Talking the Taboo – Sabyn Javeri

  • 08 Dec - 14 Dec, 2018
  • Attiya Abbass
  • Interview

“I want to use my writing to create a conversation about taboos. I know I will get a lot of flak for it but then as a writer you have to get used to that.”

What does it take to author a full-fledged political thriller, which manages to stir controversy even before it hits the shelves? Perhaps Sabyn Javeri can answer that, whose first novel Nobody Killed Her was cited as one novel expected to stir most controversy over its release, since it mirrored the events following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Sabyn identifies herself as a Karachiite despite having lived abroad for 18 years. Talking to MAG, the Oxford-graduate who is currently a lecturer at Habib University, takes us through her journey as a writer, the controversies and inspirations backing Nobody Killed Her and her upcoming book, Hijabistan.

Is there anyone who inspired you to become a writer? An author you grew up reading?

Yes, I remember feeling a sense of wonder at the wit and humour of Ismat Chughtai. My mother had a great love for Urdu literature and would often read aloud to me. I could never relate to Austen or any of the other English writers I was exposed to in school. Rushdie was too hybrid for my taste and the other Indian writers of the time too exotic. I longed for Pakistani literature in English that actually reflected our society and times. The political paradox of growing up in the 80’s under a dictatorial regime made me feel alienated from the kind of western writings that I came across and I suppose the desire to tell my story stemmed from there.

What inspired you to write Nobody Killed Her? Since, it was cited as controversial, I believe you had to undergo the process of rewriting it; how did the overall experience fare for you?

I was very affected by Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, as I think we all were. My father-in-law and my husband had worked with her during her exile years and days of struggle and would often tell us stories of how she had to struggle far more than a male political heir would. What I found fascinating was that there were so many similarities between the issues Benazir, Indira Gandhi and Soniah Gandhi, Jaya Lalita, Mayawati, Sheik Hasina and Khalida Zia had to face mainly because of the kind of misogynist political systems they were trapped in. Nobody Killed Her is an amalgamation of all these female leaders and their struggle for power but told in a page turner, political thriller style. Yes, it was deemed controversial prior to release because people had made up their mind it’s about Benazir Bhutto without even bothering to read it. After people read it, they realised it was just good political fiction, like The Prisoner or A Case of Exploding Mangoes. I did have to rework it.

Some Pakistani writers including you, Mohammad Hanif, Mohsin Hamid and Fatima Bhutto, to name a few, have attempted to incorporate politics and current affairs as main subjects into the narrative. How important is it for writers to address these complex and (often controversial) subjects?

I don’t think that you have a moral responsibility to write about social issues as writers. We are writers, not activists. But I do feel that you should write what you feel strongly about. I feel very passionate about the way women are portrayed in our society (books or media) as either saints or sinners. For me writing Nobody Killed Her was to show that women are human beings too, with shades of grey like everyone else and female friendships are not always toxic, like the adage, ‘Aurat he aurat ki sab say bari dushman hoti hai.’ That for me was political. I took a political stand on gender bias because I felt strongly about it. And to be honest, you just can’t be politically sterile in a society like Pakistan. Even in my next book, scheduled to hit shelves in February, Hijabistan, I have written about themes which will be deemed current, topical and political but it’s not a deliberate attempt to cash on current events but the fact that how can you not write about something that moves you?

How would you describe your writing style? Is it influenced by any writer you’ve admired?

Yes, I love the wit and humour of Ismat Chughtai and the creative plotting of Gillian Flynn and the sensuousness of Hanan Al-Shaykh’s writing. I want my writing to be a combination of these three elements.

What is the most frequent remark, comment or praise you get from your readers?

So how do you do manage to write with kids and a job? Why did you write a political thriller? Your writing is so gutsy - you write like a man…. What I find the funniest is that no one will say this to male writers.

Is there a Pakistani writer whose work you admire?

There are loads. I just read Asif Farrukkhi’s story Samundar ki Chori and loved it.

What is the one book/author you feel everyone must read?

There are so many amazing books - hard and unfair to pick just one. But I guess Ismat Chughtai, Rasheed Jahan, Manto, Hanan Al-Shaykh, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing are some of my favourite writers and I would recommend that people read their books.

What has you occupied these days? Any novel or project that you are working on?

Teaching keeps me very busy. I also edit an annual anthology of student writings called the Arzu Anthology and we are working on the second volume at the moment. Other than that, Hijabistan is out soon and we are working on the final proofs.

What many may not know about you is, that you acted in Sahira Kazmi’s drama serial Zaib-un-Nisa. Did you plan on an acting career before transitioning into a writer?

I’ve never really planned anything in my life, I just fall into things. Acting was like that too. I met Sahira by chance and she offered me a role. She was brilliant as a director, and the whole experience was very memorable. But I had just gotten married at the time, and moved abroad right after the last episode was aired. So, that was the end of my acting career. However, I’m flattered that people still remember the drama after 18 years.