Nadeem Aslam: a life in writing

Nadeem Aslam was years into his second novel when the 11 September attacks took place. "Many writers said the books they were writing were now worthless," he recalls. Martin Amis, for one, felt his work in progress had been reduced to a "pitiable babble". But Aslam's saddened reaction to 9/11 was one of recognition. "I thought, that's Maps for Lost Lovers – that's the book I'm writing."

The link might seem tenuous to a novel set many miles from the twin towers or Bin Laden's lair, in an almost cocooned urban community of Pakistani migrants and their offspring in the north of England, where Aslam grew up from the age of 14. The novel was almost pastoral in its tracing of the seasons, with riffs on jazz, painting and spectacular moths. Each chapter was as minutely embellished as the Persian and Mughal miniatures Aslam has in well-thumbed volumes on his coffee table. But the plot turns on a so-called honour killing, as an unforgiving brand of Islam takes hold. In his view, and above all for women, "we were experiencing low-level September 11s every day."
Maps for Lost Lovers, which took 11 years to write, and was published in 2004, won the Encore and Kiriyama awards (the latter recognises books that contribute to greater understanding of the Pacific Rim and South Asia). It was shortlisted for the Dublin Impac prize and longlisted for the Man Booker prize. His debut, Season of the Rainbirds (1993), set in small-town Pakistan, had also won prizes, and been shortlisted for the Whitbread first novel award. The books confirmed Aslam as a novelist of ravishing poetry and poise – admired by other writers including Salman Rushdie and AS Byatt.
In "Where to Begin", an essay for Granta's Pakistan issue in 2010, Aslam wrote that literature is a "public act", and a "powerful instrument against injustice". Yet his heart is in revealing how his chosen subject matter – whether, he says now, "honour killings, female infanticide or Afghanistan" – connects "to a flesh and blood human being".
Looking back from the point when western forces began bombing Tora Bora in October 2001, The Wasted Vigil (2008) traces decades of Afghan history, through Russian, American and British outsiders and a young Talib, all of whom had lost something there, in a "companionship of the wound". Largely mapped out before 2001, the novel was fed by conversations with 200 Afghan refugees in Britain, and travels in Afghanistan. While the novelist Mohammed Hanif praised it as a "poetic meditation on the destructive urges that bind us together", some were uneasy about its twinning of beauty and brutality. For Aslam, "beauty is a way of mourning the dead", while his lament for lost art, such as the Bamiyan Buddhas blown up by the Taliban, "in no way takes away from the deaths".


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