Reality is [definitely] stranger than fiction – Shazaf Fatima Haider

  • 24 Nov - 30 Nov, 2018
  • Attiya Abbass
  • Interview

Call it fear or an overactive imagination, I once felt a [supernatural] presence in the room I was writing ‘Firefly’. I stopped typing, looked up from my laptop and said loudly at the empty space, ‘This is NOT an invitation to meet me. Please leave me alone.’

Shazaf never planned on becoming an author – that too an acclaimed one. In her own words, “I was actually sure of one thing growing up – that I most certainly will not be a writer.” But, what happened then? Well literarily, How It Happened; her debut novel that garnered tremendous response when it found its place in book stores in 2012. A family drama penned in meticulous witty detail, relaying a plot of two inter-sect, arranged marriages in Karachi. While many cited the book to be insightful, offering a wide window into the arranged marriage scenario in the subcontinent, others found it hilarious. But it was Shazaf’s bildungsroman, fantasy-fiction novel, A Firefly in The Dark, which truly curated the writer’s prowess with fiction storytelling, tinged with thrilling details of supernaturalism. From family satire, to penning anecdotes of a young girl’s encounters with Jinn; the transition is quite riveting. The two published books to her credit, have made waves nationwide and beyond.

From her busy life in London and motherhood, Shazaf talks to MAG about her books, life as an author and her next writing ventures.

Please begin with telling us about yourself. How long have you been writing?

I began my career as an English teacher. Along the way, I started teaching creative writing and wrote a novel simultaneously. My first book, How It Happened is a satire on arranged marriages in the sub-continent. The second, A Firefly in the Dark is a fantasy tale of a young girl rescued by her Jinn. Currently, I’m a stay at home mum trying to get a little bit of writing while my toddler takes a nap.

You never aimed at pursuing a career as an author. But you somehow found yourself drifting into this trajectory, what’s the story?

I was actually sure of one thing growing up – that I most certainly will not be a writer. I never tried to write anything substantial and never thought I would write a novel, let alone two. But one day, I don’t know, I was very upset as I felt I had failed at most things in my life. At that point I wanted to write to vent it all out. What came out was the first chapter of my first novel.

For your first novel, How It Happened is it safe to say you drew inspirations from real-life or personal events in the backdrop? Authoring that book, did you plan on sending a message or moral across to the society?

No, I planned just to make fun of every boy and his mother who had graced our drawing room with their exalted presence. I had three sisters and lots of friends going through the same demeaning process so I had a lot of examples, but I couldn’t use them because no one would believe me. I had to tone the outrageous anecdotes down to make them more palatable and less outlandish. Reality is definitely stranger than fiction.

Talking about the two novels you have written so far… your narrative makes use of strong female protagonists to manoeuvre the story’s plot ahead. How important are fiction-fantasy novels with strong female leads to help overcome gender roles and challenge stereotypes in the society?

I don’t think fiction challenges anything, really. It offers an escape into another world where, for a moment, you live in another reality where say, a 12-year-old can fight forces even her adult mother cannot. But I like writing female protagonists who are forceful precisely because I have been surrounded by strong women all my life. Most of these women reinforce gender stereotypes in society, unfortunately. So, in fiction, I draw on their strength to ask women uncomfortable questions about themselves.

A Firefly in the Dark is about women putting up a fight against the supernatural bodies, they are suddenly aware, resides with them. What inspired you to pen such an account? Have you ever, personally encountered an interaction with supernatural forces, or was it entirely fictionalised?

Thank God, I have never met a jinn nor do I have any such desire. In fact, call it fear or an overactive imagination, I once felt an odd presence in the room when I was writing Firefly. I stopped typing, looked up from my laptop and said loudly at the empty space, ‘This is NOT an invitation to meet me. Please leave me alone.’

But I know many people who not only believe in jinns but purport to live with them. Some of these are quirky and senile, others very rational and sensible and people I respect. So, I listened to their stories, did a bit of research and then started writing.

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

That they find me easy to read.

Is there any Pakistani writer whose work you admire?

Musharraf Ali Farooqi is my all-time favourite. I greatly enjoy the writing of Shandana Minhas and I genuinely think she is one of the best writers of her generation.

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

Well, as far as fiction is concerned, there are many writers, few readers – even fewer book sellers who believe in local writers and a vibrant piracy network that cashes in on the mess distributors make of getting the books to the market. As you can see, I’m not too thrilled with the local scene and this is why I think writers need to look across the border for readership, publication and opportunities.

From your published books, which one remains to be the closest to your heart? And how has each impacted you differently?

How It Happened was magic. It was fun to write and I had to do very little to make it the success that it was. But Firefly is a deeper and more serious book, harder to write and even harder to sell. I can’t tell which one is closer to my heart, but writing these two, rescued me in different ways.

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

My daughter has me occupied. And I have three chapters of a novel you will get to know about soon.