'Tis better to have loved: Faiqa Mansab on her debut novel
Faiqa Mansab's debut novel, This House of Clay and Water, is set in the old streets of Lahore, Pakistan, where she lives and works. The story is one of forbidden love, as it sets up the fragile premise of a relationship between a girl married into an affluent family and a transgender individual, played out in a manner that questions religious and societal norms. For a contemporary account, Mansab's prose is elegantly poetic, focusing on complex, entangled emotions. In an email interaction, the writer spoke about reactions to English language writing in the subcontinent, and the need to be human.
We're familiar with thesis-sized research going into novels, like in some of the books of Amitav Ghosh's. But how do you turn a thesis into a novel? Is this really the case of a self-study so thoroughly detailed, and academically inclined, that it has all the makings of a book - apart from being worthy of a doctorate?
Thank you for that implicit compliment. In my case, I was writing a novel even before I went for the MFA. I reworked that novel there and decided to submit part of it as my thesis. So, this novel wasn’t written for the thesis or the MFA per se, but happened to be ready for it. I went for the MFA because I wanted to learn the academic ropes of creative writing. I am a firm believer of doing things as well as I am able. My objective was to write the best novel I could and I have always worked towards that goal.
This story is very close to my heart because I worked extremely hard during those two years. I experimented with form, voice and material and I realised that not everyone would like or understand the stories I choose to tell but that’s okay.
Writing is an alchemical process, I think. The birth of a story changes the writer. As the story spins out, as the writer struggles with it, a symbiotic relationship is formed and the story finishes having taken something of the writer and given something of itself back.
How deeply absorbed did you get with your own life story, through the course of your studies, your research, and the writing of the book? At what point did you realise that this was a larger cultural narrative, rather than say, a biography?
That never occurred to me, because I am not at all interested in writing a biography. I write stories because it comes naturally to me, because I love writing.
There is nothing autobiographical in my stories at all, unless you allow for the fact that any writer is writing a certain kind of stories because of who they are, and where they come from. If you look at the oeuvre of a writer carefully, you begin to see the thematic patterns. Philip Roth, John Steinbeck, Alice Munroe, Ernest Hemingway, to name a few, are all writers you can recognise instantly because of their distinctive style and their themes.
But not all writers are like that. There are many who write about very different themes but will still fall under a certain category, like avante garde, or postmodern, or postcolonial because of their political or philosophical allegiances to writing stylistics and representation. My writing too probably has similar influences. The characters I write about are very different from me and their lives are totally their own.
You've spoken about the idea that your "very identity is a site of resistance". Did you have to struggle with that idea, on a personal level? What manner of self-realisation did it take to get comfortable with this thought?
It’s not a new realisation and I am who I am perhaps because I don’t run away from painful truths. A woman is a minority. I am a woman with the kind and level of education that is still considered rare for anyone in Pakistan. Even ostensibly well-educated people don’t really know what they’re talking about when they use words like feminism and it’s depressing to see.
I am a writer who writes in English and about subjects that are taboo, especially for women. English is not my first language, and yet I write in English. Apparently, these things are still relevant in 2017 to the majority of South Asians. So as a writer too, I am a site of resistance and as a person of colour.
I wrote something about Greek myths once in my creative writing workshop at Kingston University London. One of my fellow participants suggested ‘write about your own culture’ and ‘in your own language’. Needless to say, I paid no heed. I write what I wish to write. No one tells me what to write or not to write because I won’t let them. Readers and critics have every right to ignore and critique my writing but they cannot dictate what stories, and whose stories I tell.
Having said that, I must also say that writing is a huge responsibility and must be taken seriously. One should not take it up with little knowledge and no respect for one’s characters. It is problematic when you don’t show respect to people, to history or you justify something that is morally and ethically repugnant to humanity.
Tell us a little about your thoughts on writing as an act of self-assertion, and also of self-preservation. How does one combat the loneliness, in particular, while being so deeply engrossed in one's own thoughts?
It is definitely an act of self-assertion and freedom for me. It is also an act of arrogance in a way, because you feel that what you have to say is important enough for people to read and spend time on. A writer starts becoming a writer at an early age; when she is a reader, an empath, or a person who feels things more deeply than other people perhaps? Someone who is meant to be an artist and isn’t, lives an unhappy life I think, or at least a dissatisfied life? So, in that sense it is self-preservation perhaps.
There have been very few times in my life when I’ve felt lonely and it was never when I was writing. I’m happiest when I’m writing. Every story is a bit like a puzzle and you’re trying to fit the pieces together and every time things fall into place, it’s a victory. Sometimes I’m writing two different stories and I realise that in fact they’re bits of the same story and then they merge and something stronger and better comes into being. Writing is a Protean struggle. A story is an organic thing and it must grow with care and attention and not by force.
The combined elements of gender, sexuality and politics can be quite potent, as we found in Arundhati Roy's latest book too. Are you wary of reactions in the media, and among sections of the public? On that note, how open and accepting do you believe Indian readers are, as yet, to such subjects, and a combination of such concerns?
I’m a huge fan of Arundhati and love her latest book even more than the first one. And again, thank you for the comparison because that’s a huge compliment to me.
As for reactions, I don’t worry about anything but how my story works when I’m writing. I don’t care about anyone except my characters and their journey. I cannot control or predict reactions. All I can do is do my best to write a good story. That’s all that I’m trying to do.
I feel that Indian readers are much more open to different subjects and of intelligent discussions when they come from outsiders than they are from their own writers. That’s true of Pakistani readership as well. Although the Indian readership is far wider. I think that’s problematic because both countries have a lot of wonderful writers who are stars internationally but are not given the same importance at home. Very few universities are teaching Indian and Pakistani writers in their syllabi because they are considered too political or there is always one or other regime being rubbed the wrong way. Institutions like education should be neutral.
Have you received any flak for your anti-religious statements, especially about "forgetting to be human in the quest to be Muslims"? Is it fair to ascribe bestiality in communities entirely to religion, removed from the world of commerce? Wouldn't you believer there is a co-relation between these matters?
I don’t believe I’m anti-religious. However, if any religion is appropriated by terrorists, ignoramuses and idiots, then I, along with any thinking human being will raise their voice against it. I think being a good anything means first, to be a good human being. you cannot be a good Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsee, agnostic, atheist, if you’re not a good human being first, and if you aren’t, then you should at least hold your tongue and not tell others what to do.
Bestiality is a part of us, but we as human being have been given the faculty to think, and to tame our instincts, our passions and our actions. When we don’t do that, we become beasts. It has nothing to do with religion or commerce. It has everything to do with intemperance, with the inability to reform and evolve as social beings, as a society. We are regressing as a race. We are falling into Neanderthal-like patterns of territorial instincts, of clannish mentality, a safety in numbers approach when we should have been celebrating diversity, plurality, freedom of speech and choice.
What's interesting to us is that this book stands out among a spate of recent titles, which are patently written for readers overseas, not so much for readers back home. The House of Clay and Water does read closer home, and is very approachable, staying away from seeming unnecessarily pretentious. Did you actively try and keep yourself grounded while telling this story?
Thank you for saying that. I write the stories that mean something to me; about characters that move me, and I don’t care whether it is marketable or not, or whether it checks all the boxes for an international audience. A good story transcends boundaries of all sorts. I believe that stories with any truth, of any kind, will find an audience.
Every story dictates its own setting, tone and atmosphere. This House of Clay and Water is a story subsumed in South Asian superstitions, culture, limitations and beauty. Therefore, it would be incorrect to say that I planned to write a certain way. I only remain true to the telling of the tale. It could be that the stories I write are so deeply rooted in this land that they seem unpretentious to South Asian readers. But I do not write with a specific audience in mind at all. I write what I need to write, the way I feel I must to do justice to the characters according to the demands of the story.
Did you interact with members of the eunuch community, before writing the character of Bhanggi? What did it take to get into Bhanggi's head, to unravel those complex emotions?
Yes, I did. The transgender communities have suffered. Society has treated them unfairly, but in that way their suffering is common with poverty stricken communities, and in other ways it is similar to the suffering of religious minorities. I wanted the essence of a human being to reflect in my story, and my on-ground research had created a very different character initially. I had spoken with many intersex persons and I have visited the walled city and dargahs ever since I was a child.
Later, I started reading on the subject. The transgender persons I spoke with were not really open about their feelings and emotions. I can understand why. I was an outsider. I didn’t always go to the same people. I hadn’t earned their trust. At the time, I didn’t even realise that I would be writing about them one day. I would just meet and talk to different people because other people’s stories interest me.
It was only later in 2012 that I started writing about an intersex. I didn’t want Bhanggi to come across as a stereotype, or as a one dimensional transgender character. I wanted a human being, who by happens to be intersex.
The "love" that we detect here is actually for the city of Lahore, despite its present state. Do you continue to actively romance the city, and its changing dynamics?
I have a thing for ancient cities. Lahore reminds me a lot of Rome. There are bits of Lahore that are buried underground. Bits that are narrow cobbled streets and ruins, also like Rome, and then there are the contemporary boulevards and the air of faded splendor.
Any city worth its salt is alive to change, and some of it means destruction, and some means amnesia, at times there is ugly development, and then, if we’re lucky, there might be some reclamation of history and identity. All of these movements are ebbing and flowing throughout history and time and writers chronicle these changes, like Albert Camus did of Algeria, like Elif Shafak does of Istanbul. Cities are the cradles of stories, and Lahore is rich with those, and thriving on them.
Would you like to give us a picture, as you see it, of the arts and culture emerging in modern-day Pakistan? How is the future looking not just for Pakistani writers, but for musicians, performers and cultural groups looking to gain a foothold overseas?
There is a lot happening in Pakistan with music, writing, film making and other plastic and visual arts. A lot of experimentation and very exciting to watch. I wish there was a more relaxed and open exchange of cultural capital between the two countries of India and Pakistan and I also wish that both these countries take the lead and include our other neighboring countries in similar exchanges to create a borderless artists’ community, where ideas can be exchanged and implemented without fear of persecution.
This House of Clay and Water, Penguin Random House, ₹499.