Bloggers Note: Tamim Ansary will be speaking on the topic of Why Do We Write? at the April 9th 2016 meeting of the Mt. Diablo branch of the California Writers Club. The meeting will be at Zio Fraedo’s Restaurant at 611 Gregory Lane, Pleasant Hill. Cost is $25 members and $30 for guests. Paypal and credit card requires additional fees. Sign-in is at 11:15 am–12 pm, luncheon at 12–12:45, and program at 1:00 –2:00 pm. Reservations required. RSVP to Robin at email@example.com.
1. In one paragraph, can you give us some highlights from Games Without Rules
Games Without Rules is a narrative history of Afghanistan, the story of a hodgepodge of people trying to coalesce as a country, despite interruptions by global powers who have invaded the country five times in the last two centuries. In the standard narrative, Afghanistan is a static land filled with intractable bearded fanatics who are hard to conquer. Games Without Rules delivers a more nuanced view, the one from the inside looking out. In this version, a country that began to form at just about the same time as the United States, has an epic, tragic, and yes sometimes humorous story of its own, peopled by characters that Dickens would have been proud to invent—a story that has, however, been interrupted every 40 to 50 years by a Great Power invasion, which has—curiously enough—failed in exactly the same way every time.
2. Describe your most memorable moment as an author.
I’ve been writing all my life but in the wake of the events of 9/11, I was suddenly redefined as “an author.” Why? Because I was an articulate English-speaker from Afghanistan and because, on 9/12 I wrote an email setting forth my view of what had just happened. I sent it to about 20 of my friends, who sent it to their friends who sent it to their friends, and it went viral. It was the first viral phenomenon on the Internet. Within two days it had spread around the world and been read by tens of millions of people. I was getting phone calls from strangers in Argentina and South Africa and from people I hadn’t seen in 40 years. Within three days, I was on TV in conversation with Bill Moyer while my agent was trying to reach me by phone to tell me I should forget about the novel she was peddling for me and propose a nonfiction book instead—“anything,” she pleaded. “Just write one page. Anything!” It was the oddest thing that every happened to me—but maybe not the most “memorable”, now that I think about it, because those few months were so crowded and crazy I hardly remember a thing about them.
3. What authors have most influenced your writing?
I really have no idea what authors have most influenced my writing (in which I dare say I’m pretty much like every author) because when I write I’m not conscious of trying to write like someone else, or even “like myself.” I’m only conscious of straining to net with words that elusive thing out there, that vague shape I see, that meaning that, goddamn it, I can’t seem to quite articulate, that story I can almost taste, almost feel, almost see but which–when I try to turn it solid with words—disperses like a school of minnows. Who’s influenced me? Damned if I know. I can tell you who I’ve liked: Yann Martell for his musings; Romain Rolland and Dostoevsky early on; Celine for Death on the Installment Plan, Michael Connolly ‘cuz he’s so solid, Michael Faber because who else could get away with writing a thousand-page novel entirely in the second person, and because I couldn’t shake The Book of Strange New Things out of my head—and there are others. Vikram Seth, especially Golden Gate. Peter Pan. I give up. There are too many.
4. Describe your path to publication.
Long. Random. Arbitrary. Along the way it was hard to tell if I was published at each particular point. At the Scribe, a weekly newspaper in Portland, where everyone was a volunteer, no one was paid, and where I could write anything I pleased, no editor between me and my readers—was that publishing? Well, I had readers: five or six thousand people a week read what I wrote. Later, when I was a freelance writer in San Francisco, selling things like a profile of the 14-year-old girl who won the Grand Ole Opry, and the story of a drug bust for Stone Age Quarterly—did those things count? Was I published? The publication I cherished most was my first piece of fiction, “Crimes of Passion.” It was published in Prim International, a Canadian lit-mag. Did anyone read it, though? I don’t know. Later when I was a columnist for Encarta, they told me I was getting 80,000 hits each time I posted a new column. But it was a column. On the Internet. Did that count? Well, whatever. One way or another, I’ve got some fifty books out there, most of them nonfiction for children, all of which, as far as I know, are still in print.
5. Did you find it difficult to write from a women’s point of view in your book, The Widow’s Husband?
Yes and no. I grew up among women. That’s how it was in Afghanistan. Everyone grows up among women and then the boys go out and become men. I didn’t go out and become an Afghan man, because at a crucial period in my life, my family moved to Laskhkargah, a town heavily populated with Americans, and then I moved to America. But I when I created Khadija, the widow of The Widow’s Husband, I didn’t take Western media reports as my point of departure, I started from my memories of the women in my family, the women in our village, the women I knew and knew about over there when I was growing up. I have to say, I don’t think anyone else writing fiction about Afghanistan has followed in my footsteps.
6. Which of your books has been the most difficult book to write?
My three best-known books—West of Kabul; East of New York, Destiny Disrupted, and Games Without Rules were not hard to write at all. They just fell out. They were waiting to be written, I showed up and they seized control of my fingers and used me to get themselves into the public. The Widow’s Husband slipped right out too, but then I started editing it, and that took years. Two other books, a memoir called Road Trips and the novel Dreaming in Dari, have also taken years, and the real sign of that is: I’m not done with either of them yet.
7. What do you think your life would look like if you hadn’t come to America in 1964?
I would have been drafted into the Afghan army just when the Communists seized power and the war started. I would have been in their army, following their orders to fight the Mujahedeen, and I doubt I would have survived. If I had not come to the United States in ’64, the chances are pretty good I’d be dead.
8. Who is your idol?
To that extent I am a good Muslim. I have no idols.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Mir Tamim Ansary. To learn more, visit his website: www.mirtamimansary.co . Also, take a look at his blog, www.memoirpool.com , a site devoted to the art of telling the real life story.