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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

bina shah -- saba imtiaz

Rising Star: Bina Shah

By Saba Imtiaz

Bina Shah is a name you might recognize from her frequent writings for Chowk, Dawn's The Review, and/or the lines of glossy covered books at nice bookstores. She is one of Pakistan's upcoming English writers, who has three published works to her credit, the latest being her novel The 786 Cybercafe. Bina talks to Bandbaja here about writing, music and more.


When did you become involved with Chowk?
I got involved with Chowk back in 1998, when it had first started. I met Safwan Shah, the co-founder, who I told I was interested in writing. He suggested that I contribute to this new website. So I sent in my first piece, “On Becoming an Ex-Expatriate” and the whole system of instantaneous reader comments and feedback was so addictive, I was hooked from the first day!

How far do you think sites like Chowk help in improving relationships between people from the subcontinent, torn apart thanks to years of government propaganda and hatred?
Rather than helping, I think that it just gives people another arena to fight. But virtual fighting is healthier than real-life war.

What do you feel is Chowk's contribution to the literature scene?
It depends which scene you’re talking about. I think its best contribution is that it gives people the confidence to write. They get to express themselves and hear what people think about what they’ve said. It’s not always the best place for constructive criticism anymore, but sometimes you’ll get some feedback from a writer willing to help. It’s not the New Yorker but it definitely has its place.

Where they dream in blue

You've lived and studied abroad for an extended period of time, so why did you choose Karachi as the central location for your novel?
Karachi is the place I know best and it's where I live. I wanted to write something about this city because London, Paris, and New York have already been done. Also, Karachi is a very colorful place. It's a constant inspiration.

Most people have a severe aversion to beggars. On the contrary, one of Where They Dream in Blue's main characters is a beggar boy. Was there a more symbolic undertone to this character?
He’s a human being like all other beggars in this city. I know beggars can be really annoying but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth writing about. I did make him an orphan on purpose because I remember reading about how they have symbolism in Sufism, but I'm afraid I can't remember what they’re supposed to symbolize.

Akbar’s character was rather interesting and intriguing. What was your inspiration behind him?
I have been amazed at the reaction to Akbar. Someone actually said he was “hot maal” on a Web site somewhere. I just imagined him as this really cool, cynical dude – your typical Pakistani guy who’s too smart for his own good. We all know people like that.

Were you satisfied with the response to the novel?
Amazed and gratified would be a better way to put it. I never thought it would strike a chord with young Pakistanis, but I'm glad that it did.

The 786 Cyber café

The 786 Cyber cafe centered on a story based on the infamous ‘other side of the Clifton bridge’. Don’t you think that generalization that people on that side are narrow minded and long-suffering is further emphasized in it?
Do you mean that I portrayed people on the other side of the bridge as narrow-minded and long-suffering? I think people on this side of the bridge are more narrow-minded in many ways. To be honest, I never thought "I'm going to write a book about the other side of the Clifton Bridge" but I was determined to write about people who would never have been to the Sind Club.

Do you feel you have grown as a writer?
I don’t really know. I think I realized that I should write in shorter sentences. I also took off the kid gloves so to speak – I was less afraid of offending people and I made bolder statements, although I took on more controversial topics than before. I said things more directly instead of tiptoeing around them.

How has the response been to the Cybercafe?
So far so good. I was surprised to see that people got very excited about the novel, associating it with the cybercafe scandal where some people were secretly filmed without their knowledge in cybercafe booths. I was very sorry about the repercussions those scandals had on the young people involved, but it certainly evoked a lot of interest in the subject of cybercafes, pornography, and religion, which is exactly what my book is about. I even found out later that the Muslim Council of Britain endorsed the novel as a "thoughtful debate" on the Internet and pornography in Pakistan.

The Literary Scene

Over the past few years, we've seen a number of Pakistani authors making it big on the literary scene. What do you feel about your contemporaries - Kamila Shamsie, Uzma Ahmed Khan etc? What do you think is the future of Pakistani literature?
I’m very proud that Pakistanis are starting to get noticed and I hope more of us make our way to the bestseller lists in the future. But it's not going to be easy because not enough of us read and not enough of us write. There's interest but I'm afraid it has to really multiply itself by a hundred percent for Pakistani literature to go anywhere.

The general opinion is that most English writers today are elitists who write from the slanted point of view of the privileged? How do you respond to such sentiments?
People who write in English are generally going to be economically privileged. They are not morally, intellectually, or genetically superior to those who write in Urdu. But just because a writer is more affluent doesn’t mean he or she cannot write about different social classes. Mohsin Hamid did it to great effect in Mothsmoke and I believe Maniza Naqvi and Uzma Aslam Khan also manage to write very well about classes other than the privileged.

There is a complete lack of literary activities here for the youth. What do you think?
I totally disagree with that statement. There are book fairs and book bazaars, lectures by authors, book launches, and all sorts of book-promoting activities that young people can take part in. There are essay competitions sponsored by foreign missions, private organizations, and the government.

The youth are striking out on their own by writing for websites like Bandbaja and Chowk, or their own blogs. They're being encouraged to write for magazines and newspapers like never before. Look at the children’s magazines that come out with all the major newspapers. If that's not encouraging reading and writing in young people I don't know what is.

What do you feel about the deeply rooted state of book piracy here? Do you think there is a solution to this problem?
I don't think there is any solution in the near future. I'd be lying if I didn't admit that we all take advantage of piracy, especially video and music piracy. I myself own several pirated Playstation games. It's all about economics, isn't it?

I have no problem with buying an original book but that's because I can afford it. But keeping books away from people because they're too expensive is as much a crime as selling someone a pirated book. By the way, I think second-hand bookstores and libraries are a good alternative to buying pirated books. Why not get something legitimately, but used, if you can?

Have you ever felt any prejudice against you, being a female writer?
Not at all. I am gender-free when I write. Besides, we are well beyond the days when I might have had to take a male pseudonym in order to be published and not be called rude names.

What is the deal with royalties in the book publishing world? How does the system work?
You sign a contract and get a fixed percentage of all sales of the book, and a certain percentage of any other deals that might come through – foreign publications, translations, television or movie adaptation rights.

Reading habits seem to be declining by the day, especially with the increasing popularity of the Internet. In a country like Pakistan where the literacy rate is already quite low, how do you feel this affects the present and future generations?
I'm not sure I’m qualified to answer that question. A society that can't read will eventually revert back to the law of the jungle. But I don’t think we’re going to become completely illiterate.

Do you think writing can be taken up as a full time profession in Pakistan, given that most writers today have day jobs and write on the side?
None of us is a millionaire from our books or our newspaper columns. It's more practical to take it as a part-time job until you’re in a position where you can do otherwise.


What do you do in your free time?
What most people do with their free time – waste it.

Where they dream in blue had a lot of references to rock band Junoon. Do you listen to Junoon? What other music do you enjoy?
I really enjoyed Junoon’s "Parvaaz" and listened to it constantly for a few months before starting to write "Where They Dream in Blue". My taste in music is very eclectic. I like the Smiths, Morrissey, U2, Sting, and the Police in Western rock. I also love classical music and am a keen piano player and flutist. I like Buddha Bar and instrumental music.

One of my favorite soundtracks is Gattaca; another is Amelie. I really don't listen to Indian music at all, but my favorite Pakistani album is (by) Fuzon, and I really like rai music from North Africa and traditional Celtic music.

You quit working to write full time. How is that working out? (Excuse the bad pun!)
I don't think I could have written my novels while working full time. It was absolutely necessary to take a sabbatical in order to do what I wanted to do.

What are your future plans? Any subjects in particular that you plan to write on?
Maybe a novel that is a little more international in scope. I might write about America next. Nothing firm as yet.

Any advice or words of wisdom to aspiring writers?
Read more books.


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