[Interviewer’s Note: This is a series of interviews featuring the contributors of The Apex Book of World SF edited by Lavie Tidhar. It’ll run every Monday to Friday until I run out of interviews. Two of these interviews will be reprinted in Apex Magazine but the rest are exclusive to SF Signal.]
Jamil Nasir has published short fiction in numerous science fiction venues in the US and UK, including Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Universe, Interzone, and Aboriginal. His third novel, Tower of Dreams, was runner up for the Philip K. Dick Award for best US sf paperback of the year, and (in translation) won France’s top sf award, the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire. His fifth novel, The Houses of Time, has recently been published by Tor Books.
How did you first get acquainted with science fiction?
My reading as a child was eclectic; I was in school in Jordan at the time, and there were no books prescribed for me or proscribed to me. My parents left me to my own devices as far as reading was concerned. So I had no preconceptions, and no idea of what books were supposed to be respectable or otherwise. My mother bought me a copy of The Lord of the Rings when I was 11; at about the same time I read Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. A couple of years later, when I found Philip K. Dick, I was hooked. To me it just seemed that these books were naturally superior, and it turned out also that they were science fiction and fantasy. That was kind of something I discovered later.
What is it about the genre that appeals to you?
Paradoxically as a result of the fabulous success of science, science has perpetrated a kind of intellectual imperialism on modern thought, especially in the West. Metaphysics – which is a traditional form of thinking about ultimate reality – has been ruled taboo, or at least the refuge of weak minds. This, of course, is nonsense, and simply has the effect of blocking further intellectual progress because no one may question scientific methodology, assumptions, or modes of thinking. Science fiction is one part of the (covert) reintroduction of metaphysics into Western popular culture. As such, it is a progressive and exciting force.
What made you decide to pursue writing?
I had wanted to be a writer since I was a child. I loved stories, and I wanted to make them as well as read them.
And why science fiction specifically?
As I said in a previous answer, it excited me. I didn’t exactly understand why at the time, but it seemed to me a more dynamic and important kind of writing than most of the “mainstream” writing I read.
How has your experience living both the Middle East and the US affected you as a writer?
Being bicultural gives a science fiction writer a big advantage, because it allows you to see that many things that are taken for granted in one or the other culture are not universals at all, but simply conventions or assumptions. You begin wondering if that also holds for systems of understanding that are not (or claim not to be) culture-specific as well.
Where is home for you? America? The Middle East? (Both? Neither?)
America, though I visit the Middle East from time to time, as I have many relatives there.
What are the difficulties, writing about the Middle East?
For me personally, my memories of the ME are very painful, which makes it hard for me to look back at it. Other than that, I don’t think it’s any harder to write about than anywhere else.
How did your novels end up getting published? What was the biggest hurdle before finding a publisher?
I had good luck in this regard. I had been publishing short stories in science fiction magazines in the US for several years before I wrote my first novel, so I had a bit of a track record, as well as some acquaintances among editors. Once I got my book done, I asked some of my magazine editor contacts whether they knew of any literary agents who were looking for clients, and one of them referred me to a former editor who was setting up shop with a literary agency in New York. I sent her my book, and she sold it in 6 weeks. So that particular point in my career didn’t pose a particular hurdle. (It took me 4 years to get my first story published, however.)
For unfamiliar readers, could you tell us more about your novels?
They’re usually told from the point of view of a somewhat confused middle-aged man. (I wonder why that is?) Strange things start happening to him, and he needs to know why and what. So he starts to investigate, and finds out that he has misunderstood the basic structure and nature of his reality. Then he has to deal with that.
Why the fascination with the brain?
The brain is the most complicated physical object of which the human race is aware. It also does the most amazing things we know about. Finally, it is the mechanism through which we see and understand the world. It seems to me that anyone not fascinated with the brain is missing the most important part of understanding what the world is really like.
Going back to the Middle East, could you tell us more about Arab speculative fiction?
I am not aware of a single one. As far as I can tell, most Arabs aren’t interested in speculative fiction.
Why do you think science fiction isn’t popular in Arab culture?
Like many cultures, Arab culture is tradition-based, which means that it cares more for history than speculation.
In your opinion, how is the Internet changing the publishing industry?
In both good and bad ways. The good: because of electronic distribution via the internet, writers are increasingly independent of agents, editors, publishers, distributors, and booksellers in getting their work to the public. The bad: the public is likely to be inundated with bad writing, and wish that they had at least the editors back to separate the good from the bad. I imagine that a new kind of editor will emerge in the future: one who, for a fee or a cut of profits, works with writers to improve their books, then puts his seal of approval on a few books for the benefit of readers. Good editors (who point readers to good books) will gain in reputation, and bad editors will lose.
Do you think this will have an impact on the propagation of speculative fiction in the Middle East, or fiction from the Middle East into the rest of the world?
Maybe marginally. But I think that the small amount of speculative fiction sold in the Middle East is a result of cultural factors rather than lack of distribution.
Where can readers go to find more of Jamil Nasir?