Creating more space for Pakistani YA literature

By Tooba Ghani
Fri, 02, 19

One problem with literature festivals is they always turn out to be a huge disappointment for young people.....


One problem with literature festivals is they always turn out to be a huge disappointment for young people. Not a single session is properly devoted to engage young people in literary discussions that are relevant to them. I am sure students already studying Pakistan Studies at schools and colleges wouldn’t want to listen to a discussion on a hardcore political thriller or about how pathetic Sindh and Punjab textbooks are. And that’s why you will see groups of students in uniforms roaming around with fries and drinks in their hands trying to escape the boredom inflicted by such sessions.

So at Adab Festival 2019, after attending a mentally exhausting session on educational policies of Pakistan, I rushed to see my friend. Then, on her advice, I attended a bite-size session on the book A Firefly in the Dark by Shazaf Fatima Haider; it was surely a relief from the monotony of the festival!

What excited me was A Firefly in the Dark is a young-adult fiction book and that it explores fantastical ideas that exist in our society because there are not many Pakistani English writers who choose to write for younger audiences. If you just look at the books being discussed at the festival, you will realize majority of them are for mature adults who have a strong understanding of the world around them.

The other thing is the intriguing storyline of the book. The story revolves around the life of Sharmeen who moves into her Nani’s rambling ancestral bungalow with her family after an unexpected tragedy. She hates this new life: her mother, Aliya, and Nani fight constantly; her new schoolmates bully her; and the family retainer, her loving Aziz Bhai, suddenly becomes dominating. The only place where Sharmeen finds solace is the world of Nani’s fantastical stories: tales of jinn, shape-shifters and other dastardly creatures. But slowly, unseen forces that had lain dormant for centuries start to awaken. Sharmeen meets her own personal jinn, the prankster Jugnu, who reveals her family’s history, a pact one of her ancestors made with the jinn-world, and also some not-so-good news-and Sharmeen realizes that it is up to her to rescue the adults in her life.

In order to make the book even more meaningful for young people, Shazaf Fatima encourages readers to look for these themes in the book:

  • Sometimes adults aren’t able to help us so it’s the force of our imagination that liberates us from our worries.
  • Whenever someone acts crazy, we say the person must be possessed by some jinn. But it’s not the case. So we’re treating different types of jinns as metaphors in the book for our weaknesses and fears. For example, Sharmeen’s mother is possessed by her sense of helplessness and anxiety. While Jugnu is a jinn that tells Sharmeen a story in the book. There is no magic here! Sharmeen creates stories in her head but the fact that Jugnu exists gives her strength and stories are powerful enough to control you.
  • Conflicts are an integral part of our relationship. The love and hate relationship young people have with their parents is healthy and we should all understand that. The only difficult thing is to figure out where the conflict should begin and end.

A Firefly in the Dark is now part of the curriculum of The C.A.S School, Karachi. This is a great development since Pakistani English Fiction is never considered suitable to be for curriculums. We all grew up reading western authors only and have always wanted to read stories that have characters from our own community. By encouraging more and more local authors to write for young-adults, we will not just empower our communities but also start a dialogue with our curious young readers.

Now let’s see what Shazaf has to say about the creative process of writing...

Writing is ever-changing and full of uncertainties

Writing sounds fun when you’re not doing it. And when you actually do it, you realize it’s very demanding. Every time you write, you see that the process is different which makes it even more difficult. When I was working on How it Happened, I was so excited that I finished writing my first draft in four months and then spent rest of the time editing it. But A Firefly in the Dark took a lot of time; I was sketching out every single detail and constantly worrying about adding twists to the story and how I was going to solve different problems in the story. Sometimes I was not even sure how the story would unfold with every chapter I wrote. Writing felt more like a deliberate action and it’s completely normal if your writing isn’t like a flowing river.

All you need is an active imagination

There are a lot of technical details regarding the jinns in the book. Some of that comes from my background reading, which includes Paradise Lost by John Milton and Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar by Robert Lebling, but most of it is a creation of my imagination. No particular research was conducted so I pretty much relied on my imagination and what I learned from this is that your imagination has incredible power to build unique narratives from bits of information in your head. It might feel too weird and senseless in the beginning to just write on the basis of your imagination; just don’t let these feelings stop you from writing.

Just know that you’re writing it for yourself

During the process of writing, it gets extremely discouraging when you start thinking about publishing. Stop thinking about: who is going to publish my book? What if nobody cares? Will my book make to the bookstores? Focus on writing only. Writing and publishing are two different things.

Writers need critical friends

Don’t show your work to everyone! Only choose a set of close friends who are capable of giving constructive feedback in a kind way.

- By Tooba Ghani