fact and fiction
word about letters
Sehba Sarwar is a writer and activist originally from Karachi, now based in Houston. She runs a not for profit arts organisation, Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB), and is the author of a novel, Black Wings, published in 2004, as well as essays and poems which have appeared in various literary journals and newspapers. She sat down with The News on Sunday for an exclusive interview. Excerpts as follows:
The News on Sunday: Sehba, you have taken on several roles in your life. You studied journalism at university, and settled in Houston, where you live with your husband daughter. You run an NGO. You are also a writer. Writing and activism appear central to whatever you do, in particular with regard to identity and women’s place in society. Why are these issues important to you, when you live in a multi cultural, largely educated segment of American society?
Sehba Sarwar: To clarify — my BA was in English (creative writing minor) and my graduate degree was in government (Masters in public administration) — I practiced journalism right after I did my A Levels, when I obtained an internship at The Star, and worked there for 8 months before I headed off to college in the States. After I finished my degree, I went back to working at The Star, as sub-editor of the inside pages. I also wrote feature stories and conducted interviews. I already hailed from an activist family, so the two actions—writing and speaking out—have been part of my personal history. I found my voice during the start of the Zia years, when women’s rights were being eroded, and as a teenager I marched with the Women’s Action Forum. Now that I am more or less based in the US, I am still working on those same things: gender and identity remain crucial issues for women no matter where one lives. In the US today, there’s a new wave of anger against “immigrants”, and there’s a rise in Christian fundamentalism. So, the issues are still the same.
TNS: A major part of your time is taken up with VBB. Please talk about its inception, which as I understand from an article in Liveable Houston Magazine, began after your recovery from a critical surgery. You mention five women getting together to organise literary readings. What were their backgrounds, and what was your focus?
SS: In Fall 1999, a writer-teacher friend of mine—Marcela Descalzi, an Argentine born in New Delhi—called to tell me that she had a list of things she wanted to do before 2000 began, one of which was to contact people she missed. I was one of the people on her list. She asked me if there was something I wanted to do before the new millennium began. Without hesitation, I responded that I wanted to perform a protest poem that I’d written back in 1998 to speak out against the Shariah laws that Nawaz Sharif was trying to bring into Pakistan. I went ahead and invited three more women writers and visual artists from different backgrounds, and we began meeting to talk about work that each of us wanted to share. I was awarded a city-funded grant to put the idea into practice, and we kicked off the series in February 2000. By early 2001, we had established a wide audience base after our first readings series and a special film series on South Asia. We filed for NGO status; I quit my teaching job, and volunteered my time with the organisation. We were given office and performance space at DiverseWorks, an alternative artspace in Houston, and things just took off.
TNS: Did you envisage the way the collective has grown since its beginnings?
SS: I had no idea. We just produced a new documentary about the organisation in which I said that I run VBB much in the way that I write a novel: I don’t know what the next chapter will bring, nor do I know the ending. After 9/11, the organisation became even more politicised. In 2002, we held a huge event, Words for Peace, in which Ahmed Rashid, Arundhati Roy and Naomi Shihab Nye participated via speaker phones. Bapsi Sidhwa read for us along with many other Houston-based young artists, and 400 people showed up. Since then, 10 years later, VBB has clarified its productions and our website explains the kind of work we create. I really do want to bring some productions to Pakistan. Let’s see how and when we can raise the money.
TNS: As a writer as well as an activist, do you feel a sense of conflict, with either sphere jostling for importance? Is it possible to juggle the two effectively?
SS: To me activism means being socially conscious. We don’t always have to join marches. “We can be socially conscious even when we are washing dishes,” punk star Patti Smith said to me one time. Now that I am a mother, I cannot get involved in all the things that I used to do before—but I can certainly write and create art to express myself. Ultimately, all we can do as artists is share our truths; we cannot control—or try to control—how our works are received.
TNS: Identity features strongly in your writings, particularly in your poems and essays, where you “return” to your home in Karachi. Has your perspective, or themes pertaining to identity, changed over time?
SS: Issues of border conflicts, women’s issues, and identity issues continue to play a strong role in my work. My husband is Chicano (Mexican American) and our daughter has connection to four or five different borders, depending on who one speaks to. So I find myself asking what we would be if we were born on ‘the other side?’ This could be a metaphor for cities, countries, continents, neighbourhoods. So many of my friends, fellow writers and artists are dealing with the same issues—whether they are in Houston, in Karachi or in cities in between—and we are all trying to create space for our voices, which are beyond the mainstream in which we live. Since the birth of my daughter, a new layer of writing has emerged in my work, which has to do with the histories we learn, who teaches us, and the languages we adopt. When I’m in Karachi, I have an instant sense of being “home”. I also have a fairly large family, and personal history (both local and past), and now that I’m weaving my professional life with that of issues in Pakistan, I have an even stronger connection. I keep grappling to find ways to spend longer periods in Karachi—even though things are certainly not getting any easier. At one time, I had wanted to create a VBB office in Karachi.
TNS: You are part of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop, run by Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros. Do you feel that being part of a writers’ group aids your writing? Are there other writers’ groups in the Houston area, and if so, is there a reason for your being a member of this particular group?
SS: I gained lifetime membership to Sandra Cisneros’ Macondo Foundation in 2009. The group brings together writers committed to and actively working on social justice issues. There are more than 100 writers in the overall group. The founder, Sandra Cisneros, is an internationally recognized writer. She did something different from what many socially driven artists do: instead of picking up a cause outside the writing community, she created a writing community to replenish those of us who pour our energies into doing community work through our writing. We meet once a year in Cisneros’ adopted city, San Antonio (a few hours away from Houston), and writers from around the US and Mexico gather for a week to write, workshop and spend time with each other. Outside of the week that we spend together, many of us remain in touch. Some of us have created writing groups and we meet via Skype once a month. I also swap writings with other writers in Houston and around the US, and each group that I’m part of has its own strengths. The fact that Macondo has an annual retreat makes that particular group very special.
TNS: How do you view writing? When you write, what comes first, theme or craft?
SS: Neither. Starting a fresh piece of writing is like jumping in the ocean, I don’t know what currents or waves I’m going to encounter. I let the writing guide me. This past July, Julia Alvarez spoke at Macondo about her writing process. “Tie yourself to the mast,” she said, “and live in your storm.” I connected instantly with her words, because that is how I work. I never have an idea about what I’m writing about till I finish. And once I’m done with the structure, I revise and then revise more, focusing on craft. The theme hardly ever enters into the picture—because again, as Alvarez said, “I write from where I am.” If I’m writing during a period when one particular issue is on my mind, that idea gets woven into the work subconsciously.
In the UK, Emily Chappell, a cycle courier, has decided to take on the world in a journey, on a cycle. In Virginia Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, the heroine undertakes a journey by way of the sea. Isabel Archer goes to Venice in Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist. In Henry James’s The Americans and The Ambassadors, Americans go to Paris at the turn of the last century, for enlightenment — of a doubtful nature though—and yes Emily blogs about her journey. Elizabeth Gilbert ate, prayed and loved through hers. Robert M. Pirsig took his son out on a 17 day motorcycle road trip. Mitch Albom took a journey too, this time a metaphysical one, the journey of soul.
Journey is a metaphor; it stands for a period of transition where our heroes and heroines undergo a change, for better or for worse. These metaphors are sometimes bound by cities, canyons, continents, and that abstract place called heaven. The place becomes a metaphor for change. And sometimes the whole world becomes one canyon to be crossed by the heroine to claim for herself at the end of the journey, an enlightened soul: or a good husband. Both equally yearned for.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, Robert M. Pirsig
searches for an answer to a lost dream, the journey itself becomes a metaphor as he covers distance on a motorcycle, his philosophic queries also begin, reaching a middle and finally, an end. He seeks the answer to a fundamental question, what is quality? His answer defies and embraces all rules of logic simultaneously. Quality is the present moment. His protagonist is obsessed with quality, equally obsessed though less lovable is a ghost that lives on in the book. Pirsig uses his motorcycle to explain what romanticism and classicism mean to the ghost; or to the modern human being. The motorcycle needs to be maintained periodically, which according to Pirsig can be classical as well as romantic: and we want to keep coming back to the book to locate the intersection between classicism and romanticism.
In Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love a woman sets out for a year of enlightenment and isolation. Her journey is the journey of a woman, of a soul in a woman’s body. She looks for herself, trying to free the person she is from the self destructive patterns she had surrounded herself with. And at the same time, she is trying to live up to a yogic dream of peace within the self. For those of us who cannot stand the Zen here, this is a woman coming to terms with the responsibilities of being a mature citizen of the world while getting over the usual emotional wreckage of the teens. For some of us, the teenage lasts as long as our forties. Maybe that is what we call the midlife crisis. Coming back to the narrative, this lady undertakes a journey that lasts for a year and she touches three places on the globe, Italy, India and Malaysia. Each place brings a certain amount of peace to her life.
In Mitch Albom’s Five People You Meet In Heaven, a soul’s journey after death is described. Each episode in the journey of soul teaches patience, love or sacrifice. In this way the soul is brought from negative state to a serene and peaceful state.
In these books, travel is not a feature of the material world but a feature of the spiritual world. The journey from dark to light appears to be the main theme. The protagonists visit places inside themselves, alone, in isolation, looking for the answers to their personal dilemmas, charting their development, coming to terms with their matured, calmer selves. Other people stop existing. They are there but they do not matter anymore, because the travelling protagonist is a moving target, unreachable. His/her very inability to be stationary makes events outside the self meaningless. What in a stationary existence could raise a thousand criticisms of the self now looses that power. For the soul-on-the-move, most other people are just outside events. The only actors onstage are the travelling protagonists themselves. Only the inner life matters.
All these books try to create a parable, a way of dispensing wisdom culled from personal experience. They carry on the tradition of old parables written by Sa’adi Sherazi. These three books fall somewhere in the category between fact and fiction. They are based on real events, but instead of the outer life, the reader is presented with the inner life of the protagonist. And the events unfolding in the inner life assume a special significance. These events of inner life and their subjective interpretations address issues which might be relevant to a thousand or a hundred thousand people. After all, for most of us, inner life is as important as the objective reality. And it seems that the only way one can express an abstraction like the soul is a parable. These parables are capable of bringing peace; or at least an illusion of it.
The theme of a journey in these books is not of fictional journeys. These books are fiction and reality at the same time. Their merit does not lie in their being works of a fictitious imagination. Here fact and fiction are blended in such a manner that without being didactic they teach us what life has the capacity to offer. Interestingly all three books have a tendency to look beyond the material reality of life and see abstract concepts. One does not really understand the significance of these abstractions in life because after all, no one has come back from the dead to tell us that the soul exists. Here, everyone has to go by either one’s own religious convictions, or one’s own scientific convictions; both of which, in a certain way are equally flimsy.
At the end of the day, Alice also went on an underground journey. Maybe there is little difference between a fantastical journey and a spiritual one. The content might be different, the form, however, is the same.
That our policy makers are capable of making the strangest of decisions is beyond any doubt, but nobody was expecting that some of these wise men will one day put their heads together and come up with the insight to teach. Chinese to secondary school students of Sindh and also establish Chinese learning centres in different parts of the provinces. They have already directed the Sindh Bureau of Curriculum to prepare syllabus and a committee headed by Education Secretary Siddique Memon too, has been set up to work out details. The Sindh government has also decided to prefer students passing secondary and higher level examinations with Chinese language for foreign scholarships and training.
These decisions were taken at a meeting presided over by Sindh Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah. Perhaps it is important to know that the meeting was attended by the Provincial Education Minister Pir Mazharul Haq and some senior wizards with Education. Salman Farooqui, too, occupied a chair there. He is secretary-general to the president.
The sadder part of the saga is that Dr. Peerzada Qasim, a widely respected scholar and vice-chancellor of the Karachi University, turned out to the first to raise his voice in support of the move. He expressed the belief that the country would benefit in the long run when children learnt the Chinese language.
Another educationist Anisur Rehman who heads the Pakistan Education Foundation, opined that the teaching of Chinese should have been introduced fifty years back. Supporting the decision of the Sindh government our wise men rightly point out that China is our “time-tested friend and is also a major player in the global economy whose role will further strengthened in the future and will soon flower out as an economic superpower.”
However, they forget two things. One is that our students have very little capacity to learn foreign languages because of poverty of culture and primitive methods of teaching. Moreover, Sindhi students have already been made to learn three languages i.e. Sindhi, Urdu and English. Hence even if all the resources for the learning of Chinese are provided, students will hardly be in a position to take advantage of them.
Another very important point to be kept in mind was that the language of the superpower China will not be Chinese: It will be English.
Dr Shahzad Qaiser is known in our literary circles for his five collections of Punjabi poetry and two books of essays while his philosophical writings have won him fame and respect in intellectual and academic circles. Since he received his doctorate degree from the Bahauddin Zakariya University of Multan for his research work on the metaphysics of Khawaja Ghulam Farid in 1994, he has been mostly writing about Farid who can be labelled as the last classical Sufi poet of Punjab. Three of his books on this subject have been published by Suhail Academy, Lahore. They are The Metaphysics of Khawaja Ghulam Farid. The Message of Diwan-i-Farid and Iqbal and Khawaja Farid: Experiencing God.
The Suhail Academy has now published another book called on him called Understanding Diwan-i-Farid. It consists of translation and explanation of Farid’s poetry.
Diwan-e-Farid, the collection of Khawaja Farid’s poetry, is a remarkable book of Punjabi mystic poetry. It has already been translated into Urdu and English but the distinctive feature of Shahzad Qaiser’s translation and explanation is that he is well-versed in mystic doctrine as well as modern philosophy. He retired recently as a top bureaucrat but is also a sort of practicing sufi. The preface of his book is from the pen of Seyyed Hossein Nasir who is arguably the greatest living Muslim philosopher. The book also carries comments of G.A. Allana, Dr. N.A. Baloch and William C. Chittick who teaches at the New York’s Stony Brook University and is a noted scholar of Islamic studies.
Jay Taigh Singh Annat is a known name of the contemporary Punjabi literature. Living in Canada for the past quarter of a century, he has not let his love weaken for Punjabi language and literature.
Annat’s latest offering is a compilation on Ustad Daman titled Be-niaz Hasti which he has published to commemorate the birth centenary of the Ustad. It carries 41 articles, on the life and work of Daman who died in 1984, written by various writers and critics.
The book has been published in both Gurumakhi and Shahmukhi scripts. The Shahmukhi edition has been prepared by Professor Aashiq Raheel and published by The Gulshan-e-Adab Publications of Lahore.
Professor Aashiq Raheel has also transcribed Bava Budh Singh’s famous collection of literary and critical articles, Koel Koo, into Persian Punjabi script which has been published by Punjnad Academy of Lahore.
Ramz Wajood Wanjawandi is the title of the recently published collection of Faqir Qadir Bukhsh Bedil’s Punjabi poetry compiled as well as edited by Dr. Nabeela Rehman of Punjab University Oriental College. The 384-page book has been finely produced by the Punjab Institute of Language, Art and Culture, Lahore.
Dr. Arshad Mahmood Naushad, a noted scholar and literary critic has compiled a readable book on the folk literature of the Attock district. It has been published by the Punjabi Adabi Board under the title Apna Garan Hovay.