"Independence Day ‘festivities’ involved marching between an icon of Jesus and Mary, which I associated with our colonial past, and the Islamic flag, which I associated with our military present."
The Geometry of Uzma Aslam Khan
World Pulse looks to Pakistani writer and rising star Uzma Aslam Khan to learn about her forthcoming book, The Geometry of God, her meditations on Obama, and her vision for her homeland.
With her sharp intellect, passionate politics, and love of her native Pakistan, Uzma Aslam Khan is a writer in every sense of the word. Khan grew up in post-Partition Karachi, an experience which indelibly informs her life as an activist, essayist, and teacher. Now, with three novels behind her, and another on the way, Khan aggressively combats the stereotypes surrounding Muslim women, both in the way she leads her own life and through her characters who are sensual, fully developed women in control of their own destinies.
You are a rare writer for these times in that you don't limit yourself to just one form of writing. You're a novelist, an activist, and an essayist. How do you view the relationship between writing and activism? What does your activism look like?
Culture, politics, art, history, sexuality—in my writing, all are interlinked, without my even knowing it till I’m done. Sometimes it helps to explore the connection through imaginary tangential worlds, sometimes through more direct means. The beauty of fiction is that you tap into hidden layers of your subconscious and the process is what I can best describe as an act of faith. You can’t calculate a novel; you can only surrender to it. But non-fiction is somewhat different. I often use the metaphor of driving to differentiate between the two processes. When I write non-fiction, I’m in the driver’s seat. I have a thesis; I know what I have to say, I just have to find how to say it. When I write fiction, I’m the passenger of a vehicle that has its own momentum, on a road with its own rules.
I don’t know which kind of writing is more ‘activist.’ All aspects of my life complement each other—writing, traveling, teaching, and all help me see the world differently, force me to question my preconceptions, coax others to do the same. In my latest novel, The Geometry of God, a character says, “If you want to tell a different story, live a different life.” I would want to live like that.
How much of your writing is influenced by your own life and personal experiences? Specifically, what was your experience growing up in Karachi during a period marked by turbulence and conflict?
My father’s family were Partition refugees. They came to Pakistan during the bloody riots of 1947. They lost family; they came with nothing. It wasn’t until I wrote my second novel, Trespassing , that I began to be aware of how much my own experiences, and those of my family, have influenced my work, because I am rather obsessed with how the maps of so much of the world are still being drawn by those who do not suffer the consequences of their drawings. The maps of "free" Pakistan and India were drawn by the British, with no consideration to the people affected by them, following no natural markers, cultural, or geographical. Unsurprisingly, they produced communities which continue today to feel displaced, and who nurse a profound sorrow that the land is still being shaped from without.
I grew up in Karachi during General Zia’s regime (1979-1988), when the CIA was pouring billions of dollars into the dictator’s pocket to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Pakistan teemed with drugs and arms, most of which trickled south to Karachi. The result was a nasty ethnic war between the indigenous people of Sindh and the Urdu-speaking migrants who’d settled in Karachi after Partition. People began calling this dark period a Second Partition. The Second Partition was my transition from childhood to adulthood. At my school—a Convent set up by the British—Independence Day ‘festivities’ involved marching between an icon of Jesus and Mary, which I associated with our colonial past, and the Islamic flag, which I associated with our military present. I’d march between the two icons and wonder if anybody understood how any of it happened.
I’m still wondering how it happened. I doubt I’ve ever stopped marching between those two icons, one of imperialism, the other of militarism. What I understand now is that the hunger to know my place in these chaotic layers helped make me a writer. It’s the hunger to make up for what was never said.
As a Pakistani woman writer, do you feel you face special challenges? If so, what are these challenges, and what has allowed you to overcome them? Can you discuss the role of women writers in Pakistan's literary scene?
In Pakistan my access to material is hampered because I’m a woman. When I began writing The Geometry of God, I wanted to set the entire novel outdoors, partly because I think Pakistan is beautiful and I wanted to walk that beauty and explore it in writing, but also as an act of resistance. I’m so tired of reading books in which Asian women who live in Asia are described as passive, pathetic creatures, while those who live in the west are somehow ‘liberated.’ These books typically begin with a woman in the kitchen chopping onions or having a baby, or both. I wanted mine to begin with a woman in the mountains. Geometry is in part about a girl called Amal who, while on a fossil dig in the Salt Range of the Punjab with her grandfather, accidentally makes an astonishing discovery about whales. I wanted the complete story to unfold in the mountains. But my mobility was restricted, both because the area is army-run and because it’s difficult for an ‘unaccompanied’ woman to explore freely. My restrictions became Amal’s, I wove them into the story, much of which is now set in Lahore.
Another challenge is writing about sex. All three of my novels have frank sex scenes told from the points of view of both men and women, and this has offended some people. Other Pakistani women tiptoe around sex when they write about it. I don’t see why I should do that. I like to describe sex. I like to describe everything I write about. These details matter to me a lot. I don’t let this challenge become an obstacle.
The third challenge is perhaps the hardest, and this is the marketing in the west of eastern women writers, particularly of Muslim background. Take, for instance, the hysteria with which “life narratives” by “Muslim women” are consumed. . . .