Nigar Alam writes with piercing delicacy, handling complex, sensitive issues with the lightest of touches. The protagonist in her short, The Test, first published in our Lost in Translation issue, says, “It didn’t take long to lose one’s dignity, I thought.” Yet Nigar handles her characters with such gentleness and dignity, letting their humanity shine in a quiet, understated way. She illuminates small moments with grace and compassion, using setting to her advantage to create for us tiny models of the real world that leave our hearts full of real feeling — and real questions.
If you were a diorama, what would you be? Describe the setting, objects, figures, materials etc.
A silk, hand-knotted carpet in deep red and black, geometric patterns, lots of symmetry, soft and smooth underfoot. That’s what would be levitating right in the center, rippling like waves. A flying carpet carrying my family, my friends, through clean clouds and beneath us the buildings and mountains and oceans and cities flowing into each other. Full, yet uncluttered.
What was your favorite place when you were 10? 21? Now?
At 10, my favorite place was Rome, Italy. At 21, it was Karachi, Pakistan, and now it’s Eden Prairie, Minnesota. My favorite place has always been home (a blessing, I realize) even though its location changed drastically every several years. With very little warning, I would be told to say goodbye to my friends because we were moving to a different country, a different continent. But I was also told that every place has its good and not-so-good features. We just need to focus on the good, always on the good. The bad would be temporary anyway.
What is your earliest memory? Create a writing prompt based on that memory that focuses on the idea of place.
My earliest memory is of getting hurt. I was on a seesaw alone, scooted up to the center for balance. I noticed a lot of sand or dust sitting right where the moving horizontal part was connected to the fixed center pole. I stuck my right index finger into the dirt and pushed it here and there to clean it, and I remember being frustrated that it wouldn’t come out. Just then I wobbled on the seesaw. The rise and fall of the metal acted like scissors, nearly snipping a chunk off the tip of my finger. It hung barely connected. I still have a scar decades later. Now that I think about it, the memory is of frustration more than pain.
Writing prompt: You’re hurt, injured, and can’t move because of it. Your caretaker has parked you in your wheelchair on the balcony of your second floor apartment. You’re in pain and bitter about it. While following the everyday movements of your neighbors and strangers below, you witness a violent act, something that replaces your pain with fear. But it takes place so that only you can see it happen.
What are your five favorite words that you associate with sky? With land? With water?
Sky: crisp, majestic, jeweled, canopy, dense
Land: arid, unyielding, vast, sprouting, undulating
Water: gush, trickle, thunderous, engulfing, caress
What are your current obsessions?
Finding quiet time, injustice, healthy living, relationships.
In your stories, when does location come into play? Do you start with the place in mind and create the story around the setting? Or does it develop later?
For me, place usually comes in just behind the story. I find stories to be universal and not restricted by or requiring a particular setting. But of course setting is essential to make the story three-dimensional and real. So the idea comes to me, and as it builds, so does the place around it. It just fits. If I try to impose a specific place, it doesn’t work.
Please describe your writing routines and revision process.
I try to have a routine, but it doesn’t always happen. Ideally, I would write for several hours every morning, alone, but with enough distraction to keep me focused. Often though I use the hour at my daughter’s gymnastics class, or even the ten minutes waiting for the pasta to be done on the stove. My notes are all electronic now, which I find comforting but still overwhelming. It helps to work on one project at a time, at least for the smaller projects. A high school teacher once told me that writing is rewriting, and I seem to have made that my motto. I start with reading what I wrote earlier and inevitably spend a lot of time revising it. I force myself not to do that now, so that the story has a chance to progress. My best revision comes after putting the writing away for enough time that I have to actually read it to know what I wrote. That’s my most honest self-evaluation.
When is the last time you cried and why? The last time you laughed?
The last time I cried was not too long ago. I wasn’t mugged, or sworn at, or physically hurt. But I was put in my place, my inferior place. Being treated as less than others, knowingly by them and with no shame, it’s crushing. I cried from anger, helplessness, and just plain hurt. I don’t understand why minimal empathy is such a challenge for some.
The last time I laughed was this morning. I was doing some research on YouTube and clicked on a Lip Sync Battle. They’re hilarious. Can’t stop smiling even now.
If you could only cook with one spice for the rest of your life, what would it be?
It would definitely be cumin seeds. Tossing them, a few or a big pinch, in hot oil makes them sizzle and then pop, releasing their aroma with such force that it’s pushed far up the nostrils. It’s warm and sophisticated and not offensive.
What’s the last dream you remember?
I don’t remember my dreams often at all. But in the last one that I do remember (and I’ve certainly had this one before) I was back in school and unprepared for a critical exam. I was stressed, so worried and sick, literally. Nauseous. I hear this is a common dream, so I googled it once but found no definitive meaning.
What did your childhood taste like?
My childhood tasted of cake. All types of cake and baked goods waiting for me after school with a mug of cold milk. My mom is an excellent baker, so it was always a positive experience, but not only because of the cake. It was the routine, her presence, her unhindered attention at the table, along with the taste of cake.
If you were a stuffed animal, what would you be?
I would be a bear but not an overstuffed one. I’d be floppy and soft with a pink ribbon around my neck as my only accessory.
Photo by Swaminathan