Friday, February 29, 2008

Department Chair to Nadeem Aslam: "I hate you and want you to leave."

Was it T. S. Eliot who wrote "February is the shortest month / Mixing brevity with terseness / Except when leap year adds a day"? I believe it was, and to my colleagues and our students the month seemed brief indeed, so enamored of Nadeem Aslam are they.

Nadeem is the inaugural GW-British Council Writer in Residence, a month-long appointment that focuses upon the cultural dynamism of contemporary UK writing. As its mission statement stresses, the English Department here at GW is widely engaged with the transnational and global, from the literature of the Americas to Caribbean writing, from recent work to texts composed long ago. As the author of the stunning novel Maps for Lost Lovers, Nadeem was the perfect author for this residency -- and, indeed, the word "perfect" has been used by most to describe Nadeem, his work, and his time here in DC.

The Director of the British Council held a farewell dinner last night at her home, an impressive brick colonial behind which the National Cathedral rises. We did the usual thing, where the Officials spoke their Official Words, full of the appropriate and expected praise and thanks. When it came to the moment when the Department Chair was supposed to say something about pleasures, intellectual profits, and pleased-as-punchness, I instead confessed the following:

Last Tuesday I had been speaking with the Director of Creative Writing, complaining that Nadeem Aslam is too perfect. The students in his reading class regularly drop me love letters about the course; his numerous visits to our creative writing and literature classes have gone very well; the panels and readings we scheduled for him have drawn large and appreciative audiences; he is gracious, self-effacing, and utterly charismatic. Just as I was saying these things Nadeem walked down the hall, on his way to another class visit. He was dressed all in black, wearing a Smiths T-shirt (he does live in Manchester, after all) and designer sunglasses. His hair was disheveled in the precise way that only the well coiffed can manage. Though we were standing in an interior corridor, I'm fairly certain that the clouds opened and a ray of sun illuminated him as he strode. I should have said "Hello Nadeem." Instead I greeted him with "I hate you and I am counting the days until you leave."

You see (I explained to both Nadeem on that Tuesday, and to my audience last night) there is a such thing as being TOO perfect. Nadeem Aslam is an astonishing writer. He is possessed of both good humor and the ability to speak about almost anything. He is inspirational, a catalyst to all kinds of new thoughts and new projects among our faculty and students. He also renders any mortal scholar who happens to be standing next to him a mere schlump. So I say, good-riddance.

But we will miss you, Nadeem. Your residency here at GW has been extraordinary, and we thank you for it.

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