In the hot seat with Mahjabeen Zafar

1) I first heard about you when I was on toowrite.com where you’d just been named the winner of their short story competition…what impact did that have on you as a writer?

Well, writing is one of the most solitary arts, you sort of scribble away in your room, regardless of whether you are going to get published or not, because that’s how you need to express yourself. And you hope some day to have an audience for your work, because it’s not like acting, where the audience is intrinsic to the creation. Since the toowrite.com competition was the first time that I sent my writing in anywhere, winning the competition was enormously affirming. I’m pretty lazy about writing and getting a positive response to what I was doing was very motivating.

2) Tell me more about your journey as a writer, up to that point, and what progress you’ve made since?

In some ways I’ve been very sporadic as a writer, in the sense that I have periods of consistent writing and then, nothing. I move around a lot and that tends to be disruptive to establishing a regular rhythm. On the other hand I’ve been writing since I was about 18, it was the first thing I grabbed on to when I grew old enough to realise that people need to dedicate their lives to something; because literature was the only thing that I ever really cared about. Well, literature and love. And in all these years I have never considered doing anything else, even if I never made a living from it. The toowrite.com prize was pretty generous and it was the first time I thought that writing really was a feasible way to make a living, at least for me, because here was someone telling me I was good, good enough to make money off writing. So since then I’ve been working on finishing my first novel. At the moment I’ve applied for a 2 year fellowship in the States, and if I get that I can stop worrying about the bills for a time and get this book finished.

3) What are you doing now in terms of writing, and how does your everyday life enrich your passion for writing?

Like I said, I’m working on finishing my first novel but it hadn’t been going very well for some years because I was in a relationship and I find being in love, accommodating oneself to another’s needs, is not very conducive to writing. When I write I tend to distance myself from people because I find the demands of one’s characters are quite as compelling as the demands of real people. Being in love I always give precedence to the real person, of course, and my writing suffers. Now that the relationship has ended everything has shifted back to where the the synergy between outer and inner has resumed. I like cafe life, I like walking through the speed and chaos of the streets and seeing how humans adapt to interacting in an environment that is the antithesis of human urges and instincts. Before, if I saw a shopkeeper leave his shop to help an old man get home with his groceries I would tell my lover about it and the urge to tell a story would be satisfied. Now, I take what I see and my first impulse is to share this with my characters, to see if the essence, if the not the literal story, belongs in my novel. No great book is about anything other than everyday life, everyday emotions.


4) When do you think as a writer you will be satisfied with your writing ability?

Oh definitely when I learn to discipline myself. That’s my greatest weakness.

5) Do you have any regrets as a writer, or feel that you’ve missed out on an opportunity?

Not really, I don’t believe in regrets, only in trying to correct mistakes made in the past. And I can’t think of any opportunities I’ve missed out on, no. I suppose the true test for regrets is old age. If I don’t manage to write books in the years ahead of me, perhaps when I’m 60 or 70 I’ll regret wasting my talent. Worse, wilfully ignoring my passion, which could only mean I settled for less. But obviously I’m trying to avoid that regret.

6) What do you hope people will get from your work? And which new audience do you hope to reach?

I think often society projects a lifestyle which completely ignores what we all really need or feel to be true, you know that whole bigger-stronger-faster mantra. And if you don’t buy into that you feel out of sync with the rest of the world, and if you do buy into it you’re living a lie. Great fiction either reminds us of what it means to be a human being or, if we haven’t forgotten, makes us feel less marginalised, less strange. I hope my work reminds people that we all share the same impulses and emotions, whether an immigrant field worker in California or a banker in Milan. As for audience, I think ideally I would like to reach whoever is least familiar with the world I am describing. The book I’m writing deals with the upper middle class in Karachi, and while the average American would find it quite surprising to learn that not all Pakistanis are gun-toting fundamentalists, I think if a Punjabi peasant woman were to pick up my book it would BLOW HER MIND to read about a Pakistani woman snorting coke and wearing mini-skirts. If I had a dream audience, that peasant woman would be it. But I can’t really hope to reach her because I doubt my work would be translated into Urdu and in any case odds are the peasant woman is illiterate.

7) What’s the best advice you’ve had? And what’s the worst?

Both related to the same flaw – my style is very lyrical, so the best advice I got was to tone it  down because simpler language gives the lyrical passages more impact. The worst was when someone told me to make my writing more Hemingway-esque. I don’t think any writer can “make” their writing more or less like anyone else.