Bina Shah is a noted Karachi based author, and journalist. This is a follow-up interview.
In the response to the question about the choice of male protagonists in your novels, you noted, “This is going to change in my next novel, in which the protagonist is a young girl. But she comes from a level of society in which she can slip in and out of various places because she is the poorest of the poor, and they have more liberty in many ways, at least at that age, than a middle or upper-class woman in Pakistan. If that sounds like a paradox, it is.” Your observation reminded me of a passage in Ms. Sidhwa’s novel, The Bride, “Miriam, reflecting her husband’s rising status and respectability, took to observing strict purdah. She seldom ventured out without a veil.”
I think what you say is largely right and something which anthropologists have commented on earlier. They argue that it is the necessity of going to work etc. for the lower class that causes these somewhat lax attitudes. What is your take on the issue? Can you also comment briefly on how economics defines culture? Of course, we have heard all about it through the Friedman patented McDonald’s angle that tackles cultural change via globalization. But can you talk about it from a different angle? And how do you deal with it in your own work?
You won’t see women in the rural areas in purdah. They cover their heads with their dupattas and that is the end of it. They have to go out into the fields and work, and you can’t do that in a purdah or a burqa or a hijab. Some of our women-related cultural rituals and habits are affectations or posturing—making a statement about who you are, or who others think you should be, a very considered statement. Real culture comes more naturally; you don’t have to think about adopting it because you live it.
In response to the question about the ‘type’ of novel—elemental versus Intellectual—you said, “I had a story and I wanted to tell it. I did not feel entitled to comment upon the state of the world at large because I had seen so little of it, in my opinionâ€¦ My own theories could wait till I had figured out what they were. Why inflict that on my reader?” I perhaps misstated my point about elemental novels for they often have do have opinions and critiques woven in. I certainly think that your novels have implicit critiques, and at least amorphous theories. In fact, I find it impossible that a novel can be absent of ‘comments upon the state of the world’. Perhaps the ‘type’ is more appropriately consigned to the creative process. For instance, I have little doubt that Naipaul first had the ‘idea’ of denigrating revolutionary leaders before he wrote ‘guerillas’. On the other hand, the vicious ‘pettiness’ of everyday life manifest in ‘The House of Mr. Biswas’ seems very much a peripheral part of this sort of unvarnished descriptions. Perhaps I am wrong here and the ‘vicious pettiness’ was indeed a deliberate point. Even if it was deliberate, it was still very clearly made. So is the faux distinction that I draw about types of novels about intentionality? Can you comment briefly on this? And can you talk more about how you craft your own work?
For me, the story always comes first. The social critique comes as I am writing the story. The characters deal with certain situations, and if it is appropriate to comment on society at large because of what they’re going through, then I do it, but I really try hard to weave it in to the narrative rather than taking a big aside that goes on for pages and comments very obviously and loudly on that aspect of society. I’m always sensitive to what sounds natural and what is very obviously the author taking over the narrative, imposing her own voice on the voice of the characters â€“ to me that is very intrusive and distracting and ultimately weak writing.
In response to the question soliciting your comment on whether most ‘authors are trying to write their psychological autobiographies and failing to write them honestly’, you intriguingly started with the phrase, “For me, writing is a therapeutic process”. Was that false start a ‘cousin-of-Freud’ Freudian slip? The point that I was trying to make was that our own histories sometimes make it hard to look at the world objectively, especially in a personal (and seductively powerful) medium like novel that allows, in fact, urges, a novelist to say more or less what s/he wants. Additionally, I think that novelists don’t use the novel to ‘understand the world’ but use it for delivering what they understand about the world.
I meant what I said when I wrote that writing is a therapeutic process. But not therapy for the writer in terms of her own psychological traumas â€“ therapy for the writer as a person existing in a world, a universe, that is difficult and heartbreaking and joyous and eleventeen layers of complex; and coming to terms with all the multiplicities and the multitudes in that world, that universe. There are people that use the novel to exorcise their own demons, certainly. But I will stand by my assertion that novelists write novels to understand the world. When you’re writing or you’re undertaking any sort of artistic project, the process of creation is one that continues throughout the entire span of the project. It’s not that you think and think for five years and you formulate your theories and only then do you put pen to paper and what emerges is fully formed. As you write, your mind keeps working, your theories keep developing. Every day of writing my novel was a new day of discovery, of mental exercises and challenges and expansion and growth. I grew as a person as a result of writing my books. I learned what I knew about the world and what I didn’t. I understood my limitations and where I needed to go in order to overcome them.
Can you talk about how Karachi has influenced your writing?
You are not going to let me get away from that question, are you? Karachi is my inspiration. I couldn’t have been a writer in any other city in the world. Maybe I could now. Like a soldier going into her first battle, I’ve gotten my basic training in Karachi. Karachi is where the stories are. I am a bit of an amateur psychologist and never have I seen another city where people behave in the most contradictory ways. And yet when you examine their motivations and their thought processes, you come up with some amazing insights and illuminations about the human race. It is like a big…what’s the word I am looking for? a cauldron, a test-tube, a type of crucible…where the best and worst of humanity are all thrown together and the results are unpredictable, sometimes horrible, sometimes heartbreaking, but always amazing. I chronicle those results. That is the sum total of all my endeavors as a writer.
This follow-up interview was conducted via email. Questions and answers have been edited for style and content.