Three years ago I was invited to discuss my novel on arranged marriages at a cultural centre in Karachi. In the crowd was a middle aged gentleman impatiently drumming his fingers on a briefcase. After the Q&A he approached and laid open a large folder, overflowing with newspaper clippings, written notes and photographs.
He told me proudly that his parents were part-German and that in many ways, his family had lived a life of epic proportions – the details of which he had assembled. He then handed them over to me and announced that he had deemed me worthy of writing this epic. I would be given some time to do the “writing-shiting” and then he would see if my piece was good enough for publication. (I’m assuming the task to get it published was also to fall on my grateful shoulders.) When I declined his generous offer, he scowled and walked away, making a comment about women writers and their inflated egos.
I remember this person keenly, not just because of his black ring binder and silver moustache, nor because his attempt to bludgeon me was terribly funny. I remember him because this one encounter seemed to encapsulate all the attitudes I encountered as a woman writing in Pakistan.
I was once talking to a Man Writer (I shall call him that because it sounds just as ridiculous as Woman Writer), bemoaning the number of people who had asked me for a free signed copy of my novel How It Happened. He was somewhat perplexed because this was not a request he often came across. It makes sense though. When a man writes, it’s a career, when a woman writes, it’s a hobby. One is serious, the other is not.
To be a woman writer is to be ready to receive several back-handed compliments.
“Oh, you wrote a book? So nice that you’re finding the time to do something creative.”
“So fantastic that you wrote a book? Does anyone read it?”
“Wow. You wrote a book. Does it sell? Has it made you any money? How much? Exactly how much?”
”Salam ma’am. I love your novel. Can you tell me where I can download a free PDF copy?”
I soon learned that a woman’s personal life as well as her writing becomes fair game for all. And this is done most unapologetically. The first question I was invariably asked in interviews was whether I was married. And when I dithered about the issue, people got more and more curious.
The truth is I deliberately hid my divorce from the larger public. I was conscious that my marital status was relevant to how the book would be received – and this is a problem that all women face. Had people known that I was divorced, the comedy of manners I had attempted to write would be called the rant of a mad brown woman.
And then there was this one television interview where I forgot to tell the talk show host that I didn’t want details of my personal life to be discussed. Pretty soon I was being grilled over which of the men in the book was based on my ex-husband. It was vulgar, this intrusion in what purported to be a literary interview.
This desire to invade the personal also manifested itself in the form of a lot of online and real life harassment, which is common to all women, not just writers. My earliest fan mail comprised benign messages such as “Hello dear, you are gorgeous,” and “Wow you’re so beautiful, I need a prescription – my heart is stopping.” Then a man-reader told me how much he enjoyed my novel and would I marry him? When I politely declined, he sent me a picture of his penis and a “fuck you” in capital letters. I blocked him and he created three different accounts to send me pictures of the same tedious penis.
Stalkers in real life were harder to deal with. I was dreadfully uncomfortable when a famous painter bought 300 copies of my novel at a literary festival and made me distribute them to his friends. And then he showed up at my house. And then left me about 100 missed calls a day – leaving messages that I was young and naïve and that he would help me find myself. This was the not so funny part of being published, this insidious attempt to appropriate my body through my writing.
To be a woman writer is to be mansplained at every turn. I was told by a local man-agent that novels about love and arranged marriages were done to death and that I should find another, more “sexy” topic because that was what publishers were looking for. (This, of course, was in a political atmosphere where honour killings were rife and a famous morning talk-show host was chasing hand-holding couples out of parks and shaming them on public television.) Or the man writer who, at a literary gathering at a poet’s house, said that it was harder for him to complete his novel than it was for me to finish mine. “If I also wrote about family weddings I’d churn out a book a year,” he laughed.
And then a man-bookseller told me that my novel wouldn’t sell because I was an unknown, so he would only order 50 copies to begin with. I arranged a meeting and tried to get him him to take me seriously. But again I was told that while my excitement was sweet, it was misplaced. Only when I promised to purchase any extra copies myself so that his store would not incur a loss, he ordered 50 more copies.
And when these were sold out in five minutes at my book launch, he merely shrugged his shoulders and said “Haan, we seem to have underestimated you. Would you mind doing a free reading for children at our store next month?” (The book being read, I might add, was not mine.)
And what of the book?
What rankles most, however, is that very little attention is given to the writing itself. Our work is simply not reviewed enough or given the kind of attention that it deserves, primarily because it is relegated to the trivialised category of “women’s writing” that is usually considered unimportant.
Case in point: In a recent article on Qurratulain Hyder, M Asadduddin says that there is nothing “feminine” about Hyder’s works because her preoccupations have been epic, common and universal. So there you go. A woman has to write unlike a woman to be taken seriously. Or, she must negate her identity (only to have it vulgarly exposed as was the case with Ellena Ferrante), or pretend to be a man (like George Eliot and so many others did.) Otherwise, chances that she will be taken seriously are slim at best.
Shazaf Fatima Haider is the author the novel of How It Happened.