Priya Basil Interview

Interview with
Priya Basil
by Kerrie Anne

Priya's writing career began early inventing medical conditions, forging her parents’ signatures and developing excuses all aimed at avoiding sports lessons.  Like so many authors she studied English Literature and following her graduation from the University of Bristol she worked for 3 years in advertising, a career which she found soul sapping and unrewarding. Her partner then offered her the chance to move to Berlin in order to spend more time with him and work on her long dreamt first book. Two years later the resulting book, Ishq and Mushq,
explored many events close to her own life and came second in the World Book Day 'Book to Talk About 2008' competition. It was also short-listed for a Commonwealth Writers' Prize, long-listed for the Dylan Thomas Award and gained the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Priya's second book, The Obscure Logic of the Heart, couldn’t be further away from her own experience. Priya is an atheist and yet Obscure Logic tells the story of a devoted Muslim daughter who falls in love with a non Muslim man and deals with aspects of life facing refugees in camps such as the Sudan and the pressures placed on the United Nations as well as the religious and family implication such a relationship brings.

It does however include Priyas’ passions for the Control Arms Campaign and she is keen to be a more active advocate in a legally binding Arms Trade Treaty. On September 21st 2010 Priya will be involved with a World Record Attempt at the International Literature Festival Berlin. Authors for Peace, a 24-hour global live online reading, to mark the UN’s International Peace Day.

Welcome Priya Basil to The View From Here.

What prompted you to write The Obscure Logic of the Heart?

Forbidden love is, of course, a common story. If people have not experienced it personally, they’ll have read about it, or seen various friends and relatives suffer some version of the dilemma. Very often in such situations things don’t work out well for all involved, and I found myself wondering why this was the case. I’m intrigued by the awful possibility that even true love might not be enough to help one rise above differences. I wrote this story partly to explore whether love really can conquer all.

As an atheist, what unique perspective did this give you into the lives of Lina and Anil given she is a devout Muslim?

As an atheist I’ve long been baffled by how people can believe in God and allow a set of religious laws to govern the most intimate aspects of their lives. Part of the challenge in writing this novel was to explore sympathetically a devout religious sensibility, a mindset quite different from my own. At an intellectual level it’s easy to feel alienated from a person whose world view clashes with your own, but if you can connect with the person emotionally the differences can often be bridged.

The Islamic faith is one currently shrouded in controversy. From peace loving to terrorism, from freedom fighters to war the descriptions vary depending on who you speak with. How did you find a pathway through the rhetoric and how indicative of reality is Lina’s family views?

Lina’s family’s religious beliefs are steadfast and inflexible. Her father, Shareef, lives by the rules and won’t budge for anyone, not even the daughter he loves most dearly. He is clear that ‘God has made laws for us to follow. You can’t say: I believe but I’m not going to do this or that. God and the laws are one.’ Unfortunately, such orthodoxy is quite common. There are many people like Shareef who seem reasonable in many ways, and yet are totally unbending when it comes to religious laws.

I started off feeling I could never get to grips with this kind of thinking. It took a lot of thought, research and care to build Shareef’s character and life up to a point where his choices and actions began to appear logical, necessary and, above all, moving to me. I managed it partly by listening to and reading the words of different religious thinkers, like Tariq Ramadan. I used their tone and vocabulary as a starting point for the creation of Shareef. It was through finding the right language that I was able to appreciate Shareef’s commitment to his faith, which is the commitment of a decent man to an ideal.

There are stark contrasts between the two main characters in The Obscure Logic of the Heart, his being of privilege and hers of modesty. Lina’s life seems to follow the middle ground between the squalor of the refugee camps, and the decadent waste of the Anil’s privileged lifestyle. Lina’s struggle to reconcile the contrast is very much understated throughout the book. She is accepting in part and willing to overlook for a while how this wealth was built. Is this how you see most peoples' reaction when given the choice between the two?

I wanted Lina to have a strong social conscience, which would further complicate the private realities of her own life. Her dilemma is an extreme version of one encountered by every human being who has much more than they need: how to enjoy that privilege and, at the same show regard and consideration for those with too little. I became more preoccupied with how we achieve this balance a few years ago after reading Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save.

One thing I found disturbing was Lina’s family resolve being against the relationship. Using their faith to justify all aspects of good and bad in their and others lives. Why did you choose to portray the family in this light rather than the more popular view of reconciliation?

Unfortunately, Lina’s family represent a common attitude. Resistance to someone perceived as ‘other’ – because of his or her religious, ethnic, cultural or social background – is expressed regularly all over the world.

I wanted to portray a version of Islam that is severe, but more humane than the cliché which shows extremism ending in violence – be that honour killing or suicide bombing. So the parents are strict, and refuse to accept Lina’s relations with a non-Muslim, but even at their most resistant they are somehow dignified, and they never resort to any ugly action. Of course, the fact that they are ready to sever ties with their daughter simply because she loves the ‘wrong’ man is awful enough, and this should disturb us even if we come to feel sympathy for the parents.

“How can your father’s happiness be more important than your own? Than our’s?”

Was there any other ending you had in mind for the book? 

I wrote the last scene shortly after starting the book. Although it changed over subsequent drafts, the essence of it remained the same, and this confirmed my sense that it was inevitable, yet surprising, and also right.

You are a passionate supporter of the binding Arms Trade Treaty. How can readers help to make this a reality? And what steps should countries take to stop the trade in illegal Arms?

The international arms trade is considered by Transparency International to be one of the three most corrupt businesses in the world. A legally binding Arms Trade Treaty would limit unscrupulous arms suppliers and help stop those international transfers of arms that are likely to be used for serious human rights violations, and fuel conflict and poverty.

The Control Arms Campaign and CAAT (Campaign Against the Arms Trade) are both civil society organizations campaigning for just such an Arms Trade Treaty. If you visit their websites you’ll learn about different ways to support the cause. For example, you can sign up to 'Million Faces', which is a visual petition - a way for you to show your concern about the spread of arms around the world. There are also opportunities for you to attend rallies and lobby your politicians.

What next for Priya Basil?

I’m currently involved with a project I initiated called Authors for Peace. On September 21st 2010, the International Literature Festival Berlin will host Authors for Peace, a 24-hour, global, live online reading to mark the UN’s International Peace Day. In this event, which is the first of its kind, and which was proposed to the festival by me, authors from all over the world will read from their work in a gesture of solidarity with those who are oppressed, or caught in conflict. Hopefully, many citizens worldwide will join in to watch the event, thereby amplifying the spirit of peace and unity. You, too, can be part of this special event. To find out more visit

Thankyou for talking to us Priya.

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