My enormous thanks to Ben at Cameron Publicity for putting me in touch with Ambreen Hameed and Uzma Hameed, authors of UNDYING. Ambreen and Uzma are sisters and co-author books. I was so intrigued by the concept that I simply had to interview them here on Linda’s Book Bag.
An Interview with Ambreen Hameed and Uzma Hameed
Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag ladies. Would you like to introduce one another please?
Ambreen: Uzma is my younger sister, though by no means the lesser. She’s a successful theatre-maker and dramaturg who, among her many credits, collaborated on the Royal Opera House’s ballet acclaimed ballet Woolf works. In UNDYING, she writes the voice of the younger sister, Zarina. If it hadn’t been for her determination and her formidable editing skills we would never have finished the book.
Uzma sounds formidable!
Uzma: Ambreen has degrees in physics and the philosophy of science and has a passion for knowledge. She’s a journalist with a highly successful career in TV, including as series producer for C4’s landmark Devil’s Advocate and, somehow, has managed to fit in being a yoga teacher too. As a writer, she’s super-talented – and fast. She’s also my big sister and the voice of the elder sister, Sufya in UNDYING.
Crikey! You both make me and my big sister seem very inadequate!
And could you tell me a bit about UNDYING?
Ambreen: Undying is a black comedy told from the point of view of two British Muslim sisters who have fallen for the same man. At the time the novel takes place, they aren’t communicating well with each other (we gradually understand the reason why) so – privy to both sisters’ experience – the reader always knows more than each sister. The man they are in love with is called Heathrow – he’s an elusive but charismatic individual named after the Terminal 3 concourse where he was found abandoned as a child. The epigraph for the book is Humphrey Bogart’s line from Casablanca “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world” because, like Ilse, Rick and Victor in the movie, our love triangle takes place against a backdrop of seismic political change. One of our favourite reviews of the book called it “The Bronte sisters meets Four Lions.” We couldn’t have been more chuffed.
Uzma: As children, we heard of a superstition that says that djinns (genies) are attracted to triangular spaces and we were interested about the kind of destructive power that might exist in a love triangle. UNDYING is set against the backdrop of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair, and the subsequent bombing of Iraq that was considered by many to be an attempt to deflect attention from his impeachment trial. In a sense, the destruction that was unleashed on the global stage, could be said to have its origins in an ill-fated triangular relationship. Among Heathrow and the two sisters too, the triangular relationship has unforeseen and devastating consequences when Zarina performs an esoteric ritual to draw Heathrow to her (not really believing it will have any effect!) but ends up inadvertently summoning a djinn.
You have both made me desperate to read UNDYING. So, what was it like writing together as sisters?
Ambreen: Working together as sisters was both extremely challenging and extremely rewarding. We quickly realised that in order to properly understand the deep currents in the relationship between Zarina and Sufya we were going to have to excavate our own sibling relationship. The challenge – and the rewards – lay in having difficult conversations that perhaps we would otherwise never have had. Not only did it help us build layers into what happens between Sufya and Zarina but it also brought us much closer together. But there were times when we had to take deep breaths and give each other space. It can be hard enough taking notes as a writer – as I mentioned, Uzma is a brilliant editor – and it can get really tough when the notes come from your sister … the person who knows how best to press your buttons!
Uzma: A huge gift was having the benefit of each other’s imagination. Although we had drafted a detailed structure that set out what events would be narrated in each chapter, how we each interpreted our ‘instructions’ was often a surprise. There were so many times when I thought I could never have written the chapter the way that Ambreen did, but what she had written also immediately inspired new ideas for my next chapter too. At the outset we were interested in exploring the shifting nature of truth within families – the way that no two siblings will agree on their shared history. We didn’t expect that we would encounter this issue head on in the actual process of writing. In this sense, the book wasn’t just about the clash of perspectives between siblings – it actually embodies it.
I imagine that was quite an interesting experience. How has the experience of writing a book together changed your relationship?
Uzma: Often in families, siblings become polarised, occupying different territories. One lovely by-product of writing this book is that we realised that we are perhaps more similar than we had thought!
If you were to sum up the experience of writing UNDYING as sisters what three words would you use?
Ambreen: Painful, enriching, hilarious.
Uzma: Challenging, fulfilling, surprising.
How did you write?
Uzma: In UNDYING, Sufya and Zarina write alternating chapters so that the reader switches between the two characters’ viewpoints. Ambreen and I together devised a detailed structure which laid out what the heart of each chapter was ‘about’ and what needed to ‘happen’. This document was quite detailed with each of the plotlines – magical/psychological/relationship/political colour-coded so that we could make sure that each of the plates were kept in the air! Still, the real writing happened on our own when we would each bring the events in the structure to life, often with unexpected epiphanies occurring. For example, we didn’t decide the form that the djinn would take – mostly because, no matter how much we discussed it, none of the ideas felt quite right. But, having inhabited the writing up to that point, once I reached the chapter where the djinn first appears, I suddenly knew what it had to be…but I won’t tell you here!
No. No plot spoilers thank you!
What advice would you give to others considering joint authorship?
Uzma: For us, this ended up being a life-event as well as the writing of a book – a revealing and joyous process that we both wanted to stick with, despite having to write in gaps between other work on and off for a decade! I think if you weren’t writing with your sister, you might be wise to put a collaboration agreement in place with roles, timescales and what happens if you disagree, all stipulated up front!
Knowing my sister I think you’re right. She’d be hounding me every step of the way…
UNDYING has been described as having ‘Sit-com style comedy’. How has your work in theatre Uzma and in television Ambreen impacted on the style of UNDYING?
Ambreen: A number of readers have talked about how visual the book is, and I think this is particularly true of Uzma’s writing. Throughout the novel, her character Zarina is trying to stage a play (about another more ancient love triangle), and you can really feel the truth of Uzma’s many years of experience in the theatre, as well as her dramatic imagination. I think my own experience in television and journalism perhaps helped us expand the novel from the story of “three little people”, to a story about a British Muslim family caught up in a world which views Muslims in general with suspicion and incomprehension.
Uzma: Only the reader is privy to what both sisters are doing/thinking which, (we hope!) adds a sense of suspense, especially as chapters often end on a dramatic note before the viewpoint switches. I think that’s one of the reasons so many people have said the book would be so suited to a TV serial.
I think is sounds perfect to be adapted to television.
How important is dark comedy or satire in conveying truths about society in fiction do you think?
Ambreen: I don’t think we knew when we started out that we were going to write “dark comedy”. But in retrospect it seems obvious that we couldn’t write about our subject matter in any other way. The satirical voice is so powerful, and can help convey and capture experience that would otherwise be too painful to digest.
How important has your cultural heritage been in the writing of UNDYING?
Ambreen: Again, I don’t think we realised when we started planning our story that we would be exploring British Muslim identity. But it makes sense that as the world around the two sisters becomes more polarised, each of them is forced to assess what it means to her to live with the label British Muslim.
Uzma: We discovered that, in writing about sisters, we were also writing about being British-Muslim because the experience of being immigrants in a society that is so culturally different impacts on the sibling relationship. Each sister has to carve out her own path between expectations and influences, inevitably bringing up questions of loyalty and betrayal.
What might those unfamiliar with British Muslim experience learn from UNDYING?
Ambreen: First and foremost we hope that people will enjoy it and love the characters. The difficulty remains that “British Muslim” conjures up stereotypical images and roles to those who are unfamiliar, and we hope that our characters are complex, humanising and loveable so that readers go away with a richer sense of who their British Muslim neighbours are.
What are you working on now?
Ambreen: I’m writing another novel now – the story of an Urdu interpreter who works in police stations. The situation of interpreter has always fascinated me – someone who is between worlds, and who must convey meaning between two other people with absolutely no input from herself – as if she didn’t exist.
I used to be a police lay visitor and interpreters fulfilled such an important role for both the police and detainees.
Uzma: I have been scoping out my next book which, at the moment, I’m not going to say much about as it’s still at an early stage. I’m not sure when I’ll get a block of time to write it yet, as my theatre work has picked up again after lockdown. I’m currently working The Dante Project, a new ballet by Wayne McGregor which opens in October.
It must be wonderful to be back in live work after all the lockdowns.
Is there anything else we should know about UNDYING?
Ambreen and Uzma: It has been longlisted for the Bath Novel Award 2021, and championed by some of our literary heroes!
Congratulations. How exciting. Fingers crossed. Here are some of the comments being made about UNDYING:
A novel of huge ambition: both an irony-sharpened comedy of manners (and errors – lots of errors), and a powerful, passionately written dissection of the anger, confusion and violence that led up to 9/11. I loved ‘Undying’, and couldn’t put it down until I had reached the last page.
Sibling rivalry, evolutionary science, theatre, film and even magic all have a part to play in Ambreen and Uzma Hameed’s exuberant tale of a romantic triangle that also touches on questions of belonging, identity and individuality that we all wrestle with today. Undying is huge fun. Its sitcom-style comedy and affectionate satire deepen into a mystery that explores what unites and divides us, in families and communities, and asks how art, science and religion try to make sense of a violent and unjust world.
What begins as a warm, sharply observed and trenchantly witty study of sibling rivalry, family dynamics and social mores amongst British Pakistanis (with a wonderful cast of principal and supporting characters) develops into a deep and tragic dramatic study of conflict in all its forms: family, gender, social and political. I loved the references to Humphrey Bogart and to Bollywood, to the sex lives and biological imperatives of bees and other animals, to political Islam versus actual lived Muslim life, and to corporate shenanigans in the supermarket world! This is much, much more than the story of two sisters in love with the same man.
The narrators are two sisters alternating between chapters, changing perspectives, winning and losing the sympathies of the reader. They take you on an audacious, at times, bewildering and always enthralling journey. The main characters stay with you: the entwined yet intensely rivalrous siblings, Zarina and Sufya, Heathrow, like Heathcliff, the unknowable, sexually mesmerising outsider, a range of Muslim relatives defying all stereotypes. The books shift between the real and spectral worlds, lived realities and imagined scenarios. You end up wanting more. I hope the Hameed sisters give us more.
Thank you Ambreen and Uzma for giving us such a wonderful insight into UNDYING. I wish you both every success.
UNDYING Book 1: The Kinship of Djinns
It is 1998 and the leader of the free world is under fire after an affair with a young intern. Meanwhile, in a corner of South London, the Malik sisters have also committed a sin: they are in their thirties and still not married. Now the unexpected return of their childhood playmate spells the chance of a happy ending: but only for one of them. And this time, younger sister Zarina is determined she won’t be second in line to Sufya, the eldest – even if it means resorting to dubious occult practices. But as tensions rise across the Muslim world, sibling rivalry and Sufi spells are not the only forces with which the three lovers must contend.
Longlisted for The Bath Novel Award 2021
UNDYING Book 1: The Kinship of Djinns is available for purchase here.
UNDYING Book 2: My Uncle’s Son
Christmas 1998 approaches and the Malik sisters struggle to come to terms with Heathrow’s disappearance. A series of unanswered questions leads Sufya on a journey across the Holy Land. Back in South London, Zarina believes she is receiving messages from beyond the grave. As the leader of the free world sends bombs down on Baghdad, anger boils over in the Muslim community. The family falls under suspicion and both sisters must pick a side.
My Uncle’s Son is the thrilling conclusion to UNDYING.
UNDYING Book 2: My Uncle’s Son is available for purchase here.
About Ambreen Hameed and Uzma Hameed
Ambreen Hameed is a television producer and journalist. Ambreen’s career in television began at the BBC on the Asian programme, Network East, after which she worked for London Weekend Television, on its flagship current affairs show, The London Programme. She was series producer of the award-winning Channel 4 series Devil’s Advocate presented by Darcus Howe. Three of her London Programmes were nominated for Royal Television Society awards including an hour-long Special on the experiences of Black and Asian officers in the Metropolitan Police Service. Other career highlights include the award-winning series Second Chance for Channel 4, and Dispatches. She has also written for New Statesman and a short story for Radio 4’s Pier Shorts.
UZMA HAMEED is a writer, director and dramaturg, working in theatre and dance. In 2015 she was dramaturg to choreographer Wayne McGregor on the Royal Ballet’s multi award-winning production of Woolf Works. She has since collaborated with him on Obsidian Tear (2016), Multiverse (2016) and The Dante Project – Inferno (2019) for the Royal Ballet, and on Company Wayne McGregor’s Autobiography (2017). She has also worked with choreographer Cathy Marston on Northern Ballet’s Victoria (2019), which won the Sky Arts/South Bank Show award for dance.
In 1997 she founded The Big Picture Company, a theatre company which quickly gained a reputation for its innovative visual style, combing new writing with choreography and film. For Big Picture, she wrote and directed plays which toured extensively around the UK and enjoyed London seasons at The Young Vic, BAC and Riverside Studios. From 2002-2005 Uzma was Associate Director at Derby Playhouse.
Uzma has directed for Kali Theatre, led projects at the National Theatre Studio and given talks and workshops for a variety of organisations including The Royal College of Art, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Edinburgh International Festival and Playwrights Studio Scotland.