Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival: First Light: Novelist Zia Haider Rahman, with Kevin Clements

pp_zia-haider-rahmanIt was clear from the outset that we were in for an illuminating evening. The atmosphere of the Regent Theatre itself set the mood, so too, the pair of stately seats spotlit on stage. In one of these, legs crossed, head angled, chin resting on fist, sat Rahman, a British polymath of Bangladeshi origin whose expertise spans mathematics, investment banking, law, carpentry and now novel writing. Opposite him sat Kevin Clements, fellow Oxford graduate and current Director of the New Zealand National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.

Clements led in with a heavy hitter: “How do you keep yourself humble? And what is the role of humility in writing?” All eyes swiveled to Rahman, who said in the most pompous voice summonable, “Oh, I have NO TROUBLE keeping myself humble.” Then he giggled, Clements guffawed and the audience followed suit. We were off to a flyer. “Seriously though,” Rahman went on in his BBC accent, “Fiction doesn’t work unless it’s honest. You know, Naipaul said to Theroux, ‘Tell the truth.’ Well, I don’t have access to the truth, I can only try my hardest to be honest. To have the deepest level of scrutiny of my beliefs. You know, vanity and fear get in the way of honesty; my publisher pushed me through this with this book…it was a therapeutic experience. You have to put your ego up against the wall and shoot it. Every day. Ahh… I’ve lost sight of your question.” More giggles.

cv_in_the_light_of_what_we_knowThis had taken perhaps five minutes to get out, Rahman’s sober, pensive mode of delivery broken up by long silences which were not uncomfortable but rather signals of his intention to get to the bottom of the matter, to bring out into the light the roots of his thinking. This early exchange set up the rhythm of the evening. An excellently provocative question from Clements, a lengthy and complex response from Rahman, and a confessional witticism from the author if he sensed that we were verging too closely on esoterica. It was thrilling though to be treated with respect, to be straining one’s brain on a Saturday evening, trying to digest Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem, issues of east Asian class and race, the refugee’s impulse to shake off the burden of history, how income might more fairly be distributed. (“You should be shocked to know that even investment bankers would be better off under a fairer distribution of income. It’s not them, it’s the eighty five people at the top who have as much wealth as the bottom three and a half billion.”)

As well as with his upper class accent, “It’s fictitious, you know, I learned it off the BBC. Ridiculous and pompous! I had it even before I got to Oxford. It sounded particularly absurd on a council estate”, Rahman spoke with his long fingers, playing the air around his face as if his mind were a harp, his thoughts the notes. It wasn’t all high art and philosophy though. “Here’s the thing,” he said confidingly, leaning forward. “I can’t stand the place. England. (Is this being recorded? No? Good.) I’m pigeon-holed there. It’s always about race. Mind you, I’m not much liked by the Bangladeshi literary people, because I’m an uppity village boy! You see, class trumps race! New York though, I’m just like everybody else there, anonymous. New York doesn’t give a shit about you.”

Rahman indicated that he didn’t feel particularly at home anywhere. A listener might have concluded that he is most at home in the mind: his own mind with its sharp intellect and tempering empathy, and the mind of others as it shapes their actions, thoughts, relationships, and personal histories. Despite his statement that he is “a highly competent failure,” in reference to his succession of occupations, and his inherent pessimism about the future of humanity, (“That’s why I hate making predictions. A reader once said that I must then have a philosophy of development. No ma’am, I said, I’m a novelist”) Rahman did have this response to a question from the floor. “We should all do a lot more maths. Maths doesn’t care about our opinions. It doesn’t give a fuck about our opinions.” (Here he looked sideways for moral guidance at the serene Kevin Clements, who merely nodded.) “And it does have a crossover with religion and empathy.”

To understand more of Zia Haider Rahman’s honest, humble and seriously intelligent take on life, one would be well served to buy his debut novel, In the Light of What we Know. One hour was a terrific starting point. We stood, we applauded, we ascended to the warm night, to the street life of the Octagon. It seemed like a different world. Articulate literature has that effect.

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Zia Haider Rahman will be in conversation with Simon Wilson at the Auckland Writers Festival.