Sabyn Javeri, the author of famous novel Nobody Killed Her, tells AVANTIKA BOSE about her life, her journey as a writer, and the changing literary scene in her country
Tell us a little about yourself.
I was born and raised in Karachi. I was born on a regular day with no bombs being dropped, very uneventful. I had a sheltered upbringing and went to a small school which only had six kids in the class. So after marriage when I moved to london, it dawned on me that there’s a larger world out there. The bubble I was living in burst. It was there that I learnt the art of multi-tasking, how to carve out time for myself, and also discovered my inner strengths.
What are your hobbiesIJ
I absolutely love painting but it’s something I had to give up in london as the canvases were expensive and the space was quite tight too. You can look at it as a blessing in disguise because this was one of the reasons why I focused more on writing. I also enjoy ‘people watching’ and reading.
What has your journey as a writer been likeIJ
My journey as a writer officially started when I wrote the story ‘And the World Changed’. This story got picked up by Muneeza Shamsie, a Pakistani literary critic who was collaborating with Ritu Menon of Women Unlimited. So they took my story and made it into an anthology. They then invited me to India and this was a decade ago. To get attention for the first thing you write is very encouraging. They told me that I should continue writing. But after shifting from the UK to the US, and having two kids, I just couldn’t give writing enough time. However, I did write a few short stories which got published in small journals. It was during the nine months of maternity leave that I got when I became pregnant for the second time when I decided to write a novel. And the rest is history.
You have been a part of the Ponds Miracle Women Campaign as a content writer. In your opinion why are such campaigns importantIJ
When I got the content writing job for this campaign, I got to explore this amazing side of Pakistan that I’d never seen before. In my head, women were victims but for the first time, I was seeing them as heroes. This campaign was about celebrating women who had achieved something and not necessarily through trauma. So these women were sort of the unsung heroes of the Pakistani society. This campaign made me see Pakistani women in a new light and that’s why I feel such campaigns are very important — to celebrate real women and their strengths and achievements, which in turn gives inspiration to other women. However, the downside of campaigns such as this one is that sometimes they’re used to cash in on successful women and not really celebrate real women.
You have been researching on and have recently also given a talk on ‘cultural identity through creative writing’. Can you explain this to usIJ
I started writing for an academic publisher after moving back to Pakistan. On my first day of work, I was given a huge list of censor words which I couldn’t use and they included — “nothing complimentary about India, nothing about pigs or pork, alcohol, sex and nothing bad about Islam” etc. It shocked me. All these words were either supposed to be rephrased or blacked out. This made me think that if these are the books we’re teaching our children from, then we’re giving them a very sheltered viewpoint, which also leads to a lot of confusion once they actually go out into the real world.
I feel there’s a link between not having a strong cultural identity and this confusion kids face when they’re exposed to a viewpoint which doesn’t coordinate with the kind of views they’ve been studying or told about. In my opinion, one way to create a strong cultural identity is through creative writing as there’s no fear of academics and it helps you discover and identify yourself.
In Pakistan, it’s very sad that our culture or history or past doesn’t necessarily match with our religious nationalistic identity. Our past is Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, Indus Valley Civilisation, links with the Hindustani culture but the identity that’s imposed upon us is a Muslim identity, a conservative Pakistani nationalistic identity. And often the cultural identity gets subverted, submerged. So I think creative writing is a good way to bring that out.
Nowadays people have varied ideas about feminism. What is feminism in your opinionIJ
Feminism is a very broad term. I don’t think it has any one interpretation. There are various branches of feminism. The fight for equality, gender parity is different in the West, it’s different in the East and within the East and West, it’s different for different people. I think what feminism to me represents is not a woman’s right to be superior, it’s rather a right for anyone — men, women, transgender — to be equal and by that I mean that it shouldn’t just be that a woman should be on the board of directors, it should also be that a man should come home and change the baby’s nappy. So, I feel there has to be equality both ways.
Any literary journals you likeIJ
I like Paris Review a lot for the interviews.
In Nobody Killed Her, you have subtly highlighted the issues in Pakistan’s political machinery. How did people react to thatIJ
I was very conscious that I want to take elements of conservative societies and mix the incidents which have happened in Iran, Syria, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India. But being Pakistani writer, most people automatically assumed that the book is set in Pakistan. People who weren’t really aware of the politics of Pakistan just assumed that it’s borrowed heavily from Pakistani political history and some of the older generation of women were slightly offended.
Because of this problem in our society, we either paint people as heroes/saints or victims/devils. To write about a character in a way that the character appeared flawed and human, to humanise someone, to humanise a political leader, that was problematic for them. The political issues the book touches is leakage of nuclear energy and building of dams, which has happened in a lot of countries almost everywhere. Not so much flak but a bit of confusion.
Tell us a little about the writing and publishing scene in Pakistan.
The publishing scene in Pakistan was pretty much non-existent until last year. Apart from a few publishing houses, it was completely academic. And writers had to look to India for publishing. India really did a lot for Pakistani writers because it was ready to experiment with genre etc. As far as the literary scene in Pakistan is concerned, I think there’s a parallel scene going on. There’s this huge wave of new Pakistani home-grown writers who actually live there, and then there are famous international writers who write about Pakistan but don’t live there. I don’t know to what extent you can call them Pakistani writers, so there’s that debate going on. I think so many new voices are coming up in Pakistan and they’re writing about the home ground; presenting a more holistic view of Pakistan. I think not overtly. You can’t live in a country like Pakistan and be apolitical. You do somehow end up taking sides and you do get biased.
What, according to you, is the difference between the literary scene in India and PakistanIJ
In India, as you have a strong publishing industry, the books are cheap and easily available, whereas in Pakistan, books are expensive and heavily censored. There are hardly any publishing houses; they were all shut down during dictatorships. In that sense, the reading culture has been actively suppressed because reading leads to questioning. Back in the 1960s during General Ayub Khan’s regime, social sciences were removed as subjects from State universities. So there’s been an active persuasion of political policies which have led to that suppression. Or suppressed reading culture. But having said that, I feel it’s all changing now.
Which is the most widely read genre in PakistanIJ
From my experience, I feel that life has evolved so much in the modern world that nobody has the attention span to read a book which uses 20 adjectives to describe the colour of the sun. I noticed that the books which are currently number one in Pakistan — my book and Omer Shahid’s book — are both fast-paced.
What are you working on nextIJ
I have a book coming out Hijabistan, and there’s also a third book I’m working on which is about the revisionist aspect of Partition; sort of like history vs memory.