Ahmad Saidullah

How did you conceive your first book?

I had a lot of free time to reflect and ‘fabulate’ when I was laid up in bed with a spinal injury. I wrote these linked stories — some remembered, some invented — in seven months. It took another three to edit them and send them out to literary awards and publishers. I was lucky with the reception. I should mention the CBC Literary Award, Heather Birrell’s generous review in Quill & Quire when the book came out, and making the longlist of the Crossword Vodafone Award for global South Asian fiction and the finals of the Danuta Gleed Award.

What memorable or formative experience around learning to write springs to mind?

Reading and thinking led to writing. There were all kinds of books at home. I spent quite a bit of time alone as I was often hospitalized when I was young. I remember James Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man, but I didn’t get it all at that age. I was truly shaken when I re-read it later at Cambridge. Like many, I loathed V.S. Naipaul for his neo-colonial take on India.

What writers (or artists in other forms/media) have been formative in shaping how you write? How?

I am interested in films. The fusion of the word, image, and sound strike me as being fuller, if more fugitive, representations of our worlds. Satyajit Ray turned some Bengali works into great films. The Czech filmmaker Jiří Menzel did the same with Hrabal’s prose. There is Amit Dutta’s exquisite art film about the court painter Nainsukh and Raúl Ruiz’s screen version of Proust. I was intrigued by Theresa Cha’s Dictee, a memoir that experiments with cinematic techniques. I became interested in what I call ‘documentary novels’, works that use pictures in organic ways that aren’t gimmicky. That led to a few ‘translation’ experiments, like the Sol Niger script for an essay film inspired by Chris Marker that placed in the Michael Holroyd Prize at Cambridge, but none of these projects was book length. Something to revisit in the future, perhaps, or abandon all together, I’m not sure yet.  

How is your writing practice informed by a sense of writing to or for others? Do you have an audience in mind when you write?

This may be an odd approach to fiction but I try to write in ways that are true to my thoughts and feelings about the world and its many manifestations at the time. I write for myself as a reader, as someone who likes books that upend the pieties of genre, the word and the world. If anything, I look for an active reader who is prepared to work to get the most out of the text. The work becomes a collaboration between us in the wider contexts of social reality, reading, and criticism.  

Could you name a source that served as an inspiration earlier but something that you currently have a conflicted or antagonistic feeling towards?

There are always contested readings of the canon, say, of Camus or Messud in the light of Albert Memmi’s writings on the colonizer and the colonized, or through Kamel Daoud’s ‘writing back’,  for instance. But re-readings don’t always disappoint. I saw a TV adaptation of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to Music of Time that led me to question the worth of the cycle but I think the books hold up well even now. Chekhov’s Lady with a Dog means more to me now than it did when I was young. Perhaps, that’s a sign of its greatness.

What are you writing against or towards?

I think of reading and writing as forms of questioning. To adapt Tanizaki’s artistic aims, I want to reclaim realms of shadows that western enlightenment culture has failed to illuminate, and to shed light at the same time on the monstrous darkness that lies at the heart of what passes as modernity and progress. To do both, I need to enlist the reader as someone who interrogates the world in a conspiracy with the writer. I try to keep a light touch. It’s challenging to carry the reader through the narrative without manipulating her or without being overbearing or caustic.

How do you deal with aspects of writing that might provoke frustration, doubt, disappointment, etc.? How do you talk to yourself when things are hard?

Freeing the form in the marble takes time, I have learned. I was talking to a friend, a maths prof who was struggling with publications. He would frame the problem but kept losing his way to the end. Rethinking the work from another point of view helps, even if it is a random observation by someone whose judgement you trust. One thing I learned in writing my book of stories is to distrust inspiration, the state where everything springs forth fully formed in a fit, as it were, and to depend more on making that mystic middle malleable enough to be beaten into different shapes time and again. Patience, application, and experiment are the bases of a writer’s discipline. Didn’t Edward Thomas and Rilke think the same mid-way through their practice?

Who is your work in conversation with? (i.e., other authors/artists, specific people, audience, peers, etc.)

I read widely but not always in a structured way, often more diffusely and randomly. Nowadays, I find myself drawn more to fiction that has been translated into English and less to native English writing. These are other worlds, other experiences, other modes of expression that challenge the primacy of our worlds. Reading may be a vicarious way to experience a world that’s closed to us right now with all the travel restrictions and health protocols but, if anything, I read to understand what’s around us. The Indian farmers’ protests and the Covid genocide there led me back to Bachelard’s reflections on fire and reverie and to David Arnold on cremation in South Asia.

Can you name a source of inspiration before the age of 12 that impacted your writing in some way?

I enjoyed our weekly assignments in school. Some of my essays (as my school friends like to remind me) were flighty and over the top but I liked the teachers and the regularity helped. At home, we had this children’s book of stories from all over the world called Once Long Ago. (It’s a rare book now.) The Story of Sedna has stayed with me all these years. It’s an Inuit legend of a sea goddess abandoned by her father. It explains how seals, walruses, and whales were created from her blood. One could explain it away as cosmogony, aetiology, an origin myth but I can’t deny its hold on my imagination. The recent discoveries of the unmarked graves of residential school children prove how easily we choose at our peril to ignore the prefigured crimes against the ‘first’ peoples entailed in the making of another world. Lest we forget…

Photo: Mark Yep

Ahmad Saidullah’s writings have been anthologized and published in 3QuarksDaily, Academic Matters, Altar Magazine, Blackbird, Drunken Boat, EnRoute, Gently Read Literature, L Magazine, Feminist Review Blog, Pratilipi, The Quarterly Conversation, and on CBC Radio One. He has appeared onstage with Elizabeth Abbott, Sharon English, Elizabeth Hay, Lawrence Hill, and Jane Urquhart. He has read at Harbourfront, GritLIT, Ottawa Writers Festival, Masala Mehndi Masti and Luminato. Ahmad has a Master’s from the University of Cambridge. He lives in Toronto. 

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