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Entretien avec Zia Haider Rahman: In the Light of What We Know

Par Zia Haider Rahman, Marion Coste
Publié par Marion Coste le 11/07/2016
Zia Haider Rahman, originaire du Bangladesh, écrit son premier roman, In the Light of What We Know, après une carrière sur Wall Street et auprès de l’ONU. Une plume sobre et fluide mène le lecteur du Bangladesh rural à New York et aux campements de l’ONU en Afghanistan. Les deux personnages principaux, vivant chacun des décalages culturels entre leurs origines et le monde qu’ils habitent, semblent marqués par le constat qu’un exilé pourrait finalement n’être « qu’un immigré avec une bibliothèque ».

Le 26 mai 2016, à l'occasion des Assises Internationales du Roman, Zia Haider Rahman a accepté de nous parler de son roman. En résulte un entretien passionnant qui couvre des sujets aussi variés que les mathématiques, l'industrie de l'édition, le passé colonial de la Grande-Bretagne et la lutte des classes.




Transcription de l'entretien

In the Light of What We Know is your first novel and is incredibly dense and all-encompassing. Could you summarize the story line in a few sentences?

Actually, a couple of reviews said that the book defies summary. […] When I try to answer the question, what is this book about, I try to touch on some of the themes, and the book is set against the background of the war in Afghanistan and the financial crisis, and it follows two principle protagonists and each of their respective lives (their respective lives, I should say). It carries within it a thread of enquiry about epistemology, about what it is we think we know, what it is we think we can rely on.
That’s what I think I would say. It’s also about other things such as friendship, it’s of course about love, and the search for meaning.

The book posits that knowledge is deeply unreliable; but Zafar, in his study of mathematics, seems to have found a safe haven and a way of anchoring himself in the world. Is mathematics a form of knowledge that cannot be assailed?

Here’s a general proposition, I did a radio show with Cedric Villani, the French Fields medalist, and what we said was that mathematics is very different from other disciplines in that any mathematical claim that is proven to be true can never be contradicted. It is different from science, from humanities, in that respect, because once something is established to be true, mathematically, it is true for all time. Whereas even a scientific experiment which is repeated a hundred times and yields the same result, there’s no guarantee that it will yield the same result next time. So that makes it a unique enterprise.

But there is this caveat, and that caveat is Gödel's incompleteness theorem. Because Gödel came along and showed that either there are mathematical claims that are true but cannot be proven to be true, or the system of mathematics that we have is inconsistent. Now, “inconsistent” has a very simple meaning in mathematics: a system is inconsistent if 1 = 2. And he showed that either we will find that there are – well, we won’t find, that’s the whole point – there are claims that are true, but we can never prove them to be true, we don’t know what they are or the whole of mathematics collapses. It’s uncomfortable to imagine that the whole of mathematics collapses, so we are left with this possibility or things that are true that cannot be proven to be true. It is a place of safety for Zafar […]. Again, on that radio show, there were two mathematicians for the purpose of the show (I was also a mathematician, my first two degrees were in mathematics), and […] Cédric said that people described mathematics as complicated. Mathematicians [on the contrary] regard it as very simple, in comparison with the claims made about the world. The world is much, much more messy, things are never very clear. The problems we attack in the world are never very clear, let alone the solutions.

But mathematics is different; the problems can be very clearly articulated. Is it true that in a right angle triangle, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides? That’s very easy to articulate, that problem. And it turns out that the solution is not at all difficult, it’s in fact several thousand years old – the solution, the proof that this claim is true. So there’s an irony, there always has been. People think of mathematics as complicated, the strange thing is, its claims are very simple, and even its proofs are ultimately quite simple. The example I gave you, the proof for that is extremely simple. So Zafar takes refuge in the simplicity of mathematics, the clarity of mathematics, the certainty of mathematics, but then he hits Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, and in fact the novel starts with that. The metaphor there is that even in mathematics, there is no secure footing – and this is devastating for him.

You gave a talk in Amsterdam about hyphenated identities: how does this concept relate to your novel? [1]

Zafar struggles with who he is, what he is. He is lost. He has no sense of belonging. He thought, and to some extent tries to find some sense of belonging in the world of ideas. But really, it appears to be more a distraction strategy than anything else. He’s rootless. But he is rootless in pretty much every way. It’s not geography, it’s class: he has transcended his humble origins but he cannot penetrate British upper class. He has a relationship with a woman who is, you know, from the other side of the mountain, let alone the stream. She’s completely different class. And it’s a devastating relationship, it’s a tragic one. And he has this friend, the narrator, who is also from another class, and he doesn’t seem to find a foothold in the world: he has lived in different places, he’s a vagabond. He’s a vagrant. He’s homeless.

And that grew out of my own personal experience. It grew out of my own personal experience when the novel emerged from… I went traveling in 2007, I quit my job and I went across Europe and Asia and I didn’t really have a specific goal in mind – I wanted to meet interesting people and I did, I met fascinating people. I searched them out, people who lived on borders in some sense, people who were marginal: a Greek, elderly man in Istanbul, a gypsy whose mother was Saudi gyspsy, which is unusual, and the father was Bulgarian gypsy – all sorts of fascinating people. And I had interesting conversations with them. But my journey was interrupted in Syria when a friend called to say that her mother was dying. I went back and another friend was having a baby in New York, and I went to visit them and stayed with them, and three weeks later the baby died. And I stayed with my friends to be whatever kind of support I could be. This was at the very end of December of 2008. And I started writing something, an idea I had formed in my mind while I was traveling, and it was a question: what would I look like – what would the person at the end of this journey look like to the person at the beginning, but also would look like to the person I was twenty years ago when I was a banker, a long time ago. I had gone through life and moved away from where I had started so much. And that was the opening image, really, in a sense. It was: “what happens if I divide myself in two? And one side meets the other?”

Would you say that Zafar and the narrator are two sides of the same coin?

The narrator I would say is sort of an aspect of me that appears on paper and has been present throughout my life. People constantly ask me – not ask me, they assume (I left Bangladesh when I was a baby) – before I even say anything more, quite often, they say things like “Your parents were diplomats”. And they just make an assumption about my background. So I know how people have related to me. Not always like that – I mean, that’s not the assumption in Britain. In Britain, the assumption is, because you are dark-skinned, the dominant assumption is you must be a bloody immigrant.

So that’s how the book emerged. I […] met a writer and I was tinkering with this – I told him about it, he asked me what I was doing with my time and he kept badgering me, he wanted to read it. It was very embarrassing, because you know, he was a proper writer and I just tinker (and I’ve been tinkering for twenty years, writing this and that – no thought of publication). And eventually, just to shut him up, and to stop my own embarrassment, I sent him a chapter, and then the following morning, at 6.30am, the phone started ringing and it was the Wylie Agency. That’s how I came into writing a now published novel. I finished it and then we found a buyer, Farrar Straus in New York. And partly because of that, I have been quite naïve, one of the things I assumed was that I needn’t think about the business side of things, the agents would take care of all of that. The trouble is, you don’t learn about the industry and what the industry really wants from you – so if I had a choice, I wouldn’t have published. If I knew what I know now, I wouldn’t have published.

What do you know now about the publishing world?

I know for instance that you can’t make a living from this. And I had been away from law for more than seven years, which creates problems for me to go back, because you have to retrain or requalify. I am caught out by that. You can’t make a living at all, and literary fiction attracts – because the social status of writers is so high, it attracts people who want social status. So a lot of the people who you see in literature are people who are craving social status: you have to think about what that means for the kind of literature they write. These are people who care about how they look, right? The ending of my novel suggests that I am not someone who care very much about how I look. But I think it is a better novel for it: it has an artistic integrity; it makes sense; it has a coherence.

British people assume they know where you come from just by looking at you. This is a problem that Zafar also encounters. You said in an interview: "The South Asia engrained in the white British psyche is a sort of subjugated greater India". How does this highlight the legacy of the British colonial past? [2]

The British talk a lot about the Second World War. It’s fascinating […]. Because it’s an inconsistency on the part of the British, and if you have a taste for mathematics, you know how to show an inconsistency and how to lead someone down a garden path. It’s an expression, to “lead someone down a garden path” that means they don’t realize where they are going to end up. So I have this mental conversation, someday I might actually use it. They constantly tell you: “[...] it was such a long time ago, get past the colonial history, it’s time to move on”. But if you look for a few seconds at daytime television in Britain, [...] basically without Adolf Hitler, half of daytime television would disappear. There is this fixation on the Second World War – I call it a fixation because in comparison with other things of the same time period. And colonialism is one of them: colonialism ended long after the Second World War ended. Ghana didn’t gain Independence until 1956, India right after the War… And then there were atrocities, millions died in the Bengal Famine, because of redistribution, because Churchill (and the records show it), denied Bengalis food, redirected it to the war effort, and his comments, written comments are: “who cares if a few million Bengalis starve?”.

The British have completely ignored their colonial history; and yet they haven’t, because the effects of that – you can’t come away after two hundred years of that unscathed, your own psyche is corrupted, you have built into your culture an attitude towards immigrants, towards foreigners, towards post-colonies that you can’t eradicate unless you acknowledge it, unless you look at it in the face. And you see that, in all sorts of ways. You see it in just the disdain with which the British hold foreigners – and dark-skinned foreigners, predominantly. But America doesn’t have that, America is a land of immigrants. [...] That’s the big difference between Europe and America. By the way, it’s true of France, I am sure, and true of the Netherlands, I spent a couple of months in the Netherlands when I talked about the British in this way, […] people from Dutch ethnic minorities contacted me and said that I was wrong […], that no, the Netherlands was just as bad. So I think it’s a colonial legacy just to look at the post-colonies with this kind of disdain. It was the only way to maintain it. The only way to justify colonialism, psychically, is to say “they are better off because of us – that by being their colonial administrators, we are helping them”. And even today, Britain regularly has these TV shows, documentaries looking at India, and inevitably, they examine the same things: the British left a railway system, various buildings,... And of course they never stop for a moment to ask the question: “Would those have been built anyway?” Because there are a lot of countries that have built railways, systems and developed without Britain or any kind of colonialism. It’s happened all other the world. Moreover, the railway system was a pretty cocked up one because it was built not to service the local population. This was a railway system to transport manufactured goods to the ports. [...]

Sorry, I am getting down to that level of detail only because it does make me angry. And here’s the thing, the academics agree. There’s an academic consensus, view of colonialism; yet when the BBC or the British talk about it in the newspapers, they always ask a couple of academics – I mean it’s literally a couple of academics – who are famously pro-colonialism or always provide a positive spin on colonialism, Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts. But academics think these two people are bogus academics, they think they are very mediocre on the subject. And Roberts is the laughing stock of academics. It’s basically because the British people can’t stomach it. They would rebel against it violently; they would find it very difficult. It’s a comedy when the British Prime Minister goes to India now. He’ll take in tow a business entourage […] and when he goes there, he is a supplicant, he goes there with his hands open, begging really. But the British media never show that to British people; [...] you go to the Indian media or other media and you’ll see those images. And you’ll see what was said. And he can’t do that. And he goes there and tells them “send your students” but at home, he tells the British public they’re clamping down on the number of students that we are allowing from India. So it’s because the British public have been trained to regard themselves in a certain way. They have an over-inflated sense of their own worth.

I mean, you see it now in the Brexit campaign; you see all of that played out in the Brexit campaign. And eventually, the reality and the self-image [...] are so far apart already that at some point, it will just become untenable. It will reach a breaking point. It is beginning to do that already. It’s quite galling to a lot of Brits that India is now this economic giant. They don’t understand.

And of course you see lots of Indian students, huge numbers move to the US: you look at the head of Pepsi Cola, the head of Google, the heads of dozens major corporations in the US and the powerhouses of American industry are graduates of Indian Universities and have these Indian accents. The idea of a major business person in the UK having an Indian accent or a major business person in France having a DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] accent or something – this is untenable. You just can’t imagine it, people would think there’s something weird going on. In America, it’s no problem.

Did you try to imitate the BBC accent to blend in?

When I was a boy, I tape-recorded newsreaders because the British are stuck up about accents. Even today, it’s very hard to find a newsreader with a Brummie accent or a strong regional accent. They’re trying to bring in more, but people judge you by your accent, hugely. And in America, it’s not the same: George Bush, with a Southern accent, became President.

Is it possible to overcome the class divide in Britain without losing your own identity?

[…] You can’t lose your identity, because an integral part of your identity is where you came from. And there are umpteen ways in which that is signalled: you can’t completely eradicate it. And here’s the thing, why would you want to? Again, in the United States, you don’t have to. The story of the American Dream is the story of starting with nothing and becoming something. It’s an extraordinary thing that every President – Hillary Clinton has a problem with this, she can’t do this – every President somehow tries to represent themselves (himself or herself, every candidate) as emblematic of the American Dream. You know “My grandfather came to the United States, so if he can’t be him, you know…”. There’s an entirely different value system about where you come from and where you’re going. They care about the slope. Britain doesn’t; and it’s ossified. It’s remarkable that in the old world, you have – the cabinet in Britain is dominated by Etonians. I mean, that’s just strange.

It is more than strange and the funny thing is that when you raise this criticism, the response you get is “are you being classist?” Which is hilarious. Because it overlooks the point about class; it has entirely to do with power.

Did you feel that class divide when you studied at Oxford?

I went to Oxford, I went to Cambridge, I went to Yale. And I knew people from every class and know people from every class. I am very aware of it and very alive to class difference and to the ways in which we signal that class. I was thinking the other day, it’s a very fascinating point. There’s much less showing off in the British culture, it’s frowned upon; but there’s a reason for that. It’s because everybody knows, through other means, what your social status is. And when people start showing off, most of the time, it’s about trying to place yourself in a hierarchy, move yourself so that other people understand that this is where you are in the hierarchy. But you know, Pierre Bourdieu talked about habitus, and all these signals, and Britain is dense in signalling. And the accent is an obvious giveaway; the vocabulary is another one – all sorts of things. The salmon pink trousers you might wear, whatever. All sorts of signals that show where your station is and what social status you have.

So there’s no need for showing off. So there is showing off, really. I mean, there’s a famous story about a British author who went to a dinner party – moved to the United States, went to a dinner party, sat next to an American woman. The woman turned to him and said: “So, what do you do?” And he said: “Well, I am writer.” He was an extremely successful British novelist. And she said: “Have you written anything I might have heard of?” And he said: “Well, I dabble.” Now, the Brit, hearing those words, would know that the man is being modest and would know that there’s more behind it. She apparently looked at him, and said: “Oh, ok” and turned and talked to the other person. And the story is that he learned that in America, you just have to say it – the signals aren’t there. He wasn’t aware, until he went to that thing that people were reading these things and that he was doing something that was transactional simply by being modest […] – so it’s a false modesty. But they can’t see that it’s a false modesty – does that make sense? Because they rely on the fact that everybody else can read what is being intended. Or what they might not even be aware is intended.


[1] "Zia Haider Rahman talks about Hyphenated Identities", De Balie, Netherlands. Source: Youtube.

[2] Ibid.

Pour aller plus loin

- Alex Preston, In the Light of What We Know review – Zia Haider Rahman's 'epic and intensely moving' debut (The Guardian, 01/06/2014)

- James Wood, The World As We Know It: Zia Haider Rahman’s dazzling début (The New Yorker, 19/05/2014)

- Amitava Kumar, The Banker, the Visitor, His Wife and Her Lover (The New York Times, 11/04/2014)

- Nathalie Crom, À la lumière de ce que nous savons (Télérama, 13/06/2016)

Pour citer cette ressource :

Zia Haider Rahman, Marion Coste, "Entretien avec Zia Haider Rahman: In the Light of What We Know", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), juillet 2016. Consulté le 20/02/2018. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/postcolonial-literature/entretien-avec-zia-haider-rahman-in-the-light-of-what-we-know