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.
The story is fiction, and there is no need to or purpose for inquiring how much of it comes from the true experiences of the author. Such preoccupations are banal, the sign of tired and unimaginative literary inquiry, and too often fall on female authors. However, Khan herself is the daughter of a Dutch mother, as is Aliya in the novel. Aliya is around the same age as Khan. She ends up living in upstate New York, as does the author. These details mean that however hard a reader works to separate the novel with the author’s life, the two repeatedly converge. This is not necessarily a barrier to enjoying the novel, but it is distracting, and left me feeling dissatisfied by the fictional world that was created. When entering a fictional world—even one that closely resembles the real one—I want to enter it fully, not be repeatedly teased into thinking it may not be fiction.
However, City of Spies is a moving story that concurrently depicts Aliya’s emotional and cultural growth with the deterioration of her country’s politics. It is 1977, General Zia has taken over, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—whom Aliya’s family supports—is in jail. Aliya, due to attending an American school, becomes fast friends with a pretty blonde girl named Lizzy. She falls in love—in the way that young girls do with their idols—with Lizzy’s mother, but this adoration is tested when she learns of a dark secret.
The way that this secret is handled differently by Aliya and her parents is very telling of a young girl’s psychology. Aliya obsesses over it, misunderstanding its consequences, and is perplexed by her parents’ comparatively blasé attitude towards it. They, perhaps, have come to expect less of people, to understand that not everything is as it appears on the surface. This is a lesson that Aliya must painfully learn.
Running parallel to this secret are the broader political events of the time. The impunity at the heart of Aliya’s personal torment is reflected in the atmosphere of national impunity. It could have come across as heavy-handed to reflect national and political failings in personal ones, but the impunity rings true on both levels. The reader can easily believe that events happened as they did, even while recognising that some of it is fictional.
Despite its generic shortcomings, City of Spies is an interesting novel that tells as tale as geo-politically resonant of now as of the time in which it was set. It is another great addition to the small but growing body of Pakistani literature in English.