Ghalib Islam’s debut novel, Fire In The Unnameable Country, is one of the season’s most interesting books, an ambitious and complex attempt to grapple with inherent questions of the contemporary age.
Why did you write your new book?
Because I wanted to contextualize a subject destroyed and remade by the tyrannies of post-9/11 society. So I created a character trying to imagine the history of his country through a mind like a labyrinth of busted mirrors enlarging refracting reflecting. How did this man come to possess such a mind, I wanted to ask.
Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?
Alejo Carpentier’s sentences, their lucid descriptions of a continent whose very character is marvellous real. They’re cosmopolitan and erudite, intellectual, musical.
Which historical period do you wish you’d lived through, and why?
The Latin American Boom, because I would have accompanied my literary heroes and predecessors in the 1950s in Paris, especially the late Garcia Marquez.
Would you rather be successful during your lifetime and then forgotten or legendary after death?
Why mortal snags in my brilliant career, living or posthumous?
What agreed-upon classic do you despise?
All kinds of crap. But a book is a historical and political artifact and always provides insights into a time and place and power, for which it warrants reading.
As well, there are ways of reading classics that render them pleasurable, which allow you to bend an old story to tell a new thing. Some of my favourite sections of the book are renderings of the Odyssey.
Which fictional character do you wish you’d created?
Over the decade it takes to write a novel, one resurfaces onto a reef with an armload of bones, and it takes time to add tissue to skeleton let alone reanimate the dead. But the constellation of actors in the book seemed exactly correct to me by the time I finished it. In short, I don’t wish to have created any more characters for Fire.
Which fictional character do you wish you were?
Ghalib Islam. I’d like to invent him before others do.
What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don't ask)?
What is the responsibility of the artist to portray the dynamics and effects of power on the individual and community?