We recently had the opportunity to talk to Nazneen Sheikh about her latest book The Place of Shining Light. The book follows three men – Adeel, Khalid, and Ghalib – as they race each other to gain possession of a 5000-year-old Buddhist statue. Set in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, Sheikh’s novel takes the reader on a wild adventure between romance and violence, spirituality and greed. Here’s what Nazneen had to say about the book:
1. Your past couple books have been memoirs. Did you approach writing The Place of Shining Light differently? Or did it just feel like another story to tell?
Only the past two books have been memoirs. Naturally these were highly personal books. The Place of Shining Light is a novel so it is a different book. The suggestion that ‘it felt like another story to tell’ is a little bizarre. Nothing is just another story. Each book is new and filled with risk and excitement.
2. You are an incredibly imaginative and Romantic writer, but how much research was required in writing The Place of Shining Light?
The research for this book would be anyone’s dream in terms of location. I was in Pakistan for three months being the perfect spy! I was exposed to people, events, staggering Art collections, and documents, all of which strengthened the narrative validity of the book. All this assisted in imagining situations taking them one place and depositing them somewhere else. On the subject of romance, I could wax lyrical for pages. Romance is, in fact, how human beings choose to show the act of love to each other. It is not possible to write anything without the celebration of this emotion.
3. Adeel, Khalid, and Ghalib are each very much characterized by their familial relationships. Why is this?
The three main protagonists, Adeel, Khalid, and Ghalib would be not be familiar to my Western readership, so to familiarize the reader with this exotic trio I used their familial details to flesh them out with universal similarities. For example, Adeel watched his father extend acts of chivalry towards his mother, and he in turn mirrored these responses to the runaway mountain woman, Norbu.
4. When you write, do you have control over where the story is going, or does it feel like it has control over you?
I plan a book. I see an entire novel in a flash. However, I do jot down an outline. So I am in control of the entire story, yet not of the individual chapters, which sometimes leap out in surprise. Most authors experience a type of obsession with the book they write. Often in jest I have said, I may be at a social event or a trip but the book is sitting on my shoulder. So perhaps there is double control factor here. This may become an existential discussion about ‘process’?
5. How do you respond to people who claim books cannot be considered Canadian Literature unless they are set in Canada?
I have met no such people! Scores of Canadian writers have written books set all over the world.
6. Is there a feeling of responsibility in writing stories set in Pakistan, Marrakech, etc., or is it more natural than that?
The only responsibility an author has is to their skill in the craft. I happened to be in Marrakech for close to a year and I wrote about all that I saw or experienced. Basically, it was getting the truth out. There was a site in Marrakech that I was drawn to and could not understand why. I had the privilege of talking to the country’s most distinguished psychiatrist, who finally solved the mystery. The site was the home of ancient booksellers and I was psychologically drawn to the ‘collective unconscious’. Pakistan was accidental. Writers are like magpies: we see a glittering object and swoop down and take it away.
7. It often feels like Pakistan is a character in The Place of Shining Light. Is a well developed setting as important as a good character for you?
Yes, the country hovering as a baroque and troubled backdrop could be called a character. I like your question. The setting is very important to me. A good work of art needs a decent frame.
8. Is there any object, spiritual or otherwise, that you would risk your life to steal?
This is a tough question. Risking one’s life is done both by the brave and the foolhardy. It would depend on the circumstances. I can walk on the wild side with no specific invitation: that is my nature. At present, all I want to steal is my six-year-old grandson for a weekend. Ransom note to parents, of course.
Three men race against time to take possession of a sacred 5,000-year-old Buddhist sculpture: Khalid, a leading Pakistani antiquities dealer, arranges for the illegal importation of the statue from neighbouring Afghanistan. Ghalib, a wealthy art collector with political aspirations, has purchased the statue for his private collection. Adeel, a highly recommended ex-military officer, is hired by Khalid to transport the sculpture to its final destination.
When Adeel first views the statue in a cave in Bamiyan — known as “the place of shining light” — he has a profound spiritual reaction and decides to steal the sculpture for himself. When Khalid and Ghalib realize their prized possession is missing, they conspire to do whatever it takes to have it returned — before it’s lost forever.
Taking readers on a wild journey from the valleys of Afghanistan, to the magical mountain kingdoms of Northern Pakistan, and the diplomatic enclaves of Islamabad, The Place of Shining Light is a riveting and timely story of art, war, greed, and spirituality.