BINA SHAH - The Rebel Who Writes

  • 25 Nov - 01 Dec, 2017
  • Rabia Mushtaq
  • Interview

While admiring a pretty view outside the French-esque windowpanes at the Alliance Française (AF), Karachi, I was greeted by a spectacled lady wearing a purple wrap over a black top paired with loose floral pants. The lady – Bina Shah – happens to be one of the most opinionated women in Pakistan who fortunately makes a lot of sense in terms of her opinions, as compared to many individuals who opine without purpose. She has six published works of fiction to her credit including the notable A Season For Martyrs, Slum Child, and Where They Dream in Blue to name a few, as well as fictional and non-fictional essays in literary journals, and contributes her op-eds for print publications both, in and outside Pakistan. Bina is a synonymous name when it comes to writing, journalism and literary finesse in the country; but how did this one-woman army embark on her journey to feminism, as well as her days as a bicultural young adult adjusting between two cultures – Pakistan and USA – is what she shares in this candid chat with MAG, perched at the Alliance’s empty vintage-y cafe.

Bina tells me that she was an avid reader since childhood. “As a child, I was very quiet. I was a reader, so I spent most of my time reading a book,” she says, enacting how she would always have her head in her books, “I remember sitting bored in the class, reading a book kept under the desk. The teacher would often catch me saying, ‘Bina, put that away!’”

Bina spent the first five years of her life in the U.S. but started her formal school in Karachi. Talking about her early years as a child, she says, “I was the only child up until the age of six-and-a-half, so I knew how to keep myself busy. When I wasn’t reading, I was always doing something, trying to explore the environment around me. I loved playing in the garden, looking at insects, animals, and birds, and spent a lot of time wishing that animals could talk to me and I could understand them,” Bina reveals pointing out the source of her creative instincts. She claims to have had a very rich inner life, pretending and imagining things and scenarios. “I had books that would tell you how to build a fort out of washing bottles, so I loved being all creative with my hands, building and painting things,” she shares.

My first interaction with Bina was coincidentally at the AF, where she fluently spoke French at the book launch of the former director of the French cultural centre, Jean-François Chénin. Impressed by her easiness with the language, I asked Bina if she was also fluent in other languages. “I spent a long time studying French and kept up with it, so I can speak English, French, and Urdu badly,” she says with a burst of laughter, while also acknowledging the importance of familiarity with different languages as an individual. “For me, it’s all about communication, so whenever I go to a country, I always try to learn a few words of their language. When you are trying to express yourself in another person’s tongue, there’s an immediate bond created when you’re speaking to someone in their own language as a foreigner, so they tend to open up to you,” she says, as we both break into a chuckle to the noise of a glass broken in the background.

Bina discloses how she would have been a psychologist or musician, if she wasn’t a writer. “I would have definitely been a counsellor, psychologist, therapist or a musician, because I love music and played the flute very seriously during high school, as well as a little bit of piano,” Do you sing too, I ask. “I don’t, but I sing in the shower,” she says, followed by a laughter that echoed around the cosy cafeteria.

When talking about women’s rights, education and liberty of speech, Bina has been one of the most vocal individuals in the country and she proudly calls herself a feminist. Therefore, she aptly responds to my query regarding the negative perception of feminism in Pakistan. “There are two reasons for that: Firstly, people see feminism as an outside movement, a western movement and an imposition. They don’t realise that we’ve had a very strong tradition of feminism. Pakistan has had feminism since its creation. Begum Rana Liaquat Ali was a big proponent of women empowerment. Fatima Jinnah ran against a military dictator in the elections. These women really challenged the status quo, as well as the nature. Secondly, feminism poses such a challenge to the accepted system where men rule and women are subservient, (so) people are very hostile towards it, they are afraid of losing power, the rules changing and the positions not being as firm and clear-cut as they expect, which is why people here are resistant to the idea of feminism,” says Bina, further sharing how her first exposure to feminism was through her mother. “My mother didn’t accept this ingrained idea that men rule, she was always resistant to it, always fighting it - in the family life, in the home environment, in the society,” she reveals, adding that she has grown up with strong women around, and while her paternal side was extremely conservative, she chose to be a progressive.

Reminiscing about her adolescent years in the U.S. studying at the Wellesley College, a liberal arts college in Wellesley, Massachusetts, Bina went back in time, sharing anecdotes of days at her prestigious alma mater, with notable alumni such as Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Pamela Melroy to name a few. “(At the college) The standard of academics was so high that I was challenged in every way – emotionally, mentally, socially and physically. It wasn’t easy living there on my own. But it was a time of real growth and independence,” she divulges about her time spent at the college. “What I loved the most was walking across its beautiful campus. The sheer physical charm was really inspiring to me. I would sit by my window and watch the snowfall or walk across the college premises in the wee hours of the morning to see the serene lake, and enjoy nature around,” she says, while also sharing the wonderfulness of studying at the college. “As you progress from the first to the senior year, you start taking seminars with smaller number of people and the professors. You’re all sitting at a table and on first-name terms with the professors, so you start feeling like you’re not being taught, but in fact, you are an equal participant in the quest for education and enlightenment of the society. So that transformation and process of learning that has been around for 200 years or so, is such a satisfying and gratifying process,” she asserts, as she feels lucky to have been able to be a part of the process.

As a writer, Bina doesn’t have a favourite genre, but reads whatever catches her fancy. She went on to talk how she would read Jackie Collins as a youngster, not because her work was high in literature but because Collins, as a writer, was inventive with storytelling. However, the latest winner of the Man Booker Prize, George Saunders, is her current favourite author. “I really respect and admire him for his book Lincoln In The Bardo. What he did with language and with that novel, I was in awe. He just took language, twisted it and used it for his own ends. For me as a writer, it was fascinating to see how he did that, the brilliance, creativity and imagination, that’s the kind of thing that moves me. When you’re a writer, you know what it takes to write (something like that), knowing that you don’t have that talent, so you wish you could write a book like that one day.”

Bina is currently the President of the executive committee at the AF, Karachi and is gearing up to launch her novel, Before She Sleeps, based on speculative fiction next year. “It’s a dystopian novel about how life will be like for South Asian women 70 years into the future. I tried to tie in all the themes about women like the treatment of women and discrimination. There is use of political systems, the use of technology and so much more,” Bina spills the beans about her upcoming literary work and signs off. •