The Collaborator, Mirza Waheed’s debut novel, looks at Kashmir in the early 90’s, when its long and bloody conflict was raging intensely. It has been highly praised as a gripping and devastating portrait of a conflict that has taken over the lives of generations in that beautiful land.
There have been many books written about Kashmir, mostly non-fiction, including Basharat Peer’s recent memoir, Curfewed Night, but very few works of fiction have yet been written. Mirza Waheed was candid but passionate when I asked him why this was the case.
Time, he believes, is an important factor in the process of writing fiction: it would be suspicious if there was a novel being written at the same time that the conflict was raging. “Fiction needs gestation”, says Waheed. “One can quickly write a piece about the history of a conflict, one just needs to put the facts in order.” With non-fiction he explains, the writer elaborates and analyses something not yet understood by the reader.
Writing fiction becomes, then, a completely different experience. “You go to areas where everyday news cannot go and you ask tough and hard questions, uncomfortable questions.” Talking about his own experience in writing The Collaborator, Waheed shares that it has taken him almost 20 years to process, to digest, all that he has been through in there. “You need to know yourself”, he says, “I've been thinking about this premise for 8 or 9 years but I wasn't attuned with the voice or I didn't know how to start until 2006, then I just could not not write any more.”
Fiction can and should go beyond the realm of facts, it should probe into the world of ideas, both political and philosophical. In writing The Collaborator Waheed was not only telling a story, he was looking into brutality and the nature of that brutality. It meant looking into what it meant to be brutal. It looked at both sides, at the perpetrators and at the victims of violence. In this sense, fiction can shed light into darker corners, “I don't mean to be educational,” says Waheed. “I don't mean it should become a history lesson.” But nonetheless, history can be learned and recorded through fiction. “From news headlines you can't capture life as lived in the conflict regions. You can't really feel the nuances and complexities of war. Conflict regions are very complex. They don't work in binaries all the time”. Literature, on the other hand, can capture these feelings and complexities because it can focus on people living in the midst of conflict.
When wars start it is simple for the press to transform people into numbers of casualties. They quickly cease to be human beings. The novelist's job is to transform these numbers back into feeling, thinking people, with families and day to day lives. Bringing life to those numbers and focus on that brutality – and to the subsequent moral and ethical predicaments that arise – in itself raises awareness with readers. “That”, Mirza Waheed feels, “is a job well done.”
When our conversation focuses directly on the problems of Kashmir, Waheed does not hesitate to share some of what he has witnessed. He talks of people whose sons, brothers, or husbands have been missing for over 20 years without a word or a trace. These families live in a state of perpetual waiting and grief. “There are women in Kashmir whose husbands disappeared years ago. They haven’t been told if those men are in prison or if they were killed. So they are neither dead or alive for these women, who are called half-widows.”
It is very hard for people who have not experienced the horrors of war, to imagine themselves in such conditions. But, as Waheed wisely points out, when people live within conflicts and experience war everyday, it doesn’t become hackneyed. “You don't get used to the idea of conflict and violence. You don't get used to the idea of murder. You don't get used to the idea or the concepts. The experience is always terrible.”
Living in these conditions tends to make people more politically engaged, because they grow up completely immersed in the conflict and complexities of war
It is very hard, says Mirza Waheed, to process all the feelings and ideas that come to mind and body when one lives in a conflict area, and it takes time to wear off – if it ever does – it is too intense. I ask him if writing is, in some way, a form of catharsis. “I don't know of anything that it is permanently or conclusively cathartic. I don't know if that exists. There can be moments of catharsis but I don't see anything making a permanent state of catharsis possible. You have periods when anger or other such feelings can be temporarily released by the act of writing, or making a film, or by art, or painting, but that is not the centre impulse behind creation.”
Mirza Waheed will be talking on the Asia House Festival of Asian Literature, May 19th, in the session The Literature of Conflicted Lands.
This interview was first published on the Asia House Festival of Asian Literature website. Follow the festival on Twitter or Facebook.