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COLUMN: HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS

October 08, 2017

I recently met up with British-Pakistani author Qaisra Shahraz at her house in Manchester to discuss The Concubine and the Slave-Catcher: Stories From Around the World — her new cosmopolitan collection spanning 25 years of Shahraz’s writing life, covering various timelines and countries.

In the collection’s first story ‘The Escape’, Samir, an elderly Pakistani man living in Manchester for decades, dreams of his previous life. Yet on returning to Pakistan he realises he’s no longer sure where home is. Much of Shahraz’s writing is about home and homecoming, belonging and unbelonging. She tells me that being a migrant with multiple identities — “British, Pakistani and Muslim” — home and the sense of belonging naturally interest her. In ‘The Escape’, she focuses on the first generation of migrants, “people like my father who have lived in the United Kingdom for 50 years or so.” The collection’s epigraph by Madeleine L’Engle evokes the disorientation of “not quite knowing where home is.” Shahraz explains how relevant this notion is to Samir’s story of loss and confusion. “Where does this person belong?” she enquires. “Where is his homeland? The place of birth or where he has spent a big chunk of his life? I believe it’s the latter, despite the fact that one maintains emotional links with one’s country of birth.”

Certainly, ‘The Escape’ manifests Shahraz’s love for Manchester where she’s lived since her parents moved there from Pakistan when she was nine, and seen it expand and “change over the decades with the arrivals of refugees and migrants from around the world.”

In ‘Our Angel’, the male British protagonist catches a glimpse of the precarity of Afghan migrant workers in the Gulf. Fascinated with the confluence of cultures brought together by the Gulf’s oil industry, Shahraz shares that ‘Our Angel’ is based on a conversation with an Afghan taxi driver on her way to the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. The man’s insights into his working life in the Emirates intrigued her. “I focus on the plight of Asian migrants separated from their families for decades. There are clearly economic gains for their families, but this can hardly compensate for the pain of separation from fathers, husbands and sons.”

The pain of separation is also explored in ‘The Journey’ which Shahraz wrote 15 years ago about a Muslim boy, Riaz, tragically abandoned by his parents in India as they flee to Pakistan during Partition. Riaz is later adopted by a Hindu family. Shahraz describes learning about the bitter realities of Partition from an aunt who “wept for days after parting from her best friend Gopi, a Hindu whose family had to flee southeast to India.” The process surrounding Partition horrifies Shahraz to this day: “Imagine a line being drawn on a map of India, thereby making millions of people refugees overnight. I had to write this story, as I was gripped by the scale of the human tragedy.”

Several years ago, Shahraz visited the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland with some Jewish friends. This glimpse of the Nazis’ premeditated, industrial-style extermination of six million Jews impelled her to write ‘Last Train to Krakow’, about a young pregnant woman, Hela, who writes a letter to her mother urging her to buy train tickets for resettlement in Krakow.

The titular story similarly demanded intense historical research. ‘The Slave Catcher’ was conceived when Shahraz watched a film about slavery in Boston’s Museum of African American History. The experience was epiphanic: “Within 10 minutes I had the idea, the characters and the storyline in their entirety!” It was challenging enough to write about the 19th century Boston context — never having examined the United States before — let alone discussing slaves’ histories. “In Boston, black people lived free lives,” says Shahraz, “but the southern states’ plantation owners were chasing them decades later. They would enslave entire families, forcibly taking those born and working as free people in Boston to work in their cotton fields.”

‘The Concubine’ was completed just three months before publication. Shahraz wrote the first scene of this panoramic story while sitting on the summit of Macchu Picchu, Peru, with a group of women writers. It is set in Cusco in the 16th century when the Spanish conquered the Incan empire. Shahraz was intrigued by the fact that Spanish brides travelled to join their men in Peru, and adumbrated what life was like for Peruvian concubines.

Shahraz recalls that in 1990 the first story she ever wrote, ‘A Pair of Jeans’, was picked up by German academic Dr Liesel Hermes. Impressed by the exploration of themes relating to migrants’ lives and culture clash, Hermes decided to add it to the literary curriculum in German schools. It is still very popular almost three decades later, and Shahraz continues to be inundated with invitations to German schools. “‘A Pair of Jeans’ provided me with a platform for intercultural dialogue. My aim has always been to raise awareness and debunk some stereotyped myths about Islam, Muslim women and extremism. I remind German and English students that there are extremists in all faiths. My parting remark is: ‘I am a Muslim. I love my faith, but I am not a terrorist. Please connect with ordinary Muslims like me.’”

‘The Evil Shadow’, set in a fictitious Pakistani village, was originally written nearly 20 years ago and explores what happens when two women transgress the draconian and illogical rules that shroud miscarriage. This issue of the woman who has miscarried being ostracised as the bringer of bad luck fed into a subplot of Shahraz’s third novel Revolt. She fearlessly breaks the silence and superstitions around miscarriage that exist across cultures, both Western and Eastern: “I abhor how superstitious beliefs can hurt, victimise, or stigmatise people,” she states, imparting her strong feelings about the impact of superstition on women’s experiences of childbirth and miscarriage.

We end by speaking about Shahraz’s new projects. She’s writing a new novel set in Morocco, and also holding the ambitious Muslim Arts and Culture Festival (MACFest) in Manchester from 2018 to highlight literature, education, art and culture. “I have devoted my life to building cultural bridges,” Shahraz declares, “and such work is of utmost importance in current times when Islamophobia is on the rise. The mission is to bring all faith communities together, remove barriers, educate, raise awareness and celebrate the rich Muslim heritage.” I hope to work with her on this exciting venture.

The columnist teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of Britain Through Muslim Eyes: Literary Representations, 1780-1988

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 8th, 2017