5Q Interview: Umar Timol, 2018 IWP Resident

The Writing University conducts is a series of interviews with writers while they are in Iowa City participating in the International Writing Program's fall residency. We sit down with authors to ask about their work, their process and their descriptions of home.

Today we are talking with Umar Timol, a poet and fiction writer from Mauritius.

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1.  Do you have a plan or project in mind for your time at the residency?

During my time at Iowa I want to work on a literary and photographic project of mine, Muslims Faces in the American Midwest. I would like to interview around fifty or so Muslims, ask them about their lives in the Midwest, take their portraits in black and white. I’d like to understand the place of Muslims in American society, and better understand America. It’s an exercise in empathy, I guess, an attempt to truly listen to the other, to be a witness to their words, write them down. I think such an exercise is essential, in our times, when hate and all its discourses are magnified around the world. It’s imperative for us to build bridges, listen to the other. Humanise the other, in a way. I’ll publish the photos and interview extracts on a dedicated Facebook page. I dream of exhibiting my photos one day, and maybe even publish a book. 

I also have another project, close to my heart. I wrote a novella, Diary of an Old Madwoman, which will soon be adapted to the stage in Mauritius by Gaston Valayden. 

The diary tells of the woes of a Mauritian woman approaching old age, who lives in France. She speaks of her deep unhappiness, her unease, her bitterness, her existential quest, her search for love. A young Mauritian actress, Vinesha Bissoondeeal, has brought her to life; in the rehearsals, I was surprised by the violence of my text, which is my own work…and yet!

I don’t know if it’ll be possible for the piece to be performed in Iowa or somewhere else in the United States, but I’d like to see it happen, work with an American actress – or ask Vinesha to visit, how about that! The English version of the novella was translated by Ariel Saramandi.

I have a third project (too many projects, perhaps), which is to hold a small exhibition of my black and white portraits. 

And obviously, I haven’t forgotten the most important thing I’d like to achieve in my time here, which is to write. I’m working on a poetry collection, a poetry of fragments, and I’d like to finish it during my stay. For sure, new ideas will probably come to fruition during my time in Iowa, but let’s wait and see. 

2. What does your daily practice look like for your writing? Do you have a certain time when you write? Any specific routine?

I’m rather chaotic. I teach, I am the father of two children, I have a lot to do. I try and find an hour or more every day to write. I have a fixed goal, whereby I must write a minimum of 500 words per day. I don’t reach it very often. When I don’t feel confident, I can’t write. When I feel like I can put meaningful words to paper, the writing flows, incessantly, uncontrollably. 

I think writing’s a fight, a combat with oneself, against one’s fears and doubts. It’s also a moment of intense happiness and fulfilment, when you enter a kind of communion with yourself. Writing, to me, is almost sacred. 

3. What are you currently reading right now? Are you reading for research or pleasure?

I’ve read and loved many American novels. They really strike something in me. I also fell in love with Jhumpa Lahiri’s recent book, where she talks of her love affair with the Italian language. It’s a book on linguaphilia for sure, but also on the work of writing – you find the same sensitivity to her non-fiction as you do in her fiction. Her writing is marked by a certain nostalgia.

In my research for Muslims in the Midwest I also read Servants of Allah by Sylviane Diouf, which is a fantastic, devastating account of the Muslim slaves who were brought to the country. I was surprised to learn there were so many Marabout scholars among them.

4. What is something the readers and writers of Iowa City should know about you and/or your work?

That writing saves me. I know it’s such a pseudo-romantic cliché, but I went through a dark period and through writing I was reborn. An adventure that changed my life, that allowed me to travel, meet people, to be read, which allowed me to discover other artistic practices such as photography. I can’t really imagine what my life would have been today without writing. I was also extraordinarily lucky the day I met my wife, Shaheen. It’s not always easy to live with someone like me, whose head is in the clouds, but she has always supported me and encourages me to go beyond what I think is possible. We have to children, Soufyaan (15 years old) and Maariya (13 years old), and they are our reason for living. Soufyaan published two short stories in the Collection Maurice anthology, and he has written some film criticism – he loves Marvel and DC. Maariya writes beautiful poems but youtube’s her priority at the moment! 

5. Tell us a bit about where you are from -- what are some favorite details you would like to share about your home?

Mauritius is a tiny country in the Indian Ocean. Many people have probably never heard of it. It’s a fascinating, complex and contradictory place to live that everyone should visit, not for the exotic clichés (which all contain a grain of truth – our beaches and lagoons are indeed magnificent, our street food truly is among the world’s best) but for its cultural diversity, hybridity. We have excellent writers and poets, such as Ananda Devi, Natacha Appanah, Lindsey Collen, Amal Sewtohul, Barlen Pyamootoo, Edouard Maunick, Carl de Souza, Yusuf Kadel, Sylvestre Le Bon, Gillian Genevieve etc. Such brilliant, rich literature, that evokes the heady multiculturality of the island.

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Thank You Umar! 

Umar will be reading with Aušra Kaziliunaite and Darius Stewart at Prairie Lights Bookstore at 4pm this Sunday, Aug 26, 2018: Link

Umar Timol (poet, fiction writer; Mauritius) is the author of four poetry volumes, two novels, and two comic books; his poetry collection 52 Fragments pour l’aimée [52 Fragments for the Beloved] (2016) received the Poetry Prize at the Moldova Poetry Festival. Timol is a teacher, photographer, founding member of the mixed-genre journal Point Barre, and a frequent presence at poetry festivals.