Tamim Ansary's bio indicates that he "grew up in Afghanistan and grew old in America." Author of the bestselling memoir West of Kabul, East of New York, chosen as San Francisco’s One City One Book pick for 2008, Ansary writes on the experiences of "being caught between two existences."
"What western planners call democracy was an extraneous apparatus..." he read from his nonfiction book, Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes, as part of University of San Francisco's Lone Mountain Reading series on April 6. The book was a 2009 winner of the Northern California Book Award.
Ansary spoke of cultural conflict as being "better understood as two mismatched histories. It's not really a clash of civilizations--just differing frameworks to view the world." Without separate points of view on the world and in our writing, he said, there is a danger of delivering the ethnocentric message that "we're all the same -- and everyone's just like me."
Ansary, director of San Francisco Writers Workshop, never intended to be a spokesperson for Afghanistan or for the Afghan-American community with whom his stories "resonate." One day he was "just a guy living his life." When a post 9/11 email he sent to friends went viral, he had no idea the impact it would make. He went from someone afraid of public speaking to being an outspoken activist and eventually tackling his memoir.
"Now I know who I am -- the combination of all the things that don't fit," he said, with a typical twinkly-eyed smile about straddling two cultures.
Ansary also discussed the history of his own writing life, which he referred to as "a motley sort of course." He started at an Oregon free newspaper, then ended up in the San Francisco Bay Area when his car broke down on the way to LA. He went looking for a job at the Asia Foundation, where he ended up working for two years writing newsletters. "If you're a counterculture guy who lived on nothing, anything sounds pretty good," he said of the salary.
Freelance work followed ("hardly a way to make a living"), which led him to writing a "tiny feature" for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, an educational publishing company where he became senior editor for 7 years. Then, frustrated that he wasn't actually writing, it was back to the freelance life: "Free to work any 70 hours a week you want," he said, referring to a friend's joke.
And about the writing process? Get your material 1st. Structure 2nd.
"It's like coming to a wilderness and quickly putting a fence around some part of it you know contains a horse," he said.
During the Q & A someone asked what writers can do to change Western perceptions of Afghanistan. Don't write novels of "sensitivity" based in Afghanistan, he said.
"The writer's task begins at home. Write inside yourself looking out, instead of from outside looking in."