I reject the whole concept of commitment and the writer's responsibility to society etc. The only responsibility is to write as best as you can which is why future generations will read you
A talk with Zulfikar Ghose
At a time when English writing from Pakistan is all the rage, its worthwhile to remember that Zulfikar Ghose was writing English prose and poetry long before Pakistan was designated a literary hotbed of the 'post-9/11' world. Born in Sialkot on March 13, 1935, Ghose’s early life was marked by frequent transitions: the family moved to Bombay, India, then to England, where he attended secondary school and college. Ghose graduated from Keele University where he became known as a poet and editor of a national anthology of student poems, Universities’ Poetry. From 1959, he juggled a teaching career in London along with freelance journalism and was part of a group of young poets and writers, many of whom including Ghose himself, hitherto became acclaimed poets, novelists and playwrights.
In 1969, Ghose moved to Texas and worked at the University of Texas in Austin, where he has written the majority of his novels. In the 1970s, Ghose gained international repute with his trilogy The Incredible Brazilian, which American writer Thomas Berger called "a picaresque prose epic of Brazilian history." American travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux called the work "a considerable feat of imagination."
Since 2009, Oxford University Press has published three slim volumes of Zulfikar Ghose’s work, 50 Poems: 30 Selected 20 New, and two collections of essays, Beckett’s Company and In the Ring of Pure Light.
For Ghose, what matters in writing is expression, how a writer uses language. His collection of essays on writing “In the Ring of Pure Light” should be required reading for all aspiring writers. Over the last two years he has travelled to Pakistan, lecturing and conducting poetry readings at the Karachi Literature Festival and at local schools and colleges. He was recently in Lahore visiting family and sat down with Ali Hashmi. Read on:
Let’s talk about poetry first. Tell us if you like Urdu poetry and if so, which poets do you like?
I don’t read Urdu unfortunately. I was born in British India and although I can speak a bit of Urdu my Urdu and Punjabi vocabulary has vanished, but I have a feeling for it in my soul perhaps, I am touched by the nuances of the language, the music in a language which only a native can appreciate. I felt that the other night, listening to Tina Sani singing the poetry of Faiz, that was a very moving experience but the problem with the Urdu language is that it does not translate well into English. The Urdu language is very formal. Also it tends to be fond of very large abstract words. Somebody gave me a book called modern Pakistani poetry, it has translations from Urdu poetry. It begins with Iqbal and it has verses by Faiz and right down to modern day poets, and I noticed that some of the present day poets like Kishwar Naheed were using a more common, colloquial language whereas the older poets tended to be very formal and very disciplined. English is very concrete. English poetry, beginning with Chaucer right down to the present, whenever we are touched by those poems it is because there is an appeal to the material world beyond which is a spiritual world. Urdu poetry seems to go directly into the spiritual world.
Why is that do you think?
It is the nature of the Urdu language I suppose and I also think that the way our language develops is the way we see the world. Our perception of the world depends upon the nature of the language that we have. In your essay (Mr. Ghose is referring to Ali Hashmi’s essay ‘Three poems of Allama Iqbal’ available at http://www.urdustudies.com/pdf/25/11Hashmi.pdf) you refer to a child's prayer, I quote, 'let me be the voice of the poor and a lover of the old and the infirm and those in pain'; this is Iqbal and I am sure in Urdu these are very moving but in the English language it comes across as a cliché. Talking of shining like a beacon and lighting up the darkness in the world is not a fresh idea, but in Urdu it must be something quite moving, and that is one problem one has while reading translations, I have a tape of Ghalib being recited in Urdu, let me quote it: ' roen ge ham hazar bar koi hamain satai kyun’ (from Mirza Ghalib’s ‘Dil hi to hai, na sang o khisht’). Its beautiful and I tried to translate the first line into English and it came out as rubbish, and in Urdu it is so moving.
English is a little clumsy that way.
Try translating English into another language. Try Shakespeare or John Donne and it does not come out right either. I have always felt that poetry from another language is best read in a bilingual edition especially if you have some knowledge of the other language.
So what is the way for a translator to take the translation away from the obvious, the cliched?
Being familiar with the poetry of the language you are translating into would help because then you have it at the back of your mind certain examples of how its being done in that language. Poets can be good translators; the better a poet is in his native language the better translator he will be. Let me give you another example: Arabian nights has been translated by several people but the one that caught my attention was one done by a man born in Lebanon who moved to America, so he knew Arabic and English as a native and his translation is very good.
What would be a good place to start a study of English poetry?
I would start with the post-Elizabethans. After Shakespeare, John Donne would be a good point to start, a truly great poet. He has great variety. His love poems from the early years are magnificent: ''for god's sake hold thy tongue and let me love''. This is post-Elizabethan England, after the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603)) when England is beginning to conquer the world, when people like (Sir Francis) Drake are going out. There is a line in Donne’s poem "O my America my new found land". He is talking to a lady and calling her America my new found land. The lovers are like a compass, they are far away but joined together, that is metaphysical poetry. And late in his life when he is dying he is terrified that he might go to hell, and he produces a series of sonnets called the terrible sonnets and they are glorious. The imagery is moving towards a kind of Sufi realm, the imagery of a beloved, to be in the presence of the beloved is to be in the presence of a blinding light and that is where you are submerged into the deity. So if you have that background then you may translate people like Ghalib and Faiz perhaps.
You are a poet as well as a writer. How does one keep on writing knowing that you might never reach the level of the great writers in spite of one's hardest, most devoted efforts?
You have to go by the assumption that perhaps your next work will take you to a level slightly higher. Faulkner says in one of his interviews '' if you were satisfied with what you wrote, there is nothing more to do than cut your throat and quit'' and my point of view has always been that the past existed so that I may exist. Shakespeare, Donne etc existed so that I may learn from them and attempt to be better. And you have to have the ambition. There is a letter where Keats says 'what is the point of doing anything unless you are the very best' and he very nearly was. Hart Crane the American poet of the early 20th century, says at the age of 22 that ''nine tenths of anything you can think of writing has already been done much better than you ever will do’’ so it’s no use simply repeating those same old things unless you can find a style in which you can do it in a way it has never been done before.
You live in a different culture (America), how did that impact your thinking and writing?
I left this country when I was 7. My world has been very English. From here we moved to Bombay and after partition to London. I wrote a book a long time ago called 'Confessions of a native alien' which is supposedly an autobiography. I coined the phrase 'native alien'. What happened was we went to England in 1952 when there were few people from the colonies and so we stood out as brown people there. We were aliens there but we were also native because we were participating in their society, culture etc speaking their language. A few years later when I graduated I was working as a journalist for the English cricket team called the MCC at the time and it came to Pakistan and India for a tour and they sent me as a reporter of the team. That was a very rare thing at that time, the English team accompanied by a reporter who did not look like a 'gora sahib'. So when we came here and travelled from city to city, sometimes I travelled alone and I was asked the frequent question 'who are you? You speak our language in some sort of way but you are not one of us'. So I was alien in my own land. When I went back I wrote that book a few years later and I coined that phrase 'native alien’ and described the experience of being exiled, displaced, uprooted.
How did you deal with that feeling?
When I went to school I was the only brown boy in the 'pink' school and one of the first things people do is to marginalize the outsider. One way to do that is to mock his use of the language ''ha, ha, he can’t talk properly'. That resulted in a desire to excel in the use of the language and before 2 years were out I had won the English prize, I was writing poems, and I was getting the prize of the best poem etc. The finest image is that in the 2nd year I was the cricket captain and as you know the captain leads the team into the field and the image of a brown boy leading ten 'pink' boys was somewhat symbolic, defining the fall of the empire.
What should one's intended writing audience be, the average lay person or people with some understanding of literature and poetry?
If you think or write for an audience you are a journalist (not a writer). I never think about my audience. There has to be an internal compulsion that makes you want to write or some overriding ambition like my school experience. The desire to write comes from reading great writers. People who say they are writing for a certain kind of audience are only creating a product to market.
But what is wrong with wanting to reach the widest possible audience?
Nothing at all, it is very nice to have a wide audience, surely, but if you aim for that then you are going to restrict your potential. You have Thomas Hardy, for example, writing the traditional novel and then you have James Joyce throwing away the traditional novel and doing something unique and very different. So in order to write well its important to experience what has been written as widely as possible. I have written a dozen novels, each one is different, and that is problematic because people build up a certain expectation. My second novel called 'The Murder of Aziz Khan' is set in Punjab and it has a lot of sociological stuff, it is a traditional, old fashioned sort of novel. My next novel (“The Incredible Brazilian”) is completely different, the form of it is very experimental and modernist and so are several of the others. So what I am saying is the widest possible audience as a goal to be strived for, is something I do not like. It would produce an inferior work because you have to fulfill people's wishes or affirm what they already believe.
Do writers have a responsibility beyond writing? Influencing people a certain way. That is the whole Progressive writers’ ideas debate.
I don’t buy that. People often demand that writing teach something or make people's lives better, and I say show me examples where writing has done that. Of the greatest writers of Russian literature Tolstoy is one and Anna Karenina is his greatest work. Chekhov says ‘not a single problem is solved by Anna Karenina'' and its a great novel. And yet, again and again there are critics saying that we should be appealing to a larger audience and creating works which address social problems. I came across a critic who claims that the only good writing is that which addresses the problems of its time. I said where is that writing? For example the 20th century began with the 1st world war, then there was the 2nd world war, the Korean war, the Vietnam war, the Kashmir war etc. Where is the literature that has done anything to change that? Its always political action that does that kind of thing. In August 2010 when 1/5 of Pakistan was under water, nearly 2000 people had drowned and several millions were displaced and threatened by hunger and disease, were I to write the greatest poem ever written about human suffering it would alleviate no one's misery as much as one small bottle of drinkable water would.
Therefore I reject the whole concept of commitment and the writer's responsibility to society etc. The only responsibility is to write as best as you can which is why future generations will read you. A writer's job is simply to produce what he or she can and hope that somebody somewhere will be enchanted by it or made happier by it.
How is writing poetry different from writing prose? How does your poem come to you?
You write a poem because you feel like writing one, sometimes you have a thought. Let me give you an example; I was in Karachi and I was being driven to the airport and I saw an image and I wrote a poem called '' An image in Karachi''.
On a mosque, just below the minaret:
silhouetted against the declining sun,
perched on a loudspeaker that broadcast
a call to prayer, absorbed in looking down
at what it could consume next:
Do you think that the creative impulse is nourished more in a place like Pakistan where life is more raw?
No, you can’t generalize. Creative impulses are within you. You can be sitting in an empty room with nothing around and if there is something in you it will come out. There is no formula, no generalization. It is also a question of habit, of doing it. You can’t wait for your so called inspiration, like Faulkner said'' I have heard about inspiration but never seen it''.
It’s said that prose writers tend to mature a little later than poets, is that true?
Again this would be a generalization but if you look at literary history some poets of yesteryears like Keats and Shelley and Byron, they all died early. In prose some of the master pieces are done in one's early 30's, for example James Joyce, ‘Ulysses’ is his greatest novel and it was written in his early 30's and his short stories were done by the time he was 28. I believe maturity is at its best at ages 30 to 35. Virginia Woolf was the same, Samuel Becket gets better as he gets older but some of his greatest work was in early 30's. Some writers go on writing to a great age. My friend ,Christopher Middleton, in my opinion is the finest writer from England in the 20th century and he recently published his collected poems. He is now 82 and he is producing wonderful new poems every week or so, he is so prolific.
Are you still writing?
Yes I am. At 76, I work as I always have worked. Maybe the quantity is not as prolific as it used to be and the only physical thing is that I have a nap in the afternoon. You have to remember that the brain has a fertility in one's middle years that one does not have in much younger or later years, that is my experience. When I look back at the quantity of work that I did in my 30's and 40's, there is always a feeling that I could have done better. Like I said earlier ‘the best is yet to come’.
(An abbreviated version of this essay was first published in The Friday Times, Lahore.)