Health & Lifestyle » Addiction

The Best Novels on Drug Addiction

recommended by Shazia Omar

Author and social psychologist discusses the nature of drug addiction and the problems associated with it. Discusses books by Coelho, Welsh and Kerouac

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What is the situation with drugs in Bangladesh, and how did you come to write a book about drug addiction?

Drug addiction is a growing problem in Bangladesh. Many people are taking a drug called yabba, which comes from Thailand and is similar to speed. It’s an expensive drug so it’s the well-off young people who are doing it. A lot of those I met while researching the book didn’t realise they were going to get hooked. None of them knew how harmful it is. I grew up in Canada and Saudi Arabia, and had learnt about drugs from an early age, but in Bangladesh, talking about drugs is taboo. Young people have no access to knowledge here.

As I was speaking to people, common threads started emerging. Many addicts had previously attempted to detox, they had trouble with the police, parental relationships that had completely broken down, and had been being kicked out of home at least once. So I wanted to string these threads together in my book.

My masters thesis, which was on happiness, was also related to my book. I interviewed really, really poor women in slums about how they defined happiness. That research became the voice of the character Falani, a single mother who sells drugs from her slum.

The resulting book is Like a Diamond in the Sky.

Yes. The main character is an addict called Deen, who struggles between his spiritual and material self. He wants to ascend and he wants to be happy, but he is stuck in his material world because he keeps needing his hit. The gritty reality of poverty and crime keeps him trapped in negativity. I believe that the overriding characteristic of addiction is negativity. To overcome it, you have to overcome a negative frame of mind. There are many ways to do that, whether it’s strengthening relationships, prayer or attaching yourself to a higher cause. This can be applied to everyone, not just to addicts. Deen is a negative person who is constantly blaming others, whether it’s the government, his parents, or his university. He is very self-consumed and doesn’t think of other people, so he is not in a position to give. He feels disempowered.

I wanted to explore why the youth here are feeling alienated. Part of the reason is linked to the state of the country, the failure of leadership and widespread poverty. But there are also a lot of similarities with drug addicts elsewhere – such as the failure of certain important relationships.

Why do you recommend On the Road by Jack Kerouac?

Because it explores drug use in America at a time when things were changing. The youth in America could have become either alienated or empowered, and as it turned out they became empowered. I enjoyed this book because it explores how drugs, youth and culture are interrelated.

I also identified with the main character’s passion for roaming around and exploring the world. I wanted my character Deen, who is named after Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty, to have those same characteristics.

Would you describe it as a pro-drug book?

The drugs in On the Road aren’t the class A variety – Kerouac mostly writes about marijuana. As a writer it’s not important to take a moral stance on drug use. It’s not our responsibility to do so. However I did take a moral stance – I wanted people to read my book and think ‘I will never do heroin.’ It was a conscious decision. Jack Kerouac didn’t take that stance and that’s fine.

There are also different sorts of stigmas associated with various drugs. There is the stigma of not talking about drugs at all – this is what I was dealing with. Jack Kerouac may have been dealing with the social stigma against softer drugs, a stigma that didn’t necessarily need to exist.

Your next book is The Alchemist by Paul Coelho.

This book isn’t exactly drug-related, but it involves a spiritual journey. Getting out of drugs has a lot to do with your frame of mind and the ability to become connected to something higher than yourself. Eventually the young boy in this book chooses his own destiny, which is a key tenet of overcoming addiction. He starts to learn that everyone has a purpose and you have to tune in to find it. A lot of people become afraid of listening to their heart and doing the wrong thing. When that happens you start living a mundane life and falling short of your potential. As you gain courage and believe in yourself you get energy from those around you.

The Alchemist points out that the key to solving most problems is love. The rehab centre in Mumbai was all about love – how to love yourself, your family and your life. A lot of rehabs get it wrong because they are very punitive. The focus is on discipline and drawing boundaries and cutting things off. The problem is that addicts don’t end up gaining a strength when they leave. They might get away from their addiction for a while but that’s not enough. The addicts might leave feeling hollow and alienated and without the strength to go on. Most rehabs use a punitive approach to heroin, which is why the recovery rate is so low. It’s around 10 per cent globally. Heroin addicts are never considered ‘recovered’ addicts – they are always ‘recovering’, because the moment there is a slip-up it’s back down the black hole. The rehab centre in Mumbai has an 80 per cent recovery rate, which is obviously higher than most others.

Why did you pick your next book, Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid?

This book is the most similar to my own because it explores the life of a junkie in Pakistan who also enjoyed an upper-class lifestyle. The main character is an investment banker, but he loses his job and social standing and embarks on a downward spiral. His descent also mirrors the political downward spiral of Pakistan during the 1990s. It’s set in yet another country, in a different social milieu in which addiction exists, but in a lot of ways Pakistan is very similar to Bangladesh. Both countries have a big divide between the rich and poor and drugs are a taboo topic, about which there is little understanding. Young people in both countries are scoring from the slums and probably using the same drug chains of Afghanistan and India.

It’s a very lyrical and beautiful book, though I don’t believe Mohsin Hamid explores what it takes to get over addiction.

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. This is such a classic – why is it such an important narrative of addiction?

People who aren’t in the circle of heroin or other drugs don’t necessarily know much about them, which is perhaps why the film and the book had such a cult following. The characters are working-class anti-heroes, sociopaths. There are no holds barred and parts of the book are grotesque. It’s not an easy book to get through. But it’s also one of the few books about drugs that has a semi-happy ending.

It’s interesting in the way it explores why people get into drugs, which is mostly because they feel alienated. The book provides graphic details of how it causes dysfunction, crime and anti-social behaviour.

April 5, 2010

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Shazia Omar

Shazia Omar

Social psychologist Shazia Omar is the author of Like a Diamond in the Sky, a novel about Bangladeshi addicts. Omar is a founding member of Writers Block, an organisation that aims to promote the works of Bangladeshis writing in English.

Shazia Omar

Shazia Omar

Social psychologist Shazia Omar is the author of Like a Diamond in the Sky, a novel about Bangladeshi addicts. Omar is a founding member of Writers Block, an organisation that aims to promote the works of Bangladeshis writing in English.