The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Shazia Omar
By Farah Ghuznavi
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
Writing is my favourite form of self-torture. Playing with words is pleasurable, fantasizing plotlines from foreplay to climax is enjoyable, but then… getting the words to convey the plot, now there’s the hair-yanking, teeth-grinding, eye-gouging challenge. Still, the creative process is exhilarating, and in the end it allows me to share thoughts and ideas with others.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
I have published two books this summer with Bloomsbury India. Dark Diamond is a historical fantasy set in 1685 about the Mughal Viceroy of Bengal, Subedar Shayista Khan, who built the Lal Bagh Fort. I was looking for a time in history that Bengalis could be proud of and a hero who could inspire our youth. I wanted to look beyond 1971, to remind our youth of our rich, secular, pluralistic past. On another note, I wanted to portray the outer, inner and secret meanings of Islam that come under threat when radical power structures are in place.
Intentional Smile: A Girl’s Guide to Positive Living is a mind, body, spirit book about staying happy and healthy. It is based on my experience as a yoga instructor and a social psychologist, and a working mother who has struggled with chronic depression. My co-author, Merrill Khan, is a school counsellor and a life coach.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
In my first novel, Like a Diamond in the Sky, my protagonist was a young junkie who loved rock ‘n roll. Inspired by the Beatniks and folk musicians of America, I tried to simplify and pare down my sentences and paragraphs as much as possible.
The protagonist of Dark Diamond, on the other hand, is a Sufi warrior and swashbuckling hero. I allowed my writing to be inspired by Sufi poets, but also kept characters like Indiana Jones in mind.
Who are your favorite writers?
I love Garcia and Pablo Neruda and the Sufi poets, for their sensual lyrics. I love Arundhati Roy because she is so brave, discerning and counter-culture. I love Jhumpa Lahiri for her insights into relationships. I devoured all the Game of Thrones novels one summer. I read a lot of Tagore (in translation) and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. I enjoyed reading Mohsin Hamid, Mohammad Hanif and Daniyal Moinuddin. Among Bangladeshi writers writing in English, I love Saad Z. Hossain, Srabonti Narmeen Ali and Mahmud Rahman’s work.
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
Dark Diamond was definitely the most challenging of the three books I have written because it required so much research. I spent more than three years reading up and even flew to London to visit the British Library. I felt like a PhD student!
What’s your idea of bliss?
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
Oppression aimed at freedom of speech, expression, thought. Extreme poverty and the gross inequalities upheld by corporate power structures and geo-political forces. The gender pay gap – wtf? The arms race. Beef-eating eco-destruction. Child-labour. Paedophilia. Human-trafficking.
What book would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
Something long, I guess. Maybe A Suitable Girl? I’ve been meaning to read that.
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
My kids and hubster!
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
All you need is love!
Shazia Omar is an author, a yogini and an activist for the poorest. She grew up in Canada and Saudi Arabia. She studied social psychology and economics at LSE, UK and Dartmouth College, USA. She lives in Bangladesh and enjoys being a mom. She has written three books and one play. She writes a column for The Daily Star called Kundalini Rising. Shazia is a Taurus, and stubborn as a bull. She loves lattes and popcorn and reading by the pool. She aspires to be a ninja warrior and busies herself with the study of alchemy and tantra in her free time. During the day, she is the CEO of mTracker (www.mTracker.co), a technology firm that creates digital solutions that enable programs to serve vulnerable communities.