Uzma Aslam Khan: A cocktail of influences

Uzma Aslam Khan's peripatetic lifestyle, shuttling between East and West, has influenced more than just her fiction. As Nicola Smyth discovers, she can also mix a nifty drink

Uzma Aslam Khan is looking a little disoriented. "I don't know the London literary scene at all," she begins cautiously, "but the last three days that I've been here I've been asking around and it just seems like it must be this whirlpool. That once you enter it, you can't get out and find yourself again." How does it compare with Lahore? "I don't have friends in Lahore who are writers," she insists. "What's odd is that literary life in Lahore doesn't stimulate me, and maybe I don't want it to. I can separate myself from everything in a way that I couldn't in London, so I feel the writer side of me is very happy there."

But this isn't her first trip to these shores. Ask Khan for a résumé of her progress through the world so far and she rattles off a lengthy list for a 34-year-old. Her father worked for Pakistan airlines and the family shuttled from place to place. They lived here for a couple of years: "We were in the Marble Arch area. Every time I drive by that Odeon cinema, I get this flashback of going there and watching... what was that mouse? Bianca or somebody?" (Between us, we dredge up The Rescuers from the depths of memory.) Next came an American education - four years in upstate New York, four in Arizona - which has left an audible mark on her accent.

"Then I was sick of the States and I wanted to get the hell out so I packed my bags and went to Morocco for three years." Five years ago, she returned to her birthplace, Lahore, to live with her husband, an American and, like her, a writer.

The effect of such constant uprootings on her imaginative life seems clear. Trespassing, her second novel but the first to be published here, is set in Karachi, where Khan spent her own formative years. It follows two lovers, Dia and Daanish, through an increasingly desperate battle to sustain their feelings for each other in the face of mounting pressures from family, friends, society and circumstance. But Khan's novel is far from soft-centred romance. The young couple's alternating narratives are interleaved with other voices offering stories of cultural alienation and political violence. The atmosphere of threat is drawn from Khan's own experience. "I lived in Karachi in the 1980s, which was a horribly turbulent period. Everybody knew somebody who had been kidnapped and suddenly there were guns everywhere." The shifting perspectives and timeframes of her storytelling evoke a city riven by the ethnic tensions that have persisted since Partition.

By her own admission, she was "quite an angry teenager. I was the Dia generation and I did feel very strongly that I could not live the kind of open life I felt I should be having." Perhaps it was that feeling that led her to leave for college in the States, a journey also undertaken by Daanish in her book. Khan was there during the first Gulf War. The freedom she might have expected to find suddenly seemed elusive. She puts Daanish in the same position; like him, she was frustrated by the reticence of her peers and professors alike in speaking on the subject of the war. "There was this absolute silence which was really eerie and left me very shaken and also very determined to find out more. It was a turning point for me politically and in many other ways."

Trespassing was completed several months before the events of September 2001. Its focus on the first Gulf War, and on previous Afghan conflicts, leaves her unsettled by her own unwitting prescience. But then, as she puts it, "so much of this book is about history coming back to haunt you." She considers, fixing me with a firm stare. "I was a little shocked and I feared that it would almost be too topical because it wasn't written in the current context." The subject matter may have contributed to her initial difficulty in finding an American publisher for the novel. It now has a US home too, and will appear next year. "I'm wondering what the readings will be like there, what kind of questions I'll get asked. But I'm prepared," she smiles. "I'll take the punches."

Some of her other US experiences also found their way into Daanish's story. He works his way through college with a kitchen job at "Fully Food". Khan, too, was a dishwasher for a couple of years, and it had a dramatic effect on her appetite. "I lost, like, 20lb," she grimaces. Her frame is already slight: she is clearly feeling the cold, her cardigan hugged to her even on this June day. "I came home," she says, and I was completely emaciated." But she made another, more enjoyable career move. Her quiet tones perk up as she declares, "I'm a certified mixologist." This conjures up unlikely visions of the self-contained Khan as a cocktail-flipping Tom Cruise. She laughs delightedly, her hands - rarely still and now in constant motion - rotating an imaginary drink. She explains that to be a bartender in Arizona, "you have to be certified, you can't just hire somebody off the street to serve drinks. You have to do a course, all this drilling and training. You have to memorise something like 70 recipes and you have seven or eight minutes to make a random 11 drinks. And I did it!"

The personal freedom that America offered Khan may also have kickstarted her writing ambitions. She hadn't grown up wanting to be an author but she began her first novel, The Story of Noble Rot, while at college there. Her persistence should give hope to many - it took her four years to write the book and another four to find a publisher. It was finally published by Penguin India in 2001. Trespassing took her six years - she was holding down a teaching job at the same time. Now she's taking a break. Will there be another? "I certainly hope so. I'm not done yet with fiction but my process is so slow that I know if I stress about it then I won't write anything... it happens when it happens."

She is happy though, at last, with describing herself as a writer, something she had previously dismissed as presumptuous. And if she's settled in her profession at last, might she also have found a lasting home in Lahore? "I don't really know where I would want to settle," she admits. "I take it one year at a time." But the "insatiable thirst" for travel she finds in herself has made her the writer she is. "In a way, I feel lucky that my upbringing has been so unstable in so many ways: geographically, politically, culturally. I've been exposed to so many different kinds of people, so many ways of dressing and talking, and maybe that's made me more sensitive to the minority group." Even in her birthplace, she is sometimes viewed as an outsider because she grew up in Karachi. "I guess," she concludes brightly, "wherever I go, I'm always on the fringe."

'Trespassing' by Uzma Aslam Khan is published by Flamingo at £15.99. To order a copy for £13.99 (+ £2.25 p&p), ring 0870 800 1122

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