Through a prism of humour and desire
It’s an interesting time to be an author, says Soniah Kamal, the Pakistan-born writer.
Soniah Kamal was born in Pakistan and raised in England and Saudi Arabia. She wrote a weekly satire column (2002-2004) for the national newspaper The Daily Times in Pakistan and her essay on her father’s political imprisonment during the 1999 coup in Pakistan is included n the anthology Voices of Resistance: Muslim Women on War, Faith and Sexuality, published by Seal Press U.S. Excerpts from a conversation.
I see humor and satire in your writing. Is there any special reason for this?
Women have always lived their lives through the prism of humour and satire and female writers are great chroniclers of this, be it Muriel Spark or Dorothy Parker or the wonderful Jane Austen. Closer home, the funniest novel yet is Bapsi Sidhwa’s The Crow Eaters. Of course, any author can decide to write ‘humour and satire’ but I think more often than not if an author views the world with humour, satire, then chances are their words reflect this.
You criticise patriarchy in strong terms. What kind of a response have you received?
I’ve always had a positive response since the issues I write about affect both men and women. However, on occasion some man will ask if I ‘dislike men’. Not At All. What I dislike is the patriarchal mindset which assumes that men know what is best for women, and really this is a mindset which many women subscribe to as well.
Born in Pakistan, raised in England and Saudi Arabia, graduated from America, you have lived in different cultures. How has that shaped your perspective on gender?
My perspective on life and living, it continues to change day by day but, yes, in having to navigate these very different countries at a very early age I noticed that there was no one right way to live, and more interestingly, how each country, each culture tends to think they are better than the others. It will be interesting to see how such tendencies will play out in this era of increasing globalisation which by nature demands an emphasis on universalities. Does globalisation lend a false sense of cohesiveness or is the world creeping towards becoming one big happy family?
One thing for sure, people are increasingly rising against a sense of unfairness, is it to overthrow dictatorial political systems or to protest against unfair economic policies? I think protest over complacency is always healthy because nestled within protest is the hope that things can change for the better.
What do you think of God of Small Things and the activism of Arundhati Roy?
I think she is a wonderful writer, and her activism and essays have turned her into a controversial figure which means that she is always thought provoking and really that is all one can hope from a writer or public figure: that they are able to make people think, debate, and rethink.
Who inspires you? Who are your favorite women writers from Pakistan?
To know about women writers in Pakistan I will recommend two short story anthologies. And the World Changed edited by Muneeza Shamsie, and Neither Night Nor Day edited by Rakhshanda Jalil. Both anthologies feature brilliant stories by emerging women writers.
As for those who inspire me, there are just too many writers to mention! I am inspired by every writer who has the discipline to sit down and write a story as well as believe in the magic and importance of storytelling despite the constant reports that supposedly no one reads anymore.
You know, a long time ago I thought a Pakistani or Indian author trying to get published in the U.S. was like an American author trying to publish a Western novel in India. I mean how many novels on Cowboys or Belles would an Indian publishing house take on, and what would the reader expectations be? Instead of the mangos, monkeys, Taj Mahal and arranged marriages, would a South Asian reader expect mention of apple pie, Yankee Doodle, Disneyland and latchkey kids complete with a glossary? Little did I know then that there would come a day when the Indian Publishing scene would take off the way it has and that authors from other countries would clamour to be published in our neck of the woods, that there would be amazing literary festivals in Jaipur and in Karachi, and prestigious literary prizes for South Asian authors judged by South Asian literati. I mean despite all the ‘doom and gloom’ of how no one is reading, it is still an exciting time to be an author because in some parts of the worlds the number of readers are growing and novels and stories are very much alive!!
What do you think of Obama? Would you elect him a second time?
I was blown away by President Obama’s beautifully written memoir Dreams of my Father. His diverse background, his upbringing, his perspective was riveting: he was black, white, Christian, Muslim, and most thrilling of all an American with an immigrant soul, or else an immigrant with an American soul. For these reasons he certainly deserved a first chance in the White House, and as for a second chance, what are the alternatives? Americans are in just as much of a conundrum about whom they want to see leading their country as Pakistanis are about Pakistan. While the U.S. has of course always practised democracy, Pakistan weaves in and out of democracy and dictatorship as if the two are equal systems which they are not. I stand by my position that a bad democracy is better than any benevolent dictatorship.
Thenmozhi is a Tamil writer.