The best endorsement I can offer for Shazaf Fatima Haider’s new novel, A Firefly in the Dark, is this: I read her book while on a road trip with a 14-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl; and even before I was done, both kids took turns reading it as well, ignoring the beautiful scenery of Pakistan’s north as it flashed past the windows of our car. They enthusiastically tore through the adventures of Haider’s young protagonist, Sharmeen, and her friendship with the jinn Jugnu, and then fought over the book to reread their favourite bits. Both kids — avid readers of children’s fiction, particularly the Harry Potter/Percy Jackson modes of fantasy and the R.L. Stine school of kiddie horror — were quite enamoured of the fantastical (and occasionally frightening) world Haider has created in her book, which uses local myths and the folklore of jinns to create a story that will be familiar to Pakistani children, yet new and fresh at the same time.
This led me to wonder why A Firefly in the Dark hadn’t specifically been marketed as middle-grade or young adult (YA) fiction, because there is a significant dearth of books for young people coming out of Pakistan. This is not to say grown-ups won’t enjoy the book — I certainly did — and good books in all genres or marketing categories tend to cross over to a wider audience in any case. However, books for children and teenagers are particularly limited in Pakistan. Ferozsons, the most significant publisher of children’s fiction in Urdu, hardly has new titles coming out anymore (most of the titles I find in their catalogue are the same ones I read myself as a child) and the new titles that are published have not kept up with the evolving reading tastes of children. The only initiative of publishing new and exciting literature for children in recent years has been taken by AzCorp Entertainment and their various comic book series in both English and Urdu, such as their Team Muhafiz series. Such a desolate landscape of Pakistani children’s and YA fiction would surely have benefited from more direct marketing of A Firefly in the Dark because the novel is a welcome addition to this category.
The narrative arc of Haider’s new novel follows the classic coming-of-age trajectory common in a lot of children’s/YA fiction: a young person, going through a difficult and transitory period in her life, finds external sources and internal strength to overcome obstacles and come into her own. Twelve-year-old Sharmeen is struggling to adjust to her new life when, after an unexpected tragedy, she and her family move into her Nani’s (maternal grandmother) ancestral bungalow. Stuck mediating between Nani and her mother and lonely at her new school, Sharmeen finds comfort in the stories Nani tells her about jinns, shape-shifters and centuries-old prophecies and pacts. When the creatures in her grandmother’s stories slide from fiction into reality and the young girl meets her own personal jinn, Jugnu, Sharmeen finds herself embroiled in a series of events set off by a pact made by one of her ancestors with members of the jinn-world.
In her new novel, the author builds an engrossing world particularly for young adults, ingeniously incorporating folklore about jinns into a story about the transition to adulthood
With A Firefly in the Dark, Haider ingeniously incorporates local and cultural myths about jinns into the construction of her wider world. Does a jinn haunt old trees outside your house? Maybe it’s someone your ancestor made a pact with to protect your family. Can lizards sometimes be jinns in disguise? Maybe it’s because jinns are shape-shifters and prefer small, innocuous insects and animals to turn into for the sake of convenience and ease of movement. There is a certain playfulness to how Haider deepens local popular sayings about jinns and creates a back-story and plausible reasons for those sayings to exist in the first place.
The novel’s narrative and style of writing are also reminiscent of the form of storytelling through which tales of jinns have historically been told: oral stories, whispered in the dark by grandmothers to grandchildren or friends trying to scare each other in the middle of the night. In places, Haider’s writing is similar to the style of oral stories: lush language that flows in such a way that you get sucked into it, stories that twist and turn and sweep you up in their momentum. Admittedly, there are moments where the tale becomes a little too convoluted, but it’s easy enough to let that go because Haider’s writing encourages you to become engrossed in the story.
“How come my prayers called you specifically, Jugnu? How come someone else didn’t come?” “Because I am your humzaad.” “But Jugnu, yesterday you said you were created with me.” “I was created with you, but I have been around a longer time.” “I don’t understand. If you were created with me, you should be 12 years old!” “You have an old soul, little one, but a young body.” — Excerpt from the book
Another strength of the book is its deft balance of suspense, horror and humour — a balance difficult to pull off, but crucial for a book aimed at young people. Haider has already proved she’s good at humour with her debut novel How it Happened and its character of Dadi. She continues her particular brand of snarkiness and wit in this novel, primarily through the main fantastical character, Jugnu the jinn, who is by far the most entertaining-to-read character in A Firefly in the Dark. A prankster jinn who is playful yet world-weary, kind but annoyed at the general ignorance of humans, Jugnu is a delight and his interactions with Sharmeen are the highlight of the book.
Beneath the narrative, Haider’s novel touches upon interesting connections between the idea of jinn possession, being in transition and the reality of a young person — particularly a young woman — coming of age. In a recent interview Haider said, “I wanted to write a novel about a girl who has to grow up. And all young women have to face the spectre of their physical bodies being subsumed by a powerful force — it’s a constant, looming threat. I could write about that using the symbolism that the jinn offered without getting too explicit.” A refreshing element in the novel is its frank tackling of menstruation in a way that is age-appropriate, but which also works to demystify this natural function by removing the thick cloud of shame around it. The author ties Sharmeen getting her first period into the larger arc of her adventure. And Sharmeen’s coming to terms with her transition to adulthood and her changing body is tied in nicely with her acceptance of the powers she holds within the novel’s jinn-filled universe.
The reviewer teaches comparative literature at Habib University, Karachi
A Firefly in the Dark
By Shazaf Fatima Haider
Speaking Tiger, India
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 26th, 2018