Sabyn Javeri is a Karachi-based author. Her debut novel, ‘Nobody Killed Her’, is already a best-seller in Pakistan.
This month, British Council Karachi Library Manager, Aziz Sohail chatted with author, Sabyn Javeri ahead of her upcoming book discussion at the library on 20 May 2017.
Javeri’s debut novel, ‘Nobody Killed Her’ looks at how the friendship between two ambitious young women unfolds in a country steeped in fanaticism and patriarchy, and has been met with rave reviews.
You have had quite a journey to becoming a writer. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?
Although I used to paint, at some point I felt images were not enough to express what I was feeling. I needed words to give it meaning. The transition was so subtle and organic that it’s hard to know when I actually started writing.
In the UK, where I lived for about 17 years, I became interested in comparative literature. Having studied English Literature here in Pakistan, I felt frustrated and side-lined by the dialogues that were focusing only on white male literature. Oxford University had just started a Creative Writing Programme and I was accepted. That gave me a chance to really immerse myself in my interests in critical thinking and creative writing, which was the focus of the programme.
A lot of scholarships and discussions were around Muslim identity, something I couldn’t quite identify with, and it made me think a lot more about issues of identity. In the same vein, I never initially wanted to be a writer – it was more about critical thinking, getting a holistic education, and getting a degree.
When you were doing your PHD – is that when ‘Nobody Killed Her’ emerged?
It did actually, because there was a gap in time when I was accepted and programme started, of about six months. So I had all this research gathered, and I got thinking, why not make it more interesting, and fictionalise it?
So how many years has it been between the writing and the final publishing?
The first draft was conceived as an idea in 2011 and I finished it in 3 weeks. But that was quite a rough sketch. The actual editing and polishing took a long while and I went through many drafts. It got picked up by chance by an editor in 2012 as I was blogging it– it was almost like a fairy tale to have my book acquired at such an early stage.
But then things didn’t work out quite the way you’d planned?
Yes, in 2014, when it was nearing the post-production draft, there had to be another legal review of it. Concerns were raised that the book would attract lawsuits, so the book was dropped and I had a couple of tough years, when the book was kind of in limbo and I was in the process of moving back to Pakistan, and dealing with some health issues as well.
So how was it revived?
Once I moved back to Pakistan, I was contacted by Kanishka Gupta. He had heard of the novel and wanted to revive it and kept pursuing. I was reluctant at first, but Kan doesn’t take “No” easily. So he sent it out, and it got offers from every major publisher in India, and also Harper Collins, and they found a way around the initial legal issues.
The period of second revision also really allowed the book to address some of the initial concerns, and helped it. I ended up revising it from a different point of view and it became a much stronger story.
How would you define the novel and yourself as a writer?
If at all, I think of myself as an artist – my medium initially was the canvas. I came to this (writing) because I could not afford the space for canvases in London. As far as defining this book, I think it is a fun book, with some interesting themes about class and gender. I did not think of this as a political thriller and crime thriller.
When people tell you it’s a “page-turner”, how do you react?
This is something that I am quite happy about, because it was intentional. I have always thought that if a book could not hold my interest; if I would not want to read it, then it’s wrong to inflict it on others. I think we are living in such an age of information overload that when we write and read it should be absorbing enough to hold our attention.
Are there any writers from South Asia or beyond that you are inspired by?
I am a great fan of Ismat Chughtai. She has these quirky narrators in her works, such as ‘The Quilt’, who aren’t always the most reliable. The other writers I came to later: Quratulain Haider and Rashid Jahan. When I was younger, there weren’t a lot of Pakistani writers, especially in English, but of course there was Kamila Shamsie. I also loved ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid
“It got picked up by chance by an editor in 2012 as I was blogging it– it was almost like a fairy tale to have my book acquired at such an early stage.”
You are also a Professor at Habib University. What does it mean to you to be a teacher?
I didn’t know what my cultural identity was when I was growing up. We don’t consider Ismat Chughtai a Pakistani writer, we don’t consider Qurratulain Haider a Pakistani writer, and Khalida Husain was dismissed because she used to critique the dictatorship in the 1980’s. I used to find that very interesting: one couldn’t look back at one’s literary heritage in my time.
So then I thought it would be interesting to start courses on South Asian literary heritage and I started doing that in London, in smaller community colleges. When I moved to Pakistan, I enhanced these courses here and now I teach both literary heritage and feminist fiction.
You also teach Creative Writing, how do you find it?
Although they have some great stories to tell, students don’t think of writing as an academic discipline. Only in my Pakistani students have I come across this. Writing is considered some sort of mystical activity, which we have natural ability or talent on. This is not true in my opinion.
I don’t believe in this idea of a muse, I think it’s important to workshop and technically work on your writing, like maths for example – the more you practice, the better you get.
What advice would you give to young writers?
A lot of people think they need to write about things they know about from their own experiences, but writers are supposed to have an active imagination and inhabit worlds they don’t know. An example is Stef Penney, who wrote ‘The Tenderness of Wolves’ while suffering from agoraphobia; or Kamila Shamsie, who has written about Japan in ‘Burnt Shadows’ despite not having travelled there.
You mentioned to me that you wrote your first book in a library. Can you tell me a bit more about the importance of libraries to you as a writer?
I love libraries. When I was living in Canada Water in London, a wonderful new library came up. It was very family friendly: they had alcoves on the above level where you could sit and also keep an eye on your children below.
At first there was curiosity and when the staff realised I was writing a book they became really friendly. At times they would keep an eye on my little one for me, other times they’d offer me a coffee. If it wasn’t for that library I don’t think I would have ever had the mental or physical space to finish my book.
That is one of the most amazing things about the UK – all the libraries there. My kids read more, because they grew up there and discovered reading. Libraries are really important in bringing together people from different communities and instilling a love of reading. They expand your mind and they help you grow.
Thanks so much for your time Sabyn!