Saba Karim Khan: I want to come to your actual writing style now. Your prose is effortless, glides on the tongue. Tell us a little about your personal journey with storytelling, the good and perhaps not-so-good days of putting pen to paper?
Sanam Maher: I love talking to writers about this. I wish I had a formula because then I could go back to it. I’ve done so little of it this year that I think I have forgotten how to do it. I can tell you what does work for me. Specifically, in the case of this book, I knew that my reader, the one that I wanted to write for, was not going to be someone who knew my work. I wanted to write for a person who wouldn’t ordinarily pick-up nonfiction about Pakistan. So, I needed to keep the reader engaged because each chapter is very heavy. There’s a lot of dead women in this book that is difficult to contend with. There’s a lot of terrible things that happen, terrible things that people say. And it is a story about a murder. And if I lose you because it starts to become too depressing, you’re not going to want to read further. I also knew that I’m contending with your phone, with your Instagram, with your Twitter, with your Facebook, with your WhatsApp, and you wanting to just take a break from this book and get on to that. Plus, I wanted people to stick with it, even though, you know what happens at the end. You even know that the brother has said, I did it. This is a question of why they did it? So, how do I give you enough to stay with me and not put the book down?
About the actual process of writing, I was constantly reading over whatever I had written the previous day, even if it’s just a paragraph, and continue to edit while I’m writing. And I’d be reading it aloud, so I am hearing it for myself. I get very stuck. I’m not the kind of person that can leave blank sections in what I’m writing and then move onto different sections, I have to get each bit written before I move onto the next. So, there were many days where I would just write a sentence or two.
Then, also reading other people’s work that I really liked, constantly breaking it down. What is it that I like about this? And I am a reader too, so I know what is going to be interesting for me.
“And then when you move on to publishing, to the sheer terror and the thought of this thing being out in public and real people being able to buy it and read it, and the person who means so much to them, that you are suddenly telling her story, are you even doing justice to it?”
SKK: And publishing. Of course, this remains a sore experiment in Pakistan. Tell us a little about the journey from writing to seeing your words hardbound.
SM: When I started working on it, I was not aware of the scale of the thing I’d taken on, because the idea also changed for me. I started with one person and then realized it’s not just going to be a book about her. Every chapter has to open up about young Pakistani people right now. And so suddenly I’m bringing in these other people to tell their stories. So, I didn’t realize, right out of the gate, how it would sprawl out.
I only had a year to do this and I wanted to get it done because this is the kind of thing that can stretch on. I could still be on it today. So, I knew I wanted to keep it very tight, which meant the first four months I was interviewing about two hundred people. Then transcribing all of them. And then this was written in about three months. It took over my life completely, literally I would be brushing my teeth and going over a sentence, trying to figure out how to make it work.
I don’t know if I’ve even told someone this, but I was actually swimming when I was so stuck about the structure for the book. I knew this is, kind of, the general story. This is the material I have. But I don’t know how to write it. And I’m the kind of person who cannot start writing until I have the perfect first sentence. So, I was swimming, and it came to me where I was like, wait, what if I had it in this way where I’m constantly challenging what I’ve just given the reader? And the first thing that came to me was that marriage scene where she’s getting married to that man. And you learn that actually it’s not a very happy marriage and certain things have happened there. And there’s also that thing about her having been with another man and having married him. And I got out of the pool and I wrote that up on my phone. I still have that. But this is why I also love this job, because you have these moments, I’m sure you would have had that as well, when something falls into place – you are constantly chasing that feeling. You can do anything to have that feeling over and over again.
And then when you move on to publishing, to the sheer terror and the thought of this thing being out in public and real people being able to buy it and read it, and the person who means so much to them, that you are suddenly telling her story, are you even doing justice to it? I never wanted somebody to turn around and say, you’ve got this wrong. You didn’t understand her, and we can see it. I was so terrified of that. So, I remember initially when my reviews started coming out, my editor had to read them to let me know it’s safe for me to read because I was so terrified. That’s this moment of huge anxiety when you’ve worked on this thing and really done everything you possibly could. I’ve tried to tell it in a certain way, and you have no idea if it’s going to work. So, you move through a lot of feelings.
“I think for me, my mom is the one who made all five of us readers. We always saw her reading. My parents both really encouraged it actually. And I’m so grateful that they allowed us to read widely and sometimes read things that we weren’t even supposed to be reading”
SKK: I want to tap into your own environment, link the personal to the political. What was home like growing up, dinner table conversations, family, networks, what moved you or let’s say, shaped your politics?
SM: I think for me, my mom is the one who made all five of us readers. We always saw her reading. My parents both really encouraged it actually. And I’m so grateful that they allowed us to read widely and sometimes read things that we weren’t even supposed to be reading. I think when it comes down to the work itself, a lot of that was shaped by the newsrooms that I worked in and some of the stories that I worked on. Beyond that, just being a reader and thinking, what is it that I want to read about this place. A lot of it just comes from curiosity and being in spaces that maybe as kids, we didn’t encounter. How are people living here? What are they doing? What do they care about? Maybe part of it comes from having a sheltered life.
And I think a big thing that I’ve really seen from my parents is that your work has to have great meaning in your life, it is not something that you do where you clock out at five o’clock and you are done with it. Because both my parents are doctors, their work was very public; it had this meaning beyond us. It wasn’t about the recognition or the money. My mum, for example, was a young woman from Gujranwala and became the first person in her family to want to do a PhD – when I look at things like that, it’s very normal for me to think about having my life shaping itself around work and work having meaning for me in this way, where it is of some service. It’s not a private endeavour. It is not just to get a salary. I think that must have filtered through because that is what’s most important to me.
When I even think about this year and so much suffering, I am dying to see what we produce in the wake of this and how we make meaning of it. I think the best pieces that have come out and made meaning of this period have been by women. And it is so important, particularly in a place like Pakistan, where we’re not just bewildered by what is going on with us. But to sift through it, to make meaning of it in some way or even if one person turns around and says, that’s exactly what I was thinking, or I didn’t think of it from that point of view. That’s what I’m chasing all the time. That’s what I care about. And I think that’s what I mean when I say that the work is really public and that can be terrifying. But it’s also such an amazing thing that we get to do that and that it can be of some use. I’m not denigrating any other job, but I’m just saying I want to figure out how to do this and keep doing it.
SKK: Finally, can you talk a little bit about what we can look forward to from you next?
SM: Well, there’s something I’m very excited about. An Indian writer, Sonia Faleiro, is doing this project that she’s dreamed up – called South Asia Speaks – where a bunch of writers are going to be working as mentors to South Asian writers. I am super excited about this because I really do want to see what South Asian writers, particularly India and Pakistan, have been thinking about this year and how we can actually take that forward. Because like you and I have been talking about, if you’re not plugged into certain systems or certain schools or you haven’t had that experience, a lot of times you’re adrift and not really sure what to do, what’s normal, what’s not, you don’t even know how to reach out to. So that’s on one level.
On another level, I’ve started working on something else, but it’s very scarily early. And it again goes back to young Pakistanis, and it looks a lot at faith and a religious identity and how it gets conflated with a national identity.