Tuesday, 8 February 2011

An Unimaginable Journey To Publication

My account of Imran Ahmad's talk at The Annexe, Central Market last December during the Art for Grabs weekend, as published in the annual issue of MPH Quill for 2011, which was briefly mentioned here.

Though the book is not available in local bookstores, Sharon Bakar says Imran is in town and will be at the launch of Readings from Readings: New Malaysian Writing at MAP/Publika, Solaris Dutamas on the evening of 25 February to sell copies of the book. For those who can't make it, contact her at sharonbakar[at]yahoo[dot]com, or the author himself at author[at]unimagined[dot]co[dot]uk.

The story of Imran Ahmad’s journey to authorship is as hilariously entertaining as the book he penned

first published in the annual issue of MPH Quill for 2011

I am with a friend at The Annexe, Central Market for Dr Farish Noor’s lecture, which has just ended. Without anything else planned for the rest of the afternoon, we stayed back for.... a “performance narrative” by Imran Ahmad, author of Unimagined – Muhammad, Jesus and James Bond. From the programme, it says that he’ll be talking about “following your dream, making it happen, keeping your day job, travelling to America, and the struggle to get published in a post-9/11 world”, which sounds interesting.

There’s a wait for Imran’s books and more people to join in. By the time it started, the books hadn’t arrived and the audience was only half the number drawn by Dr Farish, superstar historian and academic.

Limited edition of 'Unimagined'
Imran’s long road to getting his works published – and his lifelong struggle against corruption and injustice – began when “blatant nepotism” robbed him of the title of Karachi’s Bonniest Baby. “First prize went to the child of organiser!” Imran thunders. “The judges were her friends! This is absolutely typical of third world, banana republic unfairness.” The audience laughs at the painful familiarity.

Things didn’t get a whole lot better when he and his family moved to England. He encountered racism even as he longed to belong. He felt he did belong at one time because of his apparent resemblance to James Bond. He helpfully pointed out the more discernable features to the audience. “...dark clean-cut face ... eyes wide and level ... longish straight nose....” It’s a fairly accurate description of the man now, I mentally note. Just that he also needs to lose about 15 pounds and something more dapper than his short-sleeved shirt (not tucked in) and trousers.

Looking like James Bond didn’t help much with his social life, especially after 9/11. Not with a name like his. Every time he travelled to the United States on business, he would be called up to “secondary” by immigration officers. It eventually got to him, so he decided to clear the air about Muslims by writing a book. He couldn’t get started for a long while, so he tried to prod himself through meditation.

“I will start writing this book, ommmm....” he demonstrates. The audience is tickled. I look around curiously. A Muslim just went ommmm in here and Special Branch agents have been known to loiter around The Annexe, particularly when it hosts events featuring NGOs and the likes of Dr Farish. This man is self-deprecatingly frank and hilarious. Why haven’t we heard of him? My companion is charmed, and thinks he can be a competent stand-up comic. I don’t want this talk to end prematurely. What happens next?

After The Secret failed him, Imran decided that he should just start writing his book. He made good progress after that, and he began to enjoy the writing process. There were times, however, when he enjoyed it too much. He was writing a particularly enjoyable chapter during a business meeting. “It was all about budgets and finances and such,” he reminisces, “and there I was, typing away and smiling to myself.”

He pitched his completed manuscript to literary agents and publishers, but to no avail. He then decided to use Amazon’s BookSurge publishing service. He remembers being thrilled to receive a copy of his self-published book and being obsessed with the online sales report. He recalls daydreaming about his book putting smiles on his sombre and grey-suited fellow commuters in a London train, and a big fat advance that he’ll spend on a silver Peugeot 307 (or 308?) and a nice flat (apartment) to go with the car. To top it all, appearances in BBC radio programmes such as Midweek.

When sales for a particular day jumped to 250, he sent a copy of that report to Scott Pack, then the Head Buyer of Waterstone’s, England’s biggest bookstore chain. Pack had received a copy, and Imran was sure the report would make him pay attention to it.

Not long afterwards, a note from BookSurge came. “Dear Mr Ahmad, we regret to inform you that due to a computer error...” We laugh in anticipation of what comes next. Or so we think.

Imran Ahmad, author of 'Unimagined'
Imran Ahmad reads at Readings
@ Seksan's, December 2010
Pack didn’t chew Imran up for his presumptuousness, although the book’s “crap cover, terrible title (it was then called The Path Unimagined), and dodgy production values” didn’t impress him. Nevertheless he gave the book his 50-page test over a cup of tea. An hour later, he had read more than 50 pages and the tea had grown cold. He was convinced that the book was going to be huge, but needed a better cover. With Imran’s consent, he sent the book to literary agent Charlie Viney, who also liked it and promised to help get it published.

Filled with some hope, Imran waited, still haunted by visions of the silver Peugeot. Despite the agent’s help, publishers still rejected the book. Seems they wanted someone who was or wanted to be a terrorist, not a funny story about a Muslim boy growing up in the West. “They said it wasn’t miserable enough,” Imran exclaims. “It’s not supposed to be miserable!”

Unimagined eventually got published and Pack was proven correct. The reviews were mostly positive. Imran got his radio show appearances. He was invited to literary events and writer’s festivals, and gave talks about his book. Talks like this one. At one time he ended up back in the US to give talks. This time, his passport was stamped and he was not sent to secondary. “So the lesson for terrorists is: if you want to sneak into the US, publish a book,” Imran jokes.

The biggest joke, I think, was on him, when he was once compelled to mail a copy of Unimagined to all 646 MPs in the British Parliament – except to Conservative Party MP Ann Widdecombe. Her conservative Christian views and TV appearances where she looked like a “miserable dragon” convinced him she won’t read it. An image comparing her to an example of such misery appears on the wall, and we all laugh. He tells us that he sent her a copy anyway.

Not long afterwards, Unimagined made the list of Best Books of 2007 in The Independent – with a quote by The Miserable Dragon, who called it her “favourite book of 2007”. The room erupts with laughter when Widdecombe’s name and quote is projected on the wall.

He recognises the irony. “I wrote a book to tell people not to judge Muslims based on appearances,” he says ruefully, “and here I was, judging this–” On the wall, the “miserable dragon” gained the wings and halo of an angel, with the word spelled out in huge letters. “–based on her TV appearances,” Imran concludes, amidst even more laughter.

I try not to draw any parallels with my initial attitude towards his talk. It was, as advertised, a remarkable and incredible story, an inspirational tale to aspiring authors. There was no mention of that silver Peugeot 307 and the matching apartment.

I never get to find out just how remarkably honest, hilarious and heartstring-tugging the book is until a week later, when Imran shows up unexpectedly at a book-reading event with copies of a limited edition. Although the book ends when Imran is 25, it also hints at the continuation of his unimaginable journey as a Muslim in the big, wide world – in another one or two volumes.

I hope they deliver those on time for his next appearance at The Annexe.


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