Riehlife Conversation with Ernest Dempsey, author of THE BITING AGE: Part II
"Humor is peace in the true sense of the word," says Ernest Dempsey in Part II of our Riehlife conversation as our thoughts roam over such topics as the important influence of his brother and how Pakistani culture views writing/writers.--JGR
JGR: I know you've been working on your first book, "The Biting Age" for five years. It plays off a number of genres within the overall category of satire. Could you tell us how do you gather your ideas and then develop them?
Dempsey: The stories in The Biting Age were written intermittently over a time span of over 5 years between June, 2001 to September, 2006. My writing started out as gossip between Shais and me during our school days. We would put characters of our cherished TV shows into our own imaginary situations: action, suspense, horror, comedy, and so on.
Gradually, Shais became less enthusiastic in carrying on with our daily gossip. You can say that he was growing up. But my childlike enthusiasm never abated. Writing the gossip in story form was an alternative to fill the void left by my brother. I showed my writings to him and to a couple of my aunts. But I never shared them with others.
JGR: Do you have a writing group or writing buddy or write solo?
Dempsey: There weren’t and aren’t any writing groups in my home town, and also none in this big city where I live now. As far as I know, there are very few (if any), in my country. We are living in a place where writing is the exception rather than the rule.
JGR: What is the word for satire in your home language? How were you first exposed to satire?
Dempsey: Both in Pashto and Urdu satire is referred to as ‘Tanz’. My first exposure to it was of course in my mother’s family where the brothers and sisters had a healthy and enjoyable gossip, especially at meal times and in winter where they all gathered in a living room with a fireplace. They’d contrive mild expressions of criticism directed at each other and also at real life characters in the town. Imitations of scenes from Pakistani TV dramas were also an enjoyable way of practicing satire.
My late aunt Farhana (to whom I have dedicated my coming book of stories The Blue Fairy) excelled everyone else in giving the gathering a side-splitting laughter.
JGR: Who are some of your favorite authors, especially of satire?
Dempsey: I did not pursue satire as a particular reading interest, but the works of Jonathan Swift, Jane Austen, and D.H. Lawrence show good satirical writing on various topics. Austen’s gentle satire on social manners was upbeat compared to Swift who seems to be very punching. D.H. Lawrence goes satirical only at a few places in his novels, but is still enjoyable to read. Oscar Wilde of course is a classic satirist in his novel and some stories.
Of other, non-satirist, authors I am very fond of Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton, and Tolstoy for his eternal War and Peace.
JGR: In the preface of "The Biting Age" you speak movingly of your family and their influence on developing your humor--and how humor can help keep the peace in the rocking boat of family life. Could you say a little more about that?
Dempsey: Humor appears to eliminate the social morbidity and distance that otherwise would not reveal your openness and fondness of your family. Whenever my uncle and aunts, (and later, Shais and I), made each other laugh, there was a boosting feeling of mutual trust.
Humor makes the company of your family/friends more desirable. I believe that it was our shared humor that developed an unbreakable bond between me and Shais. Surprisingly, we also used to fight a lot when we were kids but always reconciled so quickly.
In my childhood, I once remember an angry fit in which I almost directly hurt my cousin. But seeing her sad and crying made my own heart rent. I did not know how to make up for the pain. Then I suddenly thought of making her laugh and started making funny faces at her. She forgot her pain and started laughing.
And my feelings of relief were a bliss I will never forget. Humor is peace in the true sense of the word.
JGR: What does your family think of your two publications, just out? They must be very proud of you. Have they read your work? Do you discuss it?
Dempsey: I have always been considered the egghead in the family and my parents used to be proud of me, especially my father who took great joy in seeing our academic achievement. However, my writing was not encouraged by my family. The main reason underlying this indifference to writing is that in our society people do not consider writing as a good career.
Writing is not a job, they tend to think. However, they did not discourage me either. Most women in my family can’t read English. My cousin Shamsa (whom I hurt and made laugh in the childhood) is an avid reader and she liked the book a lot.
She says she will tell other women in the family about the stories. Men in my family usually don’t read books. But they seem to be impressed by my publication coming out from New York.
At the moment I am expecting to see two more books of mine coming out at the same time, published by the same press in New York.
One is a poetry book Islands of Illusion and the other a book of stories bout death called The Blue Fairy.
When the news reached my relatives, their response was something like: You have got a great mind, but it is a little astray’ (referring to my atheism). My youngest aunt who was a close friend of her sister Farhana is the one who tends to admire my writing ventures the most, especially the dedication of The Blue Fairy to my late aunt.
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