Abeer Y Hoque is so many things all at the same time that the simplest way of introducing her is still quite a mouthful: she’s a Nigerian-born, Bangladeshi-origin, US-based writer, poet, editor and photographer.
Her published works include a novel in stories, The Lovers and the Leavers, and a photography collection, The Long Way Home. Her memoir, Olive Witch, will be published by HarperCollins India on 18 January 2016.
Hoque and I have met only somewhat briefly in person, but our correspondence began several years before our first meeting via email. Not only am I big fan of her many talents, but when I learnt that in 2005 she sold or gave away all her belongings and bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok and ended up travelling for seven years across 30 countries on five continents, I knew I had found a kindred spirit.
I was thrilled to get the opportunity to chat with Hoque recently about her creative process.
The early years
How early did you know you wanted to write/create art?
I always wrote poems from a young age and I started a journal as a teenager. As a kid, though, I thought I would be a mathematician because I loved the neatness of numbers and equations. It was only when I got to my second year of studying maths at university that I realised I was completely out of my depth (and that real maths has very little to do with neat numbers). The writing epiphany would take place two business degrees, a startup job and many years later. I’m a slow learner.
What was the attitude of your family towards your creativity?
Both my parents are teachers, and it was understood that my siblings and I would all end up with PhDs and academic professions. When I decided to become a writer, I was astonished by how supportive my parents were. It helps of course that they are both huge readers, and accomplished writers themselves. It’s also true that Bengalis honour literature, and poets above all. I didn’t really know this because I grew up outside South Asia, but it came back to grace me in the end.
Some people I considered larger than life as a child, mythical even, were the scientist Marie Curie, tennis player Björn Bjorg, writer Enid Blyton, Sherlock Holmes, Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha, my feminist grandmother Meherunessa Islam, and the great writer Chinua Achebe (who lived down the street from us in my hometown of Nsukka).
Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote?
No, and I’m happy about that. It was probably a terrible cheesy poem.
How about when you first became interested in photography?
I started taking photos at parties in grad school. My first digital camera was gifted to me in 2003 by my friend Arshad who recognised my growing obsession with photography, even before I did. It was a Nikon CoolPix with a swivel lens. I had versions of this camera for a good four years. I mention this because having that swivel lens (which allowed for unusual perspectives and semi-secret shooting) and a camera that took pretty good pictures in low light have indelibly influenced my eye and aesthetic.
In keeping with my friends understanding me more than I do myself, in 2007, a group of them got together and got me my first digital SLR camera – another game changer in my growth as a photographer.
In The Lovers and the Leavers (Bengal Light Books 2014, HarperCollins 2015), the settings shift from Spain to Bangladesh to the United States to India, and your characters appear to have little in common with each other. What at first appears to be standalone vignettes come together to create an interwoven tapestry of interconnected lives. Moreover, you use prose, poetry and photography together to create a unique story that has to be experienced in their whole cohesive form. Did you start a story in one medium and then continue it in another?
I don’t always have a clear sense of why I’m writing something or how I’ll shoot a photograph or what I’ll use it for. My strategy is to produce as much as I can, and then pick and choose and twist and mould the various bits into one hopefully coherent piece.
You make the bold decision to tell two stories simultaneously, one using prose and one using intersections of poetry. It’s very deftly done, like in my favourite chapter, The Alphabet Game. Could you explain a little more about how this came about?
In the entirety of The Lovers and the Leavers I use the poems to give a different point of view, sometimes from a side character’s point of view, someone who may or may not become a main character in another story, or an inner dialogue of the main character, or something else altogether. So in The Alphabet Game, the text part of the story is told straight, from Raza’s blasé teenage boy POV, but then you get a more intense poetic emotional erotica story from the poems.
In your collection of photography, The Long Way Home (2013), the book is divided into sections like windows, bodies of water, night walks. How did you decide on the themes?
Some were obvious – my photographic obsessions are often clear to everyone who sees my work. For some of the other categories, my friend Paul, who does some incredible collage work with his poetry, suggested printing out a few hundred photos and throwing them on the ground and seeing what I saw. That helped me figure out a couple more sections. I didn’t want to use geography – it felt too easy and trite. I try to show the places we inhabit can be viscerally and visually connected.
Is photography to you a mood, a story or a detail?
I think it can be all or each of those things. Photography releases me from the pressures I feel in writing. With words, I have to check whether I’m being serious or silly, macro or micro, clarifying or subsuming. With photographs, maybe those aspects come more intuitively. And when I pair words with photographs, then both mediums have to adjust to each other. They can be complements or backstory or side-story or crux or mood or detail, and the beauty of it is it’s up to the reader/viewer to decide how they want to engage.
I’d like to focus on your upcoming release, your memoir Olive Witch. Which came first: the title or the content?
Definitely the content. I always pick titles after finishing a piece. The very first version of Olive Witch was a forty-page autobiography we had to write for our first class in the MFA programme at USF back in 2001. We could choose any time frame: one year, one day, our whole lives. I chose my whole life and wrote a series of shorts from alternate years of my life and I called it ‘The Odd Years’. When I extended this to a 150-page manuscript for my thesis for the MFA programme, I changed the name because it was too constraining to keep it to just the odd years. ‘Olive Witch’ is a nickname I got in college, and so that seemed like a good eponymous-but-not title for a memoir.
Did you develop a one-line pitch?
I spent a good month trying to write the book jacket summary for Olive Witch. It was murder. As per my publisher, I had to make it dramatic without being cheesy. My sister hated every version I gave her until the last one. It still sounds melodramatic to me, but hopefully that won’t tip over into annoying. I’m still lost on the one-line pitch. I guess I’d say it’s a memoir about growing up, and it’s set in the three countries I’m from: Nigeria, the States, and Bangladesh.
Did you have a preferred system for planning your book?
Not really. I wrote all the chapters as stand alone pieces. So the challenge was trying to get them to all fit together after the fact.
Did you write long hand or on the computer?
The only thing I still write long hand is poetry and journal entries, and even those are sometimes on the laptop now. Olive Witch makes use of both poems and diary entries, so I definitely went back to the ‘archives’ to write certain sections of the book.
Did it go according to plan?
Not at all. I rewrote Olive Witch probably a dozen times between 2003 and 2012 – and I mean drastic changes including rearranging the chronology, hacking a section in half, doubling another section, and so on. Due to my relentless optimism (and writerly ego), I thought each successive draft was awesome. But then I’d get either a rejection or kind feedback, and have to start rewriting again.
What did you learn about yourself from the (re)writing of this book?
I think going through writing school and the thoughtful constructive feedback I got from various workshop professors and writing school friends was really critical to my not breaking down and giving up during the rewriting of this memoir. Also the years of rejections from umpteen literary magazines and contests and agents and residencies and publishers and grants helped in the skin thickening. I am somehow able to retain faith in my writing brain while still accepting critiques. Mostly. Okay, sometimes. It’s definitely not easy and I need time to absorb and internalise critical feedback before I can respond non-defensively, let alone start a rewrite.
What was the time gap between each draft?
Anywhere from weeks to years. I reworked Olive Witch on and off from 2003 to 2012. But there were huge gaps in there. From 2006 to 2008, I wrote The Lovers and the Leavers. From 2010 to 2013, I worked on a novel about memory loss. And from 2012 to 2013, I put together The Long Way Home.
How many darlings did you kill?
I can’t say. I’m precious though. I never really kill them. I just save them in another file…
How much was shaped by other people, and who were they?
My editors over the years have been friends, sometimes writers, most often avid readers, once a screenwriter, a few filmmakers, one agent, and now my awesome editor, Somak Ghosal at HarperCollins India, whom I adore and has perhaps spoiled me for any other editor because of his generous thoughtful feedback. I find anyone who likes the written word and thinks about them carefully and deeply can be a good reader.
At what stage did you feel comfortable talking about it? Sharing the manuscript?
I have to have some level of completion of a manuscript before I show it to anyone. It can’t be half done. The skeleton has to be there, and usually a whole lot more.
How long did it take to find an agent/publisher?
Forever. I’ve been writing since 2001 and have had various manuscripts to shop around, as they say, since 2003. I’ve queried probably 200 agents (good God), and more than a few dozen independent publishers. I’ve come close a couple of times with agents, most notably in 2012 with Olive Witch. An American agent was really interested but despite four overhauling rewrites in the space of one gruelling year, we couldn’t settle on something we were both happy with and so parted ways. In 2014, I finally – through a mutual friend – got connected to Somak, who had then newly joined HarperCollins India.
What won him over, do you think?
Somak loved the manuscript of The Lovers and the Leavers that I sent him. He offered me a two-book deal, and I gave him the only other finished/polished manuscript I had, which was Olive Witch that he also liked. It’s so very nice when you meet an editor who gets your work. His edits have always been extremely considerate of my style and theses and word choices and sentence structures and so on. It’s a pleasure getting edited by him. I always feel like the work is better for it and yet all my own.
I’m still on the lookout for a US-based agent and publisher. Somak and HCI have been really good to me – both in the aforementioned editing process, and also with the two beautiful books they’ve published for me – but it’s hard to get good distribution outside India, and it would be nice to have a bit of a wider release, especially in the States, since I live there. I hope to keep a relationship with HCI going regardless.
Was there one big takeaway lesson from this experience that will help you on your next book?
No one thing; it was a vast and deep education.
Do you have a routine?
I have a gorgeous writing space in a New York Public Library research room in midtown Manhattan, a 20-minute walk from where I live – a big beautiful silent room made of marble with bankers lamps and wide tables. If I am being good, then I get there by 10 or 11am and stay till 6pm when the library closes, eating nuts and fruit all day like a squirrel. Of those eight hours, I probably spend two to four hours actually writing. The rest of the time is spent editing (my day job), logistical stuff (applications, work emails, marketing, organising my life, updating my website, etc), and f**king around on Facebook and the internet and texting friends.
How has (the discipline of) writing shaped the rest of your life?
It hasn’t. I’m terrible. I need to throw away my smartphone. But I like people more than anything else in the world. Even writing. So I can’t throw any of it away.
How has photography shaped your life?
It changes the way I look at the world. I’ve always been drawn to details – architectural angles, the shapes of leaves, colour, light. Now I think about framing, how it will feel to see it later, what it means to freeze something in your mind’s eye. I’m a nostalgist. So photography enables all that.
Is writing an emotional or an intellectual experience?
It starts as an emotional core or crux that I have to find the right words for. Rewriting is probably more intellectual.
Emotional for sure. I haven’t gotten good enough to know how it functions intellectually.
How do you cope with distractions?
As mentioned before, I’m terrible. I probably should buy that Freedom programme that blocks the internet on your laptop. I should leave my smartphone at home when I go to the library. I should be better about keeping a work schedule. I shouldn’t get online till after 6pm when I’m done with work. There are lots of ways to do it. I just haven’t been good about any of them.
What themes do you find yourself revisiting? Why?
The usual American immigrant theme of belonging. Also place. I’ve been obsessed with memory loss for almost ten years now and am writing a novel ostensibly about that.
Three words you hope your audience feels when viewing your work:
Resonance. Surprise. Meaning.
What’s your next project?
I have three on the docket (moving forward very slowly if at all). A novel about memory loss. A collection travel themed erotic short stories. A series of ekphrastic poems.
Give us the first line of your next novel.
“The closet is hot and dark and something sharp is pressing into his calf.” [From Memory Alone.]
Look out for Olive Witch at a bookshop or online seller near you from 18 January 2016. Find out more about Abeer Y Hoque on her website olivewitch.com.
Abeer Y Hoque’s Recommendations:
I am obsessed with the idea of very small actions or decisions changing everything. Sliding Doors hinges on a set of subway doors closing just after the character gets in, and then rewinds and plays out what would happen if the doors closed before she could – which affects everything. Run Lola Run also uses a similar theme, redoing the same scene three times. I want to write a book that plays with this idea.
F Scott Fitzgerald’s essay, The Crack-Up, deals with the idea of holding two opposing ideas in one’s mind and still being able to function. I think it’s brilliant for many reasons, and instructive. I’m a bit of a snap judgment queen and I’d like to be more open to being wrong yet still retain my sense of self.
I adore artist Jeffrey Beebe’s work, especially his large-scale map work, Map of Western Refractoria. In it, he imagines a landscape with landmarks of emotional quantities, excerpts from love letters, break ups, the words of the lost and the grief struck. It is gorgeous and psychological and witty. I have never forgotten it.