Finding good ‘Company’ in the written word

Special to Western NewsAwais Khan, BA’08 (Economics), Director of The Writing Institute (TWI), is the author of ‘In the Company of Strangers.’

Bookmarks spotlights the personalities and published books of faculty, staff and alumni.

Awais Khan, BA’08 (Economics), Director of The Writing Institute (TWI), Pakistan’s largest Creative Writing Institution, has taught more than 5,000 students through the Lahore-based institute, which also offers courses in Karachi and Islamabad. His book, In the Company of Strangers, explores the secrets and intrigues of the people of Lahore’s elite class and how they get embroiled in a terror plot.

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What book do we find you reading tonight?

I am reading Normal People by Sally Rooney. It was the Waterstones Book of the Year, so naturally, I felt inclined to pick it up. Now, it has become very difficult to put it back down. It has me totally engrossed.

How do you decide what to read? Reviews, word of mouth, maybe occasionally judge a book by its cover?

All three. Whenever I’m in a bookstore and a cover and blurb take my fancy, I look up the book on Goodreads and scroll through the reviews. There are always those offhand negative reviews which are best ignored, but if there are any serious, honest reviews, I pay attention and, sometimes, I base my decision to buy a book on those reviews. Sometimes, the word of mouth is enough to get me to buy a book without even looking at the blurb.

Name one book you wish you had written. And why.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. The superior writing style aside, the sheer richness of the characters that inhabit this novel make me want to read it again and again. Tolstoy’s depiction of Imperial Russia evokes such nostalgia that it’s hard to put the book down. The imagery, the emotions, the story world, they all conspire to lure the reader in and refuse to let go until the last page.

Name one book you could never finish. And why.

Red Birds by Mohammad Hanif. I am a huge fan of his previous works especially The Case of Exploding Mangoes, but while I was reading Red Birds, I couldn’t help the boredom that kept creeping up on me. The characters seemed to do nothing for me. Although it is a well-written and critically acclaimed book, for some reason, I didn’t quite engage with it.


What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer. I am not a very avid reader of romance, especially YA romance. However, there was a time when even I joined the bandwagon and devoured the Twilight saga. Looking back, I suppose I quite enjoyed reading it.

Any genres you avoid? And why.

As an avid reader, I try to read everything. However, I’m not a particularly huge fan of chick-lit. For me, chick-lit can be either be very entertaining, or deeply boring and unsettling. So, unless I’ve heard a lot of praise for a chick-lit book, I try to steer clear of the genre.

If you could require every university president to read one book, what would it be? And why.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Not only does it deal with student life in college, it is Tartt’s best work. One understands so much about human emotion and the pressures of college in that single novel that sometimes the sheer impact of it boggles the mind. So, despite it being fiction, I would heartily recommend this book to university presidents.

What sort of objects are must-haves in your writing environment?

I love writing on a desk. I need a proper leather bound journal with unlined pages to make notes, a bunch of pens and a steaming mug of coffee.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

First, I’d like to invite Donna Tartt as I am a great admirer of her work. Although her books are very contemporary in nature, the richness of the style and the vividness of detail reminds one of the classics.

Second, I would like to invite Doris Lessing, as I am a huge fan of her work as well especially The Grass is Singing. I would also like to quiz her about the time she spent in Africa and what inspired her to write all these wonderful works.

This goes without saying, but the third person I’d like to invite to a literary dinner would be J.K. Rowling. While Donna and Doris talk amongst themselves, I would use that time to beg J.K. to write another Harry Potter book.

How do you explain what your latest book is about to them?

When I was taking the Faber Novel Editing Course in London, we often heard about something known as the ‘elevator pitch’. It meant that you had to condense your novel into a few sentences, and explain it to your fellow passenger on the elevator in the limited time it takes to go from one floor to another. I doubt my literary guests would be interested to hear about the novel at length (they’d probably prefer reading it), so I would limit my speech to a couple of sentences. I would tell them that my novel is about the secrets and intrigues of the people of Lahore’s elite class and how they get embroiled in a terror plot.

If the elevator pitch impresses them, then I’d proceed to recite the blurb to them which is as follows:

Lahore – a city of secretive glamour, whispering elites and sordid affairs. A city brought to its knees by terrorism. Forty one-year old Mona has almost everything: money, friends, social status – everything except for freedom in the repressed Pakistani society. Languishing in her golden cage, she craves a sense of belonging, of love.

Deep in the mountains of Wazirstan, a band of terrorists get together with the singular aim of obliterating Pakistan.

Desperate for emotional release, Mona turns to an indulgent friend who introduces her to an alternate world of glitter, glamour and covert affairs. There she meets Ali, an emotionally wounded man, years younger than her. Heady with love, they begin a delicate game of deceit that spirals out of control and threatens to shatter not only the deceptive facade of conservatism erected by Lahori society, but also everything that they have ever held dear.

What is the best line you have ever written?

I recently wrote a story for a literary magazine called The Aleph Review in which a father in rural Pakistan is faced with the tough decision of whether or not he should kill his daughter in the name of honour. I find myself returning to this particular line I wrote in the story:

‘Come now, I am being fair in asking the father to decide the fate of his daughter. Meet me halfway.’ His eyes gleam. ‘Love or honor?’

Who would you want to write your life story?

Michelle Obama. I have read her biography and the way she writes is so effortless, so personal. Her book affected me deeply, and I kept returning to it days after finishing it. I don’t think there is anyone else I would rather have to write my life story.

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In the Company of Strangers by Awais Khan (The Book Guild UK, GBP 9.99; Simon & Schuster India) is available in the UK in July 2019 and in the Indian Subcontinent in 2020 via Amazon UK, The Book Depository, Waterstones UK, and The Book Guild.