We sat down with author, translator and editor Abdussabur Kirke to discuss fiction, storytelling and the art of writing.
HIKAAYAT: You’ve recently published Aydin – a novel. Tell us about your journey as a writer.
AK: I’ve enjoyed writing since I was a young child but the writing impulse went underground when I left school. I did other things and didn’t think about writing again, which was a shame in retrospect. So I had a long hiatus. I then became, through coincidence really, a translator of German to English while living in Berlin.
All the while, and especially when I reached what you’d call middle age, there was a slow-burning desire to return to writing – to write creatively and to write my own material. I had started reading more seriously in my 20s, mainly classic novels, which was a love affair. If you can write, you want to give to other people the same experience that you’ve had while reading. You feel that if you could do that, it would be a wonderful gift and fulfillment of your own abilities. That was the base motivation for me. The point came when I felt that if I didn’t write a creative novel, I’d never do so – so I forced myself to start.
HIKAAYAT: So you knew you wanted to write fiction, even though you were already an editor and translator?
AK: A long time ago, I decided there were things I wanted to say that could only be said with fiction. Not everything that is experienced in the human situation can be explained in a linear way. You have to use metaphor, you have to paint a picture, you have to tell a story. Stories are a necessary part of humanness – and that’s not a romantic statement, it’s more of a sociological, scientific statement. We can’t be human without stories. You see yourself reflected in the story and then you know that you exist – that you legitimately exist. Without that reflection, you have no idea whether your experience is real or not. That’s the purpose of this kind of story for me.
My novel is not plot driven, it is a bildungsroman and is about the protagonist’s journey. I read something the other day that the form of the bildungsroman evolved from fairy tales. The young man goes out and leaves his home and although he may be the one with no talent, he makes something of himself in the world. Difficult things happen, impossible things happen, including magical things. But it’s not actually about the magic – the magic represents the things you cannot say in a linear way.
You won’t be able to reach the reality of what happens to people by saying “x, y and z happened and a, b, c was the outcome”. That’s not what life is like. There are many parts of life that cannot be accessed by the tools of linear logic. You need another set of tools, and this is what I realized in what happened to the protagonist in Aydin. He is a vehicle for saying something. In a way, he is blank. He is not described in particular detail and in that way he is kind of empty but not in a negative sense.
HIKAAYAT: How did Aydin come about?
AK: About ten years ago, I wrote a novel which was quite long. People were too polite to tell me straight, but I slowly realized it wasn’t very good. Somebody diplomatically put it to me that I should do a course and get some training, which I then did. That training was the beginning of Aydin. The course required you to start writing your novel, and by the end of the training I had produced the first third of the book and had a framework for the rest of it. It went through a number of revisions and I rewrote the second half completely, as the novel initially had a completely different outcome.
In the first novel I wrote – the bad one – there was a character in it who was rather good – I liked him, as did my readers. I felt that he said something that I wanted to say in fiction. There was this young Muslim man, an immigrant in a technical society, and there are some things you cannot say in non-fiction, you can only say with art.
The other half is that I set off researching the German aristocracy as a separate subject which I was very interested in. I met and interviewed some German aristocrats, which was very enriching and fascinating. It came to me that I would like this young Muslim man in my novel to meet such a person, because they had something in common in their heritage. Those two halves of the story are what constitute the book.
HIKAAYAT: Lila Shapiro at Vulture wrote “While imagining the lives of people who are different from you is virtually a prerequisite of most successful fiction writing, the consequences of doing it poorly have grown more serious since the pre-Twitter, pre-woke ’90s, as the conversation about who gets to tell whose stories has moved from the fringes of publishing into the mainstream.”
There is currently a lot of debate around storytelling and writing outside of one’s identity. What do you make of this, given that you’ve done it in your novel?
AK: You can’t write fiction without using the identity of others, unless you’re going to write a memoir – which isn’t fiction. If you write about someone in your own cultural group, it would be less open to criticism, but even then it is appropriating. For example, if I’m a middle class white Englishman and I decide to write about from the point of view of a working class man, I would also lay myself open to criticism. I would be sorry to offend anyone, but it is inevitable.
HIKAAYAT: The novel also doesn’t easily fall into stereotype and become a lazy and reductionist story of a person born into an immigrant family, so that helps.
AK: It wasn’t my concern to write about an immigrant Muslim, in fact. I wanted to write about a young Muslim; his immigration background is secondary. I hope that his experience could transfer into other situations. In fact, some good feedback has come from people who aren’t Muslim at all. So there is a large part of the experience that isn’t particular to Muslims, yet he is a Muslim – he absolutely is.
HIKAAYAT: Yes, it seems that the protagonist’s coming to terms with his faith is part of a number of other kinds self-discovery; in a way some of it is part of a universal experience.
AK: I wouldn’t call it a universal experience, what happens to him. I think that’s saying the wrong thing. But his realisations are universal, or they can be. I’m not saying that everybody does have such moments, but they could.
HIKAAYAT: You mentioned earlier that you re-wrote the second half of the novel. Was that frustrating?
AK: It was disappointing, it really was. You write the manuscript and then you have to edit it and edit it, it takes a long time. Writers use the dictum “kill your darlings”. It refers to getting rid of extraneous material even if you happen to be in love with it. The second half of the initial book was a real darling, but I had to kill it. I was confronted with the fact that it was just not good enough and it was bringing down the first half of the book. I should have probably listened to my wife Aisha a bit more carefully. She was my first reader and she said, “The first half is REALLY GOOD, the second half is GOOD.” She was very politely telling me something and had I listened to her a bit more carefully I wouldn’t have wasted a few years.
HIKAAYAT: So even you weren’t fully prepared for what the editorial process would entail?
AK: I didn’t realize the extent of it until I started writing fiction seriously. This was partly because I’d been an editor for an author who has the unusual ability to write, and even dictate, copy which doesn’t need editing. That’s very unusual and I worked for him for years, publishing his work – so I couldn’t help thinking that’s how writing worked. It was an uncomfortable realization that for most people, it’s not. For example, I saw a photostat of one of the manuscripts of The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot that had been edited by his friend Ezra Pound. The amount of red ink on the thing was extraordinary. It made me think, well, if T.S. Eliot can be edited like that, then I shouldn’t worry about chopping some of my own stuff out. The more you read about the process of writing, the more you realise that many or all of the great writers have been editors. Hemingway even said “There is no such thing as great writing – there is only great re-writing.”
HIKAAYAT: Do you intend to write more fiction in the future?
AK: My fear is that I’m a one-novel kind of person and that there isn’t another one in me. I feel a bit empty. It’s quite perplexing, because I really enjoyed the process of writing fiction. Literature for me is like fishing for a rare fish in a very large lake. I may catch something else one day. It was extremely fulfilling. Every single day of writing, I would be lost in the world of the characters and the setting and the description.
HIKAAYAT: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
AK: I always have a series of priorities for my day. I’ll do what I consider to be most important first. At the time of writing the novel I was also helping this other author and I always put his things first. So after I finished with his work, I would do a bit of my own writing. Then I would go to my professional translating and make a bit of money. If you don’t do it like that, then you’ll never get around to the things that are important. If you put the most important things first, even if you just do 15 minutes of it, you’ll find the everyday things all fall into place. I would say to any writer, if you want to write – put it first.
A course was very helpful to me. I also recommend reading. If you read good literature, you have a chance of producing good literature. If you don’t, there’s little chance.
5 quick questions:
Do you write by hand or on a computer?
I wrote all of Aydin by hand, then typed it up. I was writing a letter yesterday, I wrote it by hand and though it’s physically tiring, it does make you choose your words more carefully. You slow down and you don’t want to cross out a word, so you think quite carefully about each one. It produces a different kind of writing. Typing up is another process I enjoy a lot and once you do it, some editing already takes place there. If I were to write another novel, I would start by hand. I would go into a nice place where I feel undisturbed and comfortable and not bring my phone – just my pen and pad. This opens up your world of reflection.
Give us the titles of three books everyone should read at least once.
1) The Count of Monte Cristo
2) Anything by Nabokov – except Lolita; you can if you want to, but it does go on a bit. My favourite is his memoir Speak, Memory.
3) And then it has to be a toss-up between Crime and Punishment and War and Peace – just read them both.
Your novel is set in Germany, do you have a favourite city?
I recently visited Regensburg, it’s a beautiful medieval city.
If you had to set your novel Aydin to a song or an album, which would it be?
The one that comes up is Station to Station by David Bowie. After that record came out, Bowie moved to Berlin and produced three albums called The Berlin Trilogy.
What are you currently reading?
I just finished Hunger by Knut Hamsun. I read that it is the origin of all modernist literature and when you read it, you see it’s not dated though it was written 130 years ago. It’s brilliant, but a really hard read because it’s harrowing. I definitely recommend it.