MEET THE WRITER

‘I was sick of suitable girls and wanted to create an anti-heroine': Pakistani writer Sabyn Javeri

Everyone’s talking about her first novel ‘Nobody Killed Her’. Here, so is she.

Pakistani writer Sabyn Javeri’s political thriller Nobody Killed Her has been much anticipated because of its supposed references to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. It is in fact a tale of intense friendship between two ambitious women, unfolding in a country steeped in fanaticism and patriarchy. Set against a backdrop of intrigue and political machinations, the novel explores love, loyalty, obsession and deception. In terms of form, Nobody Killed Her combines noir with courtroom drama. In an interview, Javeri spoke about the struggle involving gender, class and power in Muslim societies, about being a female crime-novelist based in Pakistan, and about her writing journey thus far. Excerpts:

You have been writing for several years. Tell us about your writing journey.
I have been writing for some time, now that you mention it, but oddly it still feels strange to call myself a writer. I suppose writing the novel was partly for that reason. I had published many a short story, some of which had even gone on to win prestigious awards, but it seemed to me that unless you had a book to show for it, people didn’t take you seriously as a writer. With the short story as little in demand as poetry in the publishing world, the novel seemed a natural progression. Novelists, sadly, seem to be the rock stars of the literary world.

There was no set point where the journey began as I had been writing, or should I say making up, stories as far back as I can remember. Although they were mostly in my head! It was when my first story “And the World Changed” was picked as the title story of an anthology by publisher Ritu Menon (Women Unlimited) that made me think it could be the start of something. Ritu was very encouraging and it gave me the confidence to explore my writing skills seriously.

I then wrote “Only in London”, which I ambitiously sent out to London Magazine. I still remember that delicious feeling of anticipation when I got an email from Sebastian Barker, the legendary editor of London Magazine, who said that although he was not going to accept my submission he thought my writing had great potential. I was floored that he had written personally to me.

Being from a culture, where give an inch and take a foot is encouraged, I immediately wrote back asking him for advice on how to tap into that potential. We started corresponding, which resulted in much editing, revision and rewriting, until the story was ready for publication. It was a great experience, for I learnt the art of revision. The story, when it appeared in the magazine, was one of my finest.

And the inspiration for this particular book?
Just fun. Believe me when I say I wasn’t trying to depict the human face of history – I just wanted to write an entertaining book about feminism that people would actually want to read. I didn’t have a manifesto but I did have some discontent. I was sick of the suitable girl of South Asian fiction and wanted to write something gutsy. I wanted to create an anti-heroine – an unapologetic go-getter, a kick-ass character who wasn’t afraid to step on people’s toes.

I was at that time also researching female leadership in politics for my doctorate and had just seen an exhibition about the chameleon-like Leila Khalid, the Palestinian liberator/terrorist who was a master disguiser and was rumoured to have even impersonated the Israeli PM’s wife. I suppose the two ideas about leadership, political and personal, collided in my head, giving way to Nobody Killed Her – the story of two ambitious, unabashedly feminist women but from very different backgrounds.

I didn’t really want to write a novel about politics but about people to whom politics happens. About the choices that people make….How do women get to a position of power and how do they hold on to it? What are the compromises they have to make and how do they compromise others? These were the themes I wanted to explore.

The protagonist of the book, through whom most of the story is told, is an unreliable narrator. Can you shed more light on your writing technique?
I was reading more and more subcontinental fiction where the characters were just cultural or gender stereotypes. Even if they were writing about themes of global terrorism, the protagonist’s choices were justified because of circumstances. Everything was cause and effect and this irked me. Real life is not so black and white and I don’t see why fiction should be. I wanted to tap into those grey areas of life where anything can happen – where heroes turn out to be villains and where villains save the day. Where women fuck you up not because they were trafficked or abused but because they too are human and capable of violence and greed.

It is that grittier side of womanhood that I wanted to explore. And at the same time I wanted the reader to experience it firsthand. I didn’t want to sermonise. Instead I wanted the reader to have power, to be involved, be the lawyer, judge and executioner. And the best way, I felt, was to create a narrator who was not just unreliable but one who got under your skin and made you question your own morals.

As a writer, I believe the way you tell a story is just as important as the story you tell. So I worked on the form and technique, combining a unique style which was the second person narration alternating as the first, a technique not commonly used in contemporary fiction. I wanted the immediacy of the “I”, but I also wanted to involve the reader directly in the narrative through the second person “you”. I did this by letting the reader take on the persona of Rani Shah as the “you” in Nazo’s monologue.

In many ways the book is about a power struggle between two women from different social classes. Can you speak about the relationships between class and power and gender and power?
When it comes to female ambition, the class struggle is amplified manifold. Power and ambition are dirty words when it comes to women, be it showbiz, politics or even safe professions like “banking.” Women are supposed to be maternal, self-sacrificing, selfless and voiceless creatures who put themselves last. Anyone who tries to improvise the roles is considered “bad” (to put it in Trump-like simplicity) – be it a bad mother, a bad lover or just a “bad” woman. Ambition, power-hungry, or, worse, “career-minded” – the same qualities that are cherished in a man are considered embarrassing in a woman.

Privilege, however, grants rights to whoever holds it. As the saying goes, a rich woman is often better off than a poor man. In that sense the relationship between class and power is easier to transcend than gender. One of the main themes of my novel is how an outsider infiltrates the high walls of political dynasties in our part of the world. In fact the last line of my novel is, “Here, rulers are born, not made.”

As Nazo belongs to an underprivileged background, she has neither class nor gender on her side when climbing the power ladder. Her journey is tough. However, like Indian politicians like Mayawati, who have managed to transcend those boundaries, she does enter the inner circle. The journey of the other protagonist, Rani Shah, is different in the sense that although she is born into a political dynasty and her entry into politics is relatively easy, the machismo of the political mechanism in a patriarchal society resists her intrusion, creating hurdles at every step.

Although the novel is centred on the rise of a female leader, there is also a sense that power doesn’t necessarily change the patriarchal expectations of women. Please comment on what you have found in your research with regards to women negotiating power in patriarchal societies.
We live in a very strange society, where women are revered yet not respected. We worship them as goddesses in our temples, yet rape and degrade them on the streets. Just like a species adapts to its surrounding, women, too, have to find ways to survive in a society as complex and patriarchal as ours. It really is the survival of the fittest. I have looked at women leaders in Burma and Bangladesh as well as in the UK, Germany, Scotland and the US, and it really is a House of Cards. The way women negotiate power is complex and the way they hold on to power is even more complex!

I keep saying that it doesn’t matter how much the role of women evolves, how much responsibility they take on outside the home, or how empowered they get in the boardroom or the parliament – unless the role of the man in our society evolves. Men come home from office and expect to be served. Women come home and don the apron. Through Rani Shah I have tried to show that even if a woman becomes the prime minister of the country, society still has age-old patriarchal expectations of her as a woman first.

We need to stop telling our girls that a girl can do what a man can and start telling our boys they can, and should, do what a girl does, i.e., cook, clean and bring up children. Only then will we see change in the patriarchal attitudes that hold women back from true empowerment.

The characters in your novel are complex. They invite the reader to love and hate them at the same time. Can you talk about how you sketched them out?
I don’t know why, but I always feel a kind of necessity to write things that are beyond acceptance. I don’t mean obscene as in profane speech or explicit scenes – you can get away with that – but offensive, as in attitude. It’s that gutsy, unapologetic attitude of two highly intelligent and strong women, sometimes pitted against each other and sometimes against the whole world, that I wanted to explore here. There was no simple black and white way in which this could be done, so I had to enter the realm of the psychological thriller.

Rich girl Rani, the scion of a political dynasty, and asylum-seeker Nazo, who rises from being a lowly party worker to a serious political contender, are “frenemies”. It’s this female bonding – free of any stereotyped gender expectations – that I wanted to bring alive on the page. I wanted these characters to be flawed. As in life, where perfection is just an illusion, so in fiction, I believe that to create something authentic, you have to let your characters be fallible. It is because Rani and Nazo can be shallow and selfish or selfless and altruistic when needs be that makes them human.

As a writer, I abhor the idea of the likeability of a character. I think your protagonist doesn’t have to be a goody-goody for your audience to connect. Take Humbert Humbert of Lolita for example. He’s deeply flawed and a sociopath paedophile, and yet we stay with him till the end, listening to his story. It’s the same kind of love to hate and hate to love emphatic engagement I’ve tried to bring out with Rani and Nazo.

Women writers are often expected to stick to a certain genre. Having written a crime novel, can you talk about the feedback you have received so far, and any challenges you have faced?
I feel as if I have snatched a child’s ice cream. People are either shocked or dismissive. As I have been asked this question a few times, I am beginning to feel it’s because crime and political books have become more and more the territory of male writers. Again it’s about those gender stereotypes which you, as someone young who’s written about the Partition, would know all about.

People, or rather, booksellers, make up their minds about what kind of a book will sell, and when the writer is the wrong age or gender they can’t seem to digest it. I feel it is up to the readers to break these moulds, these stereotypes of “women writers”, because at the end of the day if a book is well-written, what does it matter what the sex of the author is?

Some reviewers have drawn parallels between the protagonists of your book and Benazir Bhutto and her former political secretary. Please comment.
All I can say is that every reader will bring their own interpretation to the book. Yes, the book does centre around the idea of the assassination of a female politician, and therefore parallels are inevitable. However at the end of the day it is a fictional exploration, a what-if novel that is completely imaginary.

A few years ago, Monica Ali came out with Untold Story, which is about a Diana-like character who has an accident in a Paris tunnel while being chased by the paparazzi. The novel then goes on to explore an alternative ending with the character having plastic surgery and starting a new life in the American suburbs. No critic or reviewer accused Ali of distorting facts about Diana’s life. Instead, they were able to appreciate that it was fiction inspired by real events.

Polanski’s 2010 film The Ghost Writer explores a Tony Blair-like character, a former British Prime Minister’s special relationship with the US. Critics and reviewers speculated on the motivation behind the Blair-like character’s actions, but no one confused him with Blair. It was the same with Curtis Sittenfield’s novel American Wife, which is a fictional exploration of Laura Bush’s life as first lady. Critics called it thinly veiled, but no one challenged the writer’s right to this artistic licence.

Closer home we have Muhammad Hanif writing a fictional story about General Zia’s assassination, and no one is confusing it with Zia’s biography. Or even Omar Shahid’s novels, which, he admits, are inspired by his time in the police force. No one is after him for an admission or a confession as to who exactly the characters are based on.

Interestingly, Omar (whom I admire greatly) and I had our launches back to back at a literary festival, and while my panel could not get beyond the “who” question, at his launch people asked him if his stories were based on real politicians and upon getting a “maybe yes, maybe no”-ish answer, were happy to sit back and focus on other elements of his work.

I can’t help but feel that as a woman writer I’m being targeted for daring to write about themes other than the usual romance or arranged marriage or a very plastic version of global terrorism at best. And the fact that my work does not glorify anyone and instead paints a very human and fallible picture of women in power is perhaps even more disturbing to certain people.

And I must mention that it is only this small section of people that is unable to make that distinction between a fictional exploration and a biography. The younger readership surprisingly has been much more mature in its appreciation of the book. They have been tweeting about its storyline, rooting for Nazo as the penultimate feminist, not really seeing Rani as the main protagonist, perhaps because they have grown up in a different era and are less prejudiced to the idea of sainthood.

No one from India has as yet tweeted anything controversial, appreciating instead that it is a nail-biting thriller. So that gives me hope that the book will be read for what it is – a story about class and gender struggle in politics – and not be mistaken for a book about a female politician, as some people are hell-bent on doing.

I believe that the publishing process was full of difficulties, and you had to rewrite parts of the book. Can you tell us about your publishing journey? Did you battle with any self-doubt or anxiety?
The publishing journey has truly been a rollercoaster ride, for the book was discovered early into the first few chapters by a Bloomsbury editor in London, who made a fairytale acquisition. However, it did not work out due to legalities. I then moved to Pakistan and was going through some personal upheavals, having forgotten all about the book, when literary agent Kanishka Gupta of Writers Side got in touch with me through a mutual friend.

Kanishka was relentless in his pursuit of the book for he saw something in it. I think he does have some sort of a publishing sixth sense, for he was convinced that the book would be a bestseller. I reworked much of the story and when he took it out the book got offers from every publisher he pitched it to. It was hard making up my mind whom to go with, as every editor I had a chat with seemed to have a different vision for it. I decided on HarperCollins India because of their experience in handling complex books, and also because of their passion for the story I was trying to tell.

In terms of self-doubt and anxiety, I am very self-assured as a writer. I know that I’m a good writer but as a woman I have had to battle many a demon to convince myself of this. I think we women are very good at putting ourselves down, and very rarely take credit for our own success. I think writing is subjective and not everyone will like what you write, but there is no need to take it personally. Not everyone will like your face either!

Although I have to say that the self-doubt and anxiety I did suffer from was about whether I’d be able to finish writing the book. As a mother, a housewife, a full-time caregiver to my ageing mother, and a professor, finding the time to write fiction at times seemed truly impossible. And a luxury…

Please comment on the literary and publishing scene in Pakistan.
I would love to comment on it, except it’s non-existent. There are hardly any fiction presses, Mongrel – a new venture which I’m really excited about – being the only one. Most Pakistanis look to the international market for publishing opportunities. As India and Pakistan share a common culture and similar values, most Pakistani authors find a home for their books in the highly relatable world of Indian presses.

This year alone many debuts novelists are making their entry via Indian publishers, and for this one feels grateful. Indian publishers, as compared to Western ones, seem to be much more open to experimentation, invention and all sorts of genres and subjects, which makes it a really exciting time to be a writer on the subcontinent.

What are you working on next?
My next book is titled Hijabistan. It will be published in 2018, again by HarperCollins. It is a collection of short stories inspired by real events on the theme of the veil/ purdah – both as a garment and as a psychological barrier. The collection is a quirky take on what the Hijab means to the wearer and to the onlooker. I explore it as a shield, as a weapon, as an assertion of identity, as a place of invisibility, and even as a mindset.

It is very different from the page-turner element of Nobody Killed Her stylistically, but in terms of casting a feminist lens on the gender struggle, it’s the same. Also, it’s a book close to my heart. Mainly because I return to my first love, the short story. Someone once said that writing a short story is like having a brief affair while writing a novel is like marriage. So I guess it’s time for a fling.

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