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Dhaka Tribune

Zero dark comedy

Update : 19 Nov 2015, 08:14 PM

Defining himself as an author who explores the niche genre of fantasy, science fiction and black comedy, Saad Z Hossain’s Escape from Baghdad! has been defined as a book that “ranks way above crazy, and makes for one fabulously engaging read that thrives on allegories,” by Ambarish Ganesh’s book review for the Indian Nerve.

His novel Escape from Baghdad! was published by Aleph Book Company in India, Unnamed Press in the US, and by Bengal Lights under the title Baghdad Immortals in Bangladesh. His work has also been included in the Apex Book of World Science Fiction 4, as well as the Six Seasons Review.

Set to discuss alternate worlds with celebrated Cuban science fiction writer and rock star Yoss, broadcaster and novelist Marcel Theroux and novelist Ranbir Sindhu at Dhaka Lit Fest today, Hossain is looking forward to his session, especially since he is a true blue sci-fi fan.

Dhaka Tribune caught up with the Bangladeshi novelist to talk about his love for good characters with ambiguous morals, his distaste for anything “overly preachy” and how he would love to have the superpower to skip freely through time without any penalties.

What sessions are you looking forward to at DLF?

I’m a sci fi fan, so I’m looking forward to meeting Yoss. But normally I just turn up and wander around the place. I love the atmosphere, the fact that you can walk into any session on a whim and enjoy it. You can’t find hidden gems if you only stick to the headliners.

Your novel Escape from Baghdad! is defined as a “madcap black comedy” - what exactly does that mean?

I think it means that it kind of reads like a thriller, but large parts of it are devoted to comic relief. There’s a lot of gallows humour, plus some fantasy elements like alchemists and djinns, which makes the plot non linear.

You’ve gotten a lot of positive reviews from authors and bloggers such as NPR, Financial Times, Kirkus Reviews and Book Riot - has there been any bad reviews?

You know I think most people don’t really give bad reviews. If they don’t like the piece, they just decline to review it. That’s the courteous thing to do I guess, because with the internet, every word you put out there lingers forever. I’ve been lucky because both my publishers abroad: Unnamed Press in California, and Aleph Book Company in Delhi, have convinced a lot of people to read and review the book.

In your book you use humour to portray grim realities the people of Baghdad faced during the US invasion. In the face of crisis in your personal life, do you also employ humour to help you cope?

Humour is good for every situation, I find. And black humour is basically just being able to laugh at appalling situations. Every life will have its share of tragedy, but I find that a thick skin and a good sense of humour can get you through most things.

“There’s a little bit of truth in every joke” - do you agree?

Certainly, the funnier jokes tend to have kernel of truth. Often humour is just exaggerating a point of view until it’s ridiculous. The other thing is that you can use humour to poke at the truth, which is less confrontational than straight forward dissent. It’s also an interesting phenomena that many people now rely on ‘comedians’ like Jon Stewart, or John Oliver or Stephen Colbert, for their actual news. 

What’s the worst part of being a writer?

Well writers don’t get paid very well. I think we’re right down there with mimes and oboe players. It’s kind of unfair. I’ve seen plenty of very successful writers with contracts at major publishing houses who can’t make ends meet without doing a bunch of other jobs. The currency for  writers appears to be respect within the literary community, whereas I’m sure we’d prefer, well, actual currency.

If you were a friend of Saad Z Hossain, instead of Saad Z Hossain, what would you say is the most annoying thing about him?

Well most of my friends are extremely unimpressed with anything literary and often complain that I’m boring them to death.

Name one thing you did as a kid that you’d be furious to find your child doing?

Getting drunk and making bonfires out of books. To be honest though, my boys are aged six and two. I can’t really imagine being furious at them.

As a firm believer of writing that entertains readers - what is one depressing book that you have thoroughly enjoyed?

King Rat, by James Clavell. It was about Changi concentration camp in Singapore, during WW2. That was depressing as hell, but I couldn’t put it down. 

Any pet peeves?

Anything overtly preachy. I don’t like being forced into opinions by a book. For example, a book might portray Vladimir Putin as a buffoonish villain. Now I can appreciate that you don’t like his policies, but he’s also obviously a very intelligent and capable man, evinced simply by his ability to rule a country like Russia for so long. To infantilise him is demeaning the reader.

What do you like most while reading?

Good characters with ambiguous morals. Anti-heroes are all the rage in a lot of genre fiction, and it’s refreshing because it’s closer to reality, and also it’s just boring to have everything black and white. It’s all very well demonising the enemy during an actual conflict, but for readers it’s better to have nuanced characters. I also love a good villain in a book.

Name three dead people you didn’t know in real life that you’d like to have dinner with.

Well first I’d pick Plato, because I want to know if he was serious about Atlantis. Our entire basis of this mythology hinges on his work.

Second, the architect of the Sphinx, who could tell me how old it really is, plus he’d probably know all the secrets of the pyramids.

Third would be the last king/chief/president of Harappa, so he could tell me what happened to their civilisation.

If you could have one superpower what would it be?

To skip freely through time without any penalties. I’d dearly love to see what happens to us five hundred years from now, and then five thousand, ten thousand, basically I want to see whether we get wiped out at some point or we transcend the physical world somehow. Mass extinctions are common for life on this planet, and we have to deal with that problem at one stage, when we are socially and technologically advanced enough to get over our obsession    with short term gain.

Name one book you always have to defend liking.

Well I read a lot of fantasy and Sci fi, so those are entire genres that I have to defend against serious readers. Many people dismiss these genres out of hand, as something for children, or geeks. All I can say is that if someone enjoys reading, that’s good enough for me, I don’t really care if its Dan Brown or Proust.

One book you always have to defend not liking?

I didn’t like Jane Eyre much. I thought it was boring and dreary, and vastly overrated when compared to the best of Jane Austen.

If there was one movie you would never like to watch, what would it be?

The graphic novel Sandman. It’s massive in scope, widely considered one of the best ever written. It’s probably too complex to convert into a TV show. I’d hate for people to get their first taste of it as a low budget serial.

What skill don’t you have that you wish you did?

A better understanding of mathematics would be great. I’d love to write science fiction with a more solid grounding in physics.

What would be the last sentence in your autobiography?

It’s not over yet.

Finally, what’s one question you wish people would stop asking you?

‘Have you ever been to Iraq?’ Actually, not too many people have asked me that, but I live in dread. 

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