I take book festivals very seriously. I went to a second Open Book Fest event yesterday at City Hall, with Feryal Ali Gauhar , the author of the novel (though it’s based on real experiences) No Space for Further Burials. The narrator is an American soldier separated from his unit then captured, and the story takes place inside the cell of an asylum turned prison in the mountains somewhere outside Kabul, Afghanistan.
The narrator keeps a journal to record his harrowing experiences as he starts to lose track of time, and eventually, his sanity.
According to Gauhar, the novel was inspired by her experiences in warzones all over the world while she served as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund. Guahar has conducted interviews with survivors of the Mujahedeen after Soviet withdrawal from Kabul in 1994, and visited a home for paraplegic children in Bosnia.
It’s a very intense book—Publisher’s Weekly described it as “almost unreadable.” It was fascinating to hear about Gauhar’s process of writing such a daunting book. “I wrote it from my heart, not my head,” Gauhar said. It was completed in 24 days, an unheard of accomplishment. Gauhar called that time, “twenty-four days of madness.” Before she began No Space for Further Burials, Gauhar said she was living in the U.S. and married to a rich plastic surgeon. She recalled being offered free Botox treatments; “I could have stayed young forever,” she said.
But Gauhar felt called back to Pakistan, where she grew up, and where she says she wants to be buried. So she made the decision to leave her husband and a comfortable life in the States, and began writing No Space for Further Burials on the same day. For 24 days, she packed and made preparations to leave during the day, and wrote all night long. Gauhar said that while writing this book, “I was in an asylum myself.” She finished the novel, then left the country. Her husband never knew what she was up to.
The message of the book, Guahar said, is “War has no frontiers and peace knows no boundaries.” Also, she says her novel describes no heroes or villains, just people as people who possess the potential for kind or inhumane acts, all at once.
An audience member asked Guahar how she could stand to write brutal passages describing rape, violence and other atrocities. Gauhar said, “It would be unbearable for me not to write. ” Although, she said, her original intent was not to publish this work, just to purge and stay sane. She says she writes, “to live with the sadness that I carry.”
But the book has been published, and is also being turned into a screenplay. Gauhar warned against thinking of oneself as a “writer,” because that immediate conjures the image of “being read.” And Gauhar did not want to feel beholden to an audience’s likes and dislikes during her short, intense writing process.
I think co-presenter Margie Orford (a journalist, novelist and professional writer) closed the event on the best possible note by suggesting that Guahar was, “writing to give shape to experiences that obliterate language.”