In The Polygamist, William Irvine explores love, sex, and marriage within the context of an unusual household. An exploration of sexual fantasy and desire, ultimately The Polygamist is a coming of age story with a strong spiritual theme. Set at the end of the seventies, a time when experimentation with alternative lifestyles and sexual relationships was rife, The Polygamist follows the fortunes of Omar Al Ghamdi, Saudi-born but educated in the West; a man who is the product of two irreconcilable cultures. We have conducted an interview with the Author.
How did you come up with the idea for the story?
I have a pet sexual fantasy that I’ve held for as long as I can remember – living with a harem. At one stage in my life the fantasy visited me so often that I started thinking through how I might make it reality – I would need arranged marriages, a large house affording plenty of privacy and so forth. This thinking gave me the basis for the novel – writing The Polygamist then required me to imagine and think through how the reality would actually pan out.
How much do you think the contemporary religious attitudes to polygamy influence your story?
In the UK polygamy is in the news because we have a large Moslem minority. Whereas Sharia condones polygamy, the UK Bigamy Act forbids it. Only the first wife in a polygamous household enjoys any recognition and rights under UK law, creating a problem.
The novel’s hero is a Western educated Saudi – conflicting cultural attitudes to polygamy are a key part of his characterisation. The book doesn’t condone or try to justify polygamy, even pointing out potential problems with it – but it does set out to challenge the desirability of monogamy, something enshrined in the West’s laws, religion and culture.
Why would you want this book to be set in the 70s and in particular in Goa/India?
The defining characteristic of the 70s wasn’t flares and brick boots. It was the proliferation of counter culture and a willingness to look at alternative ideas and ways to living. This makes it the most interesting period of the 20th Century. The more liberal attitudes to sex, race and class that we enjoy today were all evolved during the seventies. As such it provided the right context for a novel about a man who refuses to tow the monogamous line. It also meant I could include hippies in India (plenty of opportunity for humour!). India and the hippy thing were both key parts of my own early adult experience.
Whilst the polygamist household that Omar establishes in Goa is (male) fantasy (mine), the novel is otherwise semi-autobiographical, many of the incidents in the novel actually took place whilst I was there in 1978 and 1979.
Which are the spiritual strongholds in your story?
I believe one should look at all religions and philosophical movements in one’s search for the truth and bid for happiness. Omar’s household is Islamic out of artistic necessity (of the major religions, only Islam condones polygamy). Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism and the ideas of Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh are all touched on as well.
What is your message?
Ultimately, the novel points to humility as the key to mental liberation.
How do you craft your female characters of your story in 'The Polygamist'?
All the female characters are based on former partners who were of varying experience, ages and cultural backgrounds. For character X I recall ex-partner Y and imagine what she would have said or how she would have reacted in a situation described in the novel.
What kind (if any) of psychological crisis do these wives in this polygamous family experience?
Different for each of the wives because the women are so different. All have at least one major crisis. This is part of the interest of the novel, so I’d rather not go into more detail or I’d have to give the story away!
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