Monica Ali and Saba Karim Khan in the session, From Brick Lane to Love Marriage. — Dawn
Monica Ali and Saba Karim Khan in the session, From Brick Lane to Love Marriage. — Dawn

LAHORE: British novelist Monica Ali says that the novel has been declared dead many times over by many different sections and yet somehow it has survived.

“It changes shape and nature. While the other platforms like Netflix are in trouble, the novel is going to survive much much longer. The TV shows have got passive audience while reading a novel you are playing a part like imagining or interpreting while reading a subject or text, which is more satisfying at the end,” she said while reply to the questions of Saba Karim Khan in a session, From Brick Lane to Love Marriage, based on the titles of Monica’s two novels.

Monica said she had started writing her first novel, Brick Lane, after attending the funeral of her maternal grandfather. She had written short stories before and while writing the novel, she had a small daughter who would wake up in the middle of the night, giving a chance to her to start writing.

About the title of her other novel, Love Marriage, she said in the UK, the people did not really know what the term meant as love marriage was just a norm there while here (South Asia) everybody knew what it meant. She said she mostly depended on writing her novels based on characters. “However, what comes on the paper is actually a percentage of what I had actually thought to do like an iceberg situation,” she added.

To the question about the effect of her characters on herself as a person, Monica Ali said despite knowing that it’s work of fiction if she was not emotionally invested in the characters herself, how she could expect her readers to emotionally invest in her characters. She said there was the craft of the novel and intellectual understanding while on the other hand there was a visceral aspect of writing, coming from the heart. “Knitting together those two things made writing such a fulfilling and interesting calling.”

Monica said that one aspect of writing that she enjoyed was the research and she did a lot of research and talked to workers to get information but then would come the stage when you would put the research aside and replace it with imagination, trusting your instincts. To her, writing gets inspiration from a character just as Nazneen, the protagonist of Brick Lane, the inspiration for her character was her mother, a white English woman, who met my father when he was a student whose language she did not know. Her mother experienced a social dislocation to an alien land when she moved to Bangladesh.

HOME UPSIDE DOWN: In the session, Home Upside Down, moderated by Noorzadeh Peerzada, poet, script writer and director Fatimah Asghar, novelists Dur-e-Aziz Amna and Awais Khan spoke on their experiences of writing fiction.

Fatima, the writer of Ms. Marvel, said when they included the subject of Partition of India in an episode of Ms. Marvel, they knew that it was going to be an introduction to the Partition in the west but they also knew that it was a kids TV show and wanted to project it without violence. “We could spend only a certain amount of time with Marvel in the Partition because of her powers and logics of time and we were able to do it by giving a reference to her great grandmother and great grandfather’s love story.” When you look at the partition, the most heartbreaking stories were separating families and communities that had lived together for long, she said.

When asked about her poetry, she said for her, there were so many layers of life and growing up, she was unable to access the person in her body because she was dealing with everybody else’s projection of what they thought she should and should not be doing which was a painful thing for a young person. “I think there was a lot of frustration at being told that I was not a free being as a woman and at my home, writing became this impossible and never-ending pursuit of freedom.”

Fatimah said she would write about sexuality and orientation and how political it felt when she was writing about what she was.

Awais Khan, the author of In the Company of Strangers, said he was attending a six-month writing course when he finished writing his novel in five months. “I feel that observation is important in writing,” he said. About the class question, he said in Lahore, a city of 15m people, people always found some connections with the people we would meet because of being limited to certain areas of the city. We all live in bubbles even within Lahore and it was important for writers to show these bubbles, he declared.

“Literature is mostly based in three cities of Pakistan, Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad and we hardly know about the rural life of the country. I got the inspiration (for the novel) from a tragedy of a social media personality and realised how the women must be living in the rural areas of Pakistan.”

Regarding the urban life in Lahore, he said it’s important for a novelist to show all facets of life

Dur-e-Aziz Amna read out an excerpt from her novel, American Fever.

Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2024

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