They used to know him only as the Chunky Monkey. In his weekly column in the Sunday Times Mirror Magazine, Afdhel Aziz would write about music and theatre, about performances and places to eat. He’d say things likes “Park it, my lusty lad, and try not to tarnish the mink upholstery” (to a valet) and [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

At the intersection of love and violence

Writing a story about simple intimacy ‘with the pace of a thriller’ Afdhel Aziz’s first novel ‘Strange Fruit’ draws from life experience, including his years back home in Sri Lanka

They used to know him only as the Chunky Monkey. In his weekly column in the Sunday Times Mirror Magazine, Afdhel Aziz would write about music and theatre, about performances and places to eat. He’d say things likes “Park it, my lusty lad, and try not to tarnish the mink upholstery” (to a valet) and “Aight, hit me with the 411 baby,” (to his favourite DJ) and through it all he managed to maintain some semblance of anonymity. However, that didn’t mean he was unknown. It was the nineties, and Afdhel had a foot in every door – while producing three columns a week for the Times, he was also hosting the Morning Show over at TNL and had another gig with YATV, where he wrote and presented such shows as YA Café and YA News.

Afdhel Aziz: In Colombo last month. Pic by Indika Handuwala

Looking back on them now, Afdhel remembers those years in Sri Lanka as some of the best in his life: “I was a complete media junkie and I had a wonderful time doing it.”It’s why he’s returning to them through the pages of his debut novel. 10 years in the writing, ‘Strange Fruit’ is a love story about Maya and Malik who come back home, as much for the country as for each other.

A fan of Nicholas Sparks and Pablo Neruda, Afdhel never doubted what he wanted to write about. At one point, he had a post-it note stuck to the wall just in case he forgot – it read ‘it’s a love story stupid.’ Like Neruda and Sparks, Afdhel wasn’t writing about grand gestures and lavish romances – his interest was in everyday love and in simple intimacy. “I feel like people want to read about this and there aren’t enough people to write about it. I wanted to give people space to dream, to enjoy seeing two people in love in a simple, understated way.”

Despite its primary plot and its idyllic setting, ‘Strange Fruit’ is laced with violence. While he wanted Maya and Malik to fall in love, Afdhel was very aware that Maya was simultaneously falling in love with Sri Lanka itself and that that would not be without its difficulties. “It’s a conflict ridden relationship, no pun intended,” says the author.

Like Maya’s lover, Afdhel too has a tattoo on his back in Arabic which reads ‘serendipity.’ It’s a strong theme throughout the book, but Afdhel sees more than happy coincidences as his mandate. “I wanted to make this a novel about violence and love and how those two things can intersect and have an impact on one another,” he says. “I wanted to have these privileged kids suddenly come face to face with the violence that has always been a part of this island…Otherwise it would have beena bit too chocolate box, it would have been a bit too saccharine.”

Having made the transition from poetry (his collection of poems ‘China Bay Blues’ won him a State Literary Award) to prose, Afdhel has discovered his approach to either format is much the same. He begins with an image – “the grit in the oyster” – and layers over it till he has his literary pearl. In this case, it was a girl waking up on a plane, disoriented and uncertain. “My favourite writers have these arresting, startling images,” he says. “You need those moments of very vivid, evocative imagery but always in service of the plot and always to keep people moving through the book as well.”

He’s honed his pacing over the three drafts it took to complete the book (the word count “accordioning” from 80,000 words to 140,000 to 100,000 with each revision) and fervently hopes his wife Rukshana was right when she said he was probably a better writer by the end of those 10 years than he was when he first began. While his home address changed and then changed again (they now have a home in Brooklyn, New York), Afdhel remained determined to write what he knew and to let ‘Strange Fruit’ play out in a literary landscape loaded with personal meaning.

Afdhel drew from his own experiences and those of his family to write the book. He’s candid when he says “all first novels are biographical and the lead male protagonist (Malik) is a lot like me. I’ve also borrowed a lot from my wife’s experiences. My wife is Tamil, she left Sri Lanka after the 1983 riots and moved to Australia at that time.” While Rukshana helped him by sharing her experiences of what it was like to live in Sri Lanka at that time and later to be an immigrant, Afdhel says she’s nothing like Maya, the character her experiences inspired. “I wanted to use the biographical details as the jumping off point and to use just enough to find the real poetry in the story,” he says.

While his characters are shaped by Sri Lanka in the nineties, so is their author. Growing up in Sri Lanka he studied at the Wycherley International School, and followed that with a BA in English Literature from King’s College London, graduating in 1994. He would return again to London to complete a MSc, Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1997. In between, Afdhel’s mother would agonise about how many movies he watched (all rented from one of the 12 video libraries he was a member of) and the hours spent listening to music. Looking back though, Afdhel credits all that reading, listening, watching and writing as having paved the way for an interesting career in marketing.

His deep love of music and passion for the arts have helped him land a series of high profile jobs including a stint as a Senior Marketing Manager, Global Sponsorships and Partnerships Team at Nokia, followed by a post as Brand Director at Heineken and now Brand Director at Absolut Vodka. He’s helped launch multi-million dollar campaigns and worked with acclaimed artists like Kanye West and Swedish House Mafia. Keep an eye on his Twitter feed for news of his next big project– a concert with Lady Gaga.

“It’s because of that passion I have for music that I’m able to communicate with the artists and managers and people in the business so fluently. I’ve grown up with the same love they have which is what allows me to be both a fan as well as a professional in that space,” he says. “It’s a wonderful thing to be able to take the thing you’re passionate about and make a living out of it.”

He’s hoping to leverage these professional successes into a non-fiction book about enlightened marketing and how brands can really contribute to the communities they work with. (He also has a collection of 12 short stories with a somewhat morbid bent – each ends with someone dying – that he might dust off for publication.)Now, he hopes ‘Strange Fruit’ will be the kind of book that people pick up and aren’t able to put down till they finish it a day or two later – “I wanted the beauty of a love story with the pace of a thriller,” he says.
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