Pushing the Conversation Forward: An Interview with Kasim Ali
By Shaniah Shields, Jia Wen Ho and Madhu Manivannan
We caught up with Kasim Ali, an Assistant Editor at Penguin Random House, whose debut novel, Good Intentions, was published on 3 March. In this interview, Kasim tells us about his publishing journey, tackling taboos within the South Asian community and the experiences that have guided his writing.
Could you talk us through your journey into working in publishing?
I never thought I was going to work in publishing because it seemed so impenetrable to me. After I graduated from university with an English degree, I spent six months working in a horrific retail environment. Through doing a cursory Google about publishing internships, I came across Creative Access and had two interviews, one of which was successful. I gave in my notice and used all my savings to move to London, a place that I'd never been to before and where I knew nobody at all. I did a six-month internship at Faber & Faber in the editorial department, but I spent a little bit of time working in other departments too. I realised that editorial was where I wanted to be because I selfishly wanted to pick the books that I worked on. After that, I went back to Birmingham because I quickly ran out of money. I spent about six or seven months interviewing for different roles. I eventually managed to get a job at a super small indie near Nottingham as an Editorial Assistant, where I worked for about two and a half years, and then started working at Penguin as an Assistant Editor. It's been a strange sort of route where I’ve experienced super small, medium and really big environments.
How, if in any way, has your career in publishing impacted your writing career, and specifically, the writing of Good Intentions?
For such a long time they were completely separate. When I was working at Faber, I wasn’t ever thinking about my writing in terms of being connected to my job. I think I was a bit like “oh, it’s such a cliché to be writing and working in publishing.” In terms of how it impacted me, I think when you’re editing other people and learning those skills of editing, pace, and structure: it does inform your own writing because you learn very quickly. I was doing it quite unconsciously at first, but then after a while, I realised my writing was becoming stronger, and I was finding my voice. Also, I was writing non-stop for a long time and reading and editing lots. At Penguin, I think the reverse happened and publishing a book has impacted me as an editor, which gave me a better understanding of what it’s like to be an author. I’ve always been writing to get published; I’m not going to be the kind of person who says I’ve always been writing for me because I was writing for an audience. I think my career impacted my writing a little bit though, but actually, it’s my career as a writer that has massively impacted my career as an editor. I said to someone the other day that I think all editors should have to write a book and be edited and published because it’s taught me so much about the other side of things and has made me a better publisher all round. It is like a complete perspective change.
I especially enjoyed the dynamic between the characters and how naturally the conversation flowed. What inspired the dynamic between these characters within Good Intentions?
I've always been the person who loves to listen to other people talk. When I was at college, I would sit in Starbucks to read, but actually, I was listening to all these conversations around me. I just find it so fascinating to hear the way people talk to each other. As I was writing this book, I wanted it to be as sincere, authentic and genuine as I could. A big part of that is how people talk to each other. I didn't want a monologue, just going on about a big ideological point. I wanted people to have very natural conversations. It's not just jokes and banter but also talking about big things. Like myself, sometimes I undercut things with humour when things get too serious; I wanted to bring that element to the book.
Recently, The Times have described you as “being part of a fresh literary wave of men exploring their vulnerabilities.” Nur’s anxiety and panic attacks are instrumental to certain events in the novel. Why did you decide to showcase this “vulnerability” in young British Pakistani men?
Writing about mental health came out of that very natural conversation I was having with myself about the character. I realised as I was writing and editing that I was doing something very interesting as I’m exploring a side of masculinity that I don’t see often, especially with South Asian men and Muslim men. Looking back, I realise that I was finding a space for myself. My father is from Pakistan, and I grew up with him expressing no emotion apart from anger and I internalised that. At university, I started learning more about everything like feminism and racism and how they informed my life. I was starting to shed those layers of cold hard crystallisation of the man I should be. At the centre of my writing, there’s a boy or man who is open, vulnerable but also complex and nuanced. In writing Good Intentions, I was also responding to a lot of the female-centric stories I’ve read where they were so great and murky. I didn’t actively think I’d deconstruct masculinity in South Asian culture, very simply, I’m writing the kind of person I want to see in a book. I see people’s reviews on Instagram talking about how refreshing it is to see a South Asian male character or a Muslim in a story like this where he isn’t angry or in pain but soft and gentle. He’s hurting people, but he’s doing it because he has good intentions. I’m just so glad it’s hitting those people, and the message is going out there. I hope that more people feel they can write those kinds of stories and that we continue to see them because men cry too, and it’s okay.
What made you want to explore the theme of anti-Blackness within the Pakistani community?
There's a lot of anti-Black sentiment running through the Pakistani Muslim community I grew up in. Whenever I've had conversations about it, I get told, “Islam is not racist. The first Muslim in the world was a Black man called Bilal. How can we be racist?” Islam as a religion may not be anti-Black, but our culture is, and that's the conversation I'm trying to have. But people conflate the two, so it becomes this complicated conversation that people don’t want to see themselves in. At university, I reflected on an incident from my teenage years and realised that my mum had said something anti-Black. I had a sudden moment of realisation and saw loads of things from my past in a different light. When I was thinking about this book, I wanted to try writing an interracial romance between two non-white people. I realised that by making my main character a South Asian man, I could make the love interest a Black, Muslim woman and talk about anti-Blackness within our community. I struggled with that when I was writing it. Maybe we don't want to shine a bad light on our people, so we don't have these hard conversations. But I really hope that people read this and talk to their parents. When the book deal happened, I remember having a conversation with a family member who was quite defensive about it. I'm not trying to be accusatory, but I do want to be more open about important issues within our community and acknowledge our shortcomings.
I recently read the brilliant list of books you curated by men of colour for Bad Form. What are your hopes for the future of literature by male authors of colour?
I hope that books by non-white men will continue to be published, and inspire more people to write. I want to see more non-white men publishing books, but they just don't seem to be appearing. Editors will quite often say, the books are not coming from agents, agents will say, the books are not coming to us from the submissions, so the blame comes back to non-white men. That's not true because I refuse to believe that I'm one of ten non-white men in Britain that want to write. The question is: why are we not reaching them, and why do they not feel confident enough to send their books in?
It's such a big conversation that I sometimes feel people don't want to have. There's an attitude in publishing that men have enough. But what kind of man are we talking about? It's only true for straight white men; they've been dominating the charts. But for younger men, queer men or non-white men, I don't see those names. I don't see those voices. I don't see those books. Publishing has an issue with conflating men as every man, but it needs to be more specific and more hyper-localised.
I hope my own book does well because I want to continue to write for the rest of my life. But also, I hope that there is a kid who picks up Good Intentions and feels that someone's written about them and is inspired to write because someone who looks like him has done it. That's my hope, that we see more books being published by men of colour, and they do well and they resonate with people.