Of Diverse Literature and Stereotypical Narratives
A Conversation between Two Authors
Diversity in fiction is receiving some publicity these days, and writers of color are maybe not as ignored as they were a few decades ago. Yet there is a lot of work to be done before South Asian women writers telling stories from diaspora become mainstream. Issues like dual identity, a complicated sense of home, battling stereotypical images and much more come up in conversation between non-white authors. Here is one such conversation between Saadia Faruqi and Nafisa Haji, asking tough questions and searching for answers.
Saadia: You’ve lived most of your life in the U.S. but your family background is Pakistani. How much of an impact do you think that’s had in your literary work and your motivation to write certain stories?
Nafisa: I’ve been exploring the answer to this question, among others, in preparation for the book I have just begun writing: a memoir of my move from California to Turkey. My first encounter with the place and people that my parents called home and family was from so very far away, my introduction to them filtered through the stories my parents told me. They were contained in words rather than people and spaces I could touch, smell, see, or hear. Meeting them in person, seeing the city where my parents grew up on visits home after I’d already constructed images based on what I’d heard, was a little like walking into the pages of a book. It made the act of storytelling very powerful. It also made me very aware of the bias inherent in the act of telling stories. My parents’ version of home was not the same as the one I encountered, because their view of it was frozen in time and the place they’d left behind, along with the people, had changed in the interim, sometimes for better and too often for worse. Some of the people they’d told me about were no longer alive by the time I got to see the places they had lived in. So, distance and loss and the changing nature of truth played a role in the first stories I told, which mirrored my experience of uncovering truths wrapped in words. I think, too, that my mother’s desire for me to know things I couldn’t directly remember made me treasure what was lost and also want to record what “had been.” Seeing Pakistan on visits later, meeting family, comparing the versions of people and places that I’d heard about to what I found firsthand… there was a sometimes a sense of mismatch. Yet there was also a realization that what had been home to my parents was not so to me, and it wasn’t even so for them anymore. That was jarring. But the contradictions between the stories we’re told and the truth we find, that’s where literature shines.
Your experience was different. You came. You moved. How did your view of home change when you left it behind and what role does it play in your writing?
Saadia: Yes, I am a bit of an anomaly in the current diasporic literary world because I came to the U.S. as a fully grown adult with a very strong sense of home. Pakistan — its culture, politics, sociological problems — is what shaped me as an individual, and it’s difficult to see home as something different. My experiences and memories are what guide my writing for the most part, and I tend to tell those stories mostly. But here’s the problem: my view of home was problematic in two ways. Firstly, it was very one-dimensional because I always lived in Karachi, and Karachi isn’t representative of all of Pakistan any more than New York City is of the U.S. So when I based some of my stories in the collection Brick Walls in other cities such as Peshawar or Lahore, I had to do a lot of unexpected research. Secondly, my memories are frozen in the 1980s and 1990s when I lived there, and a lot has changed without my being aware. For instance in another short story in Brick Walls I wrote about a 10-year old girl who wants to play cricket and the boys on the street tell her she can’t because there is not any national women’s cricket team. Well, I wasn’t aware that very recently that had changed and now there is a fledging women’s cricket team in Pakistan. So my challenge is that I have to somehow get out of that “back home” feeling and look at Pakistan as it is currently and not as I remember it.
Nafisa, you mention working on a memoir. Tell me more, what things will you include, what will you leave out? And why is this important to you at this time in your writing career?
Nafisa: The original conception of it was a look back at America. One of the reasons we wanted to move was that my partner and I realized suddenly that our time with our son, who was about to begin high school, was fast going to shift modes. Instead of having adventures with him, he’d soon be off having adventures of his own. Before that happened, we wanted to squeeze in a wider world view than living in the States can sometimes seem to afford. So we made a list of countries we thought might be interesting to live in: Thailand, Spain, Malaysia among them. A visit to Istanbul sealed the deal, though ultimately we decided to live in a smaller town on the Aegean rather than Istanbul itself. As a writer, I wanted to get out of the American bubble myself, to go away and look at home from the outside. The working title of the work is My Love Letter to America, and I see it developing as a narrative on the state of American politics, American relations with the rest of the world, as well as an exploration of what it means to move and migrate and immerse oneself in another culture and language. Religion wasn’t a factor in our move. But the fact that Turkey is a fiercely secular, Muslim-majority nation where before we lived in a secular, Christian-majority one at a time when such subjects are in the headlines makes life interesting to say the least, especially in light of the interfaith work I have done in the past.
Speaking of which, you are an interfaith activist. What motivates you to do the work you do? What joy does it bring you and what frustrations?
Saadia: You could say that interfaith work is my passion! It started out very small, almost accidentally and then I realized that I was pretty good at it. Interestingly now that I think back, much of my earliest interfaith work was actually writing. I had written an article about Islam for my local weekly newspaper and a reader responded through the letters to the editor and started a conversation, and he and I began going back and forth discussing religious issues through the newspaper. It was pretty cool. From there it expanded to other writing opportunities, and then speaking, and then the Houston Police Department called me to train their officers. By this time I had really seen and heard all the stereotypes of Pakistanis/Muslims and I kept having this urge to do something about it. That’s where the idea for my book Brick Walls came from. Basically I like to say that my writing is really a part of my activism, because I was motivated to write not just Brick Walls but everything else too, in order to bring people of different faiths closer together in peace and understanding. I want my kids to grow up in a better world than we are living right now, and storytelling to me is a good way to get there.
Okay, last question. What do you see that’s lacking in terms of the literary environment today? What are some struggles you face and maybe the industry faces on the whole?
Nafisa: To get Dickensian, it’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times, too. The best because there is a greater diversity of voices and platforms available. The worst because it’s still too far from enough. While we’re living through an explosion of access — the internet really is an amazing global connection forum and there are more ways for writers to get their work out there than ever before — we are still bound by a traditional publishing pipeline with far too little representation and far too much monopoly in terms of gatekeepers. Getting heard and getting out there remains my struggle and opening those narrow slits to allow for diverse and underrepresented voices to flow is an industry-wide issue.
My last question for you, Saadia: what role has literature played in your life? Both as consumer and producer.
Saadia: Books were my escape. In Pakistan, my family often struggled in terms of money and social conditions like we cannot even imagine here in the U.S. The one thing that became a lifeline in terms of imagining a better life, a better future, was reading. We had more access to British literature than American, so I read all the classics, then the adventure and fantasy books, then of course romance as I got older. It was a different world and it allowed me to dream and plan and also try my hand at writing. I remember thinking that none of the characters are like me, they all live fantastic, golden lives in faraway lands. So as an adult and as a writer it has become very important for me to champion diversity in writing. My children need to see themselves in the books they read, and I’ve created Blue Minaret, a literary magazine for Muslim writers, poets and artists to encourage that aspect of literary production. Hopefully we’ll see some changes in the literary landscape in terms of diversity in the next few years.