By Elen Turner
I have been a fan of Pakistani-American Sorayya Khan’s fiction since I read her first novel, Noor (2006), which is about the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence. Her second novel, Five Queens Road (2009) shifted the action to Lahore, while her latest ‘novel’, City of Spies, is set in Islamabad.
I write ‘novel’ because I was not convinced by the term. While Pakistani women’s writing has a small but strong tradition of the fictionalised memoir—Bapsi Sidhwa’s Cracking India, Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days—Sorayya Khan’s City of Spies does not claim to be a memoir or based on the author’s experiences, and this, I believe, is its biggest flaw. The book is told from the point of view of Aliya, a smart, sensitive and headstrong young girl trying to negotiate the complexities not only of growing up in a politically difficult and religiously repressive place, but also with having a foreign, white mother. Aliya feels Pakistani, but knows she is different. She attends the local American school, alongside the children of diplomats and spies (which were often one and the same), but recognises that she is only there by the grace of her scholarship and well-connected parents.