CAIRO – 27 February 2018: Growing up as an Indian immigrant in New Jersey, young award-winning novelist Akhil Sharma was repeatedly mistaken for an Arab or a Muslim. Attacked for the wrong identity, 13-14-year-old Sharma felt a sense of obliteration.
“It felt a bit like being erased. If I were to shout at you and say you’re a fat man, you’d feel sort of frightened at being shouted at. But then you’d think, ‘I’m not a man. I’m not fat. What does this have to do with me?’” Sharma told Egypt Today in an interview after his participation in the Cairo Literature Festival, which ran from February 17-22, 2018.
“So there’s this real sense of erasure, which feels like a type of violence,” Sharma said, excited at answering the question.
The logo of Cairo Literature Festival 2018
The young Sharma, who immigrated with his family to the U.S. when he was eight, did not think much of what that meant for the Arab community. At 19, he began writing his first published novel, “An Obedient Father”, about a corrupt Indian civil servant based in New Delhi, a world that he knew better at the time.
Akhil Sharma’s “An Obedient Father"
On the character and setting of the novel, he said there was “a huge lag between where you are and what you write about. You write about something that happened five years ago because it takes that long to process and digest.”
“Mohamed is driving his daddy’s car”
Sharma studied public policy and creative writing, and he attempted to become a screenwriter. He attended law school, became a banker, but then went on to be a creative writing assistant professor at Rutgers University-Newark.
Today, Sharma is 47 and lives in New York, where racism is not as open.
“I remember being recently in a street in New York, and seeing a man, an Arab-looking man, driving a Rolls-Royce down a street, and this man standing next to me talking to a friend of his, saying ‘look, Mohamed is driving his daddy’s car,’ which was of course contemptuous and racist,” he recalled.
“I felt very defensive and protective about the man who was being referred to. But when that was occurring when I was young, I didn’t think that. My first thought was of myself,” he continued.
Similarities between Indians and Arabs are not exclusive to the looks, at least in the eyes of racists. Arab and Indian literature exhibit many resemblances.
Sharma compared visuals and introspection rather than thought in Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s novels to the writings of India’s R.K. Narayan.
Both writers drive their style from 19th century literature, whereas Indian-American literature is tied to the 20th and mid-20th century literature, much like Alaa al-Aswany’s “The Yacoubian Building” in Egypt, Sharma said during the interview inside the U.S. embassy in Cairo.
Other than literature, and although Sharma does not consider he knows Egyptians, he said he feels that many of the same issues that affect Egyptians are affecting Indians.
“Certain issues of politics, even things like living in a hot country… or problems of parking. There are all these ways that are similar, and similar pressures often lead to similar responses,” he explained, smiling.
Having been to Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor and Aswan, Sharma is certain that Egypt can be an attractive destination for Indian tourists, even though they will find similarities.
“Everybody in the world is curious to come to Egypt. I think everybody in the world would like to see the Pyramids… Egypt belongs to its own category; it’s a little bit like the Great Wall of China. It feels like you have not lived your life unless you’ve seen these things.”
Removing sensorium from “Family Life”
One of the things Sharma is proudest of in his acclaimed second novel, “Family Life”, is the fact that he removed elements of sensorium but still managed to keep his readers engaged.
He substituted smell, feel and sounds with humor, internal thoughts and descriptions of feelings. Because there is no causation for events to happen and they occur over time, Sharma decided to “thin out reality so it became easier for the reader to go in and slip out of a scene.”
It took Sharma 12 years to write the semi-autobiography about an Indian boy who immigrated to the U.S. with his family, but a life-changing accident suffered by his brother prevented the family’s full integration into the society.
“I asked for my parents’ permission and my mother said to me, ‘Akhil, just make me look good.’ My dad doesn’t read, nor does he believe that anybody else reads. So for him it wasn’t a big thing that I was writing about our family, and he said, ‘Akhil, if you wanna keep a secret, put it in a book.’”
Akhil Sharma’s acclaimed novel “Family Life”
Revealing so much about his life in the novel, Sharma said, “As a fiction writer, you’re so used to telling the truth. I tend to be very candid about myself when I’m scared or angry or hurt or petty.”
He won the 2015 Folio Prize and the 2016 International Dublin Literary Award for the novel, but doesn’t think about being awarded in India.
Flashing back to 2001, when he won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and Whiting Writers’ Award for “An Obedient Father”, Sharma said he felt “strange” when he was awarded by Hemingway’s only surviving son, because he had heard about the award for a long time.
“It felt embarrassing, because I only knew his father as a writer and I knew that Hemingway had not been an especially good husband and hadn’t been an especially good father. And so, it felt weirdly impolite to meet this man, because I thought so highly of his father, but only for very selfish reasons.”