Interview: Shahbano Bilgrami

‘You can’t categorise people by borders’

Print edition : April 14, 2017

Shahbano Bilgrami.

Interview with Shahbano Bilgrami, a Pakistani-American writer whose second novel, “Those Children”, was launched recently.

IT is highly unlikely that Shahbano Bilgrami would be without friends at any given moment. Her girl-next-door demeanour, easy smile and polite manners would win over many. When she first arrived on the international literary map about a decade ago with Without Dreams, which immediately made it to the Man Asia Literary Prize long list, Pakistan was very much the toast of the literary world. Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie, Mohammed Hanif, Uzma Aslam Khan and Daniyal Mueenuddin were among the bestsellers. Such was the craze for books from the pen of Pakistani writers that bookstores in the United States and the United Kingdom for the first time began allotting a separate shelf for Pakistani literature in English, distinct from Indian literature. Shahbano Bilgrami found ready takers, and when she arrived at the Jaipur Literature Festival then, she was hardly ever short of company or readers.

Yet, she nearly disappeared. Did she go back to Montreal, where she was raised? one wondered. Or did she go away to the U.S.? Or maybe she decided that the hyphenated existence as a Pakistani-Canadian or a Pakistani-American author was no good, and hence went back to Pakistan. For all the warm vibes of the first novel, Shahbano Bilgrami was in danger of fading away from the collective memory of readers, when she decided to spring a surprise. Like her first novel, her latest work of fiction, Those Children, came to India without a gala launch. Soon, though, it got people talking about Ferzana, the central character, a 10-year-old girl who comes to Karachi from Chicago following the death of her mother. Some wondered whether her work was that of an outsider looking in. Others argued that it was all about going back to one’s roots. Either way, Shahbano Bilgrami could smile some more. She was not destined to be a one-book wonder.

She spoke to Frontline about her latest work and the world of hyphenated writers. Excerpts:

You grew up in Montreal and came to Karachi for the first time as a teenager. In your novel “Those Children”, Ferzana, a 10-year-old kid from Chicago, comes to Karachi and finds a new world. Is it fair to conclude that your personal experience seeps through the fictional character?

I think the premise of the story—children growing up in the West, losing their mother, then returning to Pakistan where they find escape in a fantasy world—is very similar to my own personal experience. However, beyond that, the storyline, characters, and themes are very different and entirely fictional. Even so, I am sure that a few of my relatives may identify themselves with some of the characters.

Your first novel, “Without Dreams”, was about the protagonist’s childhood. Now “Those Children” also shows us the world from the eyes of a displaced 10-year-old girl. How do you manage to get stories out of childhood?

Childhood has always fascinated me, more so now that I am a mother. I’ve always enjoyed reading books told from a child’s perspective or where a child was one of the central characters. Much of my time is spent in the company of children. While at times frustrating (at the end of the day I long for adult conversation), there is much to inspire as well. In Those Children, the central character, Ferzana, is only 10 but her grasp of the Mahmud family dynamics is far more insightful than that of the grown-ups around her. Because she isn’t jaded or desensitised like the adults, her initial impressions of Pakistan provide a fresh, at times comical, perspective on serious issues like sectarianism, politics and extremism. As a child, she is privy to many adult conversations that her teenage siblings are not, so she often ends up being their “information-gatherer” or “snoop”. In fact, it is because of her eavesdropping and spying that the story moves forward.

Both your novels talk of the 1971 war. Is it still a wound for a Pakistani, one that finds expression through your literary flourishes?

Somehow I’m drawn to 1971, even though, technically, I have no personal connections to the war—no displaced family members, no personal stories—and my knowledge of that historical event is rudimentary at best. However, what I am truly interested in are the consequences of the war in human terms, the emotional repercussions, and the long-term effects on relationships and families.

There have been a number of recent Pakistani novels that have touched upon 1971, but I’m not sure if it is still a wound per se. If you are talking about our nations’ histories—the modern nation states India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—1971 is a seminal event, so it would not be unusual for it to figure in our collective literature.

“Without Dreams” was written from the perspective of an adult; it referenced the protagonist’s childhood. “Those Children” is written entirely from a child’s viewpoint. What made you focus on the emotions and coping tactics of children in this latest book?

I think bereavement, particularly the loss of a parent early on, is a life-changing experience. In Those Children, the Mahmud siblings use fantasy and role play to deal with their grief. In a world of uncertainties—the loss of their mother, the move from Chicago to Karachi, an unfamiliar and at times hostile environment—their “games” are the one thing entirely in their control. I think childhood brings into sharp focus many issues which we as grown-ups are so good at trying to hide or suppress. In Those Children, the Mahmud siblings’ ultimate coping mechanism is the new relationships they forge with the people in their immediate family. Ferzana, in particular, deals with her grief by piecing together her parents’ past, so that by telling and retelling their stories she can feel a part of something bigger and all-encompassing.

While talking of your first novel, you once said that you happened to be at the right place at the right time. Can you talk us through those times when Pakistani writers were making their first big splash on the international canvas?

When I said I was in the right place at the right time, I was speaking purely from personal experience. I sent in my manuscript to a literary agent in London who had an Indian associate who was vetting submissions relating to the subcontinent. Later, this associate left the agency to join a major publishing house in India and approached me separately, this time as an editor, and that is how Without Dreams was published.

However, it is notable that this British literary agency had an associate entirely devoted to manuscripts from the subcontinent. A few years later, I revisited their website and saw that their new interest was Afro-Caribbean writing, so it is easy to see how fickle the publishing industry is.

It is true that around 2007-08 there was a renewed interest in Pakistani writing in English. That is not to say that great work wasn’t being produced before or after, but the Western reading public’s imagination was captivated by topical narratives like Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

How different is the scene for Pakistani writers in English today? I spoke to a couple of them, and they bemoaned the lack of readership in the country. Also, internationally, Bangladesh seems to be the new favourite.

Honestly, I’m not sure. I think that living in a relatively quiet town in upstate New York means that to an extent I am somewhat isolated from general trends. My book received a very warm welcome at the Karachi Literature Festival in February. It is estimated that over 200,000 people attended the festival over the course of three days, so that definitely makes me optimistic that Pakistani writers in English will continue to be published and read, both at home and abroad.

Coming to “Those Children”, you talk of four siblings who have to leave the U.S. and head to Karachi after their mother’s death. The kids build their own fantasy world there. As an Indian, one feels that Karachi is a city yet to come to terms with its past. For instance, we see Awadh Apartments, Rampur House—all named after Indian places.

I love being in Karachi and think of it as my home. It is truly one of the most exciting cities in the world. I think it is a vibrant, sprawling South Asian megacity with great potential. While vestiges of nostalgia remain about pre-Partition India (you will see that in the character of Dadi, for example, in Those Children), I think the new generation has moved well beyond that. There is a vibrant art, literary and cultural scene, and people are trying to lead normal and fulfilling lives despite the sporadic eruptions of violence. As for the many who live below the poverty line, they are just trying to survive each day.

Is it fair to conclude that a lot of English writing emerging from Pakistan talks of urban society, as indeed does your novel?

I think that is true, although the extent to which the city plays a central role varies from book to book. While Karachi is an important part of Those Children, I don’t think the book is about the city as such. While we see glimpses of Karachi as the children familiarise themselves with their new environment, the story is very much about one family and their personal dynamics. Ultimately, Ferzana falls in love with Karachi much the same way she once loved Chicago.

Also, we see a lot of hyphenated characters such as Pakistani-Canadian writer and British-Pakistani. While it does provide a unique perspective, it also appears to be a case of a writer looking in.

This question really hits home, and I am so glad you mentioned it. As a Pakistani living in America, I think this definitely affects your book’s reception in Pakistan or India. The general misconception is that as a Pakistani living abroad you just can’t understand what it’s like to live in the subcontinent and that you should not attempt to write about it. This restrictive view absolutely ignores imaginative empathy. In any case, I think I have a slightly different perspective because I have lived in North America as well as Pakistan. The experiences, therefore, that I describe are authentic to me. They may not be authentic to everyone, but they certainly are to me, and I think it shows in the story.

I recently heard Muneeza Shamsie [a prominent Pakistani writer and literary critic] speak at the launch of her book on Pakistani writing in English, called Hybrid Tapestries. Explaining how she decided which writers to select for her literary history, she said she had a simple formula: she included everyone who wrote in English and who identified as Pakistani, whether they were based in Pakistan or in the diaspora. I think she resolved the problem beautifully, and that is how I would like to approach it, too. We are living increasingly in a world where you can’t categorise people by borders.

After your first two novels, I have a feeling you have a full-fledged children’s book inside you. When do we get to see that as a full-blown work of fiction?

You are so right. As a matter of fact, I have written a series of chapter books for Oxford University Press Pakistan called Munna Man and Baby Lady, which will be launched in London at the Alchemy Festival in May as a part of the Karachi Literature Festival (London).

In this four-book series, two Pakistani-American sisters travel to Karachi each summer and fight crime as the superheroes Munna Man and Baby Lady. The stories are multicultural and topical, dealing with everything from bureaucratic corruption and book piracy to art heists and kidnappings. A major focus of the series is also the comedic potential of transferring words across cultures and how language can be used as a “secret code” in the girls’ continuing adventures. There is no doubt that there is greater creative freedom in writing for children and I generally find they are much kinder critics than adults, not that I’m complaining, of course.