Bookaholicanonymous is extremely privileged to bring to you this very insightful and thought provoking interview with Sabyn Javeri. Why you may ask…we say…just go through her bio note below and you will know why! Each story is bound to make you think…that much we can promise…
About Sabyn Javeri: She is an award winning short story writer and the author of the novel Nobody Killed Her, a political thriller based on the assassination of a female politician in an Islamic country (Harper Collins, 2017). Her new book, Hijabistan, a collection of politically provocative short stories about life beyond the veil, is out in February 2019. Sabyn’s short fiction has been published in ‘The London Magazine’, ‘The South Asian Review’, ‘Bengal Lights’, ‘Wasafiri’ and ‘Sugar Mule’ amongst others, and in anthologies by Women Unlimited, Harper Collins, OUP and The Feminist Press. She has won The Oxonian Review short story award and was shortlisted for the Leaf Prize and the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize. She recently introduced and edited the Arzu Anthology of student voices-the first of its kind creative writing initiative in higher education in Pakistan.
Sabyn is a graduate of University of Oxford and has a PhD from Leicester University. She lives between UK and Pakistan and currently teaches Literature and Creative Writing at Habib University, Karachi.
What were you trying to say or achieve through your collection of short stories Hijabistan?
For me, it is a book about women and men and the divide between them. This veiled or suppressed and hidden rift is what symbolises the hijab for me. And the stories in this collection address that. Since moving back to Pakistan three years ago I had become more aware of the duplicity around me that women in Pakistan have to adopt to do what they want and it is this cover-up that inspired me to write Hijabistan.
By giving the title Hijabistan did you mean a ‘woman’s world’?
You could say that. I supposed the basic idea behind Hijabistan was to tell stories of how women in traditional Muslim societies, such as ours, negotiate life. The veil or the hijab sometimes acts as an enabler and at other times as an oppressor. It shelters just as it suppresses. So in that sense yes it could translate figuratively as a women’s world- much like a Harem.
There is a lot of debate regarding the ‘hijab’ around the world today. What does the ‘hijab’ mean to you? You are using the ‘hijab’ as a metaphor in your stories right?
The hijab means different things to different people depending on whether it is worn by choice or force. To many it is an enabler, to others it is a sign of suppression. To some it is a weapon-to others it is a refuge. To the characters in my book, it varies. In ‘The Urge’, the hijab is, first, a thing of curiosity than one of suppression and finally of aggression. In ‘Coach Annie’, the protagonist has eczema of the scalp and seeks refuge in the headscarf till she realises female football players are not allowed to cover their head- but by that time it has become a part of her identity, it is second skin to her and she feels naked without it. In ‘The Adulteress’, the hijab is the metaphorical veil between the writer and the society who are forcing her to conceal her desires.
What does the ‘hijab’ mean to people/cultures outside Islam according to you? And what should it really mean?
The hijab has become firmly associated with the Muslim woman’s identity these days although the headscarf is not exclusive to Muslim women. Unfortunately, it has also become a symbol of subjugation. However, in my research I found the hijab is not necessarily worn for religious reasons in countries like Pakistan. Many of my students wear it for social mobility because they feel it makes them feel less harassed in public places. Others feel it draws less attention. While many friends in the west feel it draws too much attention and wear it to assert their identity. For them the hijab is political just like for others it is personal. One thing I’m sure of, is that it is rarely worn purely for religious reasons.
Does the ‘hijab’ empower women? Does it mean liberation? If so how? Or does it mean constraint/restriction?
I believe to cover herself is every woman’s right just like it is to bear herself. Whether you want to be covered up or exposed it has to be your own choice. When you have the power to choose, the hijab becomes empowering but when it is forced upon you, it is oppressive. It is as simple as that!
What were the various aspects of women that you wanted to highlight through your stories? Which was the most difficult to write?
What I wanted to highlight was that women are 50% of the population yet a minority in terms of being decision makers. The biggest decision women make in our part of the world is that ‘Aaj khanay main kya banay ga’! Why are women so marginalised? Why what is sauce for the gander is poison for the goose? Why is it that when a man has many girl friends or sleeps around he’s a stud but when a woman does the same she is a slut. When a woman brings her children to work, she is a nuisance but when a man does the same, he is cute and modern. When a woman is career minded she is considered a bad mother but when a man is ambitious he is a good provider. I guess it is these hypocrisies, these forced cover ups that I wanted to unveil in this book.
The most difficult story to write was ‘The Date’ and ‘Radha’ because these two stories were about women who are not afraid to assert their sexuality. ‘Radha’ is about a medical student who feels sex, too, is way of healing and therefore embraces a career as a sex worker. She doesn’t feel ashamed of her choices though the society tries to punish her at every corner.
‘The Date’, has a protagonist who uses sex as currency but does so consciously refusing to be slotted as a victim. Both these stories were draining and took a lot out of me for they made me question and confront every core belief I had grown up with. In a way they challenged me. Made me realise the internalised patriarchy inside me. For the longest time I was scared of what people would think of me if I published these stories. In the end I decided to go ahead because I belief you have to start with yourself.
The cover design of your book is very attractive. How involved were you during the designing process?
Pakistani artiste Samya Arif is the brainchild behind this wonderfully evocative cover. When all else failed she stepped in, and agreed to help because she believed in the power of literature. I knew that I did not want a ‘Daughters of Arabia’ kind of cover because I wanted the woman on my book to be gutsy, colourful and in your face. Not submissive but badass. Something that men get away with but women rarely do! Samya’s women do all that and more.
Now let’s talk about your first novel Nobody Killed Her. You are a short story writer, what made you write a novel.
It’s true that my first love is the short story form. I enjoy it. However, novelists are the rockstars of the publishing world and I was repeatedly told that to get a foothold in the literary world one has to publish a novel. Therefore, the jump to a longer form.
How did you decide on the theme and your protagonists/characters for the novel? Is it because that South-east Asia has seen many women leaders and that it was easy for you to write. How much research went into writing this novel?
Too much! At the end of it I had so much research that I had to merge the stories of Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Sheik Hasina, Aung Sui, Mayawati and many others to find the common thread that ran through the stories of all female political leaders of south Asia. I was fascinated by the gender divide in our part of the world, especially how ambition and ruthlessness is cherished in men and abhorred in women. I knew I had to look to these women to tell the story of the love of power which in women often becomes the power of love.
What would you say the novel is about—politics, social strata or women?
It is about the politics of being a woman.
Tell us about your short story writing journey. Which story or stories are you most proud of?
My short stories are like my children. I’m proud of them all and love them equally. However, the ones which demand a mastery of craft, like ‘The Session’ (Sugarmule ezine: http://sugarmule.x10.mx/43Jilla-s.htm) are ones which are close to my heart because it was experimenting with craft. I told the story through pauses rather than flow.
You teach ‘creative writing’; tell us 3 points to keep in mind while writing.
Write, Revise, Repeat.
Thank you Sabyn Javeri for taking out precious time from your busy schedule to do this interview with us! Keep writing. More power to you!
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