My short-lived venture into publishing has been good for me in a funny sort of way, for it has given me insight that was lacking previously. Until I started thinking about selling my novel, I honestly had no idea how many millions of wannabe writers there are out there. Encountering such overwhelming masses, it quickly became clear that there is no need for one more face in the swell.
As I cast my eye over the various drafts that have accumulated on my computer over the past decade, the thought that recurs is that they are not very good, often embarrassingly so. I feel a purge coming on, finger on the delete key. Why do we put ourselves through these trials, penning great tales that in time strike us as being so poor? To retire from writing has never before felt so necessary, or attractive.
Was it really that bad? Was it really so completely worthless? I am always like this, defeated by the negative observations of others, believing them to be absolutely true and absolutely correct. I came to hate the last book I wrote for the exact same reasons, and now I hate this one too, shunning all the hours spent revisiting it as I sought to give it a second chance. Now I seek to disassociate myself from it, viewing it with same contempt I shower on everything I work on. Now I fling it into the bin, seizing it back from everybody I shared it with. This is my sunnah: to build, create, and then tear it all down with regret. It is not the way to live.
Why would you withdraw a book so soon, after so much work? Simply because of that review? Or those reviews? Why be such a coward? Why give up so soon?
I am afraid that it has dawned on me—somewhat belatedly—that I should probably not have revisited and resurrected that old novel of mine. Some things are best left in the past. But perhaps publishing it momentarily was good for me in a strange kind of way, in that it seems to have broken my addiction to writing that has perhaps prevented me from making progress in other areas for the past decade. I have already committed to attend an evening class once a week for the rest of the year, while my foreign language studies beg attention. Had I not published, I suppose I might still be yearning to be a professional writer, passing my spare moments at the keyboard. Perchance I may now make better use of my time. Peculiarly, I don’t feel bitter: I feel relieved.
In a somewhat stinging review of my novel, Satya, one reader complains, ‘Everyone, everyone in this book is unlikable and spiteful.’ Personally, I wouldn’t that far—for I’m quite fond of some of the characters—but she has a point: many of them are not exactly genial. But that’s really the point. What else would cause a bright, confident student who thinks she knows everything to embark on an alien journey? We live in a world which is quick to blame particular types of behaviour on a person’s culture, religion or upbringing. I wanted to explore what other kinds of pressures can carry individuals along one path or another.
While editing my novel Satya, I took the decision to leave it fairly intact in order to preserve where I was then, in 1997, when I originally penned it. I wanted to stay true to the original, without imposing too much of who I am now on the story. I didn’t have in mind that this was a story I would sell to publishers. It was an attempt to set free a piece of past writing in a form that could be understood by others.
Now that it is free and available to anyone in the wilds, it occurs to me that I could have been much more brutal, to make it publishable material. I could have ripped out over half of the original content. I could have dumped several chapters. If I had pondered delivering Satya for today, I guess I would have removed just about everything before chapter ten, when things start to get exciting. Perhaps I will still do that, one day.
From a business or commercial point of view, releasing Satya in its present form was perhaps a huge mistake. Even from a personal point of view, it was probably not very wise. But by retaining where I was then, it acts as a sign post, a reference point, a reminder of where I have come from and where I am going.
In life we have to stay true to the past, even if where we are now is a world away, because it helps provide balance. We are what life makes us. We are where we are from.
Over the last few weeks I have gradually been reaching the conclusion that I am not destined to be an author, but this realisation has suddenly been forcefully hammered home by a scathing review of my novel, Satya. Now there can be no doubt. I was perhaps unprepared for a review as direct and unflinching as this one: now I cannot sleep, for my heart pounds ferociously and I feel sick. I don’t blame the reviewer—a complete stranger—for the truth must be laid bare. They have simply reacted to all that I wrote—and now they feel stupid for wasting their money on an unknown author who persuaded them to give it a chance.
People have expectations about what you can and should write about on the basis of your identity. As a Muslim man, I am supposed only to tell Muslim stories, and male Muslim stories at that. Ah, but as a convert, they must be convert tales. And white convert tales. And English white convert tales too. What a narrow world our identity provides us in the end. And who wants to read such tales? Few, if any.
I refuse to be pigeonholed by my identity; to have it define the stories I may tell. The challenge of penning fiction is to wander into unknown worlds, to empathise with characters you have nothing in common with. There is a prominent white character in my novel Satya, but I share little in common with him: his social background and upbringing is nothing like mine. The same is true of Muslim characters, though we share the same faith.
As I always say, I shall forever be grateful for the pen for bringing me this far from home. Though completely unintended, my investment in those imagined lives carried me along a path towards an unexpected destination. Writing should carry us beyond ourselves.
“But we should also see how the world of identity politics affects the way stories are being circulated, read and reviewed. Many authors feel this pressure, but non-Western authors feel it more heavily.
If you’re a woman writer from the Muslim world, like me, then you are expected to write the stories of Muslim women and, preferably, the unhappy stories of unhappy Muslim women.
You’re expected to write informative, poignant and characteristic stories and leave the experimental and avant-garde to your Western colleagues.”
I agree there can be a problem with people setting themselves up as an authority on the lives of others, but I hope and pray that all people may be able to tell interesting tales about interesting lives, regardless of who they are and what they believe. My next novel, Lead us not is the tale of a white Christian teacher. I hope I will be allowed to tell it.
Sometimes we get too big for our own boots, don’t we? When I first set out to publish my past works, I had very humble aspirations. This website was just going to be a repository for a collection of works that I had decided to set free from hibernation on my PC. But somehow during the editing process, vanity began to get the better of me. All of a sudden I had visions that I could compete on the same playing field as established authors — and I began marketing the first of my books that way.
Delusional? Quite possibly. First comes the sobering responses from the book review industry: “We don’t review self-published books.” And: “No reviewers review self-published books.” Okay then, well that’s a bit of a blow. Perhaps it was time to beef up my web presence to make me look like a real publisher; perhaps they could be hoodwinked into taking my book. Ah, no: “We only take books from established publishers.”
Reality dawns. I feel glum, disillusioned, foolish. To think that I could move on from my career pushing bits of HTML around, to sit at a desk overlooking the Black Sea, to complete all of these half-finished novels gathering digital dust on my computer. Now what? Do I backtrack, run away, reign in my imagination? Och: let me just get on with the day job. Work is piling up. Websites need migrating. Bugs need squashing. Demos need completing. Staff need training. Och, alas: let’s head back to reality, my friends.