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Silence as Resistance in Aamer Hussein’s Stories

By Ali Raz.

I encountered Aamer Hussein in a decaying bookstore, through a slim volume called Insomnia. This book would lose its spine over the years, and have it reattached by hand—an object that travelled with me across spaces I hadn’t thought I’d traverse when I bought the book, foolishly in awe of literature. Hussein’s fiction lends itself to personal affective intensities of this sort, the stories breathing an aura of quiet and melancholy—an afterhours pleasure. It is also a radical pleasure.

Prolific in the short genre, Hussein has authored over ten collections of short fiction and novellas, in addition to his work as an editor and critic. The subject matter of his fiction loops on itself: myths, fables, pill heads, depressives, failed loves, strained friendships, and lonely Third World transplants, attractive matter for bookish sorts stained by melancholy. His work inspires a cultish love, born of deep affiliation, so astutely does it map a certain kind of experience, tracing marginal lives that frequently find themselves caught between contexts. Hussein’s stories display an audacious ability to synthesize complexities of social subjectivity; yet behind this complex surface lies a rich silence. His stories remain porous, marked by gaps and holes—a kind of silence which, rather than a lack, represents a positive capacity, Hussein’s most potent mode. What Aamer Hussein offers us is an invaluable model of resistance in literature: resistance that works through silence, through that which remains unsaid.


Why is silence so easily associated with oppression, speech with resistance?

Foucault offers us an answer when he identifies confession as a technique of power. “Western societies have established the confession as one of the main rituals we rely on for the production of truth”, we’re told in The History of Sexuality, “Western man has become a confessing animal.” As a primary tool in the creation of subjectivities, confession acts a means of rendering identities legible. As a technique of power, it proliferates to the point of ubiquity: in all forms of discourse, no matter how specialised or mundane they might be. The contrasting valuations of speech and silence pervade Western society, mapping a binary almost as simplistic as good and bad. Every mode of public discourse—literature no less than any other—is shaped by this peculiar binary. Silence, reticence—the refusal to furnish an account of oneself as demanded by others—is associated, variously, with the negative states of repression, criminality, secrecy and delusion.

Anthropological studies of rehab centres (such as Summerson Carr’s exemplary Scripting Addiction: The Politics of Therapeutic Talk and American Sobriety) provide poignant examples of the magical power ascribed to speech. The precise formula “Hi, my name is X and I am an addict” is supposed to medically cleanse the subject by providing a “confession” of a state which cannot be allowed to remain secret. It is a scripting enabled through force, through the threat of violence; not the freely chosen, natural outpouring of an inner state, but speech that is forced upon the subject at the hands of power. As in the clinic, so elsewhere. Like the addict, the immigrant—the foreigner visible as foreigner—has a compromised subjectivity and does not have the right to stay silent. Speech is demanded at every moment—the confessional speech of self-identification, of naming what one is, confirming and reinforcing through such speech that one is indeed the suspected Other. The position of the migrant of colour in the West is a position of hypervisibility, of a constantly and ubiquitously denied privacy. Every moment is policed. The confession is extracted constantly, demanded as the extractor’s right. Violence embedded in the fabric of the everyday, in life’s minutiae, its smallest moments, its most mundane.  Forced speech—the denial of the right to stay silent—is, for the foreigner, an organising principle of  everyday life in the West.

The interworkings of such regimes of speech should give us pause when faced with literary discourses that insist on identitarian speech as a resistant act, the composition of characters and plot action as an appropriate response to geopolitical realities. We should take issue with valorisations of “literature in extremis”, literature that purports to navigate this violent world by writing about it. Hans Erich Nossack is prescient here. In his deceptively straightforward and correctly paranoid essay ‘Translating and Being Translated’, he refers to the condition of a world riddled with supersized tragedies and ubiquitous micro violence as a “negative reality” which, by the very nature of its constitution, renders the speech of protest—speech that would attempt to name this violence—inherently absurd. What is required, instead, is a strategic silence, strategic because aware of the insidious incitement to speech. Faced with such violence, for Nossack, “Respect for humanity requires literature to be silent about it yet convey the silence perceptibly between the lines.” Thus a weaponised silence, silence that is more than emptiness or lack. It is in light of considerations such as these that an aesthetics of interiority, one that refuses to be mapped by external coordinates, stakes one’s silence, becomes a resistant act.


“Do you still feel Pakistani?” The Venezuelan to my left asks me.

“I do, when I feel anything at all.”

The Venezuelan drones on.

“Muslims in Europe are a demographic problem. In Andalucía, I hear,  they want to reclaim ancient sacred places. They should be loyal to their country of adoption. Wouldn’t you say?”

“I guess I’m a Muslim in Europe too,” I say. “And foreign everywhere I go.”

With one desultory gesture I dismiss an uncongenial conversation.

Thus goes an exchange between two strangers thrown into each other’s company while touring in Cádiz in ‘Nine Postcards from Sanlucar de Barrameda’ (appearing in Hussein’s 2007 collection Insomnia). The story takes the form of pointillist postcards sent to an absent beloved, though sometimes their pithy terseness is perturbed by irruptions such as the above, where everyday speech takes on the aspect of a drone. Weaponised and violent, this passing moment of aggression is folded into the deceptive innocence of casual conversation, appearing in the longest postcard of the pearl-like nine, as if such violence distorted the miniature form. Our narrator responds to this invitation to engage in the discourse of confession by means of a shrug, a “desultory gesture.” This desultory gesture, the refusal to participate in the speech of forced confession, is the characteristic mode of Hussein’s stories, and the means of its resistance. The gesture refuses the question, dismisses it both as unwanted and uninteresting. The speech we do receive is an assertion of interiority (“when I feel anything at all”), a description of an emotional state (ennui, emptiness, void) rather than a discussion of identity such as the questioner might have hoped for. What we receive, in other words, is a representation of subjectivity that exceeds the narrow terms of subaltern experience, the formula that requires the Other to exist in literature as a litany of its scars. Doubly damned: first to suffer the abuses of power, and then to forever recount it.

Rather than a naiveté in which characters are scrubbed clean of identity—the usual way in which “silence” is channelled in fiction—Hussein’s fiction offers us fully-formed literary landscapes in which characters are embedded in and alive to history. The discourse of identity exists, more than anything else, between the lines of his fiction, as an animating presence that lies just behind the surface of the stories. So, in a few terse sentences we are told about Lamia, “who left Palestine when she was seven, and at thirty-four Beirut…exile after exile after exile: Egypt, Lebanon, Paris, London, New York and finally Indonesia.” And that’s it. The rest of the story, ‘This Other Salt’ (in the 1999 collection of the same name), concerns itself with other matters—her life as a painter, her friendship with the narrator, cancer, love, loneliness, death—without scripting these events in terms of what such geographical displacements might do to a person. In ‘Benedetta, Amata’, another story in this same collection, the narrator, who calls himself a “pill head,” recounts a summer of violent, near-fatal depression:

I didn’t like the face I saw in the mirror so I grabbed a disposable Bic razor from the dresser and started to sketch signs on my forehead…Then I got to work on my wrists. I didn’t really like the sight of my blood on the sheets but I don’t think it was death I was looking for, just a long, long sleep.

This is the kind of event of which Hussein’s fiction is composed. Searing, sudden explosions of deeply personal pain, verging on the incommunicable. These characters’ interiorities are a terrain that Hussein traverses without submitting them to external regimes of value, the literary shorthand that requires characters’ experiences to be mediated by their status as Other, effecting a constant re-enactment of their otherness. It’s a perverse, closed feedback loop, and it’s his rejection of this that makes Hussein’s writing so liberating.

There is an intensity to these experiences, an extremeness that places them right on the edge of the communicable, and it’s here that Hussein’s prose style works particularly interesting effects. Hussein’s syntax is pellucid and lean. The directness of address (“I didn’t like the face I saw in the mirror”) would be unsettling if it didn’t carry with it the sense of dulled, flat affect. The voice has been anaesthetised, events evacuated of drama and left only with their mechanics, chronology. Reading Hussein is often a soothing experience, even when he’s writing about pain. We could find an analogy for this style—quiet, poised, unexcited—in the protagonist of ‘The Angelic Disposition’ who carves through her tranquillity a kind of private space in the face of geopolitical trauma. This is a dignity Hussein reserves for all the characters in his fiction, writing them without the humiliation of making of them object lessons in oppression.

Secreted within Hussein’s undemonstrative syntax, neglected histories and spectral connections quietly persist. The rich intertextuality of his prose makes room for Han Suyin, Cesare Pavese, Manto, Qurratulain Hyder, Ismat Chughtai, Muhammadi Begum, and countless others. “I’m scattering traces of the past in the present” is the occult formula in which Hussein explains this habit; charging the literary present with particles of the past, providing a pathway for interlingual ghosts. Hussein’s texts are easily global, conversant in a diversity of signs and references. His is a language animated by a lived globality, by a disciplined and sophisticated navigation of the field of signifiers which lies open to Third World writers writing in English.


Some forms of resistance are more easily recognized than others. In ‘Painting on Glass’, the final story in Hussein’s collection This Other Salt, the narrator recounts his years in the company of Third World writers in London, who were:

Really angry. About imperialism and exploitation and racism. I learned their language. I began to write protest poetry too…We carry our histories on our backs, I wrote, in our blood and in our bones. But at the same time I knew somewhere in these bones of mine that what we were doing was only ranting and raving and preaching to each other and to the ranks of the already allied, our words wouldn’t get us to where we really wanted to go…we didn’t have the courage to face an era which had placed us in a safe asylum, where we could scream the screams of dumb bright birds just as long as we didn’t make a noise in the neighborhood, disturb the local residents by shattering the glass walls of our aviary.

We can read, in these references to “a safe asylum” in which “angry”, “political” writing is tolerated, even rewarded, as an articulation of the logic of enforced confession, whereby the subject is required to identify themselves as an Other, even if this identification takes the form of protest. This kind of “protest literature” renders the subject legible in the terms set by the oppressor; it is legible speech, reproducing the oppressor’s mode of discourse.

Nossack  is once again helpful here. Ostensibly about translation, Nossack’s essay swerves midway to cryptic references to a language that is little more than the “official jargon” of “the system”. This is language that always achieves the aims of “the system”, no matter its own goals, no matter even if this language would claim for itself the work of “resistance”. We can find a contiguous line of thought in Rana Kabani’s observation that the Third World writer writing in English is forced into a position of “assimilation or confrontation, when you wanted neither” (a sentiment Hussein echoes in the afterword to his 2002 collection Cactus Town). Assimilation or confrontation, either way you remain oriented towards “the system”, addressing it, interpellated by it, reinscribing it with every utterance. This “system” remains nebulous and ill-defined in Nossack’s essay, though we are given hints and clues as to its personality—such as its power to defuse all attacks against itself by absorbing the attacker into its mechanism: “revolutions are a planned part of the system….A methodical and calculated change in the machinery is accomplished, yet the system remains the system.”

The system remains the system. It’s in this state of perfect paranoia, constant confession, that silence acquires its destabilising force. The confessional injunction impoverishes literature’s capacity to house a discourse of alterity, constricting the space of possibility for writers of colour writing in English to the binary Kabani identifies: confrontation or assimilation. Over and against these cultural forces, Aamer Hussein’s fiction offers us a potent example of the mobilisation of silence as style, of resistance that won’t declare itself. The landscape of his fiction is, most of all, one where the terms of engagement for the outsider are neither confrontation nor assimilation, but a new third thing.


Ali Raz’s work has appeared in Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Cosmonauts Avenue, Occulum and Journal 69Tweeting @ trashy_chicken.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 15th, 2018.