In Conversation with Young Writer Kamil Chima

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

I started reading Kamil Chima's work in The News on Sunday about a year ago and fell in love with the way he would write about his life. His work is personal, poetic and very observational in its execution. His words are relate-able and I am in awe of the way he describes places.

Kamil was kind enough to talk to me about his writing and the process that goes behind it and here I present to you our conversation.

Me: There's this strong sense of nostalgia that arises when I read your places. You talk a lot about Lahore, and it's culture. I'm interested in what your thought process is like when you're deciding that "ok, this is what I wanna write about"

Kamil: To be honest there isn’t a process as such. I keep a diary handy to note down tiny interactions or details of daily life that strike my fancy. The diary also houses new thoughts or ideas that I think are worth exploring. It forms a very disorienting cesspool of mostly half-baked or bad ideas, which are summarily stowed away. But from time to time come along thoughts that build on themselves, thoughts that are worth expounding upon and then sharing, I suppose. 
I write about Lahore, because it surrounds me. To put it chronologically, experiences cause within us feelings, which we in turn hope to understand through thought. This process is experienced by all. I write about Lahore because most of my experiences occur there. Those experiences then form the basis of the thoughts that occur to me. I suppose that makes me a prisoner to Lahore - but only for now. In any case wouldn’t it be futile to write about something that you haven’t experienced? Why would one even endeavor to do so. 
There is a question that stands prior to ‘what do I want to write about’, which is one that has bothered me for some time now. And that is ‘why do I want to write?’ in the first place. In fact, why do people write 300 page novels? What compels them to do so? For this more important question I don’t have an answer yet. 
There’s a great German poem that I have not been able to locate for the life of me, which looks into this query. And it basically says that to qualify to write a single word, one must have experienced a heart-break that leaves you lifeless, and seen majesty that leaves you breathless and so on and so forth. Only then do you qualify. So I suppose I’ll have to wait for those. In the meantime the editors often make my life easier and decide for me a topic to pursue.

What do you prefer though, writing what you want to write or being given a topic to write on? With me it's like, I only write on the things I can resonate with. Is that the same with you?
I have had my heartbroken here, but the loss wasn’t grand enough for it to have made its way into my writing. The moment was fleeting and short-lived, but I dearly look forward to the next time it happens (Ranjish hi sahi).

I used to accuse Lahore of stagnation in private circles. But I have found that it is a city that keeps moving, albeit slowly, like the water in the canal that splits the city in two. You are constantly bombarded with the sounds and views of life. It’s just a function of whether you see it or not. Look out your window and you’ll see a languid motorcyclist carrying along an obese mother. Where are they going? Is the motorcycle for them the sign of a brighter future, or is it a demotion from a richer past? Why is she obese, and why is he languid? These stories happen not just in Lahore, but everywhere. So again, as I said before I write about Lahore because it surrounds me, as simple as that, not for heartbreak or nostalgia.

As for whether I prefer being told what to write. So I can be very lazy when it comes to writing. There’s a whole lot of unfinished articles, essays, and stories stored in my computer that are a testament to that fact. So I quite enjoy being given a topic and a deadline. But yes, I would hate being told what to write, or rather being told what to think, seeing as writing is simply a manifestation of the latter. Being given a topic is quite helpful in removing symptoms of writers block, so it's not too bad.

One of the pieces that I really liked by you was "Our Main Crew" that sort of deals with these private circles you mention here. I think it's so true that men are more consciously reserved when it comes to male friendships. I feel like your work deals with relationships we have with the people in our lives, in a very intimate way. How important do you think friendships are when it comes to personal and intellectual evolution and how do you think one can navigate the shallow concrete pools of friendship built around us?

The original title for that piece was ‘The Paradox of Male Friendship’, a title that I much preferred.

What provoked the article was an itch I could not place. After four years of college I moved back to Pakistan and very quickly slipped into the fold of my old school friends. But I often caught myself sitting idly by and unengaged in their presence. This bothered me. My interests and values had morphed from theirs, but then my values had always been different. This itch kept gnawing at me, reminding me that something was amiss. I could not scratch it away.

Anyhow, in finding that itch I found that the friendships I had, left a lot to be desired. I noticed that I hid from view a lot of things from my friends, and they did the same. To quote from the article I found ‘that I know surprisingly little about them. I know not which of my friends is going through financial straits. I don’t know whose parents bicker or fight. Heck even those going through heartbreak will tell me about their woes only after they have gulped down the worst of it on their own. Silently and in isolation, without breaking a tear.’

To me this was because there seems to be an abiding fear of embarrassment. There was in us a sense that exposing a vulnerability to your friends will belittle you in their eyes. And yes, there will be people who will think less of you, but it’s important to know that those people aren’t your friends. So I had a very specific audience in mind. People whom I wanted to tell that sharing a burden lessens it. With some I have found what I was looking for, in others I see that the fear of embarrassment is far too great.

Intellectual development is part of personal development, but so too is emotional development. While the former can occur in isolation (though finding a master or a companion makes intellectual journeys all the more pleasing), the latter cannot be learnt in books; it manifests itself only when practiced. It requires the presence of others, be it friends, or lovers. Without recognizing this realm of the emotional your development will be incomplete, so a good friend is absolutely essential for that journey.

I think the best way to navigate ‘the shallow concrete pools of friendship’ around us is to be forthcoming in our own shortcomings. That’s the most we can do. But knowing that not all acquaintances are friends, and not all friends are permanent is an important realization along that path.

You know, speaking of this a lot left to be desired, there's a sort of yearning that your words exude. I mean, you're so poetic an unique and raw in your expression that I just feel like hugging every time I read one of your personal essays. You talk about intellectual development being an important part of solving a bit of this....empty space, where people and books add to it. Would you like to recommend some books that have helped you through this? And if we're speaking of books, what do you think are your influences that you feels have somehow seeped into the way you write? "Very Short Stories" is just so beautiful. I'm interested in knowing what the writing process is like?

I have the sort of ego that on impulse wants to be right. My body reacts quite adversely to being proven wrong, and it shows on my face. It’s the reason my friends shudder from making fun of me, lest I view them with those singing steely eyes.

Of late I have realized that there is nothing to lose and the world to gain when you allow yourself to be wrong. And though my software has updated, the hardware is lagging behind. My first reaction is still of bitterness, but it is mellowing with time. So on your question, I think this embrace of ignorance is a fundamental ingredient of intellectual development. How you find the will to be wrong? I don’t know. But once you do, life becomes a whole lot easier.

As for influences, I’m usually most influenced by the book I am reading at the time of writing. There isn’t any one author or book that I can point to.

Intizar Hussain’s collection of short-stories always make me want to emulate them. The little I have read of his work has served as an example of not just how to write, but also about what to write. While reading his stories I have realized that the profound is not to be sought, but only to be recognized. It is found accidentally and that too in the inane, simple turns of the everyday.

I gave myself a writing challenge with ‘Very Short Stories’. I was travelling at the time so would write in short bursts, on a plane-ride, or a bus etc. But each story gave me a day’s worth of distraction in between meeting old college friends and the like. I was listening to a ghazal and started making a list of words from the lyrics being sung that appealed to me. So everyday, I would take one word from the list and bounce it around my head until a short narrative, not longer than a paragraph, appeared before me. And so on and so forth.

Now that you’ve mentioned it I think I should do it again.

One of the things I've been meaning to ask is that you studied Political Science, right? How did you get into writing? Do you think you'll ever consider writing professionally?
When I moved back to Pakistan after graduating I spent a few months not doing too much. It was a while before I got back into the swing of things. It was in those days that I took up a desk at my father's law-firm and started writing just to while away the time. 

In college I studied Political Theory, but made most of the liberal arts set-up, and so littered my schedule with courses in history, psychology as well as classical philosophy and literature too. Having to write papers and take exams in these multifarious subject areas requires a whole lot of reading and a bit of writing too. 

Would I write professionally? That'd be a bit presumptuous, but I would like to remain involved in multiple activities at any given time. And writing will always be one of those. 

Thank you Kamil for this conversation. I loved talking to him and I really do hope he pursues writing professionally, cuz he's just that good. I hope you guys enjoyed it too. You can read Kamil's published pieces in The News on Sunday over here.

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