“When was the last time we heard that what this country needs is another Zia?”
– Mohammed Hanif
By Nadir Hassan
Born in Okara in 1965, Mohammed Hanif served in the Pakistan Air Force before deciding to take up a career as a journalist. Hanif worked as a reporter for Newsline for six years and is now the head of the BBC’s Urdu World Service. He also graduated from the creative writing programme at the University of East Anglia.
Q: As a first-time novelist, was it hard to find a publisher in Britain? And given your portrayal of Zia, will it be even harder to find a publisher in Pakistan?
A: I know it is notoriously difficult to find a publisher for a first time novel, even more so for a so-called literary novel (“a gamble against destiny” as someone put it) but I have to say that luckily it proved to be quite simple in my case. I guess the trick is to get an agent who believes in the book and in whose judgment the publishers have trust. After I signed up with my agent, the publishers were literally lining up, which was a bit surreal. She made the first sale within 48 hours of submitting in Canada. And the rest of the countries followed within a week or so.
I don’t think there are very many Zia-lovers left in the country. When was the last time we heard that what this country needs is another Zia? I am talking to a couple of publishers in Pakistan and, hopefully, will have one very soon.
Q: Do you think Ejaz-ul-Haq is more likely to lob a libel suit or hand grenade your way after he reads the book?
A: We all know that Ejaz-ul-Haq is a peace-loving politician, so let’s not incite him into violence. Ain’t there enough blasts in our country that now you are encouraging people to go after poor writers? This is a work of fiction and comes with a disclaimer, and that, lawyers tell me, should make it libel-proof. But some friends who, like me, grew up during the Zia era and have just read the book have actually accused me of turning Zia into a sympathetic character. Also, do you think the younger Haq is much of a reader?
Q: Were the characters of Ali Shigri or Obaid based on your own experiences in the military (excluding the homosexuality, of course)?
A: Of course not. Everyone knows that military life is incredibly dull and nothing much happens there. Why do you think the army keeps barging into civilian affairs? Because it’s much more fun running the country than marching up and down a parade square. It’s all made up. If my life in the army had been remotely interesting, I would have probably stuck around. Homosexuality in the army? That is unthinkable. It’s about two boys who are in a bit of trouble.
Q: Was writing a novel more difficult than your work as a journalist or is it easier to make stuff up rather than rely strictly on facts?
A: I think you use a different muscle. We have all seen many journalists who come up with improbable fiction every day. And we have seen novelists who can conjure up incredibly realistic worlds. I think the main difference is that you have to learn to live within a book for a very long time, whereas with journalism you file your copy and you are done. You get instant gratification. Or someone writes a letter to the editor. As someone said, it’s the difference between a one-night stand and a marriage. Also, a good editor can fix a badly written journalistic piece but no fiction editor is likely to go beyond the third page if they are not hooked. Basically working in a fictional world, you are pretty much on your own.
Q: Do you feel it is easier for a Pakistani novelist to be published if his work is political, given the interest the western media has in terrorism of the Islamic variety?
A: I don’t think Exploding Mangoes has anything to do with terrorism of any variety. And I don’t think it has become any easier. People who write in English, people like Amir Hussain, Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid and Nadeem Aslam, have been writing since the last century. Back then, terrorism was a vaguely romantic term that not very many publishers were interested in. There is another book of short stories coming out next year by Daniyal Mueenudin, I have read two stories and there isn’t a single beard or bomb in there.
I work in the media and I know we journalists are desperate to spot a trend. I wish it was easier for Pakistani writers to get published but I am afraid it isn’t. I am sure it’s not very different in Urdu fiction either. I think the only recent Urdu novel that has really dazzled me is Mirza Athar Beg’s Ghulam Bagh. The one before that was Abdullah Hussain’s Nadaar Log, which came out about a decade ago. I have heard that there has been some brilliant fiction in Sindhi recently but we don’t have many translations. So I would say there are not enough good novels, in Urdu or English or any other language in Pakistan. But yes, there is much more non-fiction being published about our part of the world now. There are at least half a dozen books working their way through the publishing machine, all attempting to explain Pakistan. I hope there will be many more.
Q: Should we be awaiting a second novel? And will it tell us who killed Benazir Bhutto?
A: I thought we all knew who killed Benazir Bhutto. Wasn’t it the man with the dark glasses? I guess one could start a mini-genre by writing books about all the unsolved mysteries in Pakistan. Why is Musharraf so moronic? Who stole all our electricity? Was Shaukat Aziz a human or a software invented by Citibank’s IT department? All potential bestsellers. But I think I am done with conspiracy theories for the time being and scribbling something which sounds like a very straight, very civilian love story. But then I guess love is the ultimate conspiracy