Written in secret

Describe yourself in a sentence.

I am a South African studying South Asian literature in London.

Describe your book in a sentence.

The Silent Minaret is about the alienation, disillusionment, anger and loss caused by the “war on terror”.

Describe your ideal reader.

Thorough. Somebody who knows something about apartheid South Africa as well as of “proper” Londonstan, not the fabled city of tourist catalogues and Eurocentric mythology.

What was the originating idea for your book?

There were many, revealed over time, but they all kind of gelled while I was listening to an interview on the BBC World Service driving through London in November 2001, just after the declaration of war on Afghanistan in which a group of South African Muslims were talking about feeling radicalised and forced into taking a side. They declared their intentions to travel from [post-apartheid rainbow nation] South Africa to Afghanistan to fight.
I had to pull over to listen to the interview.

Describe the process of writing and publishing the book. How long did it take?

Four years. But The Silent Minaret grew out of a piece on which I had already been working for two years, so its oldest sections are about six years old. The first draft was written in secret — under cover of a PhD — because I was unsure and reticent. When it was ready [November 2003], I confessed its existence to two friends, astute readers, whose opinions I respected. They urged me to see it through and encouraged me to take time out to complete the novel properly. I went to India [Bangalore] in January last year, where I spent six months in virtual isolation rewriting the manuscript. When I returned to London, I showed the manuscript to a friend from home who encouraged me to submit it for the European Union award. For research, I used the British, SOAS, Senate House and British Museum libraries. I also had the help of research assistants at Wits who forwarded information I needed to India.

Name some writers who have inspired you.

Edward Said, for his political consciousness and his writings on mixed identity, especially his memoir, Out of Place. TE Lawrence — some of the most beautiful English I’ve read is in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was the first novel I felt had been written for me — and it made me feel that I could write too. Michael Ondaatjie, for his style — I always have The English Patient to hand and read it all the time. Hanif Kureishi, for his writing about writing: “In the morning I see people go to work and I wish I were them. Then I sit at my desk willing myself to write but nothing happens so I bugger off to the park. As soon as I get to the park I immediately want to be back at my desk writing.” I keep that quote on my desk.

What are you reading at the moment?

Just started The Impressionist by Hari Kanzu. Just finished Unless by Carol Shields, which is and isn’t like The Silent Minaret and is still with me. Very moving. I like her simple, quiet, tangential style.

Do you write by hand, typewriter or computer?

Skeletal first draft on computer. Substantial rewrite by hand. Third rewrite on computer. So a combination of both. I write by hand when I need to think; computer is useful for revising and quick knocking out.

What is the purpose of fiction?

To be read and enjoyed.

The Silent Minaret will be published by Jacana and launched at Durban’s Time of the Writer festival in March