Sunday, November 18, 2007

“Writing a Novel is Like Ejecting an Infant from Your Uterus” – Interview with Shandana Minhas

Shandana Minhas Vs Pakistan Paindabad

Frank talk with the Karachi-based author of Tunnel Vision.

[Interview and pictures of the book launch ceremony by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Welcome to Pakistan Paindabad, Ms. Minhas. What does your first name ‘Shandana’ means?

Glorious pimple. No. Glory and intelligence.

The First Novel



How challenging it was to write your first novel at 29?

It’s like having a baby, ejecting an infant from your uterus is excruciating, but the body forgets. I guess I’ve forgotten, because in retrospective the challenging bit as I remember it was getting it typed- I still write by hand on paper- and getting it published.

Why the name Tunnel Vision?

Because the protagonist and everyone around her suffers from it.

Your novel has been set in the 80s when General Zia was in power? Do you feel external events (like dictatorship etc.) have a power to create deep impact in the personal lives of ordinary people?

Actually it’s not mostly set in the eighties, just some flashbacks are, but all the people in the novel, in fact everyone in contemporary Pakistan has been and continues to be fundamentally affected by military dictatorship.

Being a woman author from Pakistan, I had expected you to write about terror, Islam, purdah and of course mangoes. But there is not much of that. How would you sell the book to western readers?

Who said ‘presumption is the mother of all screw ups’? My only loyalty is to the story. As a storyteller you don’t choose the story, the story chooses you.
Why would I sell the book to western readers?

Is it that Tunnel Vision could only have been set in Karachi?

Er…yes?

In what ways Lahore is better than Karachi? And why would you still prefer to live in Karachi? Can we say that Karachi is your muse? What places in Karachi are especially friendly towards writers?

Lahore vs Karachi is a pointless debate. Different cities, different rhythms, different souls. Enough said. I prefer to live in Karachi because it is my home. And yes it is, or rather has been my muse. As for whether there are places in Karachi that are particularly friendly towards writers, there are places in Karachi that are particularly friendly towards everybody and places that are particularly hostile towards everybody, and the friction inherent in that juxtaposition of extremes is what makes Karachi a great place to write in.

In recent years Karachi has witnessed a resurgence in the number of coffee and tea houses that used to be watering holes for intellectuals from previous generations, but whether the new trendy cafes popping up everywhere are about cultural revival or just conspicuous consumption remains to be seen.

New bookstores are also opening up. And one can never have enough bookstores.

Why does your first novel not have a Pakistani publisher? (Tunnel Vision is published by an Indian publisher.)

A question better addressed to Pakistani publishers.

The Writing Life



When did you start writing? Did your folks feel comfortable with your career choice? Is this a ‘full-time job’? When did you start making money out of your writing?

I have no conscious memory of when I started writing. I remember the first thing I wrote that was published. It was in class six. We were given the line ‘stop the world I want to get off’ and told to run with it for a class assignment. My teacher submitted it to the school magazine. That led to a cushy alley job churning out bad love poems for lustful ninth graders who wanted to impress somebody or the other. That, and last minute answers to essay questions for people who hadn’t done their homework. Then I had a sudden attack of ethics. Or possibly taste. What’s the difference…

It is not a job so the issue of whether it is a full time one does not apply.

My parents thought one could never make a living from creative writing in Pakistan. They were right.

You have written extensively for websites like Chowk. Has that helped in your writing? Are there any tips (or experiences) you can share with bloggers aspiring to become published authors?

I have written for and continue to write for Chowk. Chowk has been an intrinsic, invaluable part of my growth as a writer because it enabled me to pursue my craft without commerce upsetting the equation.

I’m not sure I have anything of value to share with bloggers, other than keep writing. Except when it gets annoying. Then stop. Seriously, I think blogging is a form unto itself and as someone who has never done it I feel uncomfortable pontificating about it.

Do you have personal quirks when you sit down to write?

Many. The right pen. The right paper. The right size of paper. The right sound. The right silence. Clipped nails. I could go on…but little children might be reading this.

You started and finished Tunnel Vision within a year itself (2005). How much rewriting did you do?

Very little. I was fortunate in that Renuka Chatterjee - who was then chief editor at Roli Books - sliced and diced it for me when I submitted it to her and constructed a vastly more readable book out of the text I gave her.

Please tell us about your family life? When do you work? Do you keep a strict schedule?

My family life is my family life. It impacts my work only in terms of the time I have to write, as in sometimes I need desperately to write but circumstances do not permit me to. Because I have two small children I am hardly ever the boss of me. Which is possibly a good thing.

Which authors have made a difference to your life? Which books do you feel especially close to?

Charles Bukowski, John Irving, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, Terry Pratchett, Tolkien, and Dostoyevsky are authors I keep returning to because I find comfort in them. Books I feel close to? I’m not sure what that means. I remember books I feel kicked me in the head, books that either changed or confirmed the way I looked at the world. The Lord of the Flies was one, The World According to Garp another, The Sorrows of Young Werther, One Hundred Years of Solitude etc. Then there are books I admire. Closer to home are novels like A Suitable Boy, English August, and The Kite Runner.

I’ve always loved science fiction and fantasy, Asimov, Frank Herbert, George R R Martin, that’s my escape. Ray Bradbury also.

And then there is poetry. And then this will be the never ending answer, so onwards!

All your heroines are named Ayesha. Why this fixation?
I have no clue. It was a compulsion. With Tunnel Vision I hope I’ve achieved catharsis. Or exorcism.

The Country and its Writers

with family

Is it true that Pakistani authors writing in English usually hail from privileged backgrounds?

What is a privileged background? How does one quantify privilege?

Okay, let's talk something else. Non-Pakistanis often believe that it must be difficult there for a woman writer to freely write about issues she feels strongly about. Is there some truth into it? Also, are woman writers expected to discuss ‘relevant’ womenly issues in their writing?

Nobody can stop anybody from writing freely about anything they wish to write freely about. Whether they will find avenues for distribution is a different matter. And I think the retrenchment of independent publishing houses and the internet has made it possible to sidestep entirely the agendas of the current gatekeepers of the distribution of art (or crap, either way). And sometimes doing something worthwhile, pursuing truth, has to be its own reward.

I think there is possibly a slight expectation - again from those who market and distribute rather than those who create or express - for women from our part of the world to discuss ‘women-ish’ issues in their writing. I think the best way to deal with those expectations is to ignore them altogether.

What themes appeal to young Pakistani authors nowadays?

Again, in my experience you don’t choose the story or the theme but rather it works the other way around. There are similarities though, a pattern emerges: the effects of myopic leadership, dictatorship, of oppression, or repression, of institutionalized misogyny, of religious bigotry, of social and economic inequity. In the literature of women from south Asia I have often noticed an absent father figure, or protector, for all the patriarchy etc women often do what they do independent of the financial and emotional support of the men who are supposed to sway benevolently over them.

Having said that, I would also like to see a time where one does not have to be either a man or a woman writer but simply a writer.

And sometimes I could just kill for a good murder mystery, or a werewolf stalking the lanes of Landi Kotal…

What contemporary writers in Pakistan do you always make it a point to read? Any Pakistani author who has inspired your creative process?

I make it a point to read Mohsin Hamid and Feryal Gauhar. The creative process is inspired by emotions not by people. Other people are just one of the conduits through which we experience emotion.

Can you suggest a list of books which would help us to understand the contemporary Pakistan in all its complexities?

If I understood contemporary Pakistan in all its complexities I would probably not be driven to write about it.

Thank you for talking to Pakistan Paindabad, Ms. Minhas.
You're welcome, Mayank.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ms. Minhas's response to the question, "What themes appeal to young Pakistani authors nowadays?", is deeply perceptive. Its message that literature carries the preoccupations of an era, of a social situation, of culture – very transparently captures an essential truth. Hence, I was a bit surprised when Ms. Minhas rebuffed Mayank's question about privilege with the prickly, "What is a privileged background? How does one quantify privilege?" Lack of a precise definition of precise quantification doesn't quiet mean the absence of its imposition on the literature one produces. Yet somehow I empathize with Ms. Minhas's answer.

Ajit said...

Hence, I was a bit surprised when Ms. Minhas rebuffed Mayank's question about privilege with the prickly, "What is a privileged background? How does one quantify privilege?"

Ehhh, it was a dumb question. Sorry, Mayank, but that's true.

The very fact that the lady was able to converse, fluently, in English, despite being from a nation where well over 50% of the women are totally illiterate (in any language) should have told the noble Soofi that she was, indeed, "privileged".

Dumbness of question and prickliness of response alike apart, do you realise how irritating it must be for an author to spend time on a conversation where everything and anything is discussed except the book she has just had published?

Amiable Austen-ite, couldn't you at least have sniffed the pages before venturing to nail the Minhas in her maze? (I kid, I kid!)

That said, I am always optimistic about reading someone who shares my taste for classic science-fiction and detective stories.

I hope everyone noted that the lady didn't include Jane A. among her favourites... :-)

Manika said...

the title of the blog puts Ms. Minhas' writing in perspective. and phrases such as "there can never be enough bookstores" made me want to read on and see what she has to say about other things.

its always interesting to learn which writers an author reads, among other things. and i was happy to note that marquez is a favorite and 'hundred years of solitude' has significance in her life.

all in all, her answers made for interesting reading and i have every reason to believe so will her book.

kinkminos said...

perhaps the question on privilege might have been put in this way:
how does the fact that most pakistani fiction writers who write in english come from privileged backgrounds impact on their perspective and consequently the image they portray of pakistan to non-pakistani readers (or pakistani readers who are not very fluent in any of pakistan's indigenous languages)?

hmmm... a bit of a mouthful, i do agree. i guess a career as an interviewer is out of the question.

btw, thanks for pointing that out ajit, though i kind of maybe perhaps suspect that your mention of ms austen must be something of an in-joke type deal.

Ajit said...

i was happy to note that marquez is a favorite and 'hundred years of solitude' has significance in her life.

Manika, I would be utterly astounded if contemporary South Asian writers -- or would-be writers -- did not cite Marquez, Neruda, or one of the other usual suspects.

(It would be surprising should they cite, say, the King James Bible as an influence. Or nursery rhymes...)

Which is precisely why it was so refreshing to hear her refer to Asimov as a favourite, indicating that Ms. Minhas appreciates the attractions of plotting.

how does the fact that most pakistani fiction writers who write in english come from privileged backgrounds impact on their perspective and consequently the image they portray of pakistan to non-pakistani readers (or pakistani readers who are not very fluent in any of pakistan's indigenous languages)?

Ugh! Try this: 'How can you claim to portray Pakistan realistically in a language that over 90% of Pakistanis don't understand?'

That's fewer than 20 words -- and you can cut it shorter still!

i kind of maybe perhaps suspect that your mention of ms austen must be something of an in-joke type deal

Not an in-joke at all! Mayank has chosen 'Austen' as his middle name, and given the sensibilities on display in his blog(s), one may safely assume he isn't a fan of the car. :-)

kinkminos said...

now see, i was just telling my wife that this ajit character would make an excellent interviewer type poppet (if only he were more adept at picking up on the more subtler forms of sarcasm)
: )

re the name: i hadn't realised.
i honestly thot it had summat to do with either the six million dollar mannequin or international men of mystery. (i haven't even begun to try to work out what myank might mean.)

Anonymous said...

Little Ajit:

Shandana does like Austen. And the car is pronounced Aston.

Ajit said...

now see, i was just telling my wife that this ajit character would make an excellent interviewer type poppet (if only he were more adept at picking up on the more subtler forms of sarcasm) : )

"More subtler" is a double superlative, sayeth Ajit (a.k.a. 'The Grammar Prude'). :-)

You want subtlety? On the Internet!!! :-)

Ajit said...

Shandana does like Austen.

I'll take your word for it, but at least she had the good taste not to mention it, keeping Asimov and Bradbury, and (implicitly) the likes of Christie and Sellers to the forefront.

And the car is pronounced Aston.

Which car? I was referring to the old Austin Motors, not Lionel Martin's sports cars.

Raza Rumi said...

this is a brilliant interview - candid, casual lacking even a shred of any pretence..

I have followed Shandana's writings in some Pakistani publications and always knew that there was a fiction writer in her.

I will surely read this book -

Mayank, as someone said here indirectly though - why ask the obvious? English is a langauge of the minority ..

Might have been better if you had said a little more on the plot or main theme of the novel in your intro or background note - but then this was minor and unimportant.

What matters is that this was a refreshing interview and engaged the reader throughout!