Birkbeck’s Published Alumni Series: Nadim Safdar

This post was contributed by Valeria Melchioretto. This summer the Birkbeck Creative Writing department launched its new website The Mechanics’ Institute Review Online. This year marks a huge success for the Creative Writing MA as ten alumni have novels coming out this year.

To celebrate these achievements we are profiling a selection of the authors and extracts from their upcoming novels will appear on MIROnline. Here, Valeria speaks with alumnus Nadim Safdar, about his debut novel, Akram’s War (Atlantic, May 2016)

Read an extract of the book at MIROnline

VM: Firstly, congratulations on your debut novel Akram’s War which has just been published by Atlantic and thanks for taking part in this interview. We are keen to learn about your career so far. If you had to pick the most significant learning experience from your entire MA, what would it be?

NS: I feel fortunate that I come from a scientific background in which what we were taught was empirical and fact. It is not so different in the Creative Arts – the idea of form, structure, characterization and whether or not a situation or scene or phrase has been earned – these things I had to be taught. I listened carefully and writing the book, I built a shed in the rear of the garden and having sacrificed the day-job, I thought of little else for over four years. My day would begin around 10 at night when (my now wife) would go to bed and I’d work through.

Image credit: Sahar Afzal

Image credit: Sahar Afzal

Debut novels are famously thought to be, at least in parts, autobiographical. How much inspiration have you drawn from firsthand experience and how much is down to research or fiction?

It is surprising how you live within the character and indeed, how much of your character(s) live in you. There are two main characters in the book, Akram and Grace and during the four years of writing them, I often found myself (in real life) at a point of decision-making and wondered – what would Akram or Grace have done?

It won’t come as a surprise to me that readers’ might ask what I have in common with Akram (a Pakistani male). We men think we know how to fight but there are some battles we are not equipped for.

I therefore had to find the character Grace – and through her express the story of someone at the mercy of a system she is not equipped to deal with. I had to make the story of losing one’s child (or even the ever-present day-to-day threat of that loss) acceptable to the reader and for that to be believable it could only be expressed through the eyes of a woman.

We all have lived experience: have loved, fought, wounded others and scarred ourselves. You might want to but you can’t just blurt it out – writing is about finding a form in which to put it.

Your book has a strong message about the radicalisation of British Muslims. Over the last couple of years the topic has become ever more pressing, with the rise of ISIS etc. Could you see it coming?

Although no one could see it coming, I don’t think anyone could say, in retrospect, that the unfolding events weren’t inevitable.

The first Muslim has been sworn in as London’s new Mayor. Do you think he might be a role model for young British Muslims and could this event mark a turning point for radicalisation? Or what do you think it all means?

I think it means that the majority of Londoner’s are relatively poor and prefer the socialist candidate.

There is a whole genre of novels based on politically and socially urgent topics. I am sure you are familiar with the work of Lionel Shriver and so on. There is often talk about writers having an obligation to make social comments. How important is it for a writer to pick a relevant subject that features in the media or do you think that topics pick their writers and it’s about following one’s hunch whatever the subject matter?

Lionel Shriver talks about writing about people who ‘are hard to love,’ and with a protagonist who is something of a loner and an outsider there is much more to explore and say. To me, such people are far more interesting. In terms of social commentary, why would a writer like myself want to be between two intractably opposed sides murdering each other with any means at their disposal. The book is a complete work of fiction and has to exist all by itself.

Nadim Safdar (Image credit: Sahar Afzal)

Nadim Safdar (Image credit: Sahar Afzal)

How do you know when you are onto something big? Moreover, when do you know the novel you are writing is finished?

I wrote down one single phrase, printed it out large and posted it to the wall. After that, I had to invent the character and somehow, through 80,000 or so words, make him earn that phrase. It might sound arrogant but knew I had it in that first phrase.

The end point was more prosaic, the character Akram had simply run his course and had nothing more meaningful to say.

Was there much more work that needed to be done on the novel after finding an agent?

I was fortunate in finding an excellent agent and publisher who really seemed to understand what I was getting at, but also and importantly, they represented the reader. Through their direction the published book is far better than the one I originally submitted. For me, from first submission to an acceptable draft took about a year.

The opening sentence of chapter one is an absolute classic and has the sharp directness that instantly engages a reader. Given that your book has such a serious content how did you find the right form for it?

The opening phrase that I posted on my wall was set in the present. To earn it I had to take my protagonist right back to childhood and, through twenty or so years of his life, work back up to it. Although the past was told in a sort of flashback narrative, those scenes originally started as a series of short story’s linked through inter-connected characters. Once I had those, I had to find a form or framework and so I set the entire novel over one night and discovered Grace, someone my protagonist could tell his story to.

Getting a book deal is any MA student’s ultimate dream. Do you now write on a full-time basis?

You don’t get paid enough to write on a full-time basis – or at least I don’t! Indeed, writing on a full-time basis almost drove me mad. A writer needs something else, whether it’s travel or family or teaching or a part time job. You need also to be out in the world.

Rumours have it that you are already working on your next novel The Journeyman which is about a boxer. Could you tell us a bit more about it?  

A journeyman is a boxer who’s prone to losing and fights weekly for a living wage. A journeyman can’t afford to getting knocked out or injured as he then has to lay off for a month or more. So a journeyman is a master in defense and evasion and if he is that good, what does it take for him to win?

Barely a quarter through the new book, I already feel like I’m sitting at the bar at the Hailstone in Rowley Regis with my characters and for that feeling, a sort of writers-magic that signals I’m on to something, I’m very grateful.

Akram’s War by Nadim Safdar (Atlantic) is available now for £ 12.99

Nadim Safdar was born to Pakistani parents and grew up in the Black Country. He is married with three young children and lives in London. His first novel, AKRAM’S WAR, was published by Atlantic in May 2016.

Valeria Melchioretto

Valeria Melchioretto

Valeria Melchioretto is the author of Podding Peas and The End of Limbo. She received a bursary from the Arts Council. In 2012 she represented Switzerland at the Poetry Olympics at the South Bank and won the ‘New Writing Ventures’. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck and a MA in Fine Art.

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Handbook on Gender and Health

This post was contributed by Dr Jasmine Gideon, senior lecturer in Development Studies at Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies. Here, Dr Gideon offers an insight into her new book: The Handbook on Gender and Health

My monograph ‘Gender, Globalization and Health in a Latin American Context’ develops the idea of a gendered political economy of health and uses this framework to consider health reform in Chile. Compiling the Handbook on Gender and Health offered me an opportunity to develop my ideas further through directly engaging with a wide range of

Dr Gideon's book cover features an piece by Gambian artist Suelle Nachif titled 'Faj' ('heal')

Dr Gideon’s book cover features a piece by Gambian artist Suelle Nachif titled ‘Faj’ (‘heal’)

academics and policy makers working in this area.

The Handbook offered an opportunity to highlight empirical examples from across the globe and draw attention to case study analysis of specific issues that I was not able to include in my own book. Working on the Handbook was also a chance to think about what my ‘dream team’ of authors would look like and bring together a wide range of writers working on a variety of health-related issues, ranging from the historical development of health systems and how women and men are located within this to more ‘contemporary’ debates around migration, climate change and low paid labour which all have critical implications for health, particularly when viewed through a gender lens.

The Handbook brings together a wide range of disciplinary perspectives to consider four overarching themes, all constituting distinct but over-lapping elements of a broader gendered political economy of health. These are:

Gender equity vs gender equality

The first theme is the tension between ideas of gender equity and gender equality and how these translate in practice when applied to the health sector. Chapters explore the difference between ‘reductionist’ approaches where categories of women and men are not sufficiently explored, for example by failing to address how other axes of inequality (e.g. race/age/ class) can affect people’s ability to engage with health systems. In contrast a gender equality approach seeks to promote gender justice.

According to UN Women (2010), this entails ending the inequalities between women and men that are produced and reproduced in the family, the community, the market and the state. However, at the same time it requires that mainstream institutions are more accountable and transparent and points to the second theme discussed in the book.

Dr Jasmine Gideon

Dr Jasmine Gideon

The gendered nature of health systems

Several of the chapters reflect on the need to uncover the gendered nature of the health system itself and shed light on the diverse ways in which women’s interests are frequently marginalised or health policies work to reinforce women’s gendered roles and responsibilities.

Including marginalised voices

The third theme that is examined is the importance of incorporating the voices of excluded groups in policy processes as several chapters highlight the health costs of failing to engage with marginalised sectors of society.

Challenging ‘one size fits all’

Finally the fourth theme that emerges from a number of the chapters is the importance of appropriate policy responses and a move away from the ‘one size fits all’ approach, often espoused by international donors and global health discourses.

Within the Handbook authors from the Global North and South highlight how many of these challenges have wider relevance to all of our lives and that ‘gender’ remains central to any analysis of health, regardless of the level of development within the health system or wider economy.

Find out more

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Birkbeck’s Published Alumni Series: Elizabeth Fremantle

This post was contributed by Valeria Melchioretto. This summer the Birkbeck Creative Writing department launched its new website The Mechanics’ Institute Review Online. This year marks a huge success for the Creative Writing MA as ten alumni have novels coming out this year.

To celebrate these achievements we are profiling a selection of the authors and extracts from their upcoming novels will appear on MIROnline. Here, Valeria speaks with alumnus Elizabeth Fremantle, about her novel, The Girl in the Glass Tower (Penguin, June 2016)

Read an extract of the book at MIROnline

VM: Congratulations on your latest novel The Girl In The Glass Towerwhich is due out in June and thanks very much for taking the time to answer a few questions. All your novels are set in the Tudor era and focus on remarkable women who actually lived at that time. What made you write about these heroines in the first place?

TheGirlInGlassTowerEF: I became interested in early modern women when I was studying for my BA in English at Birkbeck. A course that explored women’s writing from the renaissance period opened my eyes to some of the first English women to publish their own original work. This helped me to understand the ways in which women were able to find their voices in a wholly misogynistic culture that expected female silence and obedience.

Katherine Parr, the protagonist of my first Tudor novel, was one of these women and I wanted to bust the notion of her as the dull nursemaid of popular Protestant myth and show her as the intelligent, courageous and dynamic woman she really was. All the women I write about lived remarkable lives that have been altered, or overlooked by a history that privileges male narratives and it has been my aim to, at least in some small way, redress that balance by reimagining their stories.

You must be a very prolific writer as this is your fourth published novel within just over two years. How did this extraordinary magnum opus come about? Did you approach an agent with all four novels ready to go or did you have one novel and wrote the other three as part of a publishing deal?

It’s misleading really, as it makes it seem as if I write two books a year. This is not actually the case. Queen’s Gambit was already finished when I signed my first three-book deal with Michael Joseph/Penguin in 2012 and by the time that was published a year later I had finished work on the next. My pattern is to write a book a year and The Girl in the Glass Tower is the first of a new four-book deal with the same publishers.

I already had an agent when I decided to work on the historical novels and had been, unsuccessfully, writing contemporary fiction. The change of focus helped me finally find my voice and I benefitted from a good deal of support and encouragement from my agent.

There is a huge demand on novels about the great and the good of the Tudor era, from the works of Sansom to Gregory and of course Mantel. Why do you think readers seem so keen to engross themselves into the lives of a well known elite from so long ago, or to put it differently, do you ever feel the pressure of having to fulfil readers’ expectations?

Why the Tudors continue to fascinate is a question people ask all the time and there is no single answer. The period marked the beginning of our modern world; it was a time of great upheaval, the Reformation forced people to reconsider beliefs that had gone unquestioned for hundreds of years and it marked a fundamental societal change. It was a time of great cultural flourishing in poetry and drama, which still resonates to this day, and also saw the first explorations to the New World.

As someone who is preoccupied with women’s stories I have found great inspiration from being able to listen in to authentic women’s voices from the first writings by women I mentioned above. For a writer it is a world in which the stakes are stratospherically high which creates a constant tension in any narrative.

There are of course the constraints of accuracy as the narrative arch is fixed by history itself. How do you manage to reclaim these characters and make them your own?

Elizabeth Fremantle

Elizabeth Fremantle

I don’t really think about that when I set out to write. I do a great deal of research and then set it all aside so I can build my characters from the inside out. Character is, after all, formed from inaccessible inner worlds. I may know some of the actions of the real life counterparts of my characters and the way they responded to others’ actions, or I may have read a line in a letter that sparks something in my mind, which in turn transforms into a trait that can be built on. But these people derive as much from my imagination as the historical record. I aim for accuracy in the overarching narrative but for me the historical facts are a framework on which to hang my characters.

How do you get so much writing done? Do you set yourself a daily word target or is it about having an ideal working environment? What’s your secret?

My secret is a very dull one: it’s nothing more mysterious than discipline. I work all the time and rarely take time off. There is nothing I’d rather be doing. I do find that a daily word count helps with my tight writing schedule. My absolute minimum is 1,000 words but if I haven’t written 1,500 in a day I’m not happy. I edit as I go along, reviewing the previous days’ work on the following morning and absolutely must be at my own desk, surrounded by all my reference books.

In which way do you think the MA has prepared you for your career as a writer?

I think one of the key things I derived from the MA was an understanding of the difficulty of the path I had chosen but also to take myself seriously as a writer. The truth is though, that it was only the beginning. The only way to develop ones craft is to practice it ceaselessly and that I did, for some time before I finally found my voice.

What has been the most challenging step on your way towards publication?

The decade of perpetual rejection, when I was writing but couldn’t find a home for my work. In hindsight I realize this period was an important part of my development as a writer but I could have done with it being less prolonged.

Your list of forthcoming events seems very busy at the moment. What is it like to come face to face with your readers?

It’s always a pleasure to meet the people who have read your work, though I get very nervous about public speaking.

Can you tell us about your forthcoming writing project(s)?

I’m working on a Jacobean thriller at the moment called The Poison Bed. It is set around the circumstances of a notorious murder in the Tower of London, which scandalized England and remains, to this day, something of a legal mystery. It will be my first crime novel. It is a new process for me as the structure and pace, as much as character, are key to making it work. Usually character is the cornerstone of my work, so this is different, though it has many of the characteristics of my other novels. I’m very excited about it and am thoroughly enjoying exploring a new genre and stretching myself creatively.

Also by Elizabeth Fremantle ‘Watch the Lady’, ‘Sisters of Treason’ and ‘Queen’s Gambit’ all published by Penguin.

Elizabeth Fremantle is the author of four novels all published by Penguin. She has a BA in English and an MA in creative writing from Birkbeck, University of London and has contributed to various publications including The Sunday Times, Vogue, Vanity Fair, The Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal. She also reviews fiction for The Sunday Express. She lives in London.

Valeria Melchioretto

Valeria Melchioretto

Valeria Melchioretto is the author of Podding Peas and The End of Limbo. She received a bursary from the Arts Council. In 2012 she represented Switzerland at the Poetry Olympics at the South Bank and won the ‘New Writing Ventures’. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck and a MA in Fine Art.

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The Myth of the Optimism Bias?

This article was originally posted by ‘Neuroskeptic’ on DiscoverMagazine.com on 3 June 2016. The article discusses research on optimism bias, as carried out by a team of psychological researchers including Birkbeck’s Professor Ulrike Hahn.

OptimismAre humans natural, irrational optimists? According to many psychologists, humans show a fundamental optimism bias, a tendency to underestimate our chances of suffering negative events. It’s said that when thinking about harmful events, such as contracting cancer, most people believe that their risk is lower than that of ‘the average person’. So, on average, people rate themselves as safer than the average. Moreover, people are also said to show biased belief updating. Faced with evidence that the risk of a negative outcome is higher than they believed, people don’t increase their personal risk estimates properly.

But now a group of researchers, led by first author Punit Shah of London, hascriticized the theory of biased belief updating and, by extension, the whole optimism bias model. Shah et al. say that optimism bias may be a mere statistical artifact, a product of the psychological test paradigms used to assess it. They argue that even perfectly rational, unbiased individuals would seem ‘optimistic’ in these tests. Specifically, the authors say that the apparent optimism is driven by the fact that negative events tend to be uncommon.

The new work builds on a 2011 paper by Adam J. L. Harris and Ulrike Hahn, also authors of the present paper. The 2011 article criticized the claim that people show an optimism bias by rating themselves as safer than the average. The new paper takes aim at biased belief updating. Here’s how Shah et al. describe their argument:

New studies have now claimed that unrealistic optimism emerges as a result of biased belief updating with distinctive neural correlates in the brain. On a behavioral level, these studies suggest that, for negative events, desirable information is incorporated into personal risk estimates to a greater degree than undesirable information (resulting in a more optimistic outlook).

 

However, using task analyses, simulations and experiments we demonstrate that this pattern of results is a statistical artifact. In contrast with previous work, we examined participants’ use of new information with reference to the normative, Bayesian standard.

 

Simulations reveal the fundamental difficulties that would need to be overcome by any robust test of optimistic updating. No such test presently exists, so that the best one can presently do is perform analyses with a number of techniques, all of which have important weaknesses. Applying these analyses to five experiments shows no evidence of optimistic updating. These results clarify the difficulties involved in studying human ‘bias’ and cast additional doubt over the status of optimism as a fundamental characteristic of healthy cognition.

I asked Shah and his colleagues to explain the case against the optimism bias in belief updating in a nutshell. They said

All risk estimates have to fit into a scale between 0% and 100%; you can’t have a chance of getting a heart attack at some point in your life of less than 0% or greater than 100%. The problems for the update method arise from the fact that the same ‘movement’ in percentage terms means different things in different parts of the scale.

 

Someone whose risk decreases from 45% to 30% has seen their risk cut by 1/3, whereas someone whose risk increases from 15% to 30% has seen their risk double -much bigger change. So the same 15% difference means something quite different if you have to revise your beliefs about your individual risk downwards (good news!) or upwards (bad news!) toward the same percentage value. The moment people’s risk estimates are influenced by individual risk factors (a family history of heart attack increases your personal risk by a factor of about 1.6), people should change their beliefs to different amounts, depending on the direction of the change. The update method falsely equates the 15% in both cases.

 

If the difference in belief change simply reflects these mathematical properties of risk estimates then one should see systematic differences between those increasing and those decreasing their risk estimates regardless of whether they happen to be estimating a negative or a positive event. But in the first case, this will look like ‘optimism’, in the second case it will look like ‘pessimism’. This is the pattern our experiments find…

 

The evidence base thus seems far less stable than previously considered. There is, using various paradigms, plenty of evidence for optimism in various real-world settings such as sports fans predictions and political predictions, but these just show that certain people might be optimistic in certain situations, not that there is a general optimistic tendency across situations that would be required to say people are optimistically biased. It is also important to note that because this belief updating paradigm has been used in so many neuroscience studies, it means those neuroscience data are also uninterpretable.

Read the original article on DiscoverMagazine.com

Read the original article on DiscoverMagazine.com

In my view, Shah et al. make a strong case that the evidence for optimism bias needs to be reexamined. Their argument makes a crucial prediction: that people should show a ‘pessimistic’ bias (the counterpart of the optimism bias) when asked to rate their chance of experiencing rare, positive events. In the new paper, the authors report finding such a pessimistic bias in a series of experiments. But perhaps they should team up with proponents of the optimism bias and run an adversarial collaboration to convince the believers.

  • Punit Shah, Adam J. L. Harris, Geoffrey Bird, Caroline Catmur, & Ulrike Hahn (2016). A Pessimistic View of Optimistic Belief Updating Cognitive Psychology
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