When I was in bed alone after an uneventful August day back in 2002(I remember because I recently got my heart broken for the first time), it wasn’t apparent to me back then that I was having a moment which quite possibly changed my life. It was the day that my life as I knew it, no longer hanged in the balance. If I had a roving reporter following me around chronicling my life, he would have said, “This is history right here.”
I was not alone after all; I was accompanied by Bret Easton Ellis’ brilliance. His novel, Less Than Zero was a fast paced page turner with authentic juvenile connotation I could deeply relate to. It painted adolescent alienation which such genuine sincerity; I breezed past from page to page, clinging to his every word with the regular goose bumps in between. The realistic dialogues between the characters reminded me of those I typically have with my closest friends, displaying guarded vulnerability without revealing too much, afraid of being ridiculed for my honest emotions, overly aware that it might open up a Pandora’s box.
Although it was unrefined and scatterbrain in terms of storytelling, the novel spoke to me like no one ever could. It made me wish I could sit down with Bret Easton Ellis and have a conversation with him over coffee. To say the book changed my life would be an understatement. It did more than that.
The skill and artistry with which writers have the ability to convey their message in three sentences while normal folks would have taken three pages to do so drew me into the world of literature. The allure of sculpting imagery with vocabulary, breathing life into ideas with verbs and adjectives seemed something I could picture myself doing in the future.
Growing up in a Muslim household, I wasn’t exposed to transgressive ideas (a running theme in my favorite novels.) Although my folks were more liberal compared to my friends’ folks, straight laced good moral values always remained paramount. As I grew older, I slowly realized the importance of transgression in creativity.
Inception of books are brought about by ideas conjured up from the minds of the writer. Subjects such as race and religion are recipes for apprehension. Race and religion are viewed as taboo subjects that could create massive uproar if dealt with irresponsibly. Thus, acceptance for books pertaining with these subject matters struggles under such conditions. Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel The Satanic Verses represents the archetype of such literary works, exposing how words could be dangerous if it is considered offensive by believers of certain religion.
In his novel, Rushdie made sacrilegious accusations about the Qur’an, asserting that it was written by the Devil. The message delivered angered Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran to the point where he issued a fatwa, calling for Muslims to assassinate Rushdie and anyone related with its publishing. And since books and words have no boundaries by virtue of translation, it caused death to innocent people in the form of Hitoshi Igarashi, a Japanese translator of his book who was stabbed to death.
A collateral damage of the fatwa issued. Lenin once said that ideas are much more fatal things than guns. Instead of putting his fingers to his lips, Rushdie continued to put it to work on his typewriter, using words to express himself.
Writers form cohesive sentences with different intentions in mind. Some write with the belief that ingrained cultural, lifestyle or personal references has the ability to be transferred to the masses without any artificial packaging. They use brilliant metaphors and allusions to speak to their readers. As a Muslim, I try to draw inspiration from fellow Muslim writers such as Orhan Pamuk and Khaled Hosseini.
They often use their experience growing up in with a Muslim family in their novels, juxtaposing Muslim upbringing with western cultures and ideas. It crosses boundaries as Muslims living in unfamiliar parts of the world can relate to them as it often dwells on long running misunderstandings between the eastern and western way of life.
In his collection of essay, Pamuk frequently infused his own experience growing up with a Muslim family, reminiscing his childhood fondly in a coming of age sort of way. Pamuk was also the first Muslim writer to publicly disapprove the fatwa doled out on Rushdie and his publishers. In Hosseini’s bestselling novel The Kite Runner, he drew inspiration from a childhood experience when he met up with Afghanistan’s Hazara people and one of them, Hossein Khan, taught him how to read and write when he was in 3rd grade.
Their brief encounter closely mirrors the relationship of Amir and Hassan in The Kite Runner. In Pamuk and Hosseini’s cases, their memories like words in private diaries are just bodies without any motion if they are kept in the dark. Once it’s shared, it transcends anything else in existence, affecting millions of lives around the world in the process.
‘Wild is The Wind,’ Nina Simone whimpered in one of her classics. And words, like wild wind, can be tamed and when done so correctly, it has the ability to blow away all your doubts and sorrow with consummate ease, evaporating them away as you watch them dissipate into the atmosphere, gradually losing its form and eventually disappearing into nothingness, allowing us to acquire new perspectives. Better perspectives with the ability to sweep you off your feet to somewhere you can call your own.
The beauty of words are the essence from which the expression of human mind and heart derived from, fulfilling a need that no other form of art can. Read, write and set your soul alight.
A young Singaporean whose life revolves around writing, live music, ice-cream, Arsenal Football Club, and sometimes, drifting in and out of existential crisis. He is currently working on a book of short stories titled, ‘Singaporeans Cried When They Found Out Their Hearts Were Made In China.’