Abeer Hoque is so many things all at the same time that the simplest way of introducing her is still quite a mouthful: she’s a Nigerian-born, Bangladeshi-origin, US-based writer, poet, editor and photographer. Her published works include a novel in stories, The Lovers and the Leavers, and a photography collection, The Long Way Home. Her memoir, Olive Witch, was published by HarperCollins India in February 2016.
Hoque and I have met only somewhat briefly in person, but our correspondence began several years before our first meeting via email. Not only am I big fan of her many talents, but when I learnt that in 2005 she sold or gave away all her belongings and bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok and ended up travelling for seven years across 30 countries on five continents, I knew I had found a kindred spirit.
I was thrilled to get the opportunity to chat with Hoque about her creative process.
How early did you know you wanted to write?
I always wrote poems from a young age and I started a journal as a teenager. As a kid, though, I thought I would be a mathematician because I loved the neatness of numbers and equations. It was only when I got to my second year of studying maths at university that I realised I was completely out of my depth (and that real maths has very little to do with neat numbers). The writing epiphany would take place two business degrees, a startup job and many years later. I’m a slow learner.
Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote?
No, and I’m happy about that. It was probably a terrible cheesy poem.
When did you first become interested in photography?
I started taking photos at parties in grad school. My first digital camera was gifted to me in 2003 by my friend Arshad who recognised my growing obsession with photography, even before I did.
In The Lovers and the Leavers, the settings shift from Spain to Bangladesh to the United States to India, and your characters appear to have little in common with each other. What at first appears to be standalone vignettes come together to create an interwoven tapestry of interconnected lives. Moreover, you use prose, poetry and photography together to create a unique story that has to be experienced in their whole cohesive form. Did you start a story in one medium and then continue it in another?
I don’t always have a clear sense of why I’m writing something or how I’ll shoot a photograph or what I’ll use it for. My strategy is to produce as much as I can, and then pick and choose and twist and mould the various bits into one hopefully coherent piece.
You make the bold decision to tell two stories simultaneously, one using prose and one using intersections of poetry. It’s very deftly done, like in my favourite chapter, ‘The Alphabet Game’. Could you explain a little more about how this came about?
In the entirety of The Lovers and the Leavers I use the poems to give a different point of view, sometimes from a side character’s point of view, someone who may or may not become a main character in another story, or an inner dialogue of the main character, or something else altogether. So in ‘The Alphabet Game’, the part of the story in text is told straight, from Raza’s blasé teenage boy POV, but then you get a more intense poetic emotional erotic story from the poems.
In your collection of photography, The Long Way Home, the book is divided into sections like windows, bodies of water, night walks. How did you decide on the themes?
Some were obvious – my photographic obsessions are often clear to everyone who sees my work. For some of the other categories, my friend Paul, who does some incredible collage work with his poetry, suggested printing out a few hundred photos and throwing them on the ground and seeing what I saw. That helped me figure out a couple more sections. I didn’t want to use geography – it felt too easy and trite. I try to show the places we inhabit can be viscerally and visually connected.
Is photography to you a mood, a story or a detail?
I think it can be all or each of those things. Photography releases me from the pressures I feel in writing. With words, I have to check whether I’m being serious or silly, macro or micro, clarifying or subsuming. With photographs, maybe those aspects come more intuitively. And when I pair words with photographs, then both mediums have to adjust to each other. They can be complements or backstory or side-story or crux or mood or detail, and the beauty of it is it’s up to the reader/viewer to decide how they want to engage.
I’d like to focus on your latest release, your memoir Olive Witch. Which came first: the title or the content?
Definitely the content. I always pick titles after finishing a piece. The very first version of Olive Witch was a forty-page autobiography we had to write for our first class in the MFA programme at USF back in 2001. We could choose any time frame: one year, one day, our whole lives.
I chose my whole life and wrote a series of shorts from alternate years of my life and I called it “The Odd Years”. When I extended this to a 150-page manuscript for my thesis for the MFA programme, I changed the name because it was too constraining to keep it to just the odd years. “Olive Witch” is a nickname I got in college, and so that seemed like a good eponymous-but-not title for a memoir.
Did you develop a one-line pitch?
I spent a good month trying to write the book jacket summary for Olive Witch. It was murder. As per my publisher, I had to make it dramatic without being cheesy. My sister hated every version I gave her until the last one. It still sounds melodramatic to me, but hopefully that won’t tip over into annoying. I’m still lost on the one-line pitch. I guess I’d say it’s a memoir about growing up, and it’s set in the three countries I’m from: Nigeria, the States, and Bangladesh.
Did you have a preferred system for planning your book?
Not really. I wrote all the chapters as standalone pieces. So the challenge was trying to get them to all fit together after the fact.
Did you write long hand or on the computer?
The only thing I still write long hand is poetry and journal entries, and even those are sometimes on the laptop now. Olive Witch makes use of both poems and diary entries, so I definitely went back to the “archives” to write certain sections of the book.
Did it go according to plan?
Not at all. I rewrote Olive Witch probably a dozen times between 2003 and 2012 – and I mean drastic changes including rearranging the chronology, hacking a section in half, doubling another section, and so on. Due to my relentless optimism (and writerly ego), I thought each successive draft was awesome. But then I’d get either a rejection or kind feedback, and have to start rewriting again.
What was the time gap between each draft?
Anywhere from weeks to years. I reworked Olive Witch on and off from 2003 to 2012. But there were huge gaps in there. From 2006 to 2008, I wrote The Lovers and the Leavers. From 2010 to 2013, I worked on a novel about memory loss. And from 2012 to 2013, I put together The Long Way Home.
How many darlings did you kill?
I never really kill them. I just save them in another file…
How much was shaped by other people, and who were they?
My editors over the years have been friends, sometimes writers, most often avid readers, once a screenwriter, a few filmmakers, one agent, and now my awesome editor, Somak Ghosal at HarperCollins India, whom I adore and who has perhaps spoiled me for any other editor because of his generous thoughtful feedback. I find anyone who likes the written word and thinks about them carefully and deeply can be a good reader.
At what stage did you feel comfortable talking about it? About sharing the manuscript?
I have to have some level of completion of a manuscript before I show it to anyone. It can’t be half done. The skeleton has to be there, and usually a whole lot more.
How long did it take to find an agent/publisher?
Forever. I’ve been writing since 2001 and have had various manuscripts to shop around, as they say, since 2003. I’ve queried probably 200 agents (good god), and more than a few dozen independent publishers. I’ve come close a couple of times with agents, most notably in 2012 with Olive Witch. An American agent was really interested but despite four overhauling rewrites in the space of one gruelling year, we couldn’t settle on something we were both happy with and so parted ways. In 2014, I finally – through a mutual friend – got connected to Somak, who had then newly joined HarperCollins India.
What won him over, do you think?
Somak loved the manuscript of The Lovers and the Leavers that I sent him. He offered me a two-book deal, and I gave him the only other finished/polished manuscript I had, which was Olive Witch that he also liked. It’s so very nice when you meet an editor who gets your work. His edits have always been extremely considerate of my style and theses and word choices and sentence structures and so on. It’s a pleasure getting edited by him. I always feel like the work is better for it and yet all my own.
Do you have a routine?
I have a gorgeous writing space in a New York Public Library research room in midtown Manhattan, a 20-minute walk from where I live – a big beautiful silent room made of marble with bankers’ lamps and wide tables. If I am being good, then I get there by 10 or 11 am and stay till 6 pm when the library closes, eating nuts and fruit all day like a squirrel. Of those eight hours, I probably spend two to four hours actually writing. The rest of the time is spent editing (my day job), logistical stuff (applications, work email, marketing, organising my life, updating my website, etc.), and f**king around on Facebook and the Internet and texting friends.
How do you cope with distractions?
As mentioned before, I’m terrible. I probably should buy that Freedom programme that blocks the Internet on your laptop. I should leave my smartphone at home when I go to the library. I should be better about keeping a work schedule. I shouldn’t get online till after 6 pm when I’m done with work. There are lots of ways to do it. I just haven’t been good about any of them.
What themes do you find yourself revisiting? Why?
The usual American immigrant theme of belonging. Also place. I’ve been obsessed with memory loss for almost ten years now and am writing a novel ostensibly about that.
What’s your next project?
I have three on the docket (moving forward very slowly if at all). A novel about memory loss. A collection of travel themed erotic short stories. A series of ekphrastic poems.
Give us the first line of your next novel.
“The closet is hot and dark and something sharp is pressing into his calf.” [From Memory Alone]
This article was originally published in a longer form here.
Nupu Press is a film producer and writer. Her blog is at www.nupupress.com