Interviewed by Amelia Loulli
Read Christopher James’ fiction piece, The Almost
Amelia: Can you talk us through the creation of your characters, Anisa and Martin? Where did they come from? And how important to you was it that they were different from each other in so many ways?
Christopher: Both of these characters come, to a certain degree, from trying to understand the growing Islamophobia across the Western world. I live in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, but still stay in touch with the news from Europe and the US. I keep seeing this version of Muslims described, especially on Facebook and by below-the-line commenters, which bears no relation to the people here in Jakarta I’m surrounded by every day.
Then came the burkini ban, when mayors of cities all over France started telling Muslim women what they could and couldn’t wear on the beach, which was awful and unlawful and bizarre. It still doesn’t make sense to me, not even a bit. The sad thing is, many people in Europe and the West know nothing about the majority of Muslim people, and the information they do get is routinely more negative than positive. Like George Bernard Shaw said, “beware of false knowledge, it is more dangerous than ignorance.”
Anisa, then, was an attempt to write about the kind of person I sometimes teach here in Indonesia, a real person, a young Muslim girl, intelligent, funny, religious, naïve, nice. And Martin, of course, is an old-fashioned old man in a city that’s rapidly changing, overwhelmed and not liking it. The kind of man I thought might support the burkini ban a little bit more than he opposed it. I wanted these two to meet, and I wanted them both to leave the meeting more reassured than they were before. I’d like the same to happen in the real world too.
Both characters seem to be experiencing personal, as yet unvoiced struggles. Do you think writers have a responsibility to give a voice to those around them who are struggling with issues that might otherwise go unheard?
I studied philosophy, but I have a memory like a broken sieve, so please forgive me if I’ve remembered this wrong. There’s a thing called epistemic responsibility – which holds that we are morally responsible to only believe things for which we have enough evidence. For example, if Joe has heard that women are worse employees than men, then Joe has a responsibility to check his facts before he starts keeping that belief.
So let’s assume Joe is a decent bloke, epistemically responsible, and he looks into the relative qualities of men and women as employees. He goes to what he believes are reliable sources for a good old look at some good old statistics. He keeps an unprejudiced eye on women and men in his own workplace, weighing up for himself if one sex does better than the other. He sees Noreen fix the photocopier and Neville bollix it up. He eventually comes to the belief that women are not worse employees than men. Obviously.
Does Joe now have an additional responsibility, to tell others what he’s learnt when he knows their beliefs are wrong?
To a degree, I think Joe does. In certain circumstances he does, anyway. It’s the same with writers. It’s not our only responsibility, maybe not even our greatest responsibility. We don’t have to go out of our way to write about people from another world. But often we want to, because we’re curious beings, and when we do, we have a responsibility to get the voice right.
Language, and its varying interpretations, appears to be a recurring theme, and I wondered about how you work with language in your writing. How conscious are your decisions? Do you have a particular style you find yourself working with most often?
I love it when a writer uses not the fanciest word in the dictionary, but the most precise. When a writer describes something so clearly that their description shines with beauty. Writers who know exactly when to use clavicle and exactly when to use collar bone. David Foster Wallace was very good at this. I don’t think I can do it yet, but that’s my end goal.
I also like using funny words and sounds when I’m writing, and I think that’s something I occasionally have to fight against. Adam West’s Batman was still being shown on TV when I was a kid, and so kapows and holy smokeses are a big part of my speech, though hopefully not quite to the point of ridiculousness.
And I read my stories before I consider them finished, and notice words that sound awkward or could ring better, so I think that too sways what language I choose.
I really enjoyed the element of (at times quite ironic) humour. How important is humour to you in telling a story?
Holy smokes! Great question.
You asked earlier about some of the responsibilities a writer has. One of those responsibilities, of course, is to the writer themself. Most of us are not getting paid that much for our writing, so it’s important we enjoy it. For me, humour is the best way to enjoy writing a story. The best way to enjoy reading a story. The best way to enjoy seeing the world, too. I hate to think what it would feel like to look at the world right now, for instance, without being able to laugh at it a little.
And lastly, which writers do you admire the most?
So many. Too many to name them all. Here are a few names which stand out at the moment, in no particular order.
I have a big writer-crush on Zadie Smith. She grew up in London, same as I did, and she describes the London I know and love better than anyone else I’ve ever read.
George Saunders is a writer who I think takes epistemic responsibility very seriously. His stories are funny, but his anger with the wrongs in the world also comes across very strongly.
Oh, and Kuzhali Manickavel, who you published here at the Forge yourself, not that long ago. I admire her just because she’s the awesomest.