Tuesday, April 03, 2007

In Conversation With Qaisra Shahraz

Ahmede: Michèle Roberts has called your The Holy Woman as "As a dramatic story of family intrigue, religious passions and riproaring romance". My reading of the novel has also found it to be set in a complex web of religion and passion. Why is love and religion or the relationship between these two so important to your work?

Qaisra Shahraz: The issue of love is perhaps the most important relationship that human beings have. It is, therefore, only right that this should play an important role within my novels. I wanted to write a powerful love story that I knew a lot of readers especially women would enjoy reading. Many have written to me, telling me how much they loved reading about the turbulent relationship of the two lovers Sikander and Zarri Bano in the Holy Woman. There was always love-hate tension in this relationship making the readers wanting to know what would happen and would they ever get back together again? Many ( both men and women) owned up to cheating by reading the end just for that reason. In Typhoon I have shown through the poignant love, spanning twenty years, of Kaniz and Younus Raees, that older people can fall and remain in love too. That it is not just the prereogative of younger people only!

For many of my Western readers, there is very little understanding of Islam and the Muslim societies. It is all baffling to them. Since September the 11th a lot has changed and for the worse; Islamophobia has been on the rise, leading to people and the western media at large harbouring and promoting negative views about Islam and Muslims at large. I find this both depressing and distressing. In my novel The Holy Woman I enjoyed and wanted to make my faith accessible to western readers, thereby giving them an understanding of the principles of my faith. Further I wanted to introduce the vibrant Muslim world, its customs and rituals including Hajj etc to them by taking them on a journey to four Muslim countries – Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. Because of the nature of my characters (the heroine becoming a holy woman – a nun like figure) and their situations, religion does play an equally important role in their lives. I wanted to raise awareness in particular about the issue of the veil through my heroine and debunk stereotyped views and western myths that Muslim women who wear the veil are oppressed. On the contrary, I wanted to show that in the modern Muslim world most women are making their own choices, including taking to the veil wholeheartedly and for personal reasons and feelings of self esteem, dignity and a Muslim identity.

Ahmede: We know that you were born in Pakistan to grow up in England. Where does your sense of belonging lie? Is it necessary for a writer to have one?

Qaisra Shahraz: I strongly believe that you become a product of the environment and society that raises you and where you live. Since a young girl I have lived in England. I have grown to understand and especially appreciate as a woman the freedoms and educational and professional opportunities that living in the United Kingdom provides. I have used these opportunities to the best of my abilities, helping me to succeed in my two careers in writing and education. I appreciate the general fabric of British society and its values, especially of fairness and equality. England has now become my permanent home and I suppose it is where my sense of belonging must primarily lie. I am happily and fully integrated in all aspects of British life.

However, I also have strong connections and ties with my country of origin, Pakistan. They truly matter. I love the culture, clothes, customs, religious festivals, languages, food, literature etc. of the land of my birth too. Having the two natural feelings of belonging and multiple identities, have not only enriched my life, but also allows me to wander from one country to the other with incredible ease especially in my novels. It also enables me to provide the foreign reader with an insight into Pakistan, which from the feedback I receive, is appreciated by the Western readers in particular. Having a sense of belonging is not necessary but a good thing to have for any writer. I have definitely benefited from it.

Ahmede: In Typhoon we see you dissect the idea of trapped in time, space and guilt with the brilliance of a master. When it comes to individual’s role in history where do you think you stand as a writer?

Qaisra Shahraz: I have always been fascinated by the use of time and space. I think that J.B. Priestly was a master of this as seen in such classics as An Inspector Calls and Time and the Conways. I would not like to compare myself to such a master as him, therefore only the future will tell if I am to be remembered in this area. As far as the individual’s role in history as a writer is concerned I have no idea. It is a difficult question to answer and presumptuous of me to make predictions. At a guess I suppose I would be remembered as a British woman writer, whose literary work spans other continents, exploring cross cultural and women’s issues on a global scale. Hopefully making a difference to women’s lives and not only entertaining readers but also giving them something to think about.

Ahmede: Do you think the way female writers handle narratives or a particular theme is different from the way a male author would?

Qaisra Shahraz: Yes to some extent I agree that is true. Some writers, if not all, write about what they know best or have experienced etc. Our experience, perceptions and our roles in our lives do affect what we write about and the manner in which we see and depict the world around us. My personal commitment to education and women’s issues has affected what I write and the medium I have chosen to write in. Whether it is for television or a novel, I am glad to say that I have always used my position as a woman to explore feminist issues that I feel strongly about. These I have especially covered in my novels The Holy Woman and Typhoon, drama serials The Heart is it and Insult, where I have covered such topics as inheritance, gender relationships, Cancer, positions in society, patriarchal oppression, domestic violence against women, the issue of rape, the veil, dyslexia etc.

On the other hand every writer whether male or female would handle the theme or narrative in a different way. It is all a matter of personal choice and style of communication. Writers have to be happy in the medium they use (TV scripts, novels or theatre plays etc) to entertain their readers/audience, to explore their ideas and themes, the form of narrative that comes easily to them and one that they can personally excel in. Also finding his or her own distinctive voice that a reader/audience can identify with. As a woman I naturally find it much easier, like other women writers, getting into the minds and hearts of female characters. I guess that is why my novels and short stories are populated with so many women characters from Zarri Bano The Holy Woman, Kulsoom the humble matchmaker to Kaniz the ‘village queen’. I am interested in portraying strong women, who challenge the roles and situations that they find themselves in as for example Miriam in A Pair of Jeans , a young woman living in England facing a cross cultural and identity crisis. At times victims, but triumphant in their own little way nevertheless giving us a perspective into their lives.

Ahmede: What is your next project about?

Qaisra Shahraz: In Literature I am currently trying to complete my third novel which is a really long one and has many story lines including new approaches to traditional problems. I hope that my readers will enjoy and be entertained by my exploration of my themes as the generation gap and inter-racial relationships, west versus east etc. As well as that I would like to see my second drama serial Insult to be produced( don’t know when ) and working on a couple of ideas for TV scripts for the BBC etc. I also hope to attend literary festivals and to tour Indonesia and India, where my novels are coming out in translation in different languages – Bhasa Indonesian, Hindi and Urdu etc. Hopefully in Bengali and Tamil too.

I hope to continue touring Germany where my first story A Pair of Jeans is being studied as part of Abitur the English literature syllabus. In the last 18 months I have visited many schools including the famous boarding school Salem International College where I delivered sessions on my work as a writer and education. I have come across thousands of wonderful students and hundreds of teachers, eager to interact. They are simply great. It is a wonderful experience having very good interactive discussions, which helps them to learn more about me and my background especially as a Muslim woman with multiple identities. They question me thoroughly, are challenged themselves in their thinking and ideas. Hopefully resulting in an appreciation of other cultures, customs and faiths and building of bridges. It is a learning curve for me too. I am eager to learn about the countries I tour; its history, geography and language and customs etc. Three countries I seem to surf regularly on the internet are Indonesia, Germany and India.

In my second career in education I would like to continue inspecting colleges and consultancy work in training teachers on quality issues relating to teaching and learning and inspections. Quality in the classroom means an awful lot to me. Good teaching and learning makes a tremendous difference to learners achievements and in the long term in their lives. I help education providers by doing mock inspections, advising them on making improvements , by assessing the quality of teaching and learning in some of their classes, by training their lesson observers on how to assess their teachers effectively and make accurate judgments as well as training the classroom teachers on what makes excellent teaching and learning. I do this work in the UK but now wish to branch out abroad especially in the countries that I am likely to visit as a writer or where my work is published and widely read. I have already started to do that in Pakistan, Indonesia and Germany with the federal state of Baden Wurtemmberg’s Ministry of Education. I am really looking forward to this work. I find it very fulfilling, knowing that the learners – no matter where - will be the ultimate benefactors!