What Female Characters?

September 9, 2014   •   By Hannah Harris Green

I ONCE HAD a long conversation with a male friend about our respective pasts with our respective opposite sexes. We started out commiserating, about the pain of love and the ability of men to inflict physical trauma on women — an ex of his had been abused. The conversation moved to more casual territory, and at some point he brought up how much he hated using a condom with this same ex. He quickly became defensive, for I’m sure that at that point my face had clouded with judgment. “It’s no big deal!” he said, “You just have to take a pill now.”

I said “really?” I hadn’t known. My surprise gave him a chance to change the direction of the conversation. But I thought of him again every time I learned something new about the “abortion pill” that my friend was describing. He was the first person to inform me of its existence, but after that conversation it came up again and again with various friends, who told me about their experiences with it or that of people they knew, sometimes even wondering if surgical abortion might have been preferable. 

The pill, more formally referred to as “medical abortion,” is actually two pills, costing hundreds of dollars, which basically induce an early miscarriage, which will at minimum cause severe cramping, heavy bleeding, and the discharge of tissues. It’s normal to continue bleeding for up to four weeks after taking the abortion pill, and further complications may include dangerous amounts of blood loss. Since then I’ve thought that my friend might have put on a condom if he’d known more about it. It would have been easy enough for him to learn — a quick trip to the Planned Parenthood website tells you everything I’ve just said and more. But it was convenient for him to remain ignorant. He had learned just enough to allow himself to believe that his behavior would have no consequences, and to know any more would have required him to rethink that perception. 

While reading Zia Haider Rahman’s much-hyped debut novel, In the Light of What We Know, I had occasion to think of my friend again. The book is all about knowledge — who has access to it, who doesn’t, and how people who do have access use it. But it is equally about ignorance, and how people may, consciously or unconsciously, choose to shut out certain information so that they can go through life without questioning their perceptions of themselves. A trader on Wall Street might prefer to remain oblivious to the volatility of certain securities packages so that he can continue to sell them with a clear conscious. An upper-class Englishman knows that if he shows too much expertise about working-class trades, the borders of class distinction may start to blur more than he would like. In Afghanistan, a British relief-aide worker may learn just enough about the country she is supposedly helping that she can believe, without question, that her organization knows best. Sometimes a person will only face the truth when the situation becomes so dire that the outside begins to notice.

Rahman explores many kinds of knowledge through Zafar, a protagonist who, like him, has tread many walks of life — he was raised by working-class Bangladeshi immigrants in London but spent a memorable portion of his childhood in rural Bangladesh. Through his own personal brilliance and force of will, Zafar attends Oxford as an undergraduate on scholarship and eventually studies mathematics as well as law. He changes career paths several times. As a teenager, he works as a waiter and as a carpenter, and, like the author, after college he goes on to work in investment banking, in law, and in human rights. Zafar interacts with people from a variety of backgrounds as well, including his lover, Emily, who is described as a low-level aristocrat, and the book’s narrator, an over-privileged Pakistani-American investment banker he meets at Oxford, who for some reason is not given a name.

The novel begins when the narrator finds Zafar, who he has not seen in years, at his doorstep, disheveled. It’s clear from his long absence and his appearance that something significant has happened, something tragic — but it takes a long time for him to say what. Zafar ends up staying for an extended period in the narrator’s extra room, and the novel stems from the conversations they have each evening. While the unnamed character is technically the narrator, Zafar is sort of a second narrator; as so much of the story comes from recorded conversations between the two men, and from Zafar’s notebooks. Sometimes Zafar’s voice alone continues for pages uninterrupted, although we must always read with the understanding that the narrator has selected which passages to include. 

The difference in the characters’ class backgrounds produces some revealing discussion — such as when the narrator commends Zafar for noticing homeless people on the street and giving them his leftovers. Zafar responds that he notices not out of goodness but out of fear: “I never chose to see the homeless man; I just did, and I did because however much I tried — however much I might have made the prospect impossible by acquiring degrees and getting paid stupid amounts of money in jobs that promised security — I could never shake off the certain belief that I was only one small misstep away from the same destitution.” The narrator has been blinded by his privilege just as Zafar’s past has also given him a certain kind of distorted vision — his own success is something that he can never fully appreciate for the fear that it will be taken away.

Discourse in this book is refreshing because it acknowledges the fluidity of our thoughts — there is no winner, no perfect point of view. All kinds of thoughts from all kinds of brilliant men permeate and shape the discourse, which is only occasionally pretentions, and mostly is an indictment of pretention, of the idea that certainty is possible. Gödel’s incompleteness theorem is present in every conversation — the idea that truth is a mutable commodity.

It’s the kind of conversation that you hope exists somewhere, and that you would like to be a part of. But women are not a part of it — not in this book, not in a meaningful way. The ideas discussed are men’s ideas. There are conversations with men and conversations with men about other conversations with men—with fathers, male friends, and mentors, but not with mothers, wives, or lovers. Occasionally a female will show up in a cameo role to reveal some financial advice in addition to some cleavage. But the conversations that go on for pages — that unthread and rearrange the fabric of modern intellectual discourse — these happen only among men.


In the Light of What We Know has received enthusiastic reviews in a variety of prestigious publications — The New Yorker, The Guardian and The New York Times, to name a few. These reviewers praise the novel for its broad range of experiences and kinds of thought, and each devotes a few inches of text to the quotations that begin each chapter, which are remarkably well curated to show how thought from diverse fields, regions, and eras is interrelated. At the beginning of one chapter, the mathematician Kurt Gödel and the novelist Graham Greene are both quoted pondering the mystery of human communication. In another set of epigraphs, the third century religious philosopher Saint Augustine and James Baldwin have different takes on the vastness of and the holes in human memory. But there is one kind of thought that is starkly unrepresented. Of 56 epigraphs, only four are from women.

The absence of female thought extends beyond the epigraphs. And this brings me back to my condom-hating friend. Zafar also has occasion to do research about the mechanics of medical abortion. While my friend might have used accurate information about the pills to determine that they are not an acceptable form of birth control, except perhaps in extreme situations, Zafar uses it to determine the date of conception and decides that he is not the father of Emily’s baby. You could say he looks at Emily’s body as if it were a piece of clockwork and not as a person that thinks and feels.

And indeed, we are never given evidence that Emily has feelings or thoughts of any depth. She is introduced as almost a non-entity. The first time Zafar sees her, she is rehearsing the violin in a church, and he is struck by how profoundly she has failed to move him with her playing. Her main two emotional states seem to be envy and annoyance. She never smiles out of genuine feeling, only with some ulterior motive in mind. Zafar is smarter than she is, and she resents him for it. When they arrange to meet, she often shows up hours late.

So why is Zafar so entranced with her? There are a few clues —“before he met Emily, he had fallen in love with her name.” As a child, Zafar told a British boy he met on holiday that his name was George, apparently hoping to belong. Emily Hampton-Wyvern is an aristocratic-sounding English name, but can that be enough to sustain an attraction? Zafar can’t seem to resist her pull, yet he detests her as much as he wants her. She is not as affectionate or giving as he wants her to be, and her refusal to conform to his wishes leaves him yearning for control.

If, as James Wood notes in The New Yorker, “Emily is just a liberal Orientalist, Zafar, in his hopeless longing for her, is not without his own form of erotic Occidentalism: ‘She rescued me and condemned me in the same gesture’[….]What was Emily, to Zafar, but a living metaphor? ‘I hated Emily for the same reasons I loved her,’ he says.”

So Emily is a metaphor for the West, or for England, where Zafar has never quite felt welcome. There are many spaces where we can read this metaphor into the novel. In an upscale Italian restaurant, Emily leaves most of her pizza on her plate because she won’t eat anything that she’s dirtied with her own fingers. She doesn’t enjoy walking for the sake of walking. And yet she does relief work in Afghanistan out of the belief that she can “make a difference” — this finicky woman. All this could be seen as an extended metaphor for 21st-century imperialism, with its squeamishness, its unwillingness to get within arm’s length of the country it occupies, to step out of the land rover or the embassy compound. Or it could just be a mild form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. We don’t know because we never see inside Emily’s mind at all.

Emily drives most of the action in the novel, but it is never clear what drives her. From the moment he shows up at the narrator’s doorstep, Zafar suggests that he is where he is because of Emily. We learn that it was she who drove Zafar at various points to the psych ward, then to Dhaka (so that he could get away from her), and finally to Afghanistan, to be near her again. While Zafar is in the psychiatric hospital, Emily never visits him and is unfaithful as well, leading to the aforementioned pregnancy. After Zafar is released, he is overjoyed to find out that a baby is coming, and the couple plan enthusiastically for the arrival. “I loved the baby before it was born,” says Zafar, “before God made the heavens and the earth, you know, before the idea of nations, before any plant had found memory of its flower. “ He imagines his future with the boy (which he has decided the child will be). His love for the child and his love for conceptual thinking meld in his imagination:

I lie in bed with him between us, Emily sleeping, her body that has so often coiled into a question mark now echoing the fetal position; she is asleep but now I, too afraid we might roll onto him, onto Jasper, and I whisper into the curl of his ear, Your father loves you all the way to infinity, adding under my breath, whose force terrifies me, and don’t you ever underestimate infinity.

Then, with little explanation and no warning, after filling the fragile Zafar with emotions and hope, Emily suddenly decides to terminate the pregnancy. Months later, Zafar finds out that the baby wasn’t his.

The lack of human qualities in Emily — more so than the lack of appealing qualities — really disturbed me, especially in the context of a book that consistently views women with disdainful and predatory eyes. Zafar notes that women lose most of their beauty after the age of 18, and that older women in literature are given more credit than they deserve for being “feisty” and “strongheaded”—“things which if found in a man would scarcely get a mention.” Elsewhere, Zafar explains that many women wait too long to become mothers in order to focus on their careers. A reader begins to doubt that these passages are simply the thoughts of a misogynistic character when they are buttressed by long descriptions of body shape and unbuttoning of blouses that come whenever a female character is introduced. We are assured within a few sentences that any new female is both beautiful and thin — as if even the possibility of imagining another kind of woman would be offensive to the reader. It’s typical for a woman to be introduced in this way: “It would be disingenuous of me not to confess that what was most striking about Lauren were her breasts. I would have bet my bottom dollar it was a push-up bra that made for the flawless curves.” The narrator, who is responsible for this one, at least admits several times that he has a shallow personality, but of course Zafar is no better. In Afghanistan, he meets the director of an international microfinance organization. We get a thorough description of how her outfit highlights her curves, before he notes that her “name was fit for a porn star.”

It’s tempting to think that the absence of a female perspective to combat this heavily male gaze is intentional — an extent of the novel’s conceit that all people have their blind spots, even someone as scrupulous and multifaceted as Zafar. But the evidence isn’t there — not in the book itself, nor in the author’s interactions with the press. In an interview with Guernica Magazine last month, Rahman admitted that his choice to use the first person did limit him somewhat, as it forced him to exclude anything that the narrator himself doesn’t perceive. But here is the example he gives of an element he regretted cutting: “For instance, I have a passage in which the narrator retells the story of a cherished bicycle he had as a boy that disappeared. He gets through the story without seeing that his mother was having an affair because his eye is on the bicycle.” So the first person narrative forced Rahman to exclude not a female point of view, but yet another instance of a woman behaving in a deceptive way.

It is possible to show the myopia of the protagonist, even in a first person novel. One way is through conversation with other characters, as Rahman himself demonstrated in the conversation about the narrators’ two interactions (or lack thereof) with the homeless.

Another example can be found in the climax of Teju Cole’s 2012 novel Open City. The two novels have been compared frequently as immigrant literature or exile literature, and they also share an engagement with culture and intellectual thought exterior to the plot. Just as striking, to me, were the parallel trajectories along which the protagonists betray the reader. As with Open City, the climax of In the Light of What We Know is the revelation that the protagonist is a rapist. In both novels, this device is all the more shocking because of a preponderance of biographical similarities between the protagonist and the author. Although Julius, Cole’s protagonist, has been able to see himself as a good person, we learn that he has had a terrible impact on another person’s life. Moji is a woman who Julius knew when they were both teenagers in Nigeria, and who he encounters again many years later when they are both successful professionals living in New York. As Moji tries to reestablish ties between them, Julius feels inexplicable aversion to her, which slowly gives way to sexual desire. The source of his mixed feelings is revealed when, at a party in the middle of the night, Moji tells Julius why she’s tried to reconnect with him. He raped her, she says, when they were both teenagers. She has carried this trauma every day, and she needs closure: “The luxury of denial had not been possible for her. Indeed, I had been ever-present in her life, like a stain or a scar, and she had thought of me, either fleetingly or in extended agonies, for almost every day of her adult life.”

Zafar’s rape of Emily, like Julius’s of Moji, is in the distant past when the novel begins in 2008 (Zafar raped Emily in Afghanistan in 2002). It seems that his disappearance in the years between have something to do with his crime, but although he appears to have been affected by what he did, there’s no real sense of repentance or responsibility. It’s important to remember that everything that Zafar says about women in general or Emily in particular — about his hatred toward her — is in retrospect, as though she were to blame. His final confession to the narrator left me with a hollow fury, absent as it was of any concern about what became of Emily. Further, the story of the rape includes details that seem to absolve Zafar of as much responsibility as possible. Zafar commits the act in an emotionally and physically volatile state. He has just witnessed the aftermath of a bombing that nearly killed him, as well — he believes he was saved because, as usual, Emily was late. The thought that Emily’s tardiness was also his salvation infuriates Zafar. He is about to confront her: 

Inside Emily’s room, detached from the life of the city, its hubbub, its fracturing of the mind’s focus, I became the instrument of fury. I had never felt such rage as I did then, such consuming vicious anger, and of course I was keyed up: I’d just witnessed a bomb site. I had yet to fully understand what precisely had happened, and, although I see now that I must already have begun putting things together, at the time, my body seemed entirely given over to imminent action, every nerve in service of instincts, every sinew twitching with readiness. Do you know what a scientist would have called my state? Arousal.

Emily, of course, is petrified, and Zafar finally has her where he wants her: “She could not move, as if her mind no longer possessed her. And in that fact alone, I felt an engulfing sense of control. She was terrified, and I must tell you the truth: It was exhilarating, and I felt a unity with her.” But Zafar can’t confess the physical reality of what he’s done, and the narrator doesn’t press him, but gently assures him that he doesn’t have to tell anything he doesn’t want to.

Intimate partner violence happens all the time and we should talk about it more — in a way that is focused primarily on what rape does to the woman. Roxane Gay argued that when we discuss the consequences of rape, we should focus more on the consequences for survivors, not rapists, in her 2009 essay for The Rumpus, “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence.” She focused on the example of a New York Times article about the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl. Gay writes:

The overall tone of the article was what a shame it all was, how so many lives were affected by this one terrible event. Little addressed the girl, the child. It was an eleven-year-old girl whose body was ripped apart, not a town. It was an eleven-year-old girl whose life was ripped apart, not the lives of the men who raped her. It is difficult for me to make sense of how anyone could lose sight of that and yet it isn’t.

This is the tone that surrounds the rape of Emily as well. We are expected to wonder if Zafar, not Emily, will recover from Zafar’s crime.

In Open City, the rape changes the way we feel about Julius. After Moji tells him what he’s done, she begs him to say something — he ignores her, and the next chapter has him blissfully enjoying a classical music concert. Though he may be able to bury what he’s done by shifting the focus of his emotions to something abstract, his hypocrisy is laid bare for the reader. In the Light of What We Know, however, concludes in an un-ironic celebration of the friendship that can bloom between men with similar intellectual interests. After leaving the narrator’s guest flat for “a life of few attachments,” Zafar’s only contact with him is a postcard, upon which is written the html address for an image of Einstein and Gödel walking together. This photo made me think of the many long conversations between men in the novel, between Zafar and the narrator, but also between the narrator and his father. In these conversations, men exchange ideas not only to relay information, but to console one another, to help better understand their own lives.

Rahman has a brilliant mind, capable of understanding many kinds of people. I hope one day he endeavors to try and understand women. Otherwise, for all his uniqueness, he will be yet another respected male author who would rather speak for women than to them.


Hannah Harris Green is the 2014-2015 recipient of the Alistair Cooke Fulbright Award in Journalism.