Friday, October 23, 2009

"Today Islamabad, Lahore Feel Like War Zones, and Karachi is Calm" - Novelist Sehba Sarwar

"Pakistan Paindabad has set others a model of what a blog/site should be."
Late Khalid Hasan, US correspondent for the Lahore-based Daily Times and The Friday Times
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"My Life's Not Dramatic but I Married Outside the Community"

Interview with the Karachi-born novelist, part IV.

[By Mayank Austen Soofi]

Sehba Sarwar’s first novel, Black Wings, was published in 2004. Presently, besides working on her new novel, she is also the director of a multi-media arts organisation in Houston. There she lives with her husband and daughter. She also has a website. This is the fourth and final part of the interview Ms Sarwar gave to Pakistan Paindabad. You may read the first part here, the second here, the third here. This exclusive feature is an attempt to understand the alternative reality of Pakistan.

Ms Sarwar, you also work for Pakistan Live Broadcast, a video installation project that tries presenting ‘an alternative image of events unfolding in Pakistan’. What is this alternative image?

I'm employed by the arts organization that I founded, Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB). Through VBB, I'm working on a production that I visualized called Pakistan Live Broadcast. The show premieres in November, 2009 with a new title, Honoring Dissent/ Descent. I'm using footage that I collected about my father - he passed away in May 2009 - and will be honoring his history, his work. I'll also be showcasing an activist in Houston. I did a short piece to kick off the production last fall, and you can see it on my blog Daily Noise. I created this short video piece using a format I call video collage through which I weave together different layers of sound, stills, video and poetry. (I wrote the poem for this piece after seeing an ex-student of mine walk out of a gun show).

In the winter of 2008-09, you travelled in Pakistan? How and what places did you travel?

I mostly stayed in Karachi, but traveled into Sindh to Bhit Shah and Sehwan Sharif. Both were amazing trips, and I plan to use footage from those experiences for the November production. I also flew to Lahore and Islamabad, where I led workshops and several readings.

What new things you noticed in the country?

New things? Mostly that both Lahore and Islamabad felt like war zones, while Karachi felt calm. It was interesting to see that flipped around. But, as you know, things change fast. And hopefully, some of the fear that was affecting Lahore and Islamabad has shifted, now that the situation in Swat is slightly better.

Ok, Ms Sarwar, some final questions. When you close your eyes and think of Karachi, what images do you see?

Sea spray. Kites (the birds). Jasmine flowers. Open trash. Donkey carts. My mother.

And when you close your eyes and think of Houston, what do you see?

Rain. Bayous. Freeways. Our daughter. 



[The interview ends here. You may read the first part here, the second part here, the third part here. ]

Thursday, October 15, 2009

"I Would be Lost Without My Laptop" - Novelist Sehba Sarwar

"Pakistan Paindabad has set others a model of what a blog/site should be."
Late Khalid Hasan, US correspondent for the Lahore-based Daily Times and The Friday Times
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"My Life's Not Dramatic but I Married Outside the Community"

Interview with the Karachi-born novelist, part III.

[By Mayank Austen Soofi]

Sehba Sarwar’s first novel, Black Wings, was published in 2004. Presently, besides working on her new novel, she is also the director of a multi-media arts organisation in Houston. There she lives with her husband and daughter. She also has a website. This is the third part of the interview Ms Sarwar gave to Pakistan Paindabad. You may read the first part here, the second here, the fourth here. This exclusive feature is an attempt to understand the alternative reality of Pakistan.

Ms Sarwar, what is your writing schedule? Where do you write?

When I was working on Black Wings, I could only write in my study, and I mostly worked at night. Now, I can write anywhere, anytime.

Yeah?

I have a young daughter, and my time is very precious. I also run a very demanding arts organization and am busy creating artistic work for our productions. So wherever I get a chance I write: study, bedroom, coffee shop, inside, outside, and at any time of the day. Now, mornings are my favorite writing time. I would be lost, though, without my laptop.

Woman, Pakistani, Pakistani-Anerican, South Asian, Muslim. Which of these identities have been most influential in shaping up your artist’s life?

In a writing | blogging | video workshop I did in Houston for Pakistani college and high school women, the first question I asked them was: "How do you identify yourself? Write down the order of the words you use to describe your identity." I did the exercise with them and here's my order: woman, artist, mother, activist, Pakistani/ South Asian.

The greater truth lies where – fiction or non-fiction?

Both. Depends on what you're writing. I generally rely on memory to create fiction, and then use my imagination to enhance, change, etc. I also write non-fiction for sometimes it's important to assert that a particular memory is the truth. It really just depends on the purpose for creating the piece.

Which authors you liked reading in the past and then stopped pursuing them? Who have stayed with you? Who are your present pursuits?

I continue to follow certain writers including Rohinton Mistry, Bapsi Sidhwa (who I'm lucky to know since she lives in Houston), Anita Desai, Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje and many more. Other writers I've recently enjoyed include Fan Wu, Alice Albania, Kiran Desai, Mohammad Hanif, Sorayya Khan... the list is long. I don't read British writers much any more, though I was a big fan of Virginia Woolf's while I was in college.

How long did it take you to write your first novel Black Wings? How tough it was to get it published?

I worked Black Wings on and off for a good eight years. I took time off in between to deal with an illness. In 2003, I acquired an excellent agent in the US, but she was unable to get Black Wings placed in the States. All the feedback that I got was that the novel and the characters didn't conform to the western image of Pakistan. After a year of trying (it was hard enough weeding through all the agent rejections), I went ahead and sought a Pakistani publisher, Alhamra. And I am so grateful to Shafiq Naz and to Alhamra Publishing. He is a remarkable man, and has done an amazing job with changing the face of publishing in English in Pakistan. Once I approached him, things moved very fast.

You are working on your second novel. Is it based in Pakistan?

I can't talk much about my second novel yet. It's a work in progress and, like Black Wings, moves between countries. It'll probably dip more into India.

What about Karachi inspires you most as a writer?

I rely a lot on memory. My most life-changing moments have taken place in Karachi. It is my first home. I'll have to write about it quite a bit more before I am ready to move and adopt another space in the same way. I love the sea, the city noise, the landscape of a street scene.

What will you like to share with young aspiring Pakistani writers?

Keep writing. There's room for everyone. Be honest and tell your truth.

[The third part ends here. You may read the first part here, the second part here, the fourth here]

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

"Houston is as Ugly, Polluted, Hot as Karachi" - Novelist Sehba Sarwar

"Pakistan Paindabad has set others a model of what a blog/site should be."
Late Khalid Hasan, US correspondent for the Lahore-based Daily Times and The Friday Times
GO STRAIGHT TO MORE STORIES

"Houston is as Ugly, Polluted and Hot as Karachi" - Novelist Sehba Sarwar

Interview with the Karachi-born novelist, part II.

[By Mayank Austen Soofi]

Sehba Sarwar’s first novel, Black Wings, was published in 2004. Presently, besides working on her new novel, she is also the director of a multi-media arts organisation in Houston. There she lives with her husband and daughter. She also has a website. This is the second part of the interview Ms Sarwar gave to Pakistan Paindabad. You may read the first part here, third part here, the fourth here. This exclusive feature is an attempt to understand the alternative reality of Pakistan.

Ms Sarwar, what things do you like about Houston, your ‘adopted city’?

Actually I frequently write on the similarities between Houston and Karachi.

Karachi and Houston – similar!

You know, sometimes when I want to be provocative I say: I like Houston because it's ugly, polluted and hot - just like Karachi. But yes, Houston has open spaces like Karachi, and is very quirky. I published an essay about just these kinds of similarities in CITE, an architectural magazine that comes out of Rice University (in Houston). Of course, you have to know the city very well before understanding it.

This could be true of Delhi, too, where I live.

Yeah? But the truth is that both Karachi and Houston have depth, and one cannot really appreciate the beauty of either city without exploring, or digging deeper. In Houston, there are many reminders of ‘home’. I can eat samosas, naan, chaat, or drink chai without going too far. I also like that I can navigate between different worlds because the city draws people from around the world: South Asia, different parts of Africa, the Middle East, South and Central America, and Mexico.

I see.

You know, Mayank, one of the best things about Houston is that it's an open city, and I have been able to walk into the space - without any prior connections - and create my own non-profit arts organization, practice my art and get support (both funding and community) to do the work that I am driven to create.

Ms Sarwar, how different is your life in Karachi and Houston? What do you usually wear in Karachi? What in Houston?

Life is very different, I suppose, in both cities. However, I don't act too differently in either place: I wear what I feel like wearing and that runs the gamut from jeans and skirts to shalwar kurtas and saris.

You never feel the pressure to dress or behave differently?

Look, the communities in which I socialize and work in Karachi are generally open-minded. Also, because of the nature of my work - I'm deeply involved in the arts and activist communities in Houston - I don't feel any need to conform to a lifestyle that's not my own. And even though it's been a while since I've worked full-time in Karachi, I do run workshops when I'm in Pakistan, and have held many readings there.

Are you more a Houstonian than a Karachiite?

I don't call myself a Houstonian nor do I aspire to. And I've never called myself a Karachiite either, even though I feel as if a part of the city lives in me. After all, that's where the heart of my writing emanates. Anyway I’m not committed to living in the States for good, and am working on increasing my time in Pakistan, and the region.

You would upset those with a high regard for passport boundaries.

But I don't really like borders. I find them a bit superficial. Ever since I was a child, I've always been interested in exploring the Subcontinent as a region, rather than the countries defined by recent borders.

And you did explore this region...

Yes. While raised in Pakistan, I have spent time in north, south and eastern India, and have traveled through Sri Lanka. I haven't been to Bangladesh, yet, though I've been very close. In 1987, while enrolled in a graduate program in Austin (US), I spent three months in Calcutta doing an internship at The Telegraph in Calcutta. I never went across the border, but would very much like to do so.

Gosh, you just don’t respect borders!

History and human connections happen despite political borders. I've always loved travel, and over the years with my husband, have spent time many other countries including Thailand, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, and Australia.

[The second part ends here. You may read the first part here, the third part here part, the fourth here.]

Her life in Houston

"Houston is as Ugly, Polluted and Hot as Karachi" - Novelist Sehba Sarwar

On the job

"Houston is as Ugly, Polluted and Hot as Karachi" - Novelist Sehba Sarwar

Thursday, October 01, 2009

"My Life's Not Dramatic but I Married Outside the Community" - Novelist Sehba Sarwar

"Pakistan Paindabad has set others a model of what a blog/site should be."
Late Khalid Hasan, US correspondent for the Lahore-based Daily Times and The Friday Times
GO STRAIGHT TO MORE STORIES

"My Life's Not Dramatic but I Married Outside the Community"

Interview with the Karachi-born novelist.

[By Mayank Austen Soofi]

Sehba Sarwar’s first novel, Black Wings, was published in 2004. Presently, besides working on her new novel, she is also the director of a multi-media arts organisation in Houston. There she lives with her husband and daughter. She also has a website. This is the first part of the interview Ms Sarwar gave to Pakistan Paindabad. Click here to read the second part, here for the third part, and for the fourth here. This exclusive feature is an attempt to understand the alternative reality of Pakistan.

Ms Sarwar, your writing focuses on women and explores lives that span two continents – Asia and North America. You yourself have homes in these two places.

All this shifting and moving homes affects me. Luckily, I use my art - writing, performance and video - to express all the joy and pain that comes with having two homes. An essay that I'm working on is called Sliding Doors. Through it, I'm trying to explore the loss that comes with leaving the 'home'. In many ways, Mayank, I was born with a lost home already: both my parents were raised in India. They had to migrate to Pakistan after the partition.

Is your life as dramatic as your fiction?

I wouldn't say that. It is similar to that lived by many. One big difference, though, is that I married outside the Pakistani community. My husband is Mexican American and our daughter is ‘mestiza’, as they say in Spanish. I suppose that could be called dramatic. But then again, all of us are from mixed races. No one can truly claim to be of purely one race or another.

You married a Mexican-American? Isn't Pakistan a conservative land? How did your people took to it?

Look, I come from a non-traditional home and so does my husband. Both our families were - and continue to be - very open to each other. We had a court marriage in the States, and a reception in Karachi. Though his family didn't make it to Karachi for our wedding, a Mexican friend and her Lebanese husband joined us. We traveled north together to Chitral, Hunza, Shandoor for our honeymoon, and he continues to join me in Karachi as often as he can.

You are from Karachi?

Yes, I was born and raised in Karachi, off Jamshed Road, around a neighborhood called Guru Mandir.

Your parents?

My father, Dr. Sarwar, was a medical doctor and was heavily involved in the student movement during the fifties. My mother is an educator and worked in government colleges most of her life (now she runs her own NGO, Society for Professional English Language Teachers (SPELT), that specializes in training English teachers). Both of them were activists and had a passion for the arts.

How was the childhood?

At a young age, my brother, sister and I were enrolled in classical singing and dancing classes - though none of us stayed with those art forms. Our house was known for the gatherings our parents hosted, at which poetry, music and dance were performed. During my teens, when General Zia took over, my mother was involved with the Women's Action Forum (WAF), then just a collective of women organizing protests and rallies. My sister and I immediately also got involved with its activities. We would attend rallies, among other things.

How was Karachi then?

Karachi was a very different city during the seventies, prior to the Zia years. There were night clubs where alcohol was openly served. Even during my teens, after alcohol was banned, we would go to parties at the 5-star hotels that held disco nights on Fridays. We frequented movie theaters with our classmates. When I turned fifteen, our family moved to Clifton, where we went for walks in the neighborhood. The city seemed much smaller back then. It seemed as if we knew everyone.

How is the city now?

Today, even though Karachi's much more violent, and population continues to grow, there are some exciting changes. There are more institutions of higher learning such as the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, and the National Academy for Performing Arts (NAPA). There are also amazing caf├ęs and gatherings where literary readings, film screenings and protests take place. 


Why you had to leave the city for USA?

See, I was always inclined toward the arts, social studies and politics. If one was studying medicine or engineering, there were some good choices in Karachi, but in those days, if one wanted to major in the arts, there were few choices within Pakistan for higher education. Most of the students in our school - especially those in arts and social studies - went abroad for higher education. I got a good scholarship to a women's college in Massachusetts, and I ended up flying to the States to get my undergraduate degree.

That was your first foray into a foreign country?

Till then the only other place I had visited outside of Pakistan was India.

India!

Both my parents are from UP, and you know, I've visited Delhi, Aligarh, Allahabad, Kanpur and Bombay on two different trips.

What did you think of that country during your first visit?

India was foreign, but then, again, it wasn't. Of course, we had to report to the police everytime we entered or exited a city, but that's the same for Indians when they visit Pakistan. That felt strange. But on the whole, everything around us was familiar.

So, it did not seem any different from Pakistan…

We spent a lot of time with the Indian part of our family. My mother's chachas showed us around in Delhi, Agra, Aligarh. We also spent time with her first cousins in Kanpur, as well as my father's first cousin in Allahabad. In many ways our visits were just as we imagined. Our grandparents as well as our parents had already told us so many stories about them and it was wonderful to finally be in their houses.

Anything that made you feel India was some other land?

We visited India during the Indira Gandhi days - so there were Ambassadors and Fiats everywhere - and that was the most visible difference between India and Pakistan, which was flooded with Japanese and German cars. We didn't start manufacturing our own till decades later. We also went to Bombay with our mother.

When I went to India on my own during the late eighties to intern in a Calcutta newspaper, I remember being startled by the cycle rickshaws, which one never saw in Pakistan. Other than those minor differences, everything felt very familiar. The last time I was in India was in 2001, when my husband and I traveled around south India (Kerala, Chennai etc) - and that felt more 'foreign' because of the different languages spoken.

[The first part ends here. Click here to read the second part, here for the third part, and for the fourth here]

Dr Sarwar with children - Beena, Sehba and Salman

"My Life's Not Dramatic but I Married Outside the Community"


The novelist

"My Life's Not Dramatic but I Married Outside the Community"

The novelist with her family

"My Life's Not Dramatic but I Married Outside the Community"