Talking Art, with author and academic Bilal Tanweer

It would be apt to begin an introduction of the author and translator Bilal Tanweer by quoting the great David Foster Wallace: “The really tricky discipline to writing is to write from a part of yourself that wants to love, not from a part of yourself that wants to be loved.”

This quote, after all, is by one of Tanweer’s favourite writers and it’s how he expresses the major challenges one experiences as a writer – an honest, intimate meeting with the inner self.  ‘Our everyday performance in any social setting is about being loved and showing off what we know…it is a part of our self-seeking attention, and validation. The real challenge to writing, then, is to really break out of that part of yourself where you want to be loved and access the part that can love..to know what it is about a character that you can care about.’

His debut novel, The Scatter Here is Too Great, appears to be a product of this love, drawing in on themes closest to him; Karachi, violence, family. “It struck me that of all the literature of the world I had read, there was nothing that could tell the story of Karachi as I witnessed it.” And so happened Scatter, which at first was a collection of short stories but they soon started to connect with each other. And then, quoting playwright Samuel Beckett, Tanweer says he had to “find a form that accommodates the mess.”

The book was five years in the making and was first published by Random House India in 2013. The novel won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2014 and was a finalist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2015 and The Chautauqua Prize 2015. It has been re-published in the United States, United Kingdom and France, where it was translated to, Le monde n’a pas de fin.

He has also been recognised as one of Granta’s New Voices. More recently, Tanweer translated Muhammad Khalid Akhtar’s Chakiwara mein Visaal to Love in Chakiwara and Other Misadventures. Faiz Ahmed Faiz has been quoted as saying that this novel was “the greatest novel in the Urdu language”. He has also translated two novels by Ibn-e Safi, The House of Fear.

It was Kamila Shamsie that introduced him to the joys of writing, Tanweer says. He was in his second year of university at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) when he had the opportunity to be in a workshop with Shamsie in Karachi. He describes this as a defining moment in his life. “After that, I just started writing.”

But after writing a novel published in four countries, winning accolades and publishing works of translation, for many he is best known for a column he wrote as a college student in Pakistani magazine US. This magazine, widely read by young audiences in Pakistan, ran a column called the Rant, where he expressed his frustrations as a young adult growing up in Pakistan. “Funnily enough, people still recognise me as the Bilal Tanweer who wrote the Rant, not for my novel, not for my translations, but for US magazine.”

What distracts him from writing is reading. He is first and foremost a reader, he says. Among his favourites these days are some Indian writers; a novel on a joint family Gachar Gochar by Vivek Shanbhag, Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom, while he is also currently rereading Milan Kundera’s The Joke.

Watch his interview with VCast Online where he shares his experiences of growing up in Karachi (00:17), how Kamila Shamsie transformed his life (06:10), challenges of being an author in Pakistan (07:15) and the impact actor Rahat Kazmi has had on him (09:48). 

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