Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Tonight at the Jimmy Carter Library: Imran Ahmad, "The Pefect Gentleman"

Tonight at the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta, the Georgia Center for the Book will feature an appearance by Imran Ahmad, currently on a "dream-come-true" tour the author has imagined for years.

Ahmad's new memoir ”The Perfect Gentleman: A Muslim Boy Meets the West” (Center Street) is a book about dislocation: moving from his native Pakistan to London, Ahmad describes with humor and drama the choices he made between his Islamic identity and his desire to embrace the West. In the awkward transition from East-to-West, from a feeling of home to a confusing new land, he has to grapple with some important questions: What does God do exactly? Do you automatically go to hell for following the wrong religion? And, not surprisingly, there are some unexpected dating questions: does owning a Jaguar help you get a beautiful girlfriend?

The Pefrect Gentleman is Ahmad's story of life a post-9/11 world and its discontents. Ahmad – a British Muslim of Pakistani origin – having led a fairly ordinary life in London,  became fed-up by the media hysteria which invariably linked Islam with terrorism, extremism and barbarism. He wrote the memoir, then called Unimagined, relating his ordinary life as a British Muslim: funny, insightful, and thought-provoking.

It may not be a surprise that the manuscript was originally turned down by every major British publisher, who expected the book to be  a memoir of misery or about Islamist terrorism:  as he tells one interviewer, "it had ‘no angle’ – i.e., I did not become a terrorist, so why would anyone be interested?"  

Originally self-published in Britain, Unimagined found an audience through Ahmad's dogged persistence and then mass-market publishing. Unimagined was published in Britain in 2007, and in the U.S. the following year. In Britain, the story grew to include his experiences in America into a trilogy: More Unimagined and The Path Unimagined followed in the UK. 

The Perfect Gentleman is a story that "will proceed mercifully briskly and you will not be tortured along the way." In a 2009 interview, Ahmad reveals that he wrote the book primarily with an American audience in mind: 

I originally wrote a book which covered the 42 years of my life, including those living in the United States (and America remained an important part of my life thereafter).  I couldn’t get any agent or publisher to consider this manuscript, so eventually I self-published it, as The Path Unimagined....

Throughout the books, America is a theme – because it’s been such an important part of my life (I guess you may take America for granted if you actually are an American).  It features less in
Unimagined, because I’m not actually living there (although I do visit Disney World!), but my growing perception of America as I grow up is very important.  There are so many exciting things about America, and so many contradictions.  I begin to have a glimmering of understanding that America isn’t clear and simple, that the world isn’t black and white. 
 Unimagined is written for an American audience -– because I know where the story is going –- but of course it deals with growing up in England, visiting Pakistan, and attending university in Scotland.  This growing up story, I have been told by many people, is universally resonant -– regardless of the background, religion, ethnicity, and even gender, of the reader.

The original self-published book was written in American English, but I had to undo this for
Unimagined, as my publisher is British.  I wrote the UK version carefully, so that it would still make sense to ‘my American readers’ (whom I even refer to at the very beginning).  I also discovered that the American readership most likely to read Unimagined would actually prefer the authentic British tone.  (Once you understand that ‘pavement’ means ‘sidewalk’, you’re all set.  But just in case, I have put a short glossary of terms on my U.S. page.)

 So the
Unimagined trilogy is written by me with America in mind – a country for whose people (but not necessarily its Administration and television media) I have the greatest affection and respect.  It is easy to respect a country which enshrines every individual’s right to pursue their personal happiness in its Constitution.  I am not aware of any other country which does this, certainly not any so-called Islamic country – where there is no concept of personal happiness, only of cultural and tribal constraints, and honor-bound duties (especially for women).

When I first approached American publishers, they all turned down
Unimagined, because it had ‘no angle’ – ie I did not become a terrorist, so why would anyone be interested?  So my British publisher has been exporting copies to the U.S.  The only issue with having a British publisher is that they are struggling to meet demand in the U.S., so I am again actively looking for an American publisher –- in light of the acclaim that Unimagined has received –- to take on this project in the U.S. and Canada.  If I get an American publisher, I‘m going to do a U.S. book tour by road –- what a dream-come-true that would be!

Ahmad will be in Atlanta this evening at the Jimmy Carter Library at 7:00 pm.

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