‘Novels are my first love’


Sehba Sarwar is a writer, multidisciplinary artist and activist, now based in Houston. She moves between the city of her birth, Karachi, where she spent the first half of her life in a home filled with artists, activists and educators, and her adopted city, Houston, where she has recreated a community similar to the one in which she was raised. Sarwar’s first novel ‘Black Wings’ was published in 2004, and her short stories have appeared in anthologies including ‘And The World Changed’ and ‘Neither Night Nor Day’. Alongside her fiction, Sarwar has published a wide range of essays in publications, while her poetry has been published in anthologies in Pakistan and the US. In addition to her writings, Sarwar serves as artistic/founding director of Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB), a non-profit arts-activist organisation in Houston, through which she has created a series of video collages that have been screened in Pakistan, India, Egypt and the US. Currently, she’s working on her second novel and a collection of essays.

Your first encounter with creative writing.
I have always been a passionate reader. While growing up in Karachi, I attended a British school and much like anyone who goes through a post-colonial education curriculum, I read a lot of work in English by British writers. I didn’t know about a global world of writers till I flew to the US for an undergraduate degree. There, I was introduced to the works of Anita Desai, Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and many others. I also began writing at that time – I was about 19 years old. Before that time, I read vastly, but wrote mostly journalistic pieces for a wonderful eveninger that is now defunct, but was the training ground for many amazing journalists who stayed in the field. After completing my degree, I returned to Karachi and resumed working at the eveninger, but by that time, I was writing a lot of fiction as well, and have continued to do so. Currently, I explore a variety of writings through my work—and I continue to write mostly in English. Novels are my first love and I am working on my second manuscript. I also write poetry and essays. I am also producing video collages and creating installations for VBB that I co-founded 11 years ago.

After 9/11, the western world turned hostile towards Muslims. Do you face any hardships?
I am a “cultural Muslim” and not a practising one. As such, I haven’t faced that many challenges – in that area, at least. This is also because I am immersed in the alternative arts and activist communities in both Houston and Karachi, so I receive more solidarity than anything else. However, many of my male friends from the subcontinent had tough experiences in the US after 9/11 – and as we know, stereotypes still continue to affect the lives of many people in the overall Muslim community, not just in the US, but around the globe.

Some insight into your family.
I was raised in an activist family. My father organised the student movement in Pakistan. He spent a year in jail during the 1950s and was known in the community for his socialist ideals. My mother is an educator and has also been very active in the community. As teenagers during the early Zia years, my sister and I participated in women’s protest rallies in Karachi, as the Women’s Action Forum was being formed. Our home was unusual in that we were immersed in art and politics. My mother used to organise music, dance, poetry gatherings at our house, and as children, we understood the importance of art and speaking out. My sister, Beena Sarwar, is a well-known journalist who is working on peace efforts between India and Pakistan, and there are many educated women in our family who live around the world and work in education, medicine and the arts.

You write short stories, poetry, novels and a column. Which form are you most comfortable with?
I am most comfortable with novels – that is what I read the most. Since my daughter’s birth (she’s now seven), I’ve had less time to immerse into my second novel, and have been producing essays, poems and short stories. I also enjoy writing essays and I maintain a blog sporadically – but my favourite writing form is the novel. As I said, I read novels much more than any other kinds of writings and I love to just stumble into new worlds – imagined and real – through writings. When working on a manuscript (I’m working on my second one), I allow the characters to guide the narrative, and I love the surprises along the journey.

Have you faced any obstacles in publishing your works?
I am fortunate to have different options for publication. My New York-based agent tried to get my first novel published in the US way back in 2004, but many editors wanted the novel to represent stereotypes of Pakistani women. So, I went ahead and chose to be published by a Pakistani publisher. I am happy that I chose that option. I did not have to make any text changes and was given the freedom to have the book cover designed by a close friend of mine. As far as my essays, poems and short stories go, I haven’t experienced many problems getting those works published.

How did you meet Benazir Bhutto?
I first met Benazir Bhutto when I was a 22-year-old reporter for the eveninger, and Benazir had returned to Pakistan after General Zia’s death. I was passionate about her work. But after her two terms as prime minister, I became a little disenchanted. However, when she returned in 2007 and was running for office again, I had hope. I felt certain that she could turn Pakistan around, and, like most people in the country, was devastated when she was killed. My daughter and I were in Karachi that December and we saw the city burn. Till today, my daughter remembers Benazir Bhutto and she asks why there have been no women national leaders in the US.

To the outside world, Pakistan means drone attacks and terror attacks. In this atmosphere, do you see any role for literature?
There has always been strong writing in South Asia. Of course, today, there is a stereotype about Pakistan being a country on the verge of collapse. The truth is that art always prevails. Even through the tough Zia years, women and men were producing art and literature and we continue to do so. A new literary festival has sprouted in Karachi, and there are many alternative spaces in most major Pakistani cities where artists, poets and writers gather to share work with a larger audience. A large number of Pakistanis are publishing their works in different languages all around the country – so, yes, there is a place for literature. There always has been, and we need to read work from all sides of the borders – inside and out – so we can learn and grow.

You have mentioned your daughter Minal in many of your articles. What is the place of a girl child in the Muslim world?
My husband is Mexican American. Minal represents at least five different government-carved borders… and she has a place in the world, not just the Muslim world. She already creates and performs poetry and can express herself. No matter where she lives – in Pakistan, the US or anywhere else – she will do well.

What about the contemporary literary scene of Pakistan? Who are the important women writers today?
Many Pakistani women are producing rich writings in Urdu and other languages: Razia Fasih Ahmed, Attiya Dawood, Hasina Gul, Kishwar Naheed, Zehra Nigah, Fehmida Riaz. Women are also writing in English (which is read by a smaller percentage of Pakistanis, but gets more worldwide attention). In 2006, Muneeza Shamsie created an anthology that contained writings by 25 women writers including Bapsi Sidhwa and Roshni Rustamjee. The anthology was first published in India and has been picked up for publication in Pakistan and the US. Delhi-based Rakhshanda Jalil also produced an anthology with writings by Pakistani women authors (writing in English).

Do you see any impact of the Partition in the contemporary writings of Pakistan?
Sixty years later, most of us continue to be impacted by the Partition (as well as the civil war of 1971 and the creation of Bangladesh). I was recently at a Pakistani education fundraiser in Houston. As slides were being shown about the dismal condition of public education in Pakistan, an older woman turned to me and asked, “What will become of Pakistan?” And I said, “Just think of what our region would have been if the Partition hadn’t taken place.” She was shocked by my words, and took them to mean that I was “Pro-India” (her words). But as a product of a family that was torn apart because of the Partition, I still feel strongly about that issue. To create a country based on religion is a mistake, and all of us are paying the price of the legacy that the British left. As artists and writers, we revisit those violent experiences, and our lives and works are shaped by shared histories. Maybe in another 50 years, the creation of those boundaries will have receded far from popular memory, and might not appear in literature and art. But in my generation, where our parents personally were affected by the wars and we still know our families on both sides of the border, that experience is very real.

What is your opinion about contemporary Indian literature?
India has one of the biggest publishing industries in the world and works are being published in a wide variety of languages. It’s an exciting time and I see only good emerging from an explosion of writers and publications.

Do you see any role of literature in building relations between India and Pakistan?
Definitely. There is much interest in Pakistan about works from India and vice versa. We tell our truths through our art and I think people can better relate to art than to government speeches.

In one of your articles, you have criticised the gun culture of America and compared it with Pakistan. Can you elaborate on this?
The gun culture of Pakistan is directly connected to the United States’ covert operations in Afghanistan back in the late 1970s. General Zia made sure he took advantage of the situation and the Pakistani army and citizens began getting armed – and that phenomenon continues till today. Meanwhile, in Texas, and many parts of the US, people firmly believe in the “right to bear arms” and I’m always shocked to learn how many “normal” people have weapons in their homes.

Can you elaborate on the VBB project? What are your future plans?
VBB is a non-profit arts organisation that I began with a group of women writers in Houston. We have been operating for more than 10 years and our artistic work is political. My personal projects are productions that explore parallels between Houston and Karachi. I hope to see the project grow, and, hopefully, we can do some work around India, Bangladesh and in different parts of the US – but all that is contingent on funding.

You are working on your second novel now. Can you share something about it?
I find it difficult to talk about a work in progress. I have quite a bit written, but I’m still not sure about the direction of the story.