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Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel tells a sweeping tale, traversing and transcending borders while exploring the nature of friendship and truth. The story of two friends – Zafar and our nameless narrator – weaves everything from mathematics to class barriers. We talk to Rahman about the ties between geography and literature, as well as his career thus far, which has included time as a banker, international human rights attorney and now author.
- Zia Haider Rahman Author, 'In the Light of What We Know: A Novel"
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from IN THE LIGHT OF WHAT WE KNOW by Zia Haider Rahman. Copyright © 2014 by Zia Haider Rahman. Published in April 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. The only way for us to travel from Oxford to Afghanistan, New York to Bangladesh and back in the span of, oh, an afternoon, an evening may be through the pages of a novel. And in his debut, "In the Light of What We Know," author Zia Haider Rahman takes us to each of those places and many others while exploring the nature of friendship and questions of class against the backdrop of the financial crisis and the spiraling wars in the Middle East. He joins us to discuss that today. Zia Haider Rahman, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. ZIA HAIDER RAHMANHello, Kojo.
NNAMDIZia Haider Rahman has worked as both an international human rights lawyer and an investment banker. As we said, his debut novel is titled, "In the Light of What We Know." This novel is sweeping in its scope. And in the opening passage, you effectively set the stage for readers. So before we even begin the conversation, could you read that opening passage for us now?
RAHMAN"In the early hours of one September morning in 2008, there appeared on the doorstep of our home in South Kensington a brown-skinned man, haggard and gaunt, the ridges of his cheekbones set above an unkempt beard. He was in his late 40s or early 50s, I thought, and stood at six foot or so, about an inch shorter than me. He wore a Berghaus jacket whose Velcro straps hung about unclasped and whose sleeves stopped short of his wrists, revealing a strip of paler skin above his right hand where he might once have worn a watch."
RAHMAN"His weathered hiking boots were fastened with un-matching laces, and from the bulging pockets of his cargo pants, the edges of unidentifiable objects peeked out. He wore a small backpack, and a canvas duffel bag rested on one end against the doorway. The man appeared to be in a state of some agitation, speaking, as he was, not incoherently but with a strident earnestness and evidently without regard for introductions, as if he were resuming a broken conversation."
RAHMAN"Moments passed without my interruption as I struggled to place something in his aspect that seemed familiar, but what seized me suddenly was a German name I had not heard in nearly two decades. At the time, the details of those moments did not impress themselves individually upon my consciousness, only later, when I started to put things down on paper, did they give themselves up to the effort of recollection."
RAHMAN"My professional life has been spent in finance, a business concerned with fine points, such as the small movement in exchange rates on which the fate of millions of dollars or pounds or yen could hang. But I think it is fair to say that whatever professional success I have had -- whatever professional success I had -- owes less to an eye for detail, which is common enough in the financial sector, than it does to a grasp of the broad picture in which wide patterns emerge and altogether new business opportunities become visible."
RAHMAN"Yet in taking on the task of reporting my conversations with Zafar, of collating and presenting all the material he provided, including volumes of rich and extensive notebooks, and of following up with my own research where necessary, it is the matter of representing details that has most occupied me, the details, to be precise, of his story, which is -- to risk putting it in such dramatic terms as Zafar would deprecate -- the story of the breaking of nations, war in the 21st century, marriage into the English aristocracy, and the mathematics of love."
NNAMDIThat is Zia Haider Rahman reading from his debut novel, "In the Light of What We Know." And I wanted you to read to the point where we would first in the novel encounter Zafar, because in many ways this is Zafar and the narrator's story. Our narrator, who remains nameless, and Zafar meet in college, developed a bond despite vast differences in their background. What inspired you to put a friendship, one that you closely examine and parse at the center of this novel rather than a romantic relationship or a family relationship?
RAHMANThat's a very good question. There's no doubt I'm interested in all the relationships that we find in this novel. But I think the fraternal relationship is a somewhat more perplexing one than a romantic relationship. A romantic relationship has something biological about, there's something inevitable about. On the other hand, the fraternal friendships that we all have, they have a quality -- there's -- at root, there is a mysterious transactional quality. I mean, I use the word transaction…
NNAMDIBecause there's a negotiation to it.
RAHMANThere's a negotiation that takes place. And the other thing is, this novel at its heart has a betrayal. Now betrayal in the context of a romantic relationship. There's nothing surprising about that. But in a fraternal relationship, there is something surprising about betrayal. There's something that, you know, it blindsides you. And, of course, in a romantic relationship, it's an ever-present threat.
RAHMANIt's something that -- I don't know about you, but, you know, it's what you see if you're waiting for -- if you're in this doctor's waiting room and you flick through any magazine. You know, half the stories are about that. So it's ever present. Whereas betrayal in the context of friendship is rather more mysterious.
NNAMDII know. It just drew me in to think of a friend who had a significant influence on my life but whom I haven't seen for a few years, showing up on my doorstep in a state that made it initially unrecognizable. That just kind of pulled me right in. Of course, one thing people always want to know from authors is how much of them we might see in their characters. Your resume certainly overlaps with both Zafar's and our unnamed narrators. Tell us a little bit about your career of art before you began writing and whether those overlaps are the only ones you share with your characters.
RAHMANWell, yeah, it's certainly true that, you know, I draw on my own experiences. I spend some years in graduate school. I started various different subjects, mathematics, economics, law and I went on to Wall Street. I worked at Goldman Sachs, a derivatives trader. I was a corporate lawyer, advising financial institutions on regulations and I was a human rights lawyer suing multinationals for corruption in Africa and did other things as well.
RAHMANI mean, in between all of that. And so there are definitely connections between me and the characters. I think that it's inevitable that you draw on your own experiences. After all, Philip Roth didn't write a novel about, you know, modern Turks in Istanbul and Nora (word?) didn't write about Trinidadians settling in England and V.S. Naipaul didn't write about Jews in New Jersey in the 1950s. We write what we know.
NNAMDIYou mean "Portnoy's Complaint" wasn't about that?
NNAMDIYou were born in Bangladesh and educated in at least three different countries, which may help to explain the breadth of this novel. And believe me, listeners, the breadth of this novel is breathtaking, to use a bad pun, the publishing world and many readers have a strong impulse to categorize authors...
NNAMDI...whether by genre or by geography. And I wonder if that's an idea that you embrace or one that you would like to push back against.
RAHMANI would -- well, there are certain categories I definitely want to push back against. But I understand how those categories, you know, are imposed. I mean, the categories I'm talking about are these regional geographic categories. The idea that a South Asian writer writes about South Asian and is a South Asian writer, an Indian writer or a Bangladeshi writer or a Caribbean writer can only write about the Caribbean. There is a sense in which you -- I mean, you'll see this in the publishing world. But I'm a newcomer and I'm sure I shouldn't be saying this...
NNAMDINo, but you're a world writer.
RAHMANBut, yeah, well, this is it. I think that -- I think these categories actually I think they're going to go. It's inevitable. I don't think this categories will survive the opening of the 21st century as people move around, as the stories that we tell are stories that transcend these borders. If we persist in maintaining these categories, we'd just suffer because we just failed to read -- they are not shown those stories that transcend these borders that cut across lines of class and citizenship. And as I say, I think it's going to change anyway.
NNAMDIAnd if we're looking at so-called globalization as a socioeconomic and cultural factor, then that has to be reflected in our literature and we don't seem as yet to have developed the categories that accurately reflect that.
RAHMANAbsolutely, I agree with you. And, again, I think that there's a process of maturation that we are going through. It will change what publishers and the literary world have to decide as whether they want to be ahead of the game or be dragged behind.
NNAMDISo that -- we're talking with Zia Haider Rahman who is a global writer who have been born in Bangladesh. He's an author whose debut novel is titled, "In the Light of What We Know." He previously worked as both an international human rights lawyer, as you may have heard him mention, and an investment banker. If you have questions or comments for him, how well do you think you can ever really know another person, whether a close friend, partner or family member?
NNAMDI800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Early on you write about two factors that contribute to global misunderstanding, the ways both maps and translations shape our understanding of other places. How are troubles with these two similar? And what do lose and perhaps gain through each?
RAHMANWell, in a novel, I draw a comparison. I mean, it's a comparison between translation and the act of translating poetry and the choices we make in how we represent the world. It's been known for a long time that the way draw maps in the world -- I should actually take a step back first and say that the context in which this is explored in the novel is really to illustrate an aspect of Zafar's character. He is -- he knows a lot of stuff.
NNAMDIBoy, he does.
RAHMANAnd it brings -- she's (sic) desperately trying to make sense of the world and he's pulling all the stops that he knows. He's trying to pull it all together and, you know, he makes -- he draws analogies, makes connections. But really, the novel drives towards this heartbreaking conclusion, I suppose, which is that or seizes that there's only so much that knowledge will do, that it will only get you so far.
RAHMANAnd that many of the great questions of life will remain unanswered. So there's that kind duality of knowledge and, at the same time, the despair of discovering the limits of knowledge.
NNAMDIBecause math plays an important role in all of this.
RAHMANOh, absolutely. Yeah. And so to go back to your question. A map is a fascinating instrument of politics. And we know that the map that most of us have in our head of the world is wildly wrong. And one of the -- the whole thing starts, the problem starts...
NNAMDIThe map on my wall in my office as well.
RAHMANYeah, is wrong. I can tell you that. And I know that even without looking at it. I know that because the world is not flat and the world doesn't have an edge. And when you go from the curved surface of the earth, the sphere -- in fact, Zafar is such a nerd that he corrects the narrator and he says, it's not a sphere, it's an oblate spheroid. When you from that surface to a rectangle on a wall, you're going to lose information.
RAHMANYou're going to distort things. and we know that the map -- I mean, famously, for instance, we know -- in fact, famously on the map, Africa looks...
RAHMANGreenland looks massive when, in fact, it's tiny. In fact, the northern, the politically, yeah, the West looks bigger, much bigger…
NNAMDIThan it really is.
RAHMANAnd this is terrible. So that's one of the things I explore in the novel away in which our representations of the world are deceiving us all the time.
NNAMDIWhat may perhaps divide us even more than geography on the global stage is class, which we certainly see reflected in Zafar's story. Why do you think we are so reluctant to consider that factor in our relationships? And when I say that, of course, I do have to hearken back to the conversation that I had in the first part of this broadcast, which you were talking about the rich having a disproportionate influence on the political system here in the United States and the reluctance here also to discuss in terms of class because people don't want to be accused of fostering class wars when in fact what they are merely doing is reflecting class realities.
RAHMANYeah. Well, Kojo, you're going to have to stop me because on this topic I'm just going -- yeah.
NNAMDIWell, go on.
RAHMANI would just go on, as you say. No. I'm glad to see the Professor's -- the work of Professor's Page and Gilens is getting the publicity it really deserves. We don't talk about class in the U.S. And it is a dirty word. And it seems that the only occasion you can use it is when you are going to dismiss socialists and communists. As if communists own that word. The fact is we live in a deeply unfair world and country. This country is a deeply unfair country.
RAHMANIt is. I mean let me put my cards on the table. I happen to think this is one of the greatest countries in the world. I happen to think that the founding mythology of this country, the mythology that so many people subscribe to is a wonderful mythology. The ideals of this country are wonderful. And they are ideals to which, not only Americans, but others can subscribe.
RAHMANBut it is transparent that we live in an age of deep unfairness and in an age in which -- and this is what, if anything, this novel is about. It's about this past divide. The fact a few -- not a relative few, not a, you know, we're talking about a tiny fraction, have enormous influence. Professor Page looked at a, you know, did a -- Professors Page and Gillons did a much more scientific analysis. And, you know, he was reluctant to use the word oligarchy. And that's understandable.
RAHMANBut we don't need to get down to that level of technical detail to see and understand what's going on. And what's going on -- it's pretty…
RAHMAN…you know, 85 people have the same wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion. Something is wrong. And we see this -- and I know, you really do have to stop me. And we see this now in America with…
NNAMDIWell, I'm just going to bring you back to the novel, is what I'm going to do. Because we recognize this very early on in the novel when Zafar takes the narrator to meet his parents or when Zafar happens to visit the narrator's home, his parents' home for the first time.
NNAMDIAnd is fascinated with a bookcase that he's seeing there. And we don't find out until much later in the book while Zafar is fascinated with this bookcase. But all of these things underline the class differences that are apparent in his story.
RAHMANAbsolutely. We tend to think in -- we tend to think of privilege in very stark terms, of the terms of, really, just money. But there -- but privilege affords this soft power that's extraordinary. The access, you know, I have a seen, I think, in which someone comments about how a business transaction is forged while two people are talking also about how to get the church roof repaired. So, you know, this sort of thing.
RAHMANAnd that privilege embraces you in this -- it envelops you in this -- in a blanket of protection of all sorts -- in all sorts of ways that we don't want to think about. It's very uncomfortable to think about, but it gets us the internships, it gets us all these sorts of things. And not for a moment do the privileged see their privilege as anything unfair.
NNAMDIZia Haider Rahman is the author of his debut novel, "In the Light of What We Know." He previously wrote as both an international human rights lawyer and investment banker. We're going to take a short break, but you can still call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think it's useful to consider literature through a geographic lens? Tell us why or why not. 800-433-8850. The question we were talking about earlier, are we too reluctant, as a culture, to dwell on class, even through literature? Shoot us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Zia Haider Rahman. He is an author. We're discussing his debut novel. It's titled, "In the Light of What We Know." Zia previously worked as both an international human rights lawyer and an investment banker. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Zia, please don your headphones because we're going to start with a question from David, in Hyattsville, Md. David, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVIDHi, Kojo. You know, I could not find a publisher for my third book, "Revolt of the Animals," by David Levy -- that's me. And I'm just fascinated that you found a publisher -- if you did -- for your debut novel. How did you do it?
NNAMDIWell, if you take one look, first page of "In the Light of What We Know," you can probably answer that question, but I'll let Zia answer it himself.
RAHMANWell, thanks for the question. I wrote a chapter and -- there's no way I can avoid -- I wrote a chapter. And I sent it to an agent. And the calls started at 6:30 in the morning. So that was how it happened. I was very lucky. Yeah, just very, very lucky. I did have a friend who was able to -- what's the word -- introduce me or flag the submission. So I'm afraid I can't give you any advice. I'm struggling because I'd like to be able to do so, but I'm so new to this business myself.
NNAMDIYou didn't start out by writing a short story. You start out by writing this remarkably ambitious novel, in scope and in size, which means that's what you intended to do in the first place, for your first effort.
RAHMANWell, yeah, I hear this word ambitious and, you know, if anybody had said that to me while I was writing I might have stopped. It's…
NNAMDIAmbitious is my word. Maybe it's the wrong word.
RAHMANYeah, no, no, no.
NNAMDIIt's so wide in scope.
NNAMDIIt's so deep, it's so broad.
NNAMDIIt's all of those things.
RAHMANWell, I was utterly immersed in it, Kojo. It was all-consuming. I would wake up, I mean, I'd work all the time. And if I wasn't at the desk, I would be thinking about it. Every morning I woke up with ideas to do with the novel. It had inhabited not just my consciousness, but my unconsciousness. So I didn't have a way to -- I didn't have anything to compare it with. It was everything.
NNAMDIWhich is probably a good thing.
RAHMANYeah, well, yeah.
NNAMDIMoving through this novel, one cannot help but be struck by the epigraphs, the quotations that you use to set the tone for each chapter. Without giving too much away, how do these epigraphs factor into the story?
RAHMANYeah, well, pretty early on you learn that the epigraphs are drawn by narrator from the notebooks that Zafar left behind. And in those notebooks Zafar records things he's read. And the narrator is using them as sign posts, but also to try to identify what is significant to him and what he thinks is significant to Zafar. So the epigraphs in this novel have a slightly different value or valence from epigraphs most novels, not all, but most novels.
RAHMANIn that here, you know, ordinarily an epigraph is an indication of the author stepping into the novel. Here, actually, the epigraphs are put there by the narrator himself. The other thing is that you see -- and I -- this is where we have to be careful, but near the end of the novel the epigraph -- one chapter's epigraphs actually takes the weight of the content and a certain revelation is made through it. And so there's something going on there, too.
NNAMDIThe epigraph has a direct role in the story. We won't give anymore away. We'll just move on to Jim, in Centreville, Va. Jim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JIMHi, Kojo. Thank you. This conversation between you and your guest about his book has just been enthralling. You raised a succinct question about maybe 10 minutes ago that made me call. And you said -- the question was -- I'll paraphrase it. Whether, you know, it's worthwhile or of interest for people in our culture to deal with this world of the extremely privileged or rich, or something like that.
JIMAnd I think for most of us -- I'm speaking as a low-middle-class person, but I guess by education and other things, I've been exposed to some things. Most people in our society, at that level, I think, it's sort of like somebody coming back from the Hamptons and you can almost -- it's almost like a fairytale. It's not that it's not believed. It is believed, but I think the idea is why we wouldn't spend too much time dissecting it, worrying about it or studying it because it's out of the realm of possibility for even most people to think about.
JIMAnd so then -- other than as a -- not that the -- the book sounds fascinating. But I mean in terms of worrying about that kind of thing…
NNAMDIWell, not necessarily worrying, but contemplating it. And I'm glad you raised it in that way because it allows me to return to it with Zia Haider Rahman. That is he has lived in both the U.K. and the U.S. And several of your characters do in the novel also. How do you see the two nations' approach to these issues as being different and where they might overlap?
RAHMANYou know, well, I think -- it's a very interesting question, indeed. Class in the U.K. operates slightly differently in the U.S. And what I'm going to say is actually nothing new. I mean this is pretty well-worn territory. Class mobility in the U.S. is dictated largely by one's degree of affluence. You can move along…
NNAMDIAs opposed to birth.
RAHMANAs opposed to birth. Whereas in the U.K. it is very much a function of birth. It's very much a function of one's station. And again, this soft paraphernalia of indictors, the way you inflect -- the way you pronounce the word issue. Do you say issue or do you -- some people, extraordinarily, say issue. So there are all these little signs. And they are signs of access. And the signs themselves have no value, but what marks out someone's high class position is that they have access to various things.
RAHMANBut I want to go back and address a point, if I may, about…
RAHMAN…that Jim raised. The novel itself is not a depiction solely of the lives of the affluent. It's not -- I certainly can't be an authority on that. I grew up in the projects in the U.K. and, you know, the (unintelligible) to begin with. I'm from a very poor background. My father was a waiter and a bus conductor. And I don't say that as a, you know, I don't wear that with a badge of pride or even with embarrassment. No extremes, just a plain fact.
RAHMANWhat I'm interested in, in this novel, is the ways in which these, you know, that there's -- the ways in which these classes are divided in the -- I mean, we see that brought into focus in this unlikely friendship. And one of the great things that, I mean, certainly, from my -- in terms of my experience of writing a novel, one of the great things was that writing it from the first person, both these people, allowed me to not just to see the way they -- to try to get at the ways that they see the world, but also I could see how they failed. And I hope that that comes across. I'm told it does, you know. That we get to see where they fall short in their efforts to make contact with the world.
NNAMDIYou are on, by my count, anyway, your third professional career with the publication of this novel. Do you expect to make this your continued pursuit?
RAHMANYou know, I -- for a long time I thought it was Doris Lessing who said the following, but it was actually -- I just learned that it was Philip Roth. And when Philip Ross was asked, "Does it get easier with every novel you write," he said -- apparently he said, "No. Because I haven't written this one." And I'd adopt that here and say I will write. So long as I want to write this book, the book that I'm working on, whatever that is. So I have another book in my heart and I want to put that to paper.
NNAMDIHow do you enjoy the process of writing itself? Do you find it inspiring, agonizing, a combination of the two, as opposed to having written?
RAHMANYeah, having written -- I'll tell you this. Having written is distressing. It's deeply distressing because I no longer have -- there's a sense of loss. It was the, you know, the product, whatever, it's not denigrate product. It's not a substitute for the process. You know, holding a book is not the same as being absorbed in discovering these characters, understanding what they're doing, and understanding why they make these choices.
RAHMANSo on the other hand, it's not an agonizing process. It never has been. Not once was it agonizing. And it's not agonizing. Actually it's interesting you ask this. I think it goes back to my very formative, you know, as a boy I loved mathematics. And…
NNAMDII didn't get a chance to talk about that because…
RAHMANWell, no, no, no, it's okay.
NNAMDI…math plays a significant role in this.
RAHMANAnd I love problems. Give me a problem and I'm really happy. And my character is such that sort of my brain just jumps up. So I was -- in the course of writing I was looking for the problems. I was trying to make problems, even. And -- because as soon as I have a problem, I set about trying to figure out, A, what the problem is and then, B, how can this be solved. What is the guy really trying to achieve here? Or what is this scene really trying to do? And how many things can I make? You know, can I get this paragraph to do more than just one thing? And it's lots of work.
NNAMDIHe finds the process of writing inspiring. That is Zia Haider Rahman. He is the author whose debut novel is titled, "In the Light of What We Know." He previously worked as both an international human rights lawyer and an investment banker. And from the sound of it, can't wait to get back to writing the other novel you have in your head.
RAHMANI just can't. I can't, yeah.
NNAMDIAll right. We'll give you time to get out of this studio and get to work. Zia Haider Rahman, nice talking to you. Thank you so much for joining us.
RAHMANThanks, Kojo. Thanks.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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