By Aminah Sheikh
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
My stories arise from discontent, disenfranchisement, the periphery. Mainly because I’ve grown up in a country that refuses to accept its own plurality, is determined to forget its history even as it flounders on the brink of self-destruction. I internalized the subliminal conflicts of daily life wrought with issues that should be clichés but were my reality: patriarchy, lack of opportunity and gender discrimination. I, as an individual—woman, thinker, writer—was at odds with the limiting and reductive social constructs of my culture. And I read and wrote to make sense of everything around me.
Being an educated woman; being a writer, and writing in English particularly, make me a minority, and these realities have pushed me to resist labels, categories, and monolithic ideologies, in life and so perhaps my very identity is a site of resistance. How can I not write?
I’m a product of the textual multi-verse. Stories are my home, and literatures in Urdu, Punjabi, English, as well as translated literature from around the world, have informed my intellectual landscape.
Writing was not a conscious choice. I write in English but my diction is steeped in cultures, languages and literatures that are not English. I feel privileged to have a voice with multiple and multifarious echoes that coalesce together to form new patterns. I have to write to stay in touch with who I am. I am most myself when I write.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
This House of Clay and Water is very close to my heart. It’s a love story. Love as incarceration, and intertwined inextricably with tragedy, is an important theme in my novel, and the metaphors of walls and boundaries represent that idea in a way. I’m fascinated by the dichotomies of appearance and reality, duplicity, the panopticon gaze of society which exists to police others and force into conformity. I write mostly about all of these themes and about self-deception, the struggles of ordinary women to achieve extraordinary personal heights as my protagonist Nida demonstrates with her refusal to be corrupted by the world around her.
Imposed gender roles lie at the heart of this novel and the body is an important symbol. But it’s not a male body. The body of the other is shown as a commodity — to be claimed, owned and discarded — it is the site of power struggles for men.
My novel focuses on the various kinds of love and its failure. When I write, I’m only ever trying to tell a good story that will engage the deepest parts of the reader’s heart and mind.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
I want to write the kind of books that crack the reader’s assumptions about life and universal truths, about human nature and the condition of being human. I like fiction which gives value to the action happening inside character’s minds and hearts.
So for me, unless a character speaks to me intimately I don’t have a story. I start writing only when a character begins to live with me and I hear them constantly. I don’t plot and plan. I write what I hear from the character. Once I have a first draft, and it’s often a slow process, it takes me a year to write the first draft, only then do I proceed to edit. I start from the top every day to edit. Again, it’s a rather slow process but the good thing is that I have very few edits by the time it goes to an agent or publisher.
I prefer working in the morning after the boys have gone to school, but I also work after they’ve all gone to bed. But that’s only when I feel I won’t be able to sleep if I don’t write whatever I have thought of to add.
I want to be able to write stories that leave a residue behind with the reader, because those are the kinds of stories that I have always loved. Anton Chekhov, Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal and Michael Ondaatje are some of the writers who awoke the wonder of words in me and whose stories I go back to repeatedly. I am not shy of overreaching in my writing. I aspire to the highest models.
Who are your favorite authors?
Authors who shaped my sensibilities are Horumil Harabal, Fyodor Doestovsky, Milan Kundera, Anton Chekhov, Helen DeWitt, Jostein Gaarder, Emily Bronte, William Shakespeare, Ghalib, Omer Khayyam, Khalid Hosseini, Arundhati Roy, Sophocles, Tennessee Williams, Edith Wharton, Bapsi Sidwah, Eugene O’ Neal, Sean O’ Casey, Patricia Mc Killip, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charles Dickens, Harper Lee, Colleen McCollough and many, many more. It’s an endless list.
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
It has to be This House of Clay and Water. I’m very proud of this book. It’s a difficult subject, a love story between a woman and a hermaphrodite and it’s set in Pakistan, where you breathe the wrong way and you’ve either blasphemed or you’re a CIA agent. But I had to write this story, no matter what. I wasn’t looking to write about downtrodden people. I was listening to these wonderfully complex characters who are self- aware, intelligent, have agency and still find themselves in a bind. We seem to produce a lot of fiction in South Asia where poverty is the root of all evil, or corruption in the elite and political circles, but the fact is that sometimes there are things that can’t be helped. Sometimes your tragedy is who you are.
I wrote this book mainly during my MFA and I feel that the demands of plot and storytelling are different in every culture. So my MFA fellows would at times get frustrated and question why a character wasn’t behaving in a way that they were used to as a western audience, and I did not explain because that’s no way to tell a story. I wasn’t writing to be accepted by any group, foreign or home.
Writing is a political act, it is an artistic and creative decision which implies a declaration of selfhood, and independence. I hope my writing makes people think, makes them uncomfortable and makes them question what they see around them and within.
What’s your idea of bliss?
Books, my laptop, coffee, solitude and the knowledge that my kids and husband are safe, well-fed and happy.
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
Cruelty to children and women. Any kind of abuse towards women and children.
What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
The Upstairs Wife by Rafia Zakariya
The complete works of Frantz Kafka
The Exploits of the Incomparable Mullah Nasruddin by Idris Shah
The Iliad by Homer
Too Loud a Solitude by Horumil Harabal
Collected Works of Milan Kundera
Collected Works of Oscar Wilde
Biographies of Jackie Kennedy
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Collected works of James Baldwin
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
I’m presuming my family’s safe since you say “thing”. Therefore: my very small but beautiful collection of Kashmiri shawls.
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
Hasbo na’Allah Ho vana’ mal vaqeel
Allah is enough for me and how excellent a Guardian is He.
Faiqa Mansab finished her MFA in Creative Writing with Distinction from Kingston University London, in 2014. She has been published in The Missing Slate, Running Out of Ink, and The Friday Times. She also has an MPhil in English Literature from Government College University Lahore. She teaches creative writing as visiting faculty in Kinnaird College Lahore. This House of Clay and Water is her debut novel, coming out with Penguin Random House India, in May, 2017.
Aminah Sheikh is the Online Editor of Kitaab