Knowing an author colours your reflections on any book. Perhaps that’s why it’s best to keep a distance from writers you may have the opportunity of knowing: the separation between the writer as a personality and the writer as a creator becomes blurred, and your engagement with the text and the story becomes weighted with the baggage of familiarity.
That’s a principle I couldn’t abide by when my father, Omar Khan, wrote his memoir, Sawdust Castles. It was an inevitability that I would read it. I was part of the process, in a sense, giving him advice, acting as a sounding board for ideas as he navigated his own personal history for the vignettes that would form that arc of his story. I hadn’t read it in its entirety once it was completed, only snippets and anecdotes, parts that would make the whole as my father needed another eye during the writing and editing process. Once completed, I thought reading the memoir through from its beginning to the end would have been a mere recapitulation of the snippets of text I had read, or the conversations I had during this process.
This wasn’t the case when it came to diving into the story of my father’s early life. The immersion into the narrative all readers feel when absorbed in a book became a strange experience for me. I was pulled into seeing “Omar Khan” the character not as my father or even as an author so much as a boy in a hostile world, suffering from loneliness, witnessing and being the victim of considerable violence, but also finding joys in small pleasures: glimpses of young girls on parade, experiencing the camaraderie of school mates, feeling the ecstasy of religious fervour at Sufi shrines.
To say that I had learned something new about my father after finishing his memoir would only be partially true. Many episodes I read were certainly new. Some of those individual stories were harrowing explorations into parts of my father’s life that were understandably kept hidden (the incidents involving the policeman and my father’s schizophrenic cousin Yasub being particularly arresting). Other passages were familiar the way family legends become part of your own personal lore. More than anything, however, reading my father’s memoir was a fascinating experience in literary possession. “Omar Khan” the character became an avatar for my own childhood, my experience of childhood isolation, my longing for a better way of living, the particularities of those feelings that I had thought so specific to my childhood and early adulthood reflected in my father’s life.
“I am naive enough to read incessantly because I cannot, on my own, get to know enough people profoundly enough,” says Harold Bloom. Reading Sawdust Castles has left me with more than a profound understanding of my father. It has left me with the realization that our parent’s lives are more than artifacts of our familial history, that the variations of their lives echo in our own. Sawdust Castles, my father’s story, has, in a very personal and unique way, become my own.
Saad Omar Khan
Sawdust Castles is available on Amazon.ca.
For more reviews on Sawdust Castles, please see this review in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper.