Writing to make others think

After battling cancer last year, Ameena Hussein talks to Smriti Daniel on the eve of the launch of her first novel, ‘The Moon in the Water’

With a smile that lights up the room, Ameena Hussein tells me that she is feeling lucky. This is a happy portent for an author who spent 2008 struggling with cancer and her first novel. It helps that ‘The Moon in the Water’ is already highly anticipated – its path has been paved by its inclusion in the long-list for the first Man Asia Literary Award.

It is on the eve of the book launch on Wednesday that I find myself in Ameena’s apartment right over the garage that houses the offices of the Perera Hussein Publishing House, which Ameena co-owns with her husband Sam Perera. She will be the first to tell you that the modest size of their cosy apartment is indicative of how publishing isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be, but one thing seems certain, Ameena is doing what she loves best.

She is tired today but laughter, as always, comes easily to her. Much of her delight finds its roots in her first novel. Her previous publications, ‘Fifteen’ (shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize in 1999) and ‘Zillij’ (winner of the State Literary Award 2005) were both collections of short stories. “I needed to get my short stories out of the way,” she says, confessing that having made the leap into writing novels she might never look back.

She is uncharacteristically cagey about her new book, and will only say that it tells the story of a young, spunky Muslim girl who returns to spend some time with her family after her father dies in a bomb blast. “She discovers a secret that the family has been holding and it derails her,” says Ameena, explaining that this secret must now be investigated, and the consequences dealt with.

‘The Moon in the Water’ brings together elements from both ‘Fifteen’ and ‘Zillij’ as the author continues to explore her Islamic heritage from a strong feminist viewpoint. But this is a far more mature, more sophisticated Ameena than we have seen previously. By her own estimation, she has become more exacting and reveals that she has spent many months polishing the book, until “every sentence, every chapter is perfect...or as perfect as possible.” The novel is a labour of love in that Ameena intended it to be “a documentation of culture; my culture, my community, and in a way my history...for a time when people will not have it.”

Ameena has long held that she writes simply to make people think, and ‘The Moon in the Water ‘will be no different – “I think this book will make a lot of people think, especially about Islam; part of this is making people say, they are (the Muslim community) not so much the other,” she says referring to what she calls “our little gems of cultural cohabitation.” She does this even as she explores the other side of the coin – the recent surge of Islamic fundamentalism.

“All writing is political,” expounds Ameena, sharing the hard won wisdom of many years. “I used to describe myself when I first started writing - I was 27, now I’m 44 – as someone who was not a political writer. ‘I just write these tiny stories,’ I would say, but I was trained as a sociologist and you can’t help but see the world in a kind of analytical way.” That she is a sociologist first, and a writer second is a charge that has been laid on her doorstep by some critics, but Ameena holds that it is innate, her way of viewing the world. When asked if the same might be said about ‘The Moon in the Water’ she voices her hope that her approach here is “more balanced.” Later she admits with a laugh to being “constantly beset with doubts.”

Writing, she has come to realise, requires no small amount of courage and determination. This is particularly true of this book. Having been diagnosed with Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in her chest in June last year, Ameena underwent a gruelling course of chemotherapy that often left her too ill to write. “There was a fear that I wouldn’t live to finish it, I did fear that, and I thought it would be a pity,” she says, eyes twinkling. Determined to make her book an “up” book despite not always feeling quite so positive, she eventually re-wrote the epilogue so that it now “ends on a note of hope, there are endless possibilities.”

The same seems true of Ameena, who having survived her trial by fire is still waiting for the final verdict on whether her cancer is in remission. In many ways, she has come into her own. She is passionate about her work, and is not shy about being labelled a writer rooted in her Islamic heritage. Increasingly, Ameena knows exactly what she wants to say. It’s revealing then that she describes the mood of ‘The Moon in the Water’ as being redolent with love. For Ameena, who credits her family, friends and her many admirers with having helped her through a very difficult illness, there is no emotion quite as important.

‘The Moon in the Water’ is priced at Rs. 750/- and is available at all leading bookstores.

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