Murky Pakistani politics inspire City of Spies
Sorayya Khan is the author of three novels, City of Spies (2015), Five Queen’s Road (2009), and Noor (2003). She is the recipient of a Fulbright award and Malahat Review Novella Prize, and City of Spies was the 2015 winner of the Best International Fiction Book at the Sharjah Book Fair. Her work has appeared in Guernica, The Kenyon Review, North American Review, and Journal of Narrative Politics, among others.
Vinita Kinra: Welcome to Global Asian Times, Sorayya. Tell us something about yourself not many people are aware of.
Sorayya Khan: Thank you for your interest in my work. I like to ski, and one day, plan to find the courage to try snowboarding at least once.
Vinita Kinra: As a girl, did you know you were going to be a writer?
Sorayya Khan: No, I didn’t realize I wanted to be a writer until much later. I studied international relations at graduate school and then took up a job with an international organization, which had been my goal. It didn’t take me long to determine that my dream was not, in fact, to pursue such a career. In the subsequent confusion, I began to write. I discovered that writing spoke to me in a way that nothing else did, and I slowly came to see that I wanted to devote myself to it.
Vinita Kinra: What triggered the urge for your latest book, City of Spies?
Sorayya Khan: It was less an urge than an insistent need, and it had me in its grip before I knew I would be a writer. I grew up in Islamabad in the 1970s and the reality of a general’s rule and a prime minister’s hanging sunk in my imagination and stayed there. When I arrived at college in a small town in the US, my distance from that reality felt unbridgeable and I began to wonder if narrative might draw my worlds together. I needed such a story, but I didn’t imagine writing it until I became a writer, and even then, while I knew I wanted to tell this story, I didn’t find a way until I’d already written two novels.
Vinita Kinra: Your main protagonist in City of Spies shares your heritage: Pakistani father and Dutch mother. Did you make a conscious decision to create fiction that people would relate to easily if it was steeped in reality?
Sorayya Khan: I didn’t make such a decision—fiction is steeped in reality in the sense that imaginary worlds are informed by the writer’s life, even when they may appear utterly divergent to a reader. I decided to give Aliya a mixed heritage because it serves the purpose of the story, which is fundamentally an exploration of mixed loyalties and what such a conflict means for a young girl trying to make sense of her place in the world.
Vinita Kinra: Tell us about your debut novel, Noor and what urged you to embark upon your literary career with this novel.
Sorayya Khan: Noor was my second attempt at writing a novel; the first was an unpublished multi-generational family saga that was too ambitious for a budding writer. I began Noor as an experiment: Could I write a more contained story, at least in terms of number of characters and chronology? With regard to subject matter, I’d been curious about the 1971 war since I was a child. It was odd even then that a war which had claimed half the country and 90,000 prisoners of war (and had so much controversy surrounding it) was not much discussed. In Noor, I wanted to explore that silence, what it means for a soldier who returns from war and assimilates back into society, and what it means for his family. How does his family reconcile (if it does) his role as father, husband and son with what he has seen and done during war?
Vinita Kinra: Your novel, Five Queens Road is a complex exploration of human frailties set in Partition time Lahore depicting this tragic chapter of history by means of a divided house being shared by a Muslim and Hindu family. How were you able to accomplish this gigantic task without living through this traumatic period of history?
Sorayya Khan: While the generation that experienced Partition is now slowly dying out, we grew up on its stories. In this way, we learned what Partition was like, even for those, like my father’s family, which was already in Lahore and did not cross borders. Perhaps there is almost a body memory that has been passed along, whether in the form of stories we grew up on, or in the traumas that our parents’ generation survived. Further, as with my other novels, I conducted extensive research, which in this case included interviewing family members, listening to an archive of interviews my brother compiled for another project, reading newspapers and other accounts, studying maps, and looking at photographs. I was also lucky to have amazing cousins who confirmed details about Lahore’s flora, geographic details, and a sundry of other things.
Vinita Kinra: Would you have been as inclined or subconsciously obligated to write even if you didn’t have a Pakistani lineage?
Sorayya Khan: Probably not, but I can’t be sure. My heritage has absolutely helped in driving me toward writing as a way of exploring connections between different histories, places, and narratives. I don’t think I would have the urgency to explore connections or weave wholes out of pieces if I wasn’t rooted in multiple places.
Vinita Kinra: What was the biggest challenge you faced while writing your book?
Sorayya Khan: It took me many years and several drafts before I discovered that Aliya could tell her own story, that she did not require the voices of adults to fill in historical details and provide larger context. In fact, it wasn’t immediately clear to me that Aliya’s story was best told through her eyes, and my challenge was taking so long to arrive at this conclusion. Still, the challenge helped the story. Since it was written from multiple perspectives in previous drafts, I had a much wider and more detailed perspective from which to draw details and pare down the story. In the end, the abundance of points of view helped provide clarity for what was crucial to Aliya’s story alone.
Vinita Kinra: What does the art of telling tales and weaving words do for you on a personal level?
Sorayya Khan: As a writer, I have to be engaged with the tale and therefore must explore what is meaningful to me. If writing a novel is not doing work for me at some level, what’s the point of committing to the tale? So the questions I raise in my work are questions that interest me in my life. How are we shaped by politics? What does this process look like? How do families survive the world? Writing novels gives me the freedom to explore issues from multiple perspectives and get a closer look at our complicity.
Vinita Kinra: How important is the commercial side of promoting and selling your books as opposed to the sheer joy of creative writing?
Sorayya Khan: There is no doubt that the commercial side of promoting and selling books is important, and the reality of doing this is very different from the task of writing which is sometimes less than joyful, but always creative. The commercial side requires a different hat, one that doesn’t come as easily to me and I’m still learning to wear.
Vinita Kinra: What is your life philosophy?
Sorayya Khan: My father used to tell us when we were children that hard work is never wasted. I’m not entirely convinced this is true (and it always seems less so when I abandon a draft), but I pretend it is, because the mantra helps me persevere. The philosophy has helped me in writing books and raising children and doing everything else that has given me joy in life.
One morning, I woke up just when my father rose to say his prayers. He had a travel shortwave radio in his hands and was adjusting its antenna. He was not a tall man; in fact, he was two inches shorter than my mother, but when he stood above us as we lay on our rolled out mattresses, he was a giant. He tried to hop over both Lehla and me in one go, and I was very lucky his foot missed my head.
He suddenly called, ‘Abaji, Abaji,’ as if he’d forgotten his father was deaf, and then, remembering, shouted louder and louder as if that would make a difference.
‘What IS it?’ Lehla cried, annoyed at being woken so early.
Knowing I wouldn’t be able to sleep again, I wrapped a chaddar over my pajamas and wandered into the next room. ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.
My father handed me the newspaper he was holding and said, ‘Have you seen this?’ fully aware that I couldn’t have. Below the large bold print of the heading, Pakistan Times, the newsprint was missing. ‘This is censorship.’
Lehla groaned from the other room where she lay with a sheet over her face and complained about early mornings and loud voices.
‘There has been a coup,’ my father said after a moment. ‘The prime minister is in custody and martial law has been declared.’
Martial law sounded like the Marshall Plan I’d learned about in school, but clearly it wasn’t the same thing. I studied the Pakistan Times, noticing the formal portrait of a military general splashed across the page. The general’s eyes were cast down, as if he were posing reluctantly, like a Pakistani bride. He had a bushy moustache and sleepy eyes and a row of medals pinned across his shoulders.
When my grandfather returned from the mosque, he took a seat at the head of the dining table.
‘Abaji, you have heard?’ my father asked. He placed the newspaper near his father’s plate. Without glancing at it, my grandfather pushed it away. He fashioned a bite-size packet of halva and poori on his plate and put it in his mouth, his dentures clicking. I wished I could eat my halva as skillfully. Yunis, my grandfather’s servant, brought him the lukewarm glass of water he consumed at the same time every day, and we all watched him drain the glass in one gulp.
The three radios in the house played different newscasts—the BBC, VOA and Deutsche Welle offering the news in British English, American English and German—with equal solemnity.
‘Allah,’ my grandfather finally said.
‘Allah,’ my father replied, both men invoking God in what was an ironic precursor to the general’s plans to introduce Him into every aspect of our lives and the country.
‘God save your job,’ my grandfather said to my father as he put more halva in his mouth. My father had laid down his cutlery in an effort to listen. ‘Not that you’re any good at it.’
My father tried to explain to us what had happened. ‘The army has taken over. The Constitution has been suspended, the national assembly has been dissolved and the governors and chief ministers have been fired.’
‘What will there be instead?’ I asked.
‘Whatever the general wishes,’ he answered without hesitation.
About the interviewer:
Vinita Kinra, featured among 150 most remarkable Canadians, 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.