The unrestrained author

By Erum Noor Muzaffar
Tue, 03, 19

This week You! talks to Sabyn Javeri about her new book ‘Hijabistan’ and her passion for writing...

This week You! talks to Sabyn Javeri about her new book ‘Hijabistan’ and her passion for writing...

Sabyn Javeri is an award winning short story writer and the author of the novel ‘Nobody Killed Her’, a political thriller based on the assassination of a female politician in an Islamic country (Harper Collins, 2017). Her new book, ‘Hijabistan’, a collection of politically provocative short stories about life beyond the veil, is out in February 2019. Sabyn’s short fiction has been published in The London Magazine, The South Asian Review, Bengal Lights, Wasafiri and Sugar Mule amongst others, and in anthologies by Women Unlimited, Harper Collins, OUP and The Feminist Press. She has won The Oxonian Review short story award and was shortlisted for the Leaf Prize and the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize. She recently introduced and edited the Arzu Anthology of student voices - the first of its kind creative writing initiative in higher education Pakistan.

Sabyn is a graduate of University of Oxford and has a PhD from Leicester University. She lives between UK and Pakistan and currently teaches Literature and Creative Writing at Habib University, Karachi. In an exclusive interview with You! Sabyn talks about her new book and her passion for writing...

You! Why did you choose the title ‘Hijabistan’ for your second book?

Sabyn Javeri: ‘Hijabistan’ is a collection of confrontational and inspiring short stories about the hijab not as a garment but as a state of mind. I have chosen this title as it is catchy, relatable and perfectly describes the state of seclusion women in Pakistan face. The hijab constricts as it liberates. Not just a piece of garment, it is a worldview, an emblem of the assertion of a Muslim woman’s identity, and equally a symbol of oppression.

You! What inspired you to write Hijabistan?

SJ: For me, it is a book about women and men and the divide between them. This veiled or hidden divide is what symbolises the hijab for me. And the stories in this collection address that. Since moving back to Pakistan three years ago, I had become more aware of the duplicity around me that women in Pakistan have to adopt to do what they want and it is this cover-up that inspired me to write Hijabistan.

You! What’s the basic idea of ‘Hijabistan’?

SJ: The basic idea is to tell stories of how women in traditional Muslim societies, such as ours, negotiate life. The veil or the hijab sometimes acts us an enabler and at other times as an oppressor. It shelters just as it suppresses. Set between Pakistan and the UK, this unusual and provocative collection of short stories explores the lives of women crushed under the weight of the all-encompassing veil and those who feel sheltered and empowered by it.

You! How would you describe Hijabistan to someone who has not read your previous book?

SJ: This is very different from my earlier work which was a political thriller. These are brave, gutsy stories of very courageous women who refuse to bend down before patriarchy. These are stories of women who live life on their own terms.

You! How long did it take you to finish your second book?

SJ: It took me barely two months. I wrote it last summer. The stories just came to me in dreams, thoughts, mid-sentence, and mid-step. It was as if I was in a trance. As I work full time in a busy institution and I am also a working parent, I don’t get long stretches of time. I write in between cooking, or teaching, or helping my children in their homework. Shakespeare would turn in his grave.

You! How different is it from your first book?

SJ: Extremely different in the way it is written as ‘Nobody Killed Her’ was a political thriller loosely inspired by Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Unlike ‘Nobody Killed Her’ which was about female power and ambition ‘Hijabistan’ is about disempowerment and inhibition. It looks at women’s sexuality, something that no other (at least not Muslim South Asian) female writer has done since Ismat Chugtai’s ‘The Quilt’. It questions why we don’t respect our women till we desexualise them; why the assertion of sexuality by the female gender is considered shameful and punishable in our societies therefore the hijab in question here is not the physical garment that shelters the body but the metaphorical veil that is placed over female desires. The forced covering up of women’s sexuality is the hijab in question here. However, the themes of power and ambition and female sexuality are similar in both books.

You! How have the readers received your work so far?

SJ: ‘Nobody Killed Her’ was very well received in India, but in Pakistan a lot of people were too centered on the Benazir angle to accept that the book was a piece of fiction. I felt it was narrow and short-sighted of them. With Hijabistan, people are shocked. It is a bold book and my heroines in the book are badass and gutsy women. Not easy to digest for an average Pakistani reader.

You! What is a typical writing day like for you? Do you keep to a set schedule?

SJ: Haha. Hardly. I get up at 6 am to get my kids ready and off to school, then I am at work 9 to 6 and when I get back I cook and look after my kids. By the time my head hits the pillow, I am completely exhausted. I write during school holidays when I get a break from the rude 6 am wake up call. But all year round, I store ideas in my head. I am like a bear hibernating my creativity. And when the time gets the words flow quickly onto paper.

You! Have you ever faced writer’s block?

SJ: No. I think writing is like any other sport or activity. The more you practice the better you get.

You! What is the most important advice you can give to women?

SJ: Don’t look for validation. You yourself hold the power to be. Learn to love yourself.

You! What’s your take on feminist movements like Me Too?

SJ: It’s an important movement. Both women and men have come out as victims of abuse and as they say, the first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge it.

You! What is the most important relationship lesson you have learnt so far?

SJ: When I lost my mother in 2017, I realised that you have to measure life by the moments that take your breath away and not by the breaths you take. Appreciate people in your life while they are there because life is fickle. You never know how long you have someone for the only certain thing in life is death.

You! What is your favourite subject which is close to your heart?

SJ: Food.

You! What are your five favourite books - and why?

SJ: I love ‘English Patient’ for Michael Ojante’s beautiful prose, ‘Gone Girl’ for its twists and turns, ‘History of love’ by Nicole Kraus for the fluidity of her narrative, ‘Mantonama’ for the way Manto tries to assert female sexuality and everything by Ismat Chugtai because her storytelling skills are unmatched.

You! What are your favourite books to get as gifts?

SJ: Blank Notebooks with beautiful covers.

You! What did you like to read when you were a little girl?

SJ: Strangely, I loved Famous Five series by Enid Blyton . I was also a great fan of Naunehal.

You! Do you agree that writing is a strong tool to change mindsets?

SJ: Yes, because it forces you to consider another point of view. I know many people who are homophobic but when they read a book like ‘The Single Man’ or ‘Philadelphia’, they empathise with the gay character. That’s because literature creates an empathy that news can’t.

You! Why do you write?

SJ: Because I want to be heard.

You! What is your opinion regarding ebooks? Do you think people would be still reading books in print?

SJ: Yes, I think nothing can replace the smell of paper, the pleasure of holding a book in your hands, the weight of it, the sensuousness of it.

You! What is your advice to aspiring writers?

SJ: Revise, edit, repeat.

You! Have you thought of writing in Urdu?

SJ: Yes, I have. I am hoping to write a play in Urdu.

You! When you are not working, what are some of your favourite ways to relax and have fun?

SJ: I love to have cardamom tea, samosa and read a good book. My guilty pleasures in life!

You! What’s next in your agenda?

SJ: It’s a secret. You will have to interview me again next year to find out!

Note: Hijabistan is available at Liberty book stores.