This Way Out in Conversation with Tufayel Ahmed
By Jenna Tomlinson
Bengali author Tufayel Ahmed is no stranger to accolades, nor to the pressures of writing. As a journalist, Ahmed worked for some of the biggest names in news and was a finalist for Journalist of the Year in 2017. But, his most recent challenge was writing his debut novel, This Way Out, written during the lockdown of 2020. I was lucky enough to speak to him about his novel and its impact on readers.
How challenging was your transition from journalist to debut author?
“It was very challenging, honestly. With journalism, I am often working to a short, tight word count and the emphasis is on sticking to the facts and quotes from real people. Writing a novel is wildly different. It requires a much broader imagination, much more descriptive prose, and you have to get into the minds of your characters and create their dialogue. That, to me, doesn’t come naturally, as it kind goes against all the factual writing I’ve ever done. Having said that, journalism has also served me well in writing the novel – because I work with words for a living, I can draft quickly and cleanly, and am quite precise in plotting my novel, sticking to deadlines and hitting my word counts.”
This Way Out is a fictional novel focusing on the character of Amar, a second generation British-Bangladeshi man living in London. After having suffered the loss of his mum, Amar’s life takes on a series of challenges and changes which lead him to meet his ideal partner, Joshua. Joshua and Amar’s relationship is idyllic and after the two become engaged, Amar finally opens up to his family about his sexuality, via the family whatsapp, with seismic consequences. Although Ahmed says that fictional writing doesn’t come naturally, you would not believe this reading after having read the book. Amar’s story flows from the page and the emotions felt by the characters are so raw and honest that I went through a whirlwind of emotions within the first few chapters.
This Way Out also handles a number of sensitive and contemporary cultural issues, including religion, sexuality, death, mental health and family expectations. Ahmed balances these issues well, using humour where he can and describing the importance of friendships at trying times.
You wrote This Way Out at a time when the whole country was facing lockdown and the pandemic. What impact did this have on your writing and your mental health?
“Lockdown actually fuelled my productivity! I wrote This Way Out during the first lockdown in the summer of 2020. I had just been made redundant from my job in the midst of a pandemic, and suddenly I didn’t have anything to do all day. So, I turned my full attention to writing the book, which had always been in the back of my mind as something to get to “one day,” and I devoted all my time to it, writing night and day as if it were my full-time job. It really helped give me a sense of purpose after losing my job, which was tough on my mental health, and confusing. I guess I was a little bitter, too, about it, and so I felt tunnel visioned on writing and publishing this book to show those people that I didn’t need them to be successful.”
Ahmed’s tenacity in writing such a prolific novel during lockdown has to be admired and it shows in his novel. I found myself racing through chapters of This Way Out, eager to follow the characters as they handled the trials and tribulations thrown their way. Ahmed’s description of Amar is palpable; you can see him at times making terrible decisions but simultaneously wholly understanding his anger and sense of lack of control which has led him there.
Is the book autobiographical in any way and if so, what parallels are there between you and your central character Amar?
“Certainly there are parallels between Amar and my own life – it is not wholly autobiographical, but there are similarities. Like Amar, I’m from a second-generation British-Bangladeshi background, of Muslim heritage, and grew up in East London. And, like Amar, I really struggled with my sexuality growing up. However, I’d like to think I’m more mature than Amar – it’d be no fun to have a protagonist that has it “together,” as it were, because there’d be no tension to the plot. I really liked the idea of him being a bit messy, having an inclination for self-sabotage, so the reader can follow his growth.
There are two aspects of Amar that feel closest to me. One is his humour, which is quite sardonic and self-deprecating. I am exactly the same. I grew up not very confident and was bullied for being overweight, so humour was my defence mechanism and still is. And secondly, I pulled a lot from my own grief over losing my mother five years ago into Amar’s journey. A lot of his grief is my own, written in words, in perpetuity, with the hope that others mourning might find some comfort from his journey.”
These descriptions of grief and mourning were some of the most relatable parts of the book for me. At times you grieve with Amar, understanding and feeling his loss, particularly when he shares his fond memories of his mum. Amar also links his mum’s death to his concern in his decision to tell his family about his sexuality – he worries that without his mum there to keep the family together, that his news will cause a rift which they cannot overcome.
This Way Out is an incredibly relevant and inspiring book, not least because of its representation of queer life beyond that of majority groups. Although it is humorous, you discuss deep and meaningful topics such as religion, culture and the nuances of family. Which books or authors have inspired you, both in your writing and your life?
“In This Way Out, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life plays a big part of the plot. That book, I think, showed a really unflinching depiction of queer life – particularly for people of colour and people with disabilities – that resonated with me. It was raw, heart wrenching, and introspective in a way that I’ve rarely seen. Yanagihara really takes you inside Jude’s psyche. A Little Life means a lot to me and other queer people, and so in a way, mentioning it in my novel, was my love letter to the book and Yanagihara.
I’m also awed by the work of Elif Shafak, who I think is probably our greatest living author. In books like 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World and The Island of Missing Trees, Shafak brings so much humanity and compassion to people that kind of live in the margins, that aren’t the stereotypical white characters depicted in novels. Even the emotion she ascribes to a tree is so bold, imaginative and hugely moving.”
This Way Out is a brilliant novel and its essence has been widely under-represented until now. I feel that Ahmed has shown a different side to the LGBTQIA+ experience in tackling the cultural and religious implications some LGBTQIA+ people face. It was also a good representation of how easily the experiences of minority groups can be overlooked.
In the book, Amar is in awe of Joshua’s family, who are supportive and positive about their relationship. However, Joshua’s mother soon begins to discuss ideas for the wedding and Amar realises that none of her ideas take into account his heritage or culture. Added to this, the majority of her ideas coincide with a traditional hetrosexual style of wedding, which Amar points out to the reader that the couple are far from. Although this is not done maliciously, Amar points out that it is done without thought, which is just as bad. It is an interesting commentary of society that conventions and traditions quickly take precedent, even in families that are supportive and loving; showing Ahmed’s eye for detail and nuance.
Aside from your obvious success, how has writing helped you in your general life?
“I grew up with Bangladeshi migrant parents, so English wasn’t actually my first language growing up – Bengali was. I only learned English in primary school, and from my older siblings and television. Writing, and discovering I had a knack for it, has been the greatest gift. It has afforded me the opportunity to pursue not one but two career paths that are rarely open to people from non-white, working class backgrounds. A lot of people of my generation were encouraged to pursue “respectable” jobs by our elders – teacher or doctor, for example. Working in news, media and publishing felt unattainable for people like my parents – it wasn’t “for us,” it was something they felt excluded from. So, to be making a living from writing, and showing other people like me that we don’t have to be limited by our upbringings, is just so rewarding.”
Finally, what advice do you have for any aspiring authors?
“My biggest piece of advice is to not be precious with your words. I’m so used to being edited and editing in my journalism career that I don’t have any qualms about harsh edits when it comes to my novel-writing. For aspiring authors it may be a bit of a shock to have your work edited or critiqued, but that’s part of the process and your editors are simply trying to make your work better. Keep your ego in check!”
This Way Out is available now and I wholly recommend it, especially for fans of Queenie, Yinka, Where is Your Huzband or Detransition, Baby. My only hope is that we don’t have to wait too long for the next novel from Ahmed.