, Paris, and Karachi) as globalized, educated, middle-class people. They find friends in swans and doves and trees and waters but are often seen struggling with developing human friendships. How do relationships define a character? 

Aamer: I would say that my characters struggle with betrayals and unrequited love, not human friendships. Poet Mimi Khalvati, at the launch of my collection Insomnia, described my abiding concern as friendship and love beyond the narrow confines of the erotic. The title story of that collection, for example, and “The Angelic Disposition”, are both about friendships between men and women that defy sexual desire. And Restless, too, embodies this in its factual or semifictional depictions of my abiding friendships. My characters, at least since my third collection (and to an extent in my novel The Cloud Messenger, in which romantic love becomes friendship), are defined by such relationships, which sometimes as in “Knotted Tongues” only end with the death of one person. The stories in Hermitage, which are fables drawn from my imagination in which characters like the Buddhist monks appeared before me from nowhere, or from traditional sources like the legend of ‘mad’ Qais and Laila, do often deal with love and separation, in an attempt to reach out to the grand Sufi tradition. And yes, as Ali Akbar noticed in his interview with me, my characters do find solace in quiet green places, by rivers and lakes and the sea, among birds and sometimes other creatures: but their walks are often companionable, chatty rambles with friends, not solitary expeditions.    

Sheeraz: Your poetic short short, “Dove,” is a character story. For an expert reader, the phrase, “country’s queen of melancholy verse,” when read along with the cities named, is indexical to poet Ada Jafarey and adds her life history to the meaning of the story. How do you decide what to mention and what to keep out for the reader to fetch from their knowledge, experience, or emotions?  

Aamer: I can’t say much about the story except that it came as a kind of epiphany; and yes, the central image was inspired by a passage in Ada Jafarey’s magnificent autobiographical work, Jo Rahi So Bekhabri Rahi; but I never met or even saw the lady in person, and wanted to present the era in one life, not a biographical essay about the poet. So no, not a character story in my book, though for a reader who knows of the poet situated in history, it may appear to be so, and the reader who doesn’t may not need to know the inspiration behind it, though I mention it in an afterword.  

Sheeraz: I heard you speak in a craft talk about a composite character inspired by multiple people from real life. Would you like to elaborate on the creative process behind writing such a character?  

Aamer: I think you’re talking about Sara in “Zindagi se pehle” (translated as “What is Saved”)? Her cats, and the walk in Regents Park, are inspired by my friend the novelist Mary Flanagan, as is the visit to exhibition in the story: but Mary does not see herself in Sara at all! The life of the painter LM, who never appears but plays a catalytic part, is entirely fictional: I felt her work was inspired by the paintings of Lee Krasner, until my friend Alev Adil, herself a writer and visual artist, reminded me of our visit to an exhibition of the paintings of Etel Adnan, whom I knew, at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park like the exhibition in my story. Memoir forces the mind the observe ‘truth’ in chronology and location; fiction gives me licensee and plays wonderful tricks, as it did in this case, where memory took me to a spot I had forgotten. That is why I wrote the story as fiction and not as an essay or memoir: an unconscious process, as is the creation of character.    

—Muhammad Sheeraz Dasti, Mid-American Review