Writer-in-residence Kanza Javed (middle row, second from right) with the participants of the women writers' retreat in Abbottabad | Photo by Romessa Farrrukh
Writer-in-residence Kanza Javed (middle row, second from right) with the participants of the women writers' retreat in Abbottabad | Photo by Romessa Farrrukh

Eight women… strangers all. Yearning for Me Time Ages… Twenty-five to sixty-four Travelling… Into the great Unknown
Destination… a quaint jungle cottage in Abbottabad
The Secret Ambition… To write fiction and discover their own selves

A freak, rain-soaked, climate-changed Abbottabad, at nine degrees Celsius in March, would not — should not — have been any sane woman’s destination. But, apparently, the poster doing the rounds on social media and word-of-mouth made at least eight of them take the bus into the great unknown.

“When I saw this bill about a three-day retreat for creative writing in a jungle cottage in Abbottabad, I was already 40,000 words into the first draft of my debut novel,” says Iram Moazzam, who was one of the eight women.

“But there were no second thoughts. Leaving behind my full-house family, the duties of conscience, the nagging apology of being labelled a homemaker on the run, nothing could hold me back from travelling ‘solo’, nearly 500 kilometres into what was ‘uncharted’ territory for me.”

The host of a women writers’ retreat in Abbottabad reflects on how this shared experience helped the participants face up to what was holding them back in their creative endeavours

And why not? For Iram, this was the chance of a lifetime to get her ‘Me Time’!

So Iram, at age 40 plus, became one of the six ‘Lahore Qalandars’, along with a Karachi ‘Cheeti’ and an Islamabad ‘Gladiator’ (the cricket add-ons are just a play of this writer’s playful humour) to walk into the quaint jungle cottage that Friday evening.

The writer-in-residence, Kanza Javed, and I, as the host, welcomed this band of excited and motivated women.

For me, it was the fruition of a long-time dream of curating a creative space for those of her own gender. For the writer-in-residence, who is the author of the award-winning novel Ashes Wine and Dust and teaches fiction writing at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (Lums), the idea — an experiment — was a breaking of virgin ground in local literary circles.

Pakistan has its share of published fiction writers, but the complete lack of any culture conducive to developing creative expression under a mentor has had its side-effects. Aspiring novelists, especially women, are known to have shied away simply for lack of professional mentoring. On-line, in-person, short creative writing courses have been on offer but a live-in residency?

Whoever thought that a close group in a one-to-one setting was what women needed to be able to discover the writer within — to tell stories, to share confidences, to come clean about the travails of writing in a man’s world, the inhibitions, the constraints, the gender-specific traumas of denial and sanctions?

Even personal traumas, having nothing to do with writing a novel, were skilfully woven into the ambitions of each of the eight women attending the retreat.

Regina John from Karachi had suffered third degree burns. Shireen was a cancer survivor. Nooriyah had to change career course. Iram was married off midway between nurturing creative dreams.

While sharing these offshoots

of personal expression and harboured inhibitions brought about a happy informality between total strangers, it was the motivation to write fiction that made the eight come together into one circle of inspiration and creativity.

Meanwhile, Kanza, the writer-in-residence, had it all ready and baked: three evenings deep into the night over mugs of steaming coffee and around a bonfire under the tin-roof veranda. There were three days of walk-talk and write-read sessions in the not-so-manicured grounds of a nearly 200-year-old colonial era bungalow, with sloping roofs and gables, which was the perfect backdrop.

Discussions took place over tea-breaks in the cottage lounge, while enjoying the meals in the dinette, or during lunch in the café down the winding road lined by chinar and cedar trees.

Kanza masterfully chiselled a repertoire of creative activity, which included exploring the famous Koochi market and Abbottabad’s historic Ilyasi Masjid — built over what was once a gushing stream — and the architectural marvel that is the 170-year-old St Luke’s Church.

This was no academic run-of-the-mill programme. This was a shared experience of how ideas, long festering in the mind and heart, can be helped to take the shape of the printed word.

Kanza concentrated profusely on the technicalities of the writing process, shared techniques such as writing prompts, analysed genres, disclosed the nuances of voice and tone and shared the art of constructing engaging dialogue.

The writer-in-residence talked about the stories that could be developed into bestsellers and elaborated on the how of it.

Kanza’s own journey couldn’t have been any more helpful to the participants, as she shared her experiences — from the point of putting words on paper to the frustration of finding editors and agents, to the heartbreak of rejection and the pride of ultimately signing up with a publisher. For the participants, the stories were a source for the kind of confidence that they had long been struggling to master on their own.

The participants walked through writing prompts, read and analysed excerpts of published works, let go of inhibitions, overcame hang-ups about their supposed imperfections and worked up the courage to share their own pieces. True, these were liberated and educated women, with substantial pieces of cake on their plates. But it was the icing that they had come looking for.

In the end, it was all about enhanced motivation, warm hugs, requests for a follow-up writing retreat, and suggestions of coming together for art, craft, reading and healing in a space where women could connect and enjoy a ‘soul’ vacation.

Hira, who had come to reconnect with her creative djinn, went home rejuvenated and with greater resolve to delve into fiction-writing. “I am going to reschedule my writing time,” she said just before boarding the bus back to Lahore.

Shireen Gheba, who had left behind an octogenarian mother back home, took back a happy baggage of writing tips for short stories. “I am so glad I came, because Kanza’s architect and gardener approaches have made me rethink even how I am going to script my vlogs.”

Nurraya plans to use Kanza’s wisdom about creative writing to shape her travel blogs. Alina and Fatima discovered their own potential. Regina John, having taken the plunge for the sheer love of words, went back charged with a new will. As did Romessa, who had decided at age six that she wanted to be a writer.

Given the cultural taboos on women’s mobility, the demands of conforming to the feminine ideal as homemaker, the innate guilt at taking off for a solo vacation, and the scepticism engendered by the success-failure paradigm on the road to self-discovery, these eight women emerged as mirror images of the slogan on my hoodie: ‘I Am My Own Hero.’

As did the author-in-residence, Kanza Javed!

It was a reminder that women, with even a single weekend of ‘Me Time’ at their disposal, can become themselves and their own heroes.

The writer is a freelance journalist, translator and writer who has taught in the Lums Lifetime Learning Programme. X: @daudnyla

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 7th, 2024

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