Pen is mightier than swords

Maryam Qureshi

Living in a world afflicted with fire, the fire of destruction, I always ask myself that who is going to be the savior of this generation. Then like a ray of hope these words strike upon my mind, ‘A breath of our inspiration, is the life of each generation’. And inspiration is the word related to the Pen Community that is the artists, writers, poets and journalists. Being an avid reader and writer myself I always believe in the power of pen that it is mightier than the swords. In exploring this further, I had a very interesting conversation with Kamil Ahsan . Kamil Ahsan is a biologist and historian with a doctorate from the University of Chicago. Originally from Lahore, Pakistan, he is also an independent journalist, essayist and Pushcart prize-nominated fiction writer. His works has appeared in Dissent, The Rumpus, The American Prospect, Salon, The Millions, Aeon, Chicago Review, and Jacobin, among others. I want to share here his thoughtful elaboration on his role as a writer.

What is it really like to be a writer?

That’s a difficult one! I’m not quite sure what the answer is, even for me, because I think I figure it all out as I go along. My motivations change quite often—sometimes quite radically! And its not rare to find myself trying to figure out this character who has been sitting in my head for quite some time.That, I find, is common between fiction and journalism In fact—the latter is where I got my start and much of the process involves talking to people, sussing out their experience and figuring out the contours of the story that emerges from the things I’m told, the things I observe, and the things that seem important. With fiction, it’s far more introspective of course, but there is still a process of inquisition. To your point, I think for me, being a “writer” is asking questions endlessly, sometimes to the point of driving myself bonkers!

Do you believe the power of Pen goes a long way in the world?

Oh, absolutely. I’m not sure one can be a historian without believing that to some degree because a great deal about we know about the world—about what people thought, for instance, in Antiquity—depends quite heavily on writings that survive. How much would we know if we didn’t have fragments of Aristotle? Or of Pythagoras, Euclid, Plutarch, Seneca, Pliny and so on and so forth?Would that diminish our understanding of the world in a historical sense? Absolutely it would—it’s a kind definitive premise of history to salvage all we can, given that it’s such a key way of resuscitating old narratives, and seeing ourselves in relation to them.

As a writer do you think yourself as the seer of the future as well?

That’s complicated. I believe it was Doris Lessing who said that although every generation believes they are new and special in some way, hers was indeed new and special—and all of that is predicated on an idea that future generations will judge us, by the accuracy of what we write, or by our diagnoses of this problem. I do indeed believe that our generation is even more new and special in this way because we have no excuse not to know that we are likely headed in the direction of catastrophe as a consequence of climate change. So will we have future generations who will judge us? I certainly hope so, but if they are, I think they’d be surprised at how paralyzed even writers can be in this time. In terms of seeing ourselves as “seers”, it’s highly possible that we’re just fumbling around in the dark, and we might be right, or very, very wrong—and I suppose we’ll find out eventually, but there certainly is a concerted attempt not to predict the future per se but to describe how things are that pertain to the future. Or horrifyingly, become the causes for something awful. That’s a tremendous responsibility, but no matter how small and intimate a writer’s subjects, it’s a responsibility I do believe we all have.

Can the muse be real for the writer?

I think so. I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with a fellow writer where the notion of a “muse” has ever come up—I think we tend to think of facts, events, occurrences, trends, conflicts, fault lines as inspirations, but I don’t know how common it is to have a “muse”. I don’t believe I have one, but if I do it is probably myself, and although that may sound extremely arrogant, isn’t that the motivation of auto-fiction nowadays? To find a muse in one’s own self?

Do you think Science and Literature are the two parallel lines that meet at infinity only?

Not quite. Though a scientist, I am keenly aware of the very humanistic notion that science is a product of social relations and in that sense, a human construction very similar to that of literature. I think the problem is when we begin to parcel out how much of reality are we describing in a real sense—and I don’t want recourse to the word “objectivity” to talk about this, because it carries far too much weight for me to philosophize about right here. But I do believe science and literature are both constructions of social relations and both attempts at understanding the world. Many philosophers have long thought similarly, Diderot even categorized things based on what kinds of truth they pertained to. I don’t believe that they’re two parallel lines that never meet, I think they do meet—quite often in fact. Such that climate fiction (cli-fi) is very much responding to something both scientifically verifiable, and real in the way humans perceive it using common sense and simple observation. Where they don’t meet is where they’re simply looking at different levels—where fiction about microorganisms is lacking, science has made the whole field of “microbiology” about microorganisms. This is something I’m really interested in, both in academic work and in fiction: different scales of looking at things have a profound impact on how we asses truth.

“I’m not sure one can be a historian without believing that to some degree because a great deal about we know about the world—about what people thought, for instance, in Antiquity—depends quite heavily on writings that survive.” _ Kamil Ahsan

In your fictions do you draw the world as real as it is or as perfect as it should be?

To the extent that I’m given a choice between the two, always the former. Writing utopian fiction today, in this moment in this time, feels like a bit of a waste of time to me to be honest. The one exception would be children’s books, I suppose, because we invest somewhat in inventing utopias for them to teach them the values we do. Though even that isn’t always true.

What is likely to be having more influence over the readers—nonfiction or fiction?

Ah! Both, equally. That may not be strictly true for everyone, but for me it’s a value to treat them as equally influential. Some of the most affecting narratives non-fiction writers today like Rachel Aviv, Sarah Stillman, Meghan O’Gieblyn (just off the top of my head) don’t have analogs, but fiction matches the affecting, moving responses they evoke all the time, with prose that can sometimes be quite similar, such as with Celeste Ng, Lydia Kiesling, Tommy Orange (again, just off the top of my head). But the answer to this is self-evidently individual. Some people I know only read one or the other! For me, as a reader, both have just as much influence on me.

Kamil Ahsan

Writer’s inspiration becomes the life of each generation—is this really true?

I don’t know. I think if writers were the only ones capable of narrative, I might have a more confident answer to this question, but we no longer have a monopoly on narratives about life. There are whole other mediums for artists who are contributing to the output of our generation, and I’m very happy about that!

Do you think after writing your masterpiece your work for the betterment of the world would be done?

Right now, my anxiety is very much focused on whether I even have a masterpiece in me. I probably don’t, because masterpieces are quite sparse, aren’t they? I’ll try for one! And as for the betterment of the world—no, I don’t think my work will ever be done, unless I complete masterpiece on my deathbed, writing the final words just I kick the bucket. There is much work to be done outside of writing. I don’t want to be arrogant enough to think that my political self-hood is tied up solely with the quality of my writing! When we still live in a world where so many can’t even read, to make the buck stop there—with my grandly designed masterpiece!—would be more than just complacent, it would be presumptuous.

For being profound and daring in their essence, Kamil’s remarks would easily gain several agreements and contrariness. But I think his words will act as a source of inspiration for us, because I believe in the words of Seamus Heaney in his poem, Casting And Gathering,

For I see that when one man casts, the other gathers

And then vice versa, without changing sides.