A Lifting of Burdens: A Conversation with Mirza Waheed

Mirza Waheed
Mirza Waheed

Mirza Waheed’s Tell Her Everything is a storyteller’s novel. Narrated in first person by Dr. K, the whole enterprise is shaped and reshaped mid-telling. How much is too much to share, he wonders? Dr. K is mentally rehashing his life in order to confess to his now-adult daughter the reasons behind their estrangement: his work as a “punishment surgeon” involved performing procedures for the state in an unnamed country, and he must reckon with the shame and fallout of what he did for money and an alleged better life.

In rehearsing what he will say, Dr. K attempts to gain control over the narrative. But his control is borrowed, elusive and revokable; the text of a letter from Sara disrupts his own narrative and version of events. His daughter’s words remind the reader that her absence haunts him like a phantom limb; so, too, do the stories of those whose hands he severed at the wrist.

Mirza Waheed was born and raised in Kashmir, and his first novel, The Collaborator, was an international bestseller, a finalist for the Guardian First Book Award and the Shakti Bhatt Prize. Tell Her Everything won the 2019 Hindu Prize for Fiction. A former journalist with the BBC, he lives in London.

Via email, Mirza Waheed and I discussed storytelling, narrative processes, and the tension in fiction, as in life, between choice and fate.

Sarah Layden: In Tell Her Everything, the narrator rehearses what he plans to tell his daughter about his life choices, shaping the story as he goes. Interspersed are letters from Sara to her father, illustrating that she knows more than he might realize. How did you arrive at the narrative style?

Mirza Waheed: I had the germ of the novel, a father rehearsing what he will say to his estranged daughter, in my head for quite a while, and the more I thought about it, the more I began to hear the father’s voice and see his character. The form of the novel, an imagined conversation in which, as you say, the narrator shapes the story as he goes, felt both challenging and fascinating. I knew I had to do it this way. It also became an exciting exploration of the nature of fiction, of first-person narrative. As I tried to inhabit the mind of a retired old surgeon, the character posed questions for the writer, too: how much do I know, how much shall I reveal, how much detail is enough detail?

Sarah Layden: The novel begins with the line “I did it for money.” This opening confession is one many can understand: we all need money to live in the world. Were you interested in exploring sympathy or empathy toward the narrator?

Mirza Waheed: This is a complex question. Let me try. I wanted to see how a person such as Dr. K, who deep down knows he has compromised his humanity, would behave with his little daughter. Will he read to her at bedtime? How does someone like him interact with his wife? What about his friendships? And I found out he will be like any other father, caring, doting, full of love for his little one. He misses his wife every day. He remembers his parents fondly; he’s probably nostalgic for life back home in small-town India. Of course, he doesn’t miss the hardship but he does wonder whether unmooring himself from his roots, from the formative ground of good old-fashioned values of his parents, has cost him too much. I think a figure such as Dr. Kaiser poses the question: how far can our empathy extend? Can we see glimpses of ourselves in him?

Sarah Layden: Do you consider your writing political? Or is there another way you prefer to categorize it?

Mirza Waheed: I have written political novels; my previous two novels are set in Kashmir where I was born. From time to time, I write essays and commentary, too, but I do not want to be limited to a role. A lot of my work can be categorized as political, and I believe most writing is political, but I do not want to be seen as just that…Like most writers I want to try and explore both the marvelous and the messy, the simple and the complicated, and whatever else one finds in between. If I’m able to show even a glimpse of those corners of the heart where we store love and beauty and music, I will consider myself lucky. I want to try and look at all the beauty and the horror we are capable of. Mostly, I want to write a story. All the stories that have been in my head since my childhood.

Sarah Layden: What writers have influenced your fiction?

Mirza Waheed: I really don’t know. What I do know is I will have different responses to this question at different times. During the last few years, I have often read more than one writer at a time. Among modern writers, I have found Coetzee’s fiction breathtaking and instructive, and I think Colm Toibin is one of the finest novelists at work today. Over the years, I have greatly admired the work of Qurratulain Hyder, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Saadat Hasan Manto, Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, Akhtar Mohiuddin, Arundhati Roy, many others. When I was a young man, I read Maupassant, Saki, Austen, Bronte, Ibne Safi, Hemingway, Hardy. At some point I wanted to read all of Camus. Lately, I have enjoyed Sarah Moss’s novels and Mick Herron’s spy fiction.

Tell Her Everything yb Mirza Waheed

Sarah Layden: You worked as a journalist before turning your attention to fiction writing. How has one influenced the other? Do you find yourself pulling from your experience as a journalist when writing fiction?

Mirza Waheed: As a journalist you deal with the big issues of the day a little more than your non-journalist friend or child does, and you think you are perhaps a little more aware of the injustices and cruelties of the world, but it can also be desensitizing, your view of the world hardened by the banality of the news cycle. You can also delude yourself into thinking that you understand the world better than “ordinary people.” We do sometimes think we are experts on many subjects, but we are not. For this reason, I leave my journalistic work behind when writing fiction, and I haven’t worked as a proper journalist for many years now. I do sometimes wish I was a good reporter, though. Of course, I have drawn on my experience as a journalist, but you dip into a vastly different quarter of your brain when writing fiction. Journalism can also be constraining; it has set formats and structures; the demands of the form are different. I worked at the BBC for a decade, and I sometimes found the rules frustrating. I know why they are there but that doesn’t mean I like them, certainly not all of them. The novel on the other hand is a marvelously mutable form. My first love was, and I hope will always remain, fiction.

Sarah Layden: Do you see your previous novels, The Collaborator and The Book of Gold Leaves, building toward Tell Her Everything? What is next for you?

Mirza Waheed: To be honest, I did not see Tell Her Everything coming. The premise popped into my head at some point and stayed there, gestating lazily for a few years. It was around the time our daughter Laila was born that I started making notes for it, then I wrote the first draft between school runs (the older child still needed to be taken to school, you know), mealtimes, and diaper changes. It’s only later that you see intersections with your previous work. What’s next? I think I have written a draft of a novel about a British–Indian dinner lady from East London and her son, but I’m not sure it’s done yet. I am also trying to write a novel with children, trees, and animals in it. I’m excited by it some days.

Sarah Layden: This novel vacillates between the idea of choice (“I did it for money”) and fate (“I was born to do it, my dear, it was prewritten in the lines of my palms.”) Does Dr. K want to have it both ways?

Mirza Waheed: Your description of the central tension in the novel is better than I would’ve done. Dr. K wants his daughter to see him as a good father and a good man, but as Sara at one point says, “You are a good man, a very good man: that’s the reason you became a perfect wreck… A good man, a good father. But not good enough.” So yes, in his retelling of his life, he also wants to find justifications, possibly somehow find room for exoneration. A lifting of burdens is what he hopes and strives for most.

Sarah Layden: Dr. K grapples with telling his own story. Even as he decides he will tell “everything,” he wonders how much detail to share, and mentally practices how he will act and what his responses to questions will be. “It’s hard to tell, isn’t it? But narrate I must,” he says. What do you see as the role of storytelling, both within the novel, and also in our lives?

Mirza Waheed: One of hardest questions we all face, isn’t it? Why do we write? What does it do? Quite often, the novel can be thought of as a hypothesis, a what-if? Stories make us consider what if this happened, what if that occurred…what if this person murders his mother? What if that daughter loves her father but doesn’t like him? In Tell Her Everything I tried to look at similar questions but also to show that we are not one story but many. Someone who’s capable of terrible acts can also have a tender, loving heart. Also that the pursuit of a better life, the search for greener pastures, becoming a migrant, can sometimes force difficult, even ghastly, choices on those who leave their homes.

I recently worked with a group of brilliant writers on a series on the theme of time in narrative literature. It’s called Between the Clock and the Story.

One of the main threads that emerged in these stories and essays was that storytelling allows us to extend time. We can live in the present, the past and the future at the same time. Stories allow us to live beyond the moment and the momentary. I don’t know if storytelling, reading books can make us better people (the jury on that has been out a long time, hasn’t it?), but it can allow us to live outside of our time for a bit, to see another life, another world, even if momentarily.

Also, stories help me sleep better.

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