Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani-American writer, interfaith leader, and author of Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan. She writes professionally for a number of non-profit organizations, teaches at community college on Islamic issues, and trains law enforcement in cultural sensitivity. In her free time, she edits Blue Minaret, an online literary magazine for Muslim art, poetry and prose. Her thoughts about the global Muslim experience can be read in NBC Asian America and the Huffington Post, among others.
Vinita Kinra: Welcome to Global Asian Times, Saadia. What made you immigrate to USA?
Saadia Faruqi: Thanks for having me on, Vinita. Actually my reason for emigrating was marriage. My husband, also a Pakistani, was working in the U.S. and so I moved to be with him after we got married. We lived in Cleveland, Ohio, for a few months then moved to Florida where I got my undergraduate in business. We moved again; this time to Houston, TX, where we’ve lived ever since.
Vinita Kinra: What triggered the idea for your debut short story collection, Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan?
Saadia Faruqi: After arriving in Houston, I got involved in interfaith activism, and I spent many years organizing events and activities in the community to bring people of different faiths and cultures together. I was approached by the Houston Police Department to train their officers in cultural sensitivity, and later went on to teach about Islamic issues in our local community college. All those years of public speaking helped me understand the stereotypes about Muslims and South Asians in the American media, and I wanted to write something that would be informative without preaching. So I decided to write a short story collection called Brick Walls that would showcase the true beauty of Pakistani culture and traditions and also speak about some of the negative aspects.
Vinita Kinra: How has your native city informed your writings?
Saadia Faruqi: I was tempted to set every story of the collection in Karachi, where I grew up. But I knew it wouldn’t be fair because Karachi is very different from the rest of Pakistan. In the 1980s and 1990s Karachi was a pretty cool place, very liberal and cosmopolitan. But at the same time there were pockets of poverty and incidents of violence and specific areas that you didn’t really go to at night because they weren’t safe. It was this dichotomy of religious extremism and liberalism, of privilege and poverty that really fascinated me growing up. One story in my collection is called Bittersweet Mangoes, and showcases the contrasts between rich and poor, extremism and liberalism in Karachi itself. But overall, I write about a variety of places in Pakistan and abroad. I write a lot about dichotomies and culture clashes and contrasts, all of which were things I saw in the micro-universe that Karachi was, even if I’m writing about another place or another time.
Vinita Kinra: What does it mean to be Muslim in USA?
Saadia Faruqi: What a relevant question today! Obviously, people judge you; they look at you strangely, especially if you’re wearing a hijab like I do. I’ve had friends who’ve been screamed at in parking lots, harassed on the bus. It’s getting to where we almost kind of expect it and lay low in certain situations. Every terrorist attack whether at home or abroad makes it more and more challenging to be American Muslim. But I also think it is a great time to be Muslim in America for a number of reasons. On an individual level, I have had so many strangers help me and assist me because they want to show that they are not bigots. It has given me a great hope for humanity and a realization that we are more similar than we think. Overall, these days traditional media is more open to stories of ordinary Muslims or South Asians because they do realize that the stereotypical narrative needs to be challenged. So there are pros and cons, and I suppose you have to learn to deal with the negatives because the positive aspects of American society, the freedoms you have to practice your faith and your culture and traditions are like nowhere else in the world.
Vinita Kinra: Which character from your book Brick Walls did you enjoy creating most and why?
Saadia Faruqi: That’s a difficult question because I think each character was a joy even though there was some measure of difficulty in making sure they were true to what I was trying to portray. Since Brick Walls is a fictional account of actual events or people that you may find in Pakistan, I needed to stick to characters who were representative of those stories, even representative of actual Pakistanis to a great extent. As far as my favorite character is concerned, I have many, but one of the most interesting was Farzana in the story A Mother’s Heart, who is an old widow left alone in Lahore after her husband’s death. She is your typical older lady, she doesn’t care what people think, and she’s opinionated, obstinate, cranky, and impatient with the younger generation. She’s just like any desi aunty. I found myself literally rubbing my hands with glee while I was writing her.
Vinita Kinra: Share with us your publishing journey. Was it smooth or bumpy?
Saadia Faruqi: The publishing journey is painful for any author, especially for those just starting out. I honestly think I’d have thought twice before writing this book if I’d known how hard it would be to get published and then sell my book to the public. I didn’t get any response from agents or big publishers, which was expected because it’s not a commercial topic. Finally, after about a year, I was able to find a small press to publish the book. But you know, the stress doesn’t stop there because after the book becomes available, none of the big publications will cover it unless you are a well-known author or have a big marketing department behind you. You have to literally sell your book yourself, whether it’s through social media or book tours or speaking engagements. I’m so thankful of my business education because it helped me as I promoted my book on a grassroots level.
Vinita Kinra: In your perspective, what is the key ingredient to succeed as a writer?
Saadia Faruqi: I often think about this. I know authors who will swear that if you write a wonderful book you will get recognized for it. But having come from the other side with no big publishing house behind me, I really don’t think this is true. I think even more than writing a fantastic story, the key is marketing, which, if you think about it, is really sad. There are lots of mediocre books in the market everywhere which are selling like hot cakes, and there are some amazingly well-written books that nobody knows about. I think ultimately it all comes down to knowing how to promote your book and yourself by building a platform, and that, of course, is easier said than done.
Vinita Kinra: Your new book weaves tales of hope and courage from Pakistan. How do your fictional characters stay optimistic in the midst of violence, corruption, and poverty associated with this vibrant civilization?
Saadia Faruqi: Ah, that’s the crux of the matter. That’s the story, if you think about it. I named the book Brick Walls, which represent the obstacles that stand in the way of the average Pakistani, no matter what economic status he or she has. These brick walls are sometimes social issues like discrimination or corruption, sometimes they are extremism, and sometimes they are stereotypes. But they all bring the characters to a point where they have to make some tough decisions. Each story discusses one obstacle or brick wall, and the character must chose a way forward. How they do that is different for each character, but the common threads are internal characteristics and qualities like resilience and courage and optimism. It’s not always a positive storyline or a happy ending, although in all the stories you see hope at the end, even when something bad happens.
Vinita Kinra: In your opinion, is writing about escaping reality or embracing it?
Saadia Faruqi: Definitely, it is about embracing reality. The thing about reality is that it’s very subjective. Truth is not a constant; it is very fluid and changes from person to person. That’s why we can have science fiction or futuristic books, or romance or zombies or anything else, but we still find those stories empowering and life-changing. That’s why I’m such a proponent of not only reading but also writing. I encourage people to write fiction and poetry and do other creative art forms because they open our minds and challenge us to see someone else’s reality. I created Blue Minaret, an online literary magazine for Muslim art, poetry and fiction just for this purpose.
Vinita Kinra: What are some of your unfulfilled dreams?
Saadia Faruqi: I always wanted to be the CEO of a successful company. I used to read magazines like Fast Company voraciously, and was always trying to come up with business ideas. I feel like I have an entrepreneurial spirit, and I loved almost every aspect of my business education. But sadly, none of my business ideas have panned out and made me filthy rich. I finally decided to use my skills and expertise to help me with book promotions, but it would have been really neat to be the next start-up success story.
Vinita Kinra: What is your life philosophy?
Saadia Faruqi: I’m an interfaith activist at heart and all of my other work, including my writing, is informed by that. My philosophy is that other people’s viewpoints and practices are equally valid and important as mine, and that peace comes through acceptance and embrace, not only through tolerating others.
Excerpt from the story, A Mother’s Heart:
“Ammi, I was thinking…” His voice trailed off, as if he didn’t know how she would react.
“What, beta?” She prompted him. His voice sounded more and more like Munir’s every day. When he had come to Lahore for the funeral she had noticed that he resembled Munir more than ever before. Thankfully that was the extent of their similarities. Her husband had been a handsome man, but his temper had not endeared him to people. Kamran on the other hand was friendly and soft spoken, making a conscious attempt not to make the same mistakes as his father had.
Kamran seemed to be thinking about Munir as well. “Now that Abba has died, why don’t you move here with me? I really worry about you being there in Pakistan all by yourself. It’s no place for an old lady, you know that.”
Farzana was suddenly incensed. Who was he calling an old lady? She wondered why he was offering this proposition today, just a week after he had announced the happy news that he and his wife Jessica were expecting their first baby. “No!” she said more forcefully than she had intended. “This is my home, I’m not moving away from here. And especially not to a country like America!”
“What’s wrong with America? It’s a great place to live, and you’ll be close to your family. Asifa’s not far from us either. Don’t you want to spend the rest of your days with us?”
“Rest of my days? Are you expecting me to die soon?” She wished he had not called that day. Her headache was back with a vengeance, reminding her that she hadn’t slept more than a few hours last night. She pledged never to stay up all night watching those idiotic television shows again.
“No Ammi, of course not!” Kamran seemed genuinely horrified at the prospect of her death. “You know we love you, we want you to be comfortable in your old age. Why would you want to live in Pakistan all alone? What’s keeping you there? Lahore isn’t the safe place it used to be, you know. It’s becoming as dangerous as Karachi.”
“Dangerous or not, this is my home. I can’t start a new life somewhere else at this age. Over here I can drive, I can go wherever I want, when I want. I know the roads, the neighborhoods. I have a few friends and relatives left. What would I do there in New Jersey, sitting at home where it snows half the year?” To Farzana, it was indeed a terrible picture: housebound, ailing, dependent on a gori.
Kamran sounded impatient. “It doesn’t snow here half the year. I’ve told you this before. It’s very beautiful most of the time.” He paused, then went on more gently. “In fact, right now it’s autumn and the trees look so beautiful: red, yellow, orange. People actually drive up here from other states to look at the fall colors. Ammi, you would love it here, I’m telling you.”
“Well, I’m sure it’s beautiful. Thank you for the offer, but I’m not interested.”
Vinita Kinra is a Toronto-based author, editor, speaker and activist, best known for her short story collection, Pavitra in Paris, launched to critical acclaim in 2013. She is also a contributor for India’s largest English daily, The Times of India.