The Silent Bestseller - Shandana Minhas 

“Writers are magpies, we steal shiny details from everything but – assuming we’re skilled enough – we use them to create something new,” says Shandana.
  • 23 Jun - 29 Jun, 2018
  • Attiya Abbass
  • Interview

A storyteller from childhood, Shandana honed her inborn craft for writing through practice. Dropping out of college in 1996, my interviewee began writing features and columns for publications, but to date, fiction remains to be her true calling. Fast-forwarding to present, Shandana has three bestselling books to her name; Tunnel Vision, Survival Tips for Lunatics and Daddy’s Boy, all of which have attained the status of fiction cult-favourites. Survival Tips for Lunatics bagged the Karachi Literature Festival Fiction Prize 2015. Her new novella titled Rafina, has also made it to the bookstores recently. MAG talks to the author about her book, inspirations and flair for fiction. Excerpts:

Is there anyone who inspired you to become a writer?

My mother taught language and literature for many years, so there were always books in our house: D.H. Lawrence, Tolstoy, Dickens and other staples of postcolonial curriculums, as well as pulp fiction. By the time I was old enough to check books out of a library, I chose literature that explored what it meant to be an elf, an alien or a sandworm. Maybe because of that early exposure to reading – rather than one particular author – inspired me to be a writer.

You come from an interfaith background and I believe, that privileged you to gain better insight into certain aspects of Pakistani society than most. Do you feel that has influenced your inscriptions and your work in any way? 

Apart from the superficial privilege of experiencing gatherings and rituals that most Pakistanis now only read about, I grew up with tolerance as a default setting. That has made me more sensitive to its erosion in the imagined reality of our national identity. We have gone from the casual, ignorant prejudice of a neighbour making my mother cry with a remark about how all Christians are alcoholics who love dancing (she was particularly upset about the latter implication, I think) to a mob burning a pregnant woman and her husband in a brick kiln. Prejudice, fear and alienation are more than abstract concepts to me. 

You and your husband, founded the Mongrel Books press in Karachi in 2016.  What inclined you to take on such a project and what objectives you wanted it to achieve? Also, the name has us very curious, what’s the story to that? 

Mongrel Books is a small press we set up to publish quality fiction and non-fiction in Pakistan. We wanted to bring depth and diversity to the pool and, with the Mongrel Book of Voices, The Light Blue Jumper and now Saints and Charlatans… I think we’ve done that and, more importantly, shown that it can be done. We hope others follow. 

We’re called Mongrel Books because of my own khichri ethnic and religious origins. It’s also a nod to those working to combat cruelty to animals. 

Your book Tunnel Vision, the gripping story of an independent woman cruising between the past and the present has a strong female protagonist. Do you think to some extent she (Ayesha) is a reflection of you? Or you breathed some of your traits into her character? 

Writers are magpies, we steal shiny details from everything but – assuming we’re skilled enough – we use them to create something new. Ayesha’s house in Husain D’ Silva town, for example, was based on my nana’s house. But her problems – sexual harassment in the workplace, a family that uses her while abusing her, the khushfehmi that ishq will fix everything – her problems are universal. As for whether she was mimetic, or imagined, I’m hardly the only female malcontent in the Karachi of that time, or any time. In fact, Tunnel Vision was meant as a love letter to the women of this city, who I think are exceptionally strong, very funny, and can really only be undone by love. 

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

I saw your book in the bookstore. I would prefer I read your book or I bought your book.

Is there a Pakistani writer whose work you really admire?

I admire all of my contemporaries, even the ones I can’t stand. I know how hard it is to do what we do, and how important.

What would you say about the state of literature, readership and writing in Pakistan? 

I’m more comfortable with the words fiction, or story, than I am with the term literature. In terms of storytelling I would say storytellers are under siege, and the people they are meant to feed, are starving. Fiction is not just books. Culture, belief systems, society, marriage, brands, these are all fictions, stories that somebody made up that you can choose to believe in. They unite or divide people together. That’s why, wherever you look, the control over the creation, publication and distribution of stories so clearly reflect the interests of the dominant group. That’s why what is published and read here is so violently policed and why we need to create a generation of transgressive readers on an urgent basis. 

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

Reading only one book is always a terrible idea. Seriously, that’s an impossible question to answer. Nobody reads the same book, even if they read the same pages. The right book for X will not be the right one for Y. Rafina would be an ideal book to test this theory with.  

From all your published books, which one remains to be the closest to your heart? 

Survival Tips for Lunatics, which I wrote for my sons Kamil and Hamza. 

Your new novella, Rafina has found its place in the bookstores. Before I go grab my copy, would you give me some insight into what it is about? 

It’s a realistic Cinderella story. It’s about a poor, ambitious and attractive young woman who isn’t content with what life is telling her to settle for, and her journey from the waxing and threading of the salon world to being a model. It is set in the Pakistani fashion and beauty industry in 2004, before the social media revolution really kicked in, and a girl didn’t have the option of eliminating the middlemen the way Qandeel Baloch tried to do.