Shaila Abdullah - The Quintessential Author

  • 19 May - 25 May, 2018
  • Attiya Abbass
  • Interview

In conversation with the award-winning author and brains behind books like Saffron Dreams, Beyond the Cayenne Wall, My Friend Suhana, A Manual for Marco and Rani in Search of A Rainbow

It is a success of a writer if their inscriptions prepossess a power to impact even one life. For Shaila Abdullah, it’s a stream of successes, in five published books.

It was not easy reaching my interviewee for the conversation about to be unfolded. Shaila remains busy as a bee and only months later could she find the time to tend to a persistent journalist.

The Pakistan-born novelist now resides in Austin, Texas, shifting her gears from being an established writer to running her own design company. A significant portion of her time is spent working with various authors, writers, poets, and playwrights. But amongst the most significant of her feats were authoring the larger-than-life, award-winning books SD, BCW and several children books including My Friend Suhana, Rani in Search of a Rainbow and A Manual for Marco. However, I wanted to know how the author sees herself. “I like to think of myself as a creative individual who works with a purpose – be it writing or design.”

A staple, and perhaps a journalist’s favourite, question that I pose to any writer I come across is; from where do they draw inspiration for their work, as it is rather interesting to learn who or what inspires the inspirational. “As a child I needed books like oxygen,” Shaila tells me. “In those days accessing literature wasn’t that easy in Karachi. My father used to drive us all around town to quench our thirst for books,” she reminisces. “We used to have a membership at the British Council Library. As I grew up, I started writing for various magazines in the city. At the age of 18, I was already collecting cheques for commissioned writing. But when I chose design as a career, my father made me promise that writing would always remain a serious hobby. In writing these books, I feel that I have fulfilled my promise to him.” I put forward a clichéd question next: who are her favourite authors. “Over the years, various authors such as Bapsi Sidhwa and Chitra Divakaruni have also been a source of inspiration for me. Bapsi is a dear friend and being in Texas, I have connected with her many times over the years. I have also been very impressed with the works of Kamila Shamsie, Mohammed Hanif and Mohsin Hamid.”

Shaila’s first novel, SD won the writer multiple awards, including a Patras Bukhari Award for English Language, Golden Quill Award, Written Art Award, and a Dream Grant from Hobson Foundation. It explores the tragedy of 9/11 from the perspective of a Muslim widow in which Shaila attempts to capture how ordinary Muslims – the silent majority who lead very normal lives and are law-abiding citizens of the land – were affected by the tragedy of 2001. She narrated untold stories of people we never get to hear because their lives are too ordinary to be the subject of the nightly news. I ask Shaila about her inclination behind writing such a book and if it changed her as a person? “In the terrorist attack of 9/11, the shards of glass reached far and wide wounding the minds of Americans who had been very accepting of the melting pot their country had become,” she explains and continues, “The event put them at odds with a community that had come to this country with very simple objectives: to work hard and lead honest lives. Saffron Dreams is the story of basic human desire to be accepted in society, no matter what your background, ethnicity, or race.”

Commenting on the state of women back in her homeland, she imparts, “Women and their lives have greatly evolved from the time I was living in Pakistan and those are all positive signs. More women have entered the workforce and understand their rights. They are not afraid to fight back oppression and focus on building their lives.” Sharing her own experiences, she relays, “I still remember that back in 1993, I was the only female designer in an ad agency. I was an anomaly at the time but today, it's more of a norm to see women in workplace.”

Did Shaila herself have a difficult time adapting to life in the United States post 9/11? I inquire.

“Being a Muslim-American prior to 9/11 was never a challenge. Despite what is said and reported, I have always found the American society to be very accepting of differences – be it ethnic or otherwise,” she stresses. “I have never felt like an outsider. I know that I stand out because of being a minority but I don’t ever remember being marginalised or slighted on that basis.” Speaking of life there post the event, Shaila proceeds to enlighten me, “The most painful part for me was seeing the warm smiles that I was used to seeing before from total strangers replaced by uncertainty and fear. I guess I have been lucky in that I was never openly targeted, but even throughout those first few turbulent months, I never felt like I needed to hide my true identity. If anything, I became more vocal about it,” she shares. “I always think of 9/11 as a period when America lost its innocence.” In slight contrast to SD, her second novel BCW is a collection of short stories that explore the “struggles of Pakistani women to find their individualities despite the barriers imposed by society”.

It was an imperative to catechize an imminent Pakistani author like Shaila about the status quo of the literature and writing scene in the country. “The geopolitical concerns that have drawn Islam and the West into many conflicts since 2001 have also generated a thirst for multicultural literature – fiction and non-fiction, with a Muslim angle,” she answers. “At a time when much of the world associates Islamic culture with oppression and terror, the new genre is tackling such universal themes as love, hope, and women's issues. I find that there is a great thirst among readers today to learn more about Muslims and what drives them. In recent years, writers from Pakistan have earned a name for themselves in international literary circles. I expect this trend to continue.” says Shaila with hope.