Naveed Alam, the winner of Spokane Poetry Prize, doesn’t need any introduction. Those who know him find him a very fine human being and those who have experienced his teaching and mentoring, consider him simply influential and adorable. You may have glimpses of his personality here in his interview. If you are curious to know more about him, just go and meet him.
- Q: Personal Introduction
Naveed: Born and raised in Pakistan. Left for the US to start college. Attended a fabulous little liberal arts college in the Midwest or the prairie land of North America, Macalester. Was a little confused about what to do after college. Took off for Egypt. During the year in Egypt figured out I wasn’t really good at anything except getting excited about literature. Got into a writing program. Did ok. Been teaching and writing most of my professional life with brief stints as a social worker, waiter, bartender, dog walker, tourist, museum goer, cineaste wannabe.
- Q: When did you first come to know about your love for Literature and Creative Writing?
Naveed: Pretty early. As a kid I devoured those one rupee (this was late 70s) Urdu story books for children. Once as a six year old I tore open the shirt pocket of a family cook who won’t give me money for my rupee books while we were out for a shopping errand.
- Q: How did your parents allow you to follow your passion for Literature and Creative Writing when at that time parents did not consider any profession successful than engineering and medical?
Naveed: I think they figured let this kid have his way lest he turns out to be a complete nincompoop. Or perhaps they equated being a book worm with intelligence and diligence. My report cards weren’t that bad either.
- Q: What are your activities and hobbies other than teaching?
Naveed: Music, cinema, museums, and of course, love to travel.
Q: What are your dreams? What Actually you want to achieve in your life?
Naveed: Contentment (material and spiritual)
- Q: Which identity describes you the best? Pakistani, American or South Asian?
Naveed: Technically: Pakistani-American. Ideally: Human
- Q: Do you think travelling enriches us?
- Q: How is traveling important for a writer and a student of Literature?
Naveed: A book opens up a world of imagination. Travel helps populate this imagination with fascinating characters, flora, fauna, landscapes, different shades of sky.
- Q: What is the difference between Creative Writing and Journalistic writing? Are they both inter-linked?
Naveed: Journalism is what you read for the day and recycle. Literature is what you revisit again and again like, as Arundhati Roy puts it, a lover’s body.
Yes. They could be inter-linked. After all, it’s an exercise of language. I must admit I’m not the best person to comment since I have never practiced journalism, though I suspect it can have some corrosive influence on creative writing because in the former you have to meet a deadline whereas in the latter you have to let it age (even let it rot for the fertilizer effect).
- Q: Do you think a writer can depend on his writing to earn a decent living?
Naveed: Yes. But one must never start writing (especially poetry) with an objective to win bread and butter. On the contrary, better to have a back up plan, a practical trade to fall back on, to complement the writing life, to prevent writing from becoming a “job” and suck out the passion. One way literature tests your devotion is by depleting your bank account. In other words, a very high maintenance lover. I have made my living through teaching, but I don’t think I could have gotten into teaching if I hadn’t been for my apprenticeship with literature and a desire to share the passion for literature.
- Q: What are the earning channels (scope/opportunities) available for a writer?
Naveed: As I mentioned in answer to the last question: teaching. That’s the thing about being a writer, you can be anything professionally a still be a writer. Doctors write, janitors write, lawyers write, sex workers write.
- Q: Your 1st poetry book, A Queen of No Ordinary Realms, won Spokane Poetry Prize.What topics you addressed in your poetry in general?
Naveed: Exile and desire.
- Q: How did you reach out the people you addressed and understood their real issues and feelings?
Naveed: Not sure if I managed to reach out. It was a small university press that published it. Don’t want to sound like a writer who doesn’t care for the audience. I do. I’m just not interested in sales and marketing.
- Q: How can one access your book as Pakistanis has no facility to buy books from Amazon?
Naveed: Read the poetry that’s accessible. If it’s the right time the right book will simply land in your hands.
- Q: There are a lot of people interested in studying Literature and Creative Writing (Fiction, Creative nonfiction) but still Pakistan doesn’t have any Writing program at any level. Do you see any formal writing programs starting in the near future?
Naveed: Not really. And we shouldn’t be in a rush to offer these programs. First step would be to promote contemporary poetry. One of the biggest challenges I have faced while teaching creative writing is that most participants have very little idea of what the living poets are writing in English. The poetry aesthetics here in Pakistan are very 19th century, people–even many of the well-read people—still caught in the rhythm and rhyme.
I think if Creative Writing programs are to be set up then they should be in Urdu or regional languages, not necessarily English.
- Q: How did you find Pakistani students? What blocks their performance to match international standards?
Naveed: I’d say Pakistani students one of the main reasons why I’m sticking around here. They’re adorable. I was about to say what impedes their performance is the misfortune of living through the social and cultural upheavals, the mess they have inherited from their elders, but on second thought this instability and insecurity can be great fodder for writing. I believe many of my students can easily match, if not surpass, the international standards.
- Q: What difference do you find between the students of our time and today?
Naveed: The internet has made quite a difference between the past and present in terms of access to knowledge despite the digital divide between the haves and have nots. Overall I think there’s not much of a difference between a student from our times and the times of Socrates. Both happen to be quite sophomoric, in a positive way.