‘The Musicality of the Prose’: An Interview with Ghalib Islam

Ghalib Islam, author of Fire in the Unnameable Country, discusses growing up in Toronto’s Jane and Finch area, the “breathlessness” of his writing, and the resistance he faced when he decided not to venture into a more secure career.

Anupa Mistry lives in Toronto and is the editor of The FADER Canada.

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I had nightmares about Twitter while reading Ghalib Islam’s Fire in the Unnameable Country. Binding the series of hallucinogenic genealogies as recited by Hedayat, his keen-eyed, literally owlish, glossolalist narrator, is this idea of The Mirror—an all-seeing Hollywood production that colonizes the country’s imagination and its actual back alleys and infrastructure for 100 years.

Like the digital slumscapes of Ian McDonald’s Cyberabad Days crossed with the surrealist, opioid revisionism of Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, Islam constructs a world under constant mythical, historical, political, and economic threat. Every thing has a smell; every baddie is nicknamed for a notorious autocrat; everybody performs for the unblinking gaze of The Mirror’s cameras. The book’s sleeve features a quote from Margaret Atwood, that wily progenitor of techno-cautionary literature and Islam’s MFA adviser at the University of Toronto, calling FireThe 1001 Nights of its time.” Magic carpet-riding dacoits, swarms of sleep-inducing locusts, foreign-appointed state officials that are literal puppets, and a national lottery predicated on bloodlust make up a history of the unnamed country performed for an unblinking, unnamed gaze. I locked my Twitter account, unlocked it, then locked it again.

Islam himself would liken the novel’s central horror to something more politically salient: the global post-9/11 experience of the Muslim man. A week after my nightmares wear off, we meet in the lounge of Toronto’s Drake Hotel for an interview that runs way, way overlong. A thoughtful and offbeat thirty-something, with ink-stained palms and owlish, Hedayatesque eyes, Islam—born in Bangladesh, raised in a low-income highrise in the northwest Toronto neighbourhood of Jane and Finch—is a first-time author who rarely limits himself to plain discussion of his literary convictions. Ask a simple question, he’ll meet you with a minute-long pause followed by a theoretical response. It makes for lofty but interesting conversation, particularly when Canada’s next literary star looks like he could be your cousin-brother.

Jane and Finch is a community that’s portrayed in the media as beleaguered and quite rabid. What was it like growing up there?

Jane and Finch is a very interesting community, because it’s extremely cosmopolitan. A lot of the mythology of Canadian multiculturalism is apparent to you immediately; it’s the substance of the streets. It was in the diverse makeup of the people I saw, it was in the multiplicity of languages employed. It suggests underlying differences and complexities that Canadian multiculturalism—at least when people talk about it in its “travel and tourism” form—doesn’t exhibit immediately to me. Those differences, I think, established themselves more clearly after September 11, 2001. That was the first time I think I began to interrogate this notion of a Muslim identity that hadn’t occurred to me.

Hadn’t it?

I thought about religion as a thing that other people did: how they dressed, and how they carried themselves, that they would visit the mosque, and speak in a language that referenced Islamic culture or art or literature. But the fact that other people saw me as Muslim came afterward. In my experience and the experience of others, I would claim that it’s Islamophobia that makes me Muslim. Because I didn’t characterize myself as a Muslim—despite the fact that my last name is Islam—and only saw myself as this carrier of an insoluble Muslim identity after 9/11. I can trace my origin back to Bangladesh in a complete sense, because that’s where I was born.

But on the other hand, I came here when I was 7. I had to learn a new language. That changed my style of dress, what I ate, how I spoke with my friends, what I wanted for my life, what I wanted to do when I grew up. After 9/11, I felt that specificity was destabilized and my identity was seen as akin to that of other people. All of a sudden, I was one Muslim among many Muslims, who also originated from “unnameable countries”—Bangladesh just happened to be one of those.

How did you arrive at this point in your thinking?

I grew up in a residential complex called Palisades, where you have thousands of people situated in three apartment buildings; I noticed a lot of poor people were brown and I wondered why. This is a novel that in some way tries to identify the techniques and tropes that determine new subjective relations between bodies of colour and the nation state.

Do you have an answer to that yet?

The question is more, why don’t people understand why so many people of colour are poor in this country? Why don’t we understand that there are culture industries, and modes of domination and governance that prevent us from addressing the material concerns and reasons for disparities in wealth and power in the West? Related to the novel directly: what is The Mirror? What is this production that engulfs the unnameable country and directs the lives of the characters so much? You begin to ask: what is real? What is history? What can we trust is history and what is the cinematic narrative of The Mirror?

It’s not easy to move through this text. Reading aloud helped with clarity, and also added some dimension to your prose, which is quite beautiful in parts. Did reading aloud figure into your writing process?

Yes, I’m very much interested in the musicality of the prose—but I don’t like to talk about aesthetics so much directly, because I don’t want to know how I write, when I write fiction. With a novel, although the architecture of the work has to be devised prior to and during its creation, when you are in the midst of writing I think it’s nice to just trust yourself and do it every day.

The speed and style of the prose is partially dictated by this glossolalist protagonist, but I felt like your writing itself was an exercise in breaking form.

Yeah. There’s a breathlessness to the writing, and part of that comes with my stylistic choices. I wanted it to appear to free. Sometimes when picking up a page of fiction I feel there are obstructions. I wanted a certain simplicity and energy in the prose that required an absence of what I felt were restrictions, namely punctuation. At the level of the sentence that’s a set of choices I made when I was very young.

The sentences themselves are quite dense, and difficult in parts…

What do you mean?

While reading aloud I’d have to pause to breathe at awkward intervals. Does that make sense?

No.

Okay, to use your example, those awkward obstructions we often find on a page are what allow a reader to breathe in regular intervals.

The removal of regular punctuation I did for the opposite reason: to remove those obstructions and create ease in the text. I always thought that was the way it read. Did you experience something otherwise?

I think it might better reflect the run-on way in which we naturally speak.

Do you have the book with you? How would you address this paragraph? [READS GRAF VERY QUICKLY WITHOUT PAUSING FOR A BREATH] For me this is the most minimal way to express these ideas. There are no extraneous words.

I don’t mind the amount of words. Perhaps it’s more that there are many ideas within a sentence or phrase, which contribute to the difficulty of the text.

[READS A RELATIVELY SIMPLE GRAF] So, for me this reads straightforward and much of the text is the same way. The complexity you talk about just lies in the density of ideas—ideas that are concerned with national security in the nation-state at a particular historical moment, the development of mood, the cultural climate in a country that allows certain practices and instruments to be employed in observing ordinary citizens on the streets and in their homes. But at the level of expression or sentence, I think anyone can read this book—I think a kid can read this book.

What stories did you like as a kid?

My parents told stories—it was what we did. That was entertainment. For the first year after immigrating to Canada we didn’t have a television, so my dad would tell us stories from his life, and they were interesting, to me, because they always featured this plucky young man who would try to get from one part of the country [to come to] this place in the world that brings so many people together. For me, at the time, I didn’t know that we didn’t normally hear about these stories. It was just my dad, and I figured everyone’s dad had a story like that. There are many millions of people in this part of the world that share stories like my father’s or mine. What are the stories of these people and why are they important?

The career arc for a lot of first- and second-generation South Asian immigrants is so often: doctor, lawyer, engineer—

Yeah, I hate that crap, did your parents want you to be one of those?

They suggested it as a means to make a stable income—and they were so fucking right—but I was never made to feel I couldn’t do what I wanted. What I meant to ask was: did you encounter any resistance to becoming a writer?

Yes, I encountered a massive resistance, but I just didn’t give a shit [laughs]. It was just assumed that I was going to be a doctor, and I don’t know why? I resisted it because it wasn’t interesting to me—because it was boring, actually! I think I always saw [science] as a literary construct, and I never really had the discipline to engage in the acquisition of scientific knowledge, but I never had any problems with reading books about any topic—the body included—as an artist.

You did an MFA in creative writing. Is school necessary to become a writer?

Academia is a kind of a calm alcove. I really feel that if you read your courses in university creatively, you can derive a lot of the engines for analysis and develop your own theoretical approach and tools. Yeah, you have to read.

Margaret Atwood was your thesis adviser. She always seems quite in tune with the masses. Once, when asked to give advice to young writers, she said, “Read and read and read and write and write and write. And get a day job.”

Margaret was very much concerned with the material realities of my condition. One of the first things she asked was: how long is it going to take? How much money do you have? Where do you live? Can you support yourself as a writer? The first thing she did was help me understand, again, that you need enough money to survive, and that puts you into the global economy. What does that mean about your relation to capitalism at large? I briefly worked in a jam factory, outside of Hamilton. That was interesting, because a lot of the poor people were white. The working-class space of the factory was an interesting position from which to view race and class in a post-9/11 society, because my perceptions of skin and race were just coming to light.

Can literature do the difficult work of expanding our perspectives of a post-9/11 world?

I actually asked this question myself many years ago to a friend in a moment of deep cynicism: “I’m a writer, but can I actually effect progressive change in a world that seems so used to following groove worn paths?” And she looked at me as if I was daft and said, of course, why else would you write?

Is the literary world as egalitarian as we’d hope in terms of facilitating this discourse from non-white writers?

I think writing is really hard, and I think a lot of writers of colour feel pressure to publish anything in order to situate themselves. I didn’t realize how hard that could be when I was younger, because I just thought, “I’m wicked. I’m going to get published. Obviously, that’s going to happen.” I didn’t worry about it. The older I got the more I realized, well, if you actually read what’s published regularly, [it’s books] that aren’t so concerned with locating the racialized body [or] allowing us to map social relations in the world. I didn’t think there were so many writers asking how the culture industry was determining the body of production; I never thought there were so many fiction writers asking this question. In that regard I felt like my literary production was an individual, solitary, and therefore hallowed pursuit.

Why is it important for you to write?

I don’t know those reasons any more. In some way, I’m too old. I’m 32, and I decided to write when I was 18 and I haven’t looked back. I don’t know any more why I do this, but I do every day and I will for the rest of my life.

Image of Jane and Finch neighbourhood via

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