Shortly after taking a seat for our lunchtime interview, Ghalib Islam pulls out a notebook and pen. “What is your domain?” he asks, referring to my area of journalistic focus, and doing away with any pretense of a casual chat.
Islam is not the sort of person who waits to figure out precisely where other people stand. The 32-year-old author also refuses to pander to the lackadaisical reader, at least judging from his debut novel, Fire in the Unnameable Country, which appears with the Penguin imprint Hamish Hamilton Canada in March.
The book, a dystopian foray into an “unnameable” Middle Eastern country riddled with violent upheaval and thought surveillance, intentionally subverts conventional narrative structures to invent a mode of delivery distinctly its own. It also largely avoids conventional uses of punctuation, which serves here as a conduit for cadence.
“Even exclamation marks are unnecessary,” says Islam. “The sentence [itself] should be able to exclaim.”
Born in Bangladesh and raised in Toronto (with an in-between stint in Nigeria), Islam’s biographically inherited global outlook is enhanced by both a social scientist’s curiosity (he holds a bachelor’s degree in political science) and a comprehensive grasp of the Western canon (Beckett and Kafka are among his favourites). Despite the challenging content and structure of Fire in the Unnameable Country – or perhaps because of this – the novel has caught the attention of one of Canada’s most discerning literary authorities. Margaret Atwood, who served as Islam’s mentor at the University of Toronto’s master’s program in creative writing, provided a blurb prominently displayed on the book’s cover.
However, it was author Jonathan Garfinkel, Islam’s classmate at U of T, who recommended the book to Penguin Canada president and publisher Nicole Winstanley. “It’s not like anything that we’ve published before,” says Winstanley, who was immediately struck by the novel’s inventiveness when it landed on her desk in early 2012. “I think everybody here was excited to do something different and make a splash with a fresh new voice.”
Despite the enthusiasm about putting forth a voice so decisively unique, Winstanley admits her love for the novel was not universally felt within Penguin Canada’s offices. Some struggled to wrap their heads around Islam’s disjointed narration and occasionally unwieldy cast of characters. But rather than bristle, Winstanley took the stir as a positive omen. As she puts it, books that fail to spark conversation are the ones that should make a publisher nervous.
“This,” she adds, “definitely does not fit in that category.” So far, Islam has received prominent billing in Hamish Hamilton Canada’s Upfronts magazine and, last spring, was introduced to media at the imprint’s annual cocktail party, where he was a featured guest alongside Joseph Boyden, Colin McAdam, and Michael Winter. Islam’s agent, John Pearce at Westwood Creative Artists, believes Hamish Hamilton Canada is the novel’s ideal home. “It’s an extraordinary but challenging book that needs that kind of spotlight,” he says. “Just sitting on a publisher’s general list, it might not get the attention it needs.”
Pearce was also turned on to Islam’s work through Garfinkel, a client and perhaps Islam’s fiercest supporter. “You can compare him to other writers like Rushdie,” says Garfinkel, who first encountered the manuscript at a U of T workshop. “His way of playing with language even reminds me of Joyce sometimes. But there’s something quite unique about it.” Garfinkel suggests this singular voice is due to a combination of Islam’s personal history, literary appetites, and tendency to navigate the world in what Garfinkel affectionately describes as “a kind of poetic stupor.”
An altogether less dreamy set of adjectives are appropriate to describe the process Islam underwent in putting the book together. He characterizes the ordeal as a state of privation: assembling draft after draft in haphazard fragments until, eventually, he shut himself off from the outside world completely. “I did it with no coffee, no cigarettes, no music, no friends, nothing,” he says. “I didn’t go anywhere. I just sat in a room and wrote.”
In 2010, a little over halfway through the process, Islam was hit by a car. During the months-long recovery that followed, he became keenly aware of his own approach to storytelling. This, he explains, is why the novel’s narrative voice occasionally drifts from the first person into third: an examination of the self as Other.
It’s this sort of leap that makes Garfinkel both pleased and surprised to see the novel in the hands of such a prominent imprint. “It’s not the kind of stuff you expect from a big publisher these days,” he says.
But Winstanley feels confident about the acquisition. “We often question, ‘Where are Canada’s George Orwells?’” she says. “And that’s the feeling we had when this arrived.”