A woman of substance

By Erum Noor Muzaffar
Tue, 11, 21

This week You! talks to publisher and writer Shahbano Alvi, who has come up with her debut collection of short stories …

A woman of substance

Shahbano Alvi is a gifted writer. She writes short stories in English and Urdu. Her first two stories, ‘The Red Floor’ and ‘Bhalla Sahab’, which appeared in the international journal Kitaab in 2018 and 2019 respectively, created quite a stir among literary circles. Her first collection of English short stories ‘A Woman and the Afternoon Sun’ was published in the summer of 2021.

While admiring Shahbano Alvi’s style of writing, Aamer Hussein, an acclaimed short story writer and critic, states, “Her fictions are brief: her voice is quiet, though often deceptively so. Her settings are frequently local and domestic, but her deftly painted backdrops announce the bigger stories of her region and her time.”

A woman of substance

“This is a collection of short stories which sets out to explore complex emotions, challenge patriarchal mores and social platitudes, and assumptions where small daily events or incidents can assume a metaphorical significance,” observes Muneeza Shamsie, a noted author and critic.

Asif Farrukhi, another distinguished writer and critic, feels that there is freshness in Alvi’s work. “The stories are well written and free of hackneyed situations or experiences,” he adds.

Shahbano Alvi is a graduate in graphic design from the department of Art and Design at the University of the Punjab (Lahore), and does photography and printmaking in her free time. She has exhibited her woodcuts and portraits in pastel both nationally and internationally.

Shahbano Alvi lives in Karachi and is the founder and CEO of the independent publishing house ‘Ushba’, founded in 2001. She set up the design department of the Oxford University Press, Pakistan in 1991. As head of the design department at the Oxford University Press Pakistan, she handled both the educational and academic and general books from 1991-98. She has also written poems in Urdu for the Oxford University Press educational books. She has also translated works from Urdu and English.

Her collection of Urdu short stories is ready for publication in the year 2022. In an exclusive interview with You! magazine, Shahbano Alvi shares her thoughts and an incessant love for writing…

Shahbano at a book signing event
Shahbano at a book signing event

You! What inspired you to write ‘A Woman and the Afternoon Sun’?

Shahbano Alvi: After I lost my husband suddenly, I continued to live my life normally not letting the grief and shock take over my life. Two years later there came a time when my mind might have needed some kind of solace, so one day I just started writing while sitting in my office; and the stories kept popping in my mind. It was very cathartic.

You! Why did you choose the title ‘A Woman and the Afternoon Sun’ for your debut book?

SA: Most of my stories are taken from settings around my life spread over a long period of time. Afternoon is a very nostalgic time for me and the title came from a long short story in the book.

You! Can you tell us what your book, ‘A Woman and the Afternoon Sun’, is all about? What message did you want to get across?

SA: The book comprises stories about life as I have seen it around me. I don’t think there is a conscious message that I want to get across, but most of the stories are ‘open ended’ which leave a certain space for the reader to think about and form their own conclusions. I believe that as a society we need to think for ourselves individually instead of relying on other peoples’ opinions, constant onslaught of news, propaganda etc.

You! Why short stories?

SA: I like short stories. A novel needs luxury of time whereas short stories offer people an instant read.

A woman of substance

You! Where did you get your ideas for your characters?

SA: The characters in my stories are developed from the life that I have lived.

You! How long did it take to finish your book? Could you tell us a little bit about your path to publication? – From the itch of writing, the seed of an idea – through to finding an agent and being published?

SA: I started writing in December 2017 and it took me 10 months to finish my initial 15 stories which I sent to an agent in UK who liked the manuscript enough to keep it with him instead of rejecting it immediately. But after four months I got impatient and started asking him for a timeline. So, another two months, later he said he didn’t have the time and sent back my manuscript. Needless to say I was really annoyed with myself for my misplaced impatience. Then I sent it to Oxford University Press and they accepted it for publishing after they got it reviewed and vetted and sent me the contract. But before I could sign it their policy of publishing first time authors’ literary works was changed and I got back my manuscript again. Then I found out in the spring of 2020 that Liberty books have started their publishing programme. By then I had written eight more stories and so I sent it to them and the manuscript was accepted and published.

You! For you, what makes a great story?

SA: I like stories that lead a person to start thinking from where the story finishes and stay in one’s mind long after one has finished reading.

You! What’s your favourite short story from your book?

SA: The long short story ‘A woman and the afternoon sun’, ‘The Red Floor’ and ‘The Little Brown Bird’.

You! Why is there a strong sense of sadness and melancholy in your short stories?

SA: It is not a conscious effort but I suppose when I lost my husband in 2015, my life changed. My husband was my best friend and although we maintained our own lifestyles giving each other a lot of space, we had been there for each other for more than forty years as friends. It is sad to lose a friend; which must have reflected in whatever I wrote.

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

SA: I think the reviews have been favourable.

You! Do you have a writing routine? If so, what does a typical writing day look like for you?

SA: I don’t have a writing routine but when anything around me – significant or insignificant – touches my heart, a story takes shape in my mind and then I write.

You! Have you ever faced writer’s block?

SA: Not when I was writing my first two collections but yes now that I am working on the stories of my third collection – second in English – I do have to stop for days while writing.

A woman of substance

You! What are the challenges, in your eyes, that are being faced by women today?

SA: Challenges are faced by both men and women, but because as a society there have been more rules and laws that are made with discrimination between the two sexes it affects women more. Having said that, I think it is more of a struggle between the classes; an influential man or woman can play havoc in a poor man’s life or a woman’s.

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

SA: To try and live a life of dignity, commitment and self-respect.

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

SA: One must give space and respect in any relationship for it to survive well and long.

You! Any top tips you'd like to share with other writers starting out?

SA: One should look around life and write about it from one’s own perspective.

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

SA: Compassion, a non-judgmental attitude and tolerance.

You! What are your 5 favourite books and why?

SA: Al Ghazali’s Mishkat al-Anwar, Mahmud Shabistari’s ‘The Secret Garden’, Altaf Fatima’s ‘Dastak na do’, ‘Punj Ganj Malfoozaat’ and short stories of Dostoevsky and Somerset Maugham. I suppose the subjects interest me and are close to my heart.

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

SA: There was no question of liking or not liking. I read voraciously any book that I found, from the age of 10 I think. My earliest memory of a novel is Roopmati aur Bazbahadur and a children’s novel Shahzadi Shaharbano. My mother read literature and detective stories in English and Urdu and my father was interested in spiritual and mindful books. I read nearly all; some I understood, most I like to think I must have absorbed. I remember reading war stories a lot and most visuals I imagined have stayed with me. My brothers and I would also order children’s books and magazines and Ibne Safi’s Imran series and Jasoosi dunya novels through the VPP mail system.

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

SA: Yes. At least it sows a seed in the mind of the reader that can or cannot take life.

You! Why do you write?

SA: I have to write when stories start taking shape in my mind.

You! Do you think that in twenty years, people will still like to read books in print or eBooks will dominate the era?

SA: I think both have their faithful followers which is how it will remain.

You! If you could offer one piece of advice to writers looking for their work to be published, what would it be?

SA: To go on trying doggedly without giving up.

You! Tell us a bit about your upcoming short stories in Urdu?

SA: It is a collection of 11 short stories and 6 sketches of people I have known, titled, Aaj seh ho ja razi. The title encompasses the gist of the stories.

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

SA: Reading, watching comedy and musical plays and movies, playing scrabble and solving Sudoku puzzles.

You! Your philosophy of life:

SA: Live and let live with a tolerant and non-judgmental attitude. I believe in the saying, ‘This too shall pass’ and wait patiently for life to pass.

You! What’s next on your agenda?

SA: I am working on my next English collection of short stories.