Abeer & Nur
Abeer Hoque and Nur Nasreen Ibrahim talked about “The Death of a Glacier” over the phone.
Abeer: So I love this story for many reasons, not least because it has SCIENCE in it. It also features epic landscape, precisely realized characters, and a thrilling plot. Kamil mentioned that in fact, this particular story is a bit of a sharp swerve for you, in terms of genre. What’s your usual wheelhouse? And what does this piece mean to you?
Nur: I tend to write a lot of speculative fiction, not focused on technical plot-driven aspects, not action based. I like writing about emotions, about a person sitting with their feelings. I spend a lot of time with each character, as they grapple with something. It’s actually a struggle I have with writing something that feels plot driven. Like the situation in this story is driven by climate change. Writing it was a challenge! I’ve traveled to a few glaciers and visited a number of mountain ranges in Pakistan but I don’t really know the science of glaciers, or geology. So I was nervous about this story. I still am! I don’t think it’s a perfect story at all. Aaaah!
Abeer: Actually, I think it sounds like you either are a geologist or spoke with a geologist for a really long time. I so admire when writers take on technical fields in their writing, and I want to know how they did it. Did you interview a geologist? What were the intersections of research and imagination in the writing for you?
Nur: I spoke to a couple of geologists on Twitter and on the phone. This might be a cliché, but I love how people use setting to convey feeling. Shakespeare does it a lot. King Lear is my ultimate example of the atmosphere influencing the emotion and the state of mind of the character. Glaciers to me are very organic, moving, living beings that have their own personality. I had written another version of the story, with completely different characters but set next to the same glacier. But it was all about the characters’ relationships and not about the glacier. Yet I related to the glacier so much that I needed to write something with her involved and being an active part of it, rather than about these people in relationships and their respective dramas. So that was a completely different story and that was the style I was used to writing. I tried to shift and challenge myself. I’m actually going to send this story to the folks I consulted with, and hopefully, fingers crossed, they’re not going to be like oh, this is so wildly inaccurate. *cringes* [both laugh]
Abeer: I’m so glad you decided to make the glacier a central part of the story because for me, she’s the most compelling character, even as a non-human character.
Nur: The glacier that I visited in real life is not in the Himalayas as it seems in the story, but in the Karakoram. But I loved that glacier so much that I basically transferred it to the Himalayas. And that detail is important because the Karakoram isn’t facing the same kind of glacial reduction that the Himalayan glaciers are. It’s a unique anomaly. So it doesn’t seem to fit with the drama of the story where the glacier’s dying. It’s actually a very small, very minuscule glacier, compared to the others in that region. But I liked the image of the glacier because it felt like looking up at a throne descending and disintegrating. This glacier was still shrinking but it was so small, it didn’t really matter in the wider scheme of things. But the glaciers in the region around it weren’t facing the same depletion. But this particular glacier seemed like a very mournful figure and it was sort of stuck in between these gorgeous hulking mountains. I described her as a streak of lightning. Her image felt like such an essential part of the story in relation to the mountains in front of me, but so reduced. and I felt a kind of pity. Even though it’s not a living being but it’s very much a source of water and sustenance for the world that surrounds it. And yet, it can be missed so easily! When I look at the glacier, I see this beautiful being that is evolving so much. To our eye it seems to be something old and slow, and its depletion is suddenly sped up by climate change. For her, any small change takes decades and decades and decades. In the scheme of the whole universe and history, she’s a blip on the radar. And we’re even smaller than that. So I do find that aspect of time—the way glaciers see time, they move at a glacial pace—versus the way we see time, it’s so different. I think that mortality is why I found the glacier’s personality so fascinating.
Abeer: I definitely think that even if it’s an inanimate object, it has spirit and it has energy. So it’s a creature of sorts. It fully works. And when you talked about this story being a bit of departure for you, from speculative fiction, for me, that was actually the speculative part of the story, this otherworldly force among the human relationships. And that the landscape holds a sense of geologic time also comes through, and humans are sort of these specks, physically and time-wise. I think you captured that really well.
Nur: Thank you so much! I tried to read a bunch about how geologists perceive time. There are a lot of great articles about glaciers in California, and the sadness that the people who watch over the glaciers feel when they watch them deplete. It’s kind of a strange thing to be a geologist, you’re watching stuff happen over millennia. You realize in your lifetime—you can’t accomplish all that happens, you can’t see everything because our lives are so short. Geologists are probably more aware of our mortality because they are dealing with mountains and glaciers and rocks that have been there forever. It is a kind of existential crisis. Because one is used to seeing that solidity in nature around them, and now climate change is eroding all that, all that we think is more permanent than us. It’s no longer permanent. I was interested in exploring that crisis in a geologist’s mind, to feel so helpless as their life’s work and work that goes beyond their lifetimes, erodes. That conceit is very fascinating from a storytelling perspective. Because the conflict is bigger than all of us. It goes beyond our interpersonal relationships. And how does one make that relatable? That’s really hard. I want to keep exploring that in the future. This is really a first attempt at exploring that feeling of dread.
There are space stories that we all know, about surviving in space, and there’ve been so many movies that capture that dread so well, of feeling like you’re just this tiny thing and there’s this destructive universe around you. There are stories about mountaineers fighting the elements. I want to read more and write more about stories from the geologist’s perspective. But it’s an area I’ve just started exploring and I’m enjoying it.
Abeer: It’s interesting though, you chose a journalist as your main protagonist, not a geologist. Why is that?
Nur: I think that came from my insecurity. I started writing not knowing enough about geologists. And I thought it made sense for someone to be an observer and learning along the way. But as I kept researching, I realized that obviously she should know as much as a geologist in this situation. I think her character helped me bring in elements of the army, and why the army would be interested in imposing themselves on this group. Because they know their work will be put out there in the world. I often find that geologists, at least the ones I’ve spoken to grapple with translating their work a wider audience. But their work is extremely crucial in understanding climate change today and in the future. I always wanted there to be good journalism out there about the work of geologists, climate change and glaciers.
With Zohra, this narrator, my goal was to create someone who thinks they’re doing meaningful and important work, who thinks they have a higher purpose, in telling the story of a crisis affecting her country. I don’t think she succeeds in that, because of circumstances, but also because she struggles to assert herself. She is easily influenced by others, caught up in a relationship that is falling apart. She’s not ready to accomplish what she really wants and so she gets told what to do, or is pushed around by people in the army, or by Khadija, the other scientist, who kind of barrels over her and makes decisions for her in a crisis! She has a lofty opinion of herself and the job she has to do, but I don’t think she is capable of getting down to it.
Abeer: Tell me about language. As someone who started her writing career as a poet, language is really important to me. You said that you often think about characters over plot, and for me, I often think about language before I think about characters even. And I find the language in this story is so considered and evocative and precise. What role does language play for you in this piece, and in general? Is that something you think about?
Nur: Do you mean dialogue or descriptions?
Abeer: The descriptions for sure, but your dialogue too, it’s very natural.
Nur: When I’m writing setting or scene, or describing a place or a feeling, that’s way more natural to me than dialogue or providing action, like: she moved here, then XYZ happened, she pushed him. That’s very difficult for me to write. I’ve never felt that I’m good at putting characters in active situations. I think it’s a struggle for a lot of writers I’ve encountered—how do you make your characters less passive?
But that’s partly what influences my language. When I’m describing a scene or a mountain range or a vision of something, someone is passively watching the world unfold. And I think it’s that passivity that I find comfort in. Maybe it’s a negative approach to how to write setting, because obviously characters are very actively engaged in the setting around them. In your story, for example, you use place in relation to the characters in your story, and I thought you found a way to actively engage your characters and make the setting very much a part of the action. :) I find that really admirable and I struggle to do that myself. So this time, I tried to make this, in writing, in my scenes, in descriptions of places, I tried to make it something mean something to the action of the story which I normally don’t do. I spend way too much time writing about a dumb little tree, the way the light hits something! I’m not a poet, but I do like the descriptiveness of poetry, and suspending time in a moment. I love reading that but I’ve never tried to do poetry. I find that easier to write in prose.
Abeer: I mean this story is super thrilling so I feel like you’ve done both of those things—you’ve created the landscape and the landscape is such an integral part of the plot line. You’ve melded those two things perfectly together. What was it like working with the particular artist you worked with by the way?
Nur: Thank you! So—Seyhr's work has a blurred, eerie quality to it, her images often toe the line between realism and otherworldliness. I loved how bold her interpretation of Palvashay's story was and was so curious how she would handle a landscape, or something dealing with larger, less intimate themes. Yet, when she presented a glacier landscape to us, I felt like the colors, the textures truly gave the glacier a character, a personality, the way I hope the story did. I don’t feel deserving of her work, it really pulls me in! We WhatsApped regularly about how to portray figures on the glacier and I wanted to highlight how much humans are like ants (or even smaller) in relation to nature. She really understood and internalized it! Now I can’t stop myself from looking at the illustration again and again because this corner of a world I tried to create feels so much more real and yet so fantastical.
Abeer: This question is about the structure of the story—I loved the reportage element, coming, naturally, from the journalist's POV. The day by day recounting of events and it becomes more and more compressed and shorter as the plot line speeds up. It's a conceit that works very effectively. Did you know where you were going to start and end? Did you have an idea of the structure of the story when you set out?
Nur: The structure played out differently with each draft. My writing tends to start at a moment, or start at a particular scene that strikes me very strongly. In this case, the person climbing up and seeing a glacier after a very long time or for the first time, and being struck by its beauty. And then I write in that moment and I keep writing naturally from there. It’s a writing workshop technique, I guess, writing like a madman first, and then making it more structured later on. I write like a madman most of the time. So the structure really comes organically. And when I think about it in revision, it’s often a struggle to organize it. Because then I get stuck with what I had in the initial vision, which isn’t the most organized way to go about a story. But to answer that concisely, I would say the story to me felt like kind of like the movement of a glacier. You start at the top, and then it disintegrates very slowly. In this situation, the state of the expedition disintegrates over a few days, and then at the end, you get to the perspective of the glacier. She’s the one watching them. Her perspective is way older, way more jaded than even these very jaded scientists. And so that ending felt very natural to me. It came very quickly. I was writing the ending and I thought: Wait! The glacier hasn’t had a perspective in this. I wish it was longer, I wish I had more of her. The initial draft did have more of the glacier’s perspective, but I think it would have reduced some of her mystery because she is very unreachable…
Nur: Yes. The characters are people who yearn to understand this being who’s more than them, who’s been there longer. But they can’t ever hope to ever understand. I want to give a taste of her, but I don’t don’t think I’d ever be able to really completely know her myself. I felt like it was a challenge and wanted to end there. Because she was the most overpowering figure in the whole story.
Abeer: I was thinking about how you call the glacier ‘she’. Did that come naturally?
Nur: Yeah, that sort of came naturally. I’ve always associated water with female energy. It feels like a very female-centric force. The glacier is also unapproachable. Literally icy! That’s also partly why I made her a she. It involves a feminine energy that’s also very threatening. And I think the two women in the story—they become the big threats towards the end of the story. The main scientist, Khadija, is a woman amongst men. She’s also the most decisive character. I originally wrote her as someone who’s easily threatened by the presence of another woman (Zohra in this case) though I reduced that later on. But all those aspects of it influence the nature of how these women are circling each other. They might start out seeing each other as threats but they don’t end that way. That was partly my motivation for writing these 3 women (including the glacier in the story).
Abeer: I noticed that all the main characters in the story are female. I am always pro-female protagonists. Is that something that’s part of your work?
Nur: I didn’t think too much about it initially, about how they were women, women who were moving a lot of the action forward in the story, with the exception of the two guys in the army. The first story I got published, the main character is a man who is thinking back to his relationship with his wife, and his wife is in a village which is very far away and he’s a servant in the city. In that story, it was a lot about being haunted by your partner, by your significant other, in another place. In this situation, the main character is marginally haunted by Usman, who’s left behind in the city, who used to be the expert because she was a newbie wasn’t a scientist. He initially played this oppositional force to her when she first started going to the glacier. Now that he’s not there anymore, I see her relationship to the glacier deepening, because she doesn’t have Usman there to distract her from what she really wants to do. So I do tend to write more women, but most of my characters, women or men, tend to be haunted or hampered in some way by a relationship that they’re in. That’s the common denominator amongst these personalities.
Abeer: I noticed something about the professions of the characters in your story—the human characters include soldiers, geologists, and a journalist. These are inherently political occupations in our world, as is the hot topic of climate change. What do you think about writing as a way into these issues? Are they long standing themes in your work?
Nur: Politics don’t play an overt role in the stories I’ve written before. But now, if I’m writing about a glacier in northern Pakistan, then the story is going to naturally take a political bent because of the proximity to the border. Halfway through writing the story, it became obvious to me, the army became a reflection of reality: we won’t solve our own problems—we’d rather blame an external force. And in this case, the external force is an imaginary or a perceived threat from across the border. So we will hamper work on our own side, create paranoia, manufacture an enemy rather than look within ourselves. And I think that’s true of politics in Pakistan. It’s true of politics in lots of places. We’d rather blame the other. And India, across the border, is very much a tangible identifiable enemy for the army! Even though the enemy has been established by the army as infiltrators across the border, the reality is that it is the world these people have created that turns on them. Not immediately, but it will one day. Maybe a few decades down the line, maybe a few years down the line. That part of it felt political.
Abeer: You mentioned that you might work on more stories with glaciers or geology—do you see this story as part of a larger work?
Nur: I definitely want to write more stories set in the mountains. Because the mountains are spaces that are very personal to me. I spent all my childhood summers in the mountains. When I wasn’t in the hill stations, I was traveling with my family: hiking, visiting different parts of northern Pakistan. It became so integral to my growth, yet I haven’t written enough stories like that. This is actually the second proper story I’ve written based in Pakistan’s north.
Abeer: Where are many of your stories set?
Nur: One is set in Lahore, one story is set in Karachi, one in Qatar, and one is set in an unnamed part of a forest in North America, probably in the Virginia area, the Shenandoah. That’s actually more of a climate change/refugee story—and that’s not out yet; it’ll probably be published in the summer. But I definitely feel an affinity to the mountains of Pakistan the most. They are certainly not an untapped space in the writing world, because a lot of people have covered them. But I do want to look at them from a speculative and fantastical perspective. International media tends to lump Pakistan’s mountains into a few narratives: in relation to Afghanistan, what the United States thinks about the region, geopolitics, and them being a backdrop to extremism. But it’s an area that has the potential to tell so many stories about climate change, from dramatic, romantic perspectives. And I’m not immune to the ignorance myself. This is also a cliché to point out that the western world doesn’t understand this part of Pakistan. Maybe I don’t fully either, because I grew up in Punjab, benefited from being raised in that region, and am not originally from the north. I, too, am essentially a visitor to northern Pakistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and similar areas.
Abeer: But you have spent a lot of time there though…
Nur: Yes, I’ve spent many, many years there, summer visits, kind of going into a place where I’m not a local, but I felt an affinity to it. The area that I would visit frequently, is Nathiagali, which is a hill station that the British created for themselves, because they couldn’t handle the heat of the plains in the summer. Since the colonizers left, it’s been taken over by more affluent Pakistani summer residents. My role as an outsider who still feels tied to a place certainly influenced how I approached this story. There are layers of association and investments in a place. There are villagers who have been there forever, for whom this is home. There are people who come in for a time, like the scientists, who believe they have good intentions, and those who come in with bad intentions, who try to destroy the environment. Then there are the overlords, which in Pakistan’s case, are the army, who have a hand in everything, sort of big brother-esque figures in this world. And so there are all these people who have a claim to a place, and I think that’s something I want to dig deeper into in future stories about mountains, and specifically mountains in the Himalayas or the Karakoram. There is now a lot more Chinese investment in Pakistan. They helped construct the Karakoram highway to the China border, and their role has its own implications: another set of outsiders coming in ostensibly to help out, but at what cost? There are so many interests playing out in this field that I want to keep thinking about how they affect people on an intimate level.
Abeer: Is there anything else about this story that we didn’t touch on, that you think is important?
Nur: I was listening to a podcast the other day. Cristina Rivera Garza was talking about the role of nature in her writing. I found this a very helpful way to think about it. She described how we perceive nature as something to observe, something to marvel over, or wonder at. But then she said that actually nature—and by nature, she means the natural world—is very much a part of who we are, is part of our personalities. Essentially the way she was saying it, confirmed to me that the glacier is a character.
Abeer: And you’ve made the glacier an essential character in the story, so that’s a success!
Nur: Thank you!