Zia Haider Rahman in conversation with his American editor, Eric Chinski

(Readers’ supplement to the UK paperback edition)


Eric Chinski: You have a background in advanced mathematics, finance, and law. What compelled you to turn to writing fiction?

Zia Haider Rahman: I’ve always been in love with literature, reading novels and keeping notebooks of my own writing. But until I came into my thirties, I had a belief that writing books was something people of another social class did, a higher social class. I wouldn’t have expressed the belief in those terms – it would have been hard to accept – but it was there. In the Britain I grew up in, the writers I read about seemed to come overwhelmingly from the professional classes and not from council estates. Incidentally, I’ve never felt that there was an objective basis to the cultural boundaries we see between the arts and humanities and the sciences. This kind of Balkanization is really a twentieth-century phenomenon, most pronounced in the Anglo-Saxon world. Coetzee, for example, studied mathematics and also literature. So, to answer your question, the demarcations between the so-called two cultures didn’t stop me so much as the perceived borders of class. I was always drawn to writing but I had a hang-up.

So what changed?

I did. Sometime in my thirties, I noticed the hang-up had gone. I’m not sure why and nothing I’d say could rise above speculation. Deaths of people I cared about might have had something to do with it. A pressing sense of finitude can undermine our inhibitions and vanities.

One of the great powers of fiction is its capacity to explore human psychology – the complex nature of motivation, desire, ambition, and even self-deception. There are many references in your novel to new breakthroughs in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, including the work of Daniel Kahneman on the limits of human rationality. Has the view of the mind that is emerging from this scientific research shaped your understanding of what fiction can reveal about human nature?

The references arise out of the preoccupations of the characters, principally those of Zafar, one of the main characters, but, yes, I’m interested in how the cognitive sciences can inform both fiction and the craft of fiction. You asked me what changed why, in my thirties, I ceased to feel that writing fiction was the province of loftier people and I said I didn’t know. I think cognitive science has been very good at showing us that our motivations for actions and thought are very much hidden from us. Personal causation is fundamental to fiction, even when it’s largely implied. Whether and how and what kinds of fiction will reflect this that we’re strangers to ourselves, more so than we ever imagined is hard to envisage, and perhaps it’s unnecessary to do so. But fiction that claims to explore consciousness and unconsciousness must eventually digest some of the findings in order to retain a right to the claim that it’s saying something about the truth of what we are and how we live.

One other thing to say relates to point of view. I don’t want to misrepresent Sebald but, unless I’m mistaken, Sebald was critical of all points of view other than the first. I don’t think first person is the only way to tell a story, but if the story involves an exploration of the nature of self, then my reading of the findings of cognitive science suggests certain problems with third person as a point of view. The self, such as it is, might only exist in the course of perception. Without a first person, who exactly is doing the perceiving? This is not a manifesto against the third person by any means; on one level, all I’m saying is something rather banal, namely that what a novel can achieve is circumscribed by the point of view adopted and that first person, in my opinion, accommodates certain things that I haven’t seen in third. For example, there can be a lack of compassion in third-person depiction of self-deception; the authorial knowingness can feel presumptuous. Cognitive science calls into question that knowingness.

But fiction that looks to the frontiers of understanding has to take care not to lose sight of how people actually read now if it wants to speak to people, move them, and do what fiction can do. It must keep disbelief suspended.

Any reader picking up In the Light of What We Know will immediately notice the prominent use of epigraphs. Could you explain your decision to use so many quotes from other writers?

The epigraphs, as it becomes apparent, are an integral part of the story. I have to be clear about the distinction I’m drawing. Epigraphs in novels typically evidence authorial intrusion but here it becomes clear, I hope, that each epigraph reflects the narrator’s active choice, even if they are taken from extensive notebooks supplied by another character. The fact that Zafar wrote them down in his notebooks also reflects a choice. But there are choices within limits. The idea of constrained choice is a big theme in the novel; I’m interested in the limits of free will, the ways that choices open up to us at the same time as they’re circumscribed by fortune or fate, or history, class, and culture. But my answer is a little misleading. The problem is that many reasons for making a given choice in the writing come at once – you see all the effects in one go and because of that it’s not always easy to identify any one motive as primary or even operative. Now, at the risk of undoing everything I’ve said, perhaps the main reason for the use of epigraphs lies within the story itself: the narrator is using the epigraphs to organize his own thinking and also to draw out that of another character, the author of the notebooks, someone who evidently has tried to find answers to his own questions in the work of others, even trying to find his own self using the thoughts of others as signposts. Forgive me if I’m being a little coy but I’d hate to spoil a prospective reader’s experience by going too far into the novel.

The novel is set against the backdrop of the 2008–9 financial crisis and the war in Afghanistan, the kinds of contemporary events that are typically treated more by journalists than novelists. In your mind, what can the novel as a form bring to our understanding of the present?

The characters of this novel cross borders of geography, career, nationality and most obviously in the character of Zafar class. The final border the novel crosses is the one between the imaginary and the real worlds. If the crossing is mandated by the story, why should a novel hesitate to take the step? In any case, each of us has only an imagined world. Whatever comes in through the senses is refracted by our personalities, our dispositions, our inheritances, our specific everything, and is translated into something represented in our heads. We recognize friends when we see them or hear them; we don’t get to know them from scratch every time. Our interactions with the world are with the imagined world inside us which might be some kind of representation of the so-called real world but cannot actually be the real world. That’s why people we believe we know are capable of surprising or disappointing us. Our understanding of the present to take up your question is not simply the reception of what the news media tells us. It’s not so much an understanding that we develop even if our egos tell us that that’s what we’re getting but an experience that we’re having, as what we learn interacts with all that we already are. I think the form of the novel, with its enormous flexibility and scope, remains the pre-eminent venue for exploring that experience, and thereby shedding light on our imagined worlds our most present and governing ones.

To take up your metaphor of borders and consider the border between the sexes, is it fair to say that the female characters in the novel are seen only through the perspective of the male ones?

Everything in the novel is ultimately seen from the perspective of the narrator. Your question takes us directly to the unreliability of the narrator. I don’t think it’s enough to say that an honest first person account will be unreliable simply because a human being’s perception of the world is merely her own, that all we have is her take. That’s hardly the end of the matter because it begs questions about the sources of that unreliability. The narrator is flawed and fallen. He is rather shallow at times; little wonder he occasionally stands in awe of his colourful friend Zafar. But we’re forced to ask how is he unreliable. One respect in which his vision is skewed is that he is quite sexist, in the way that I think many men are. Not the outright sexism that knows its own sexism but just doesn’t think it wrong. Rather, the soft misogyny that pervades the society these men inhabit: Western, affluent, educated in short, privileged, though the narrator perhaps more so than Zafar. The combined effect of these two facts the narrator’s sexism and the fact that everything is mediated by the narrator is to constrain the presence of the female characters in the narrative.

I would regard it as an utter abdication of the specific responsibility I took on if I let my hopes for a better world steer my pen. Such hopes belong to the activists and human rights lawyers I used to work alongside and to all people of good will. The world is what it is, brimming with injustice and blind prejudice. To try to write with honesty is not simply to adopt a state of mind but to engage in an activity of rooting out not only vanities and inhibitions but also the perhaps more noble distaste towards moral shortfalls. They are, after all, our shortfalls as a race.

Of course, I have to trust that the keen reader would grasp the implications of a first-person point of view and would see the sexism as in keeping with the characters, a part of who they are. It might sometimes make the reader uncomfortable but with good reason.

You have referred a few times to how we are constrained by the circumstances that we inherit. Can you say more about how the novel grapples with notions of career, class, ethnicity, language, geography, and history as shaping our sense of self?

At the very outset of the novel, a certain political perspective of my own had a bearing on the novel. Human beings seem to be very bad at handling more than one cause. We don’t actually need psychologists to suggest this because it’s quite apparent in everything we read in the news media. Whenever there’s a tragedy the first question we seem to ask is, ‘What was the cause of this?’ Almost all the answers given are heavily biased towards mono-causality, like the question, reflecting, I think, a cognitive bias. The reality of the complex human world is that effects might I’ll say will only be accountable in terms of varied, jointly sufficient causes. In other words, causes that only together produce the effect. When I started out on the novel, I asked myself why I wanted the narrator to have a similar ethnicity to Zafar I seemed to want this very strongly and the strength of my feeling puzzled me. I think whenever ethnic difference comes into the picture it seems to monopolize everything. Consider the statement: Barack Obama is a very intelligent black man. The fact is, his ethnicity is what screams out. The context might warrant the use of the word black say we were discussing why some people seem to hate him with rationality-defying fervor but the context must justify it, if you don’t want the experience of reading the sentence to be hijacked by one word. I was much more interested in exploring class-difference than ethnic-difference and by keeping the narrator and Zafar ethnically similar, I was enabling my own mind to draw out differences of character arising from difference in class. All sorts of things come off in the friction between the two characters, but not too much of their skin colour, I hope. Even their respective experiences of racism, in the very limited ways it’s touched on, are conditioned by their distinct class statuses. Incidentally, verbal tics aside, I tried to keep the language of these two characters not too dissimilar (though that’s not at all the case with other characters), partly because of the frame namely that the narrator is reconstructing conversations but largely because I wanted to avoid a problem I saw coming: that the differences in the form of language used by the two would come to stand for differences in their outlook. I wanted the experience of class to come through their ideas as manifest in their actions or failures to act, and I wanted to avoid certain tropes, which are easily and unintentionally evoked by a character’s choice of words. Class is arguably so pervasive in everyday life that what we experience is a parody of the idea. Sometimes you have to break through the real world to get to the imagined one.

Now let me take a swing at your very big question. The search for self is illusory. The question of what the self does what it means doesn’t present itself clearly other than in instances where it seems to be broken in some way. You never ponder to think how the internal combustion engine works until you see smoke coming from the hood of your car when you come to a halt on the side of the road. In its healthy, working state, a self is perhaps just the by-product of the actions of that daunting list you gave. An interesting feature of your list is that every item implies a taxonomy: Geography countries; Class upper, middle, lower. One of the things I was keen to explore was the man who crosses those internal borders. Even history contains borders: Zafar finds himself in the position of trying to make a choice about history, through choices about the future I don’t want to go into details, for obvious reasons. One of the effects of exploring this fractured self was to find, rather eerily, that the more you know about Zafar, the less you feel you know him. Without spoiling anything, I think I can say that one question the novel works towards is not ‘how much can we know of ourselves?’, but ‘how much is there there, present, effective but hidden, never to be known? What is in that darkness?’

We seem to have gotten ourselves into a deep level of analysis; we’ve gone behind the plasterboard and into the plumbing. If a reader reads a novel in anything like the way I do, at least on a first reading, then I expect them not to be distracted by the pipework and just go into the kitchen and turn on the faucet.

Eric Chinski is Editor in Chief, Farrar, Straus and Giroux