Zia Haider Rahman (ˈziə ˈhaɪdər ˈrɑːmən) is builder, carpenter, and, from time to time, writer and broadcaster, but is best known for his internationally critically acclaimed and prize-winning 2014 novel, In the Light of What We Know.
He was born in a village in Bangladesh and moved to England with his family, living first in a squat before being housed in a council estate (social housing). After attending a state-funded comprehensive school in London, Zia took a first class honors degree in mathematics, as a college scholar, from Balliol College, Oxford, and also attended the Stiftung Maximilianeum, a German foundation for gifted students, followed by studies at Cambridge and Yale universities. He holds postgraduate degrees in mathematics, economics and law, and was awarded the highest merit scholarship at the English bar. After a brief stint as an investment banker with Goldman, Sachs, he worked for several years as a corporate lawyer, anti-corruption activist and international human rights lawyer. He is a British citizen.
Zia is a Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, a 2018 Walter Jackson Bate Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University; a Fellow at New America, Washington, D.C.; a Senior Fellow at the Kreisky Forum, Vienna; a 2019 affiliate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University; and has been appointed a Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. He was a Visiting Professor in the low residency MFA program in Fiction and Non-Fiction at Southern New Hampshire University, after being awarded an honorary doctorate there. He is a contributor to BBC Radio 4’s A Point of View and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, and elsewhere. Zia serves or has served on many application committees for American or international fellowships and has been appointed a judge for a number of prizes including the Neustadt Prize and English PEN’s Pinter Prize.
In the Light of What We Know, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2014 to international critical acclaim and won the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2015, Britain’s oldest literary award, previous winners of which include EM Forster, DH Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Nadine Gordimer, Salman Rushdie, Lawrence Durrell, Jonathan Franzen, JM Coetzee and Iris Murdoch. The novel won or was shortlisted or long-listed for many other prizes. It appeared in many end of year lists of best books and has been translated into over a dozen languages.
In a 4,000-word review for The New Yorker, James Wood praised the novel as “Astonishingly achieved … Rahman proves himself a deep and subtle storyteller … Isn’t this kind of thinking—worldly and personal, abstract and concrete, essayistic and dramatic—exactly what the novel is for? How it justifies itself as a form? … In the Light of What We Know is what Salman Rushdie once called an ‘everything novel.’ It is wide-armed, hospitable, disputatious, worldly, cerebral. Ideas and provocations abound on every page … a dazzling debut.”
Writing in The New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates described the novel as “remarkable … an adventure story of sorts, echoing not only the canonical Heart of Darkness but F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the novels of dislocation and inquiry of Graham Greene and WG Sebald, and … the spy novels of John le Carré … [and] a novel of ideas, a compendium of epiphanies, paradoxes, and riddles clearly designed to be read slowly and meditatively; one is moved to think of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain … this powerful debut … is a unique work of fiction bearing witness to much that is unspeakable in human relationships as in international relations.”
“[An] extraordinary meditation on the limits and uses of human knowledge, a heart-breaking love story and a gripping account of one man’s psychological disintegration … personal and political, epic and intensely moving” (The Observer/Guardian on Sunday); “unsettling and profound … utterly absorbing” (Guardian); “a strange and brilliant novel” (The New York Times); “an extraordinary achievement” (Sunday Times); “the finest book written by an Indian subcontinent-origin author” (Mint/Wall Street Journal); “among many other things, a beautiful, anguished tirade against narrowness and complacency” (Times Literary Supplement); “a semantic and linguistic Wonderland” (Dawn); “a standout debut … gorgeously written” (Vogue); and “My faith in fiction has been restored … Rahman writes brilliantly and hilariously about British class-consciousness” (Sydney Morning Herald); “Dans son magistral premier roman, Zia Haider Rahman fait la somme de ses mondes en crise…” (Libération); “Faire se toucher des mondes distincts, «bâtir des arches entre des piles», voilà qui semble être le dessein ultime de son grand et puissant roman…Une accumulation de micro-histoires et de récits enchevêtrés qui finissent par former une suite de gigantesques et brillantes variations inspirées du théorème de Gödel.” (Le Monde).