Bapsi Sidhwa is one of Pakistan’s first English-language writers and the author of five novels. The recipient of numerous awards from around the world, she currently has three new books out in print: Their Language of Love, a collection of short stories; The Illustrated Beloved City: Writings on Lahore, a volume that she has edited; and Junglewallah Sahib, an Urdu translation by Muhammad Umar Memon of her novel The Crow Eaters. Recently, Sidhwa was in Lahore for the literature festival and spoke about her work, childhood and new Pakistani writers with Books&Authors.
There are four themes that I would like to discuss with you — literature, writing, politics and advice you would like to share with your readers and emerging writers. So, on literature, what do you think of the writing coming out of Pakistan right now?
Well, there’s a sudden renaissance. Back in my time, there were hardly any publishing houses in Pakistan for English-language writers. There weren’t even any English writers. There was one, Ahmed Ali, whose name I used to hear as a girl. He used to write in English. Then, after a long time, when I was in my mid-teens, I read Khushwant Singh.
What about the literature coming out of Pakistan and the subcontinent these days?
As you see more publishing avenues opening up, there are more writers coming up too, and that works both ways. This is encouraging for young writers. There are avenues for getting published in Pakistan, although everybody is focused on getting published overseas as well. The weird thing is that when The Crow Eaters was published for the first time in Pakistan, it got terrible reviews locally. But when it got published in the UK and got the David Higham Award, and all the magazines and newspapers there gave it glowing reviews, then the Pakistani press began to love the book.
Did the local press understand the book afterwards?
They look to the West — we look westward for approval. There is a writer I like very much, Bina Shah. But I don’t think she’s been published well abroad, so she hasn’t received the recognition she deserves.
Have you read any translated fiction, from Urdu to English?
Plenty of it. Mostly older material. I like Ismat Chughtai and Manto’s works.
Have you also read them in Urdu?
No. As you may know, I never went to school. I had polio as a girl. The doctor said my parents shouldn’t send me to school. They said it was a nervous condition and I shouldn’t stress myself. I am very happy I never studied mathematics, or geography. I only studied what I enjoyed. But you know, not going to school also had its disadvantages. There’s a lot of loneliness. And to counter that I picked up books. They became my life. It was abnormal.
What were some of the first books you picked up?
The very first book was given to me by the lady who was teaching me a little bit. It was Little Women. I was 11 at that time. Now that is a very big age to read this book. But that was because of my retarded education. The delay had cost me. But after that I read Anna Karenina, and I had read it three times by the time I was 13. And then The Pickwick Papers, I’ve read it five times. Now when I teach in the US, I assign them as the reading in the creative writing classes. I also like A House for Mr Biswas very much, and Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk. These are my favourite books and I list them in my teaching syllabus. And then there is this Canadian writer, M.G. Vassanji. His book, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, I like very much. I teach them all. When I do teach.
You see, the irony is that the doctors told my parents she’s not going to become a professor or a doctor. She’s going to get married and have kids maybe. So don’t send her to school. But the irony is I did become a professor.
That’s pretty funky.
Yeah, it is funky. Yeah.
What non-fiction do you read?
Well, there was a stage when anything I could read I would. You see my parents, I don’t think they’ve read a novel between them. Ours was not a literary house. So, if Time magazine was lying about, I would pick it up, or I picked up a psychology magazine. Whatever was on hand I used to pick up and read. Sometimes people would give classics as gifts. I used to read those. I read all the Enid Blyton series and all these romance novels young girls read. Comics. Whatever I could lay my hands on, I would read it.
Looking at your novels, where does An American Brat fit in?
When you change your geographical location, naturally, the new culture and geography influence your characters. The politics of a new country will influence your character.
So that was the first one when you moved to the United States?
Yes. That was because suddenly my children and I found ourselves in a new environment. So as a writer I had to reflect that. So this reflects the culture shock we received, what traumas we went through.
What about your writing process? How much do you prepare before writing a novel? Has it been different for every novel?
Well, the start has always been different. Sometimes I start when I’ve heard something. Sometimes I start with a memory. But I’ve never had a set time to write. I was a wife, a mother, and all these other roles. I could never say I’ll write from nine to four. Whenever I found time, I wrote.
And you write by hand? Or by typewriter?
Well, in the beginning I used to write by hand. Then, I used to type on my father’s old typewriter. I forget the typewriter’s brand name. There was a Mr Falberts on Waris Road. He taught me touch typing when I was about 13. So I could do a little touch-typing then and that was very useful to me. Because my father was a businessman and he said I would have to do secretarial work, he told me to develop my typing skills. So I learnt it. It’s always been useful to me.
And more recently, have you shifted to writing on the computer?
No, the initial draft has to be pen on paper. Otherwise it does not release. You see, by the time I have written seven or eight pages with pen on paper, when I put them onto the computer, they become almost 20 pages.
How many notes do you take and how many drafts do you go through?
Oh, lots. I go through several drafts. You see, novel writing is a long process. It takes years. So suddenly, after say a year, I will introduce a new character into the novel. Then that character has to be threaded throughout the novel. So that process goes on and on. It’s a different thing from a short story.
How about readers? Do you share your initial drafts with any specific people?
Again, I belong to a very business-oriented family. So if I were to tell them I was writing a book, they would say that if Bapsi is writing a book, it’s probably going to be a romance novel. What else can she write? So, I didn’t dare tell anybody. Even my family didn’t know. The only audience I had was my husband. And he’s not much of a reader. But at least he read more than my parents did. But you know, when he would fall asleep while I was reading aloud, I would know that the passage was a dull one. When he would laugh, I would be happy. So he was my sounding board.
Do you have other readers now?
Well, now, when the book is written, you send it out to your agent and your agent distributes it.
So you use the professional channel.
Haan, but of course, my husband and my children first read it.
Do you compare yourself to any authors in the world right now?
Well, not compare as such. I would say there are many authors. For example, I am not like Rushdie. And there are a lot of authors who are like Rushdie. But I’m not a magical realism person. I would say I am more like a Naipaul or a Mahfouz. A realistic kind of author.
Moving on to more political questions, is Pakistan right now a more dangerous topic and entity to write about, or is Partition?
Well, there is no comparison between what Partition was to what today is. Partition was a time of too much chaos. I am the only old woman in this room who remembers that time. I was seven or eight. And I remember the roar of the mob from a distance. I couldn’t make out the words. But later, I was able to decipher the “Hare Hare Maha Dev”, the “Allahu Akbar” and the “Sat Siriye Kaal”. Even back then, I could understand that they are killing each other. I knew it was evil. And there was no comparison to what’s happening today.
Can it ever go there again? It seems as though Pakistan is on a dangerous path right now.
Let’s hope not. But you see, whenever the earth breaks — this is my theory, nobody else has told me this — there is a lot of bloodshed. God forbid if Balochistan or the Frontier is separated from the rest of the land, there will definitely be bloodshed. I don’t know how it goes, but history plays out that way.
Can a non-political book be written about Pakistan?
No, you cannot write a non-political book anywhere in the world. Because politics colours each character’s way of thinking, way of relating to other people and so on. You see, each time there has been a regime change in Pakistan, I have felt myself changing. During the time of Bhutto, the women around us felt very energised. I was joining women’s committees, we were doing progressive things. And when Zia came, we sort of wilted and all the energy just drained away from us. Then Benazir came, and we all felt different. So it influenced us, as people, as characters. It influences how men look at us. You see? So the dynamics between people change. It’s all related to politics, to culture, to your environment. It all influences you.
What if you weren’t a writer? What would happen?
I wouldn’t be sane.
No. I wouldn’t be sane at all. Writing has saved my sanity.