Carys Vickers: What was the process of writing your second novel like, compared to your first?
Sairish Hussain: Surprisingly, it was much more difficult. I think with the first novel, it was something I felt like I had to do, even if no one was ever going to read it. The fact that I had to write another book because I’d signed a contract, and come up with a good idea, was quite stressful. I wrote Hidden Fires alongside so much chaos. To start with, I was busier. I was promoting The Family Tree and working two part time jobs so I had to fit writing in wherever I could. I also realised very quickly that just because I’d done it the once didn’t mean that writing another novel would be any easier. At times it felt I was doing it for the first time! However, managing to write just one good sentence was enough to make me want to keep going, despite all the challenges.
CV: Hidden Fires is told from three different perspectives, each a different generation of the same family. Was there one perspective or generation you found particularly easy or difficult to write from?
SH: I love writing characters who are as different to me as possible, and that’s something I discovered when working on The Family Tree. The same thing happened with my second novel. I absolutely loved writing through Yusuf’s perspective, an 80-year-old man, over Rubi’s, a 16-year-old girl. I think I’ve always been drawn to older characters because of their life experience and wisdom. Surprisingly, I even find it easier to write from a male point of view. I think when a character is too similar to me, I struggle, as I don’t want to sound like myself on the page. I prefer to lose myself in a completely different persona.
CV: The book begins with our characters watching the Grenfell disaster on TV. Was Grenfell the initial inspiration for this story?
SH: It was a series of events during that summer of 2017 that inspired the story, and it did start with the Grenfell Tower fire. It was particularly heart-wrenching for those of us who were awake in the middle of the night for Ramadan and watched the horror in real time. A few days after the Eid which marks the end of Ramadan, I met Lisa Milton, head of HQ Stories and my now publisher, at the Bradford Literature Festival. I was invited down to London two weeks later to discuss The Family Tree, and it felt like a particularly solemn time to be in the capital. I was asked by HQ if I had any ideas for a second book. I didn’t, so I had a few sleepless nights worrying about I could write about.
Around that time, BBC coverage of the 70th anniversary of the Partition of India also started. I watched every documentary that came on as it was a subject that I was already interested in. A lot of elderly men were interviewed in these programmes and the emotion just poured out of them. For some of them, it was the first time they had spoken about the Partition, the first time they’d ever been asked. Yusuf came to me almost instantly and fully formed.
Despite them being two very different tragedies on completely different scales, and time periods, there are some parallels to be made between Grenfell and Partition. The idea of cover ups, the catastrophic failings of those in power, and as Yusuf says in the book, ‘the disposable bodies of poor people’. It just felt like the right place to start and have both the protagonists wake up during Ramadan and see the Grenfell Tower fire on their TV screens.
CV: The emphasis on family and the transformative power of Rubi’s relationship with her Grandpa is such a special part of Hidden Fires. Your first novel The Family Tree also focussed on family – is this a theme you have always been interested in writing about? Do you think it will endure as a central theme in your work going forward?
SH: I’ve definitely focused on family in my first two novels. I guess I wanted to explore the representation of British Muslim families that didn’t involve honour killings, forced marriages, strict, overbearing parents and kids being radicalised. With The Family Tree, I wanted to write a counter-narrative to the prevailing stereotypes that I’d grown up with, whether that was in the books that I read or the films and TV shows that I watched. My focus has always been on ordinary families and the extraordinary things that can happen to them. I’m honestly not sure what my next project will be about yet, but I’m sure there will be a messy, loving, chaotic family in there somewhere!
CV: The novel is rich with British Muslim language and cultural references, without explanation or translation for a non-Muslim audience. Can you tell us more about this? Was this a stylistic choice or the result of writing authentically from your own experience?
SH: I’d say both. I have always written from experience and observation when it comes to my own community of course, so that is where the authenticity comes from. But I have also never felt the need to anglicise my characters or try to make them something they are not. An example would be with me not italicising the Urdu/Punjabi words throughout. There is an ongoing discussion about this, and I can see the argument for both sides, however I choose not to highlight the ‘foreignness’ of these words. They are a natural part of my characters’ vocabulary so I don’t see the need to draw attention to them. Readers can easily Google a word they don’t understand. I have done this myself countless of times.
CV: When Rubi learns about Partition for the first time, she feels a responsibility to help her Grandpa express and work through his own personal experiences of Partition. Did you feel a similar responsibility as a writer, to share these stories that are so often hidden away?
SH: Many people, even those of a similar background to me, don’t know much about the Partition of India. It has been obscured from the curriculum in British schools, and our families don’t talk about it either because it’s too painful. Everything I learnt about it, I did so because of my own curiosity.
It took a while for me to figure how to approach a such a topic. What was the best way for me to tell this story? There are so many historians and journalists out there who are much more qualified than me to detail the history of this event, and I hope readers go on to do their own research into what happened. I guess my role was just to let them know, through this tender story about a grandfather and his granddaughter, that there was such a historical moment in not just Indian and Pakistani, but also British history, and it changed and destroyed so many lives forever.
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Hidden Fires is published on 18 January 2024 with HQ, and we have three copies to give away!
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