Sidra F. Sheikh is based in Lahore, a mother of two, a BSc. grad from The London School of Economics, has a spot on the Board of Governors of The Gulab Devi Trust Hospital, and a license to practice law in the High Courts of England and Pakistan. None of which helped her write a humorous sci-fi novel, ‘The Light Blue Jumper’. This novel features interplanetary forces and the spirit of an intergalactic revolution that has been praised for breaking away from the stereotypical mould of Pakistani fiction and conquering new ground. Critics have argued that this novel is fundamentally distinct from “the more common brooding expositions on identity, nationalism and the post-colonial self”. In an exclusive interview with You!, Sidra discusses the scope for sci-fi writing in Pakistan and the creative choices that fuelled her debut book…
What compelled you to write a sci-fi novel at a time when most Pakistani writers were focusing on realist fiction?
Sidra F Sheikh: I wrote what I wanted to read. As Toni Morrison says, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it”. I know that there is a lot of wonderful work coming out of Pakistan and I appreciate all of it – however, I wanted to do something outside the confines of the general tropes of poverty, desi aunties, terrorism, mangoes in the monsoon and so forth. I have nothing against literature that is rooted in the geography of a place or provides a window into its culture, if that is the story that burns through your soul. What I do not agree with, is for this expectation to become a burden imposed on the writer; a fetter on our creativity.
Writers have to be able to write about what they want to write about. Just because we are under-represented in the international arena or we belong to a developing country doesn’t mean that we have to write only in a certain way and about certain things. It doesn’t mean that all our stories have to be set in Pakistan or feature Pakistani characters or be very seriously told for that matter. This desire to ‘highlight issues’ or ‘convey a message’ is something that I can understand but I don’t necessarily wish to adopt. I believe that writing is profoundly personal and in order to be authentic I have to write as I view myself, which is, as a citizen of the world – universal themes appeal to me and that is what I focused on in ‘The Light Blue Jumper’.
There are several serious themes in the book which relate to intolerance, identity, displacement and colonisation, and hit close to home for a large percentage of the modern world. My aim was to compose the narrative so the discerning reader could peel away the layers and discover these undercurrents. But above all, I tried to tell the story in an entertaining and an uplifting way.
Russell Kenneth Blackford, editor of the interdisciplinary online journal The Journal of Evolution and Technology, argues that the boundaries of science are “highly contentious”. What is your opinion on the intrinsic nature of the sci-fi genre?
SFS: With recent global events, I find that sci-fi writing of the past has been realised. It is a classic case of life imitating art. It would be quite accurate to say that sci-fi writing is more like a time machine than a mirror. We live in a polluted world where we wear N95 masks to step out, a pandemic rages through our planet; we seem to be permanently poised on the brink of an apocalypse – science fiction is not fiction any more.
Although sci-fi does have many variations, I have to say, personally, I have never been a huge fan of ‘hard’ sci-fi. I prefer the story and the characters to be paramount, so the lighter side of sci-fi has always appealed to me more. Space opera, space cowboys/cowgirls/persons/robots, intergalactic hitchhikers that sort of thing. Whether the characters are human or alien, I need to connect with them on some emotional level in order to be invested in the story.
What inspired you to adopt a humorous approach to the genre?
SFS: This book has been described as a comedy of errors set in space. My publisher pitched it as Spaceballs meets Shakespeare and the funny thing is that it wasn’t deliberate. The humour grew organically with the characters. I wasn’t aiming to write something comical – but when the characters were developing and the structure of the book emerged as a multiple point-of-view telling – the delusions of grandeur that some of them had lent themselves so easily to comedy.
Every character is firmly convinced that they are the most important to the revolution and without them everything would collapse. It’s also a jab at identity politics and cults that we are only too familiar with in this part of the world.
The premise of your novel - a group of rebels taking on an autocratic interplanetary force - promises an allegorical representation of the misuse of political power in an earthly realm. To what extent can sci-fi be viewed as a manifestation of the problems that plague our world?
SFS: Always. Even the most fantastical of sci-fi tropes where the action is set in a galaxy far, far, away is a reflection, a prediction or an extrapolation of the things that plague us in this world. Star Wars, Farscape, Firefly and, more recently, The Expanse - these are all highly entertaining political commentaries, if you peel away the layers. An SFF writer is simply pulling at different threads and imagining where they might lead.
In what ways is ‘The Light Blue Jumper’ a comment on the complex nature of rebellion, dissent and repression?
SFS: It follows an unlikely, little, round, blue hero who becomes an extremely reluctant catalyst for the revolution. It looks at a dispossessed people where the oppressor is also posing as the benefactor and the oppressed wholeheartedly buy into that narrative. They almost feel a sense of gratitude for being allowed to eke out the most basic of existence. They are willing to suffer the curtailment of their freedoms provided that they have a semblance of economic security.
When people around them fall victim to the system, they apportion the blame squarely on the victim’s own shoulders. Apathy is a way of life and the motto behind their existence is ‘it will never happen to us’ and if it does ‘then it is destiny’ and there isn’t much that can be done about it. Sound familiar? All it takes to stand up to the megalith is a band of motley rebels with nothing holding them together but their ideals of freedom.
Why did you opt for a series of shifting first-person narrative perspectives in the novel?
SFS: That is how it came to me and I stayed with it. I liked the feeling of getting really close to the characters and looking at the world through their eyes. It gives a window into each character’s soul. The shifting perspective acts like a kaleidoscope through which the reader can see different shades and depths to each action.
Usually when I’m reading a third-person narrative or even a single first-person, I’m itching to get behind the other characters’ eyes and see what they are seeing, feel what they are feeling. A story changes depending on who’s telling it. I wanted to take that and run with it so each character gets to narrate their part in the rising action as they perceive it. This proved to be a great vehicle for humour as well because we see the contrast between how a character views themselves internally as opposed to how others see them. I aimed to write a multi-layered narrative with lots of undercurrents and this was an edgy, fun and experimental way to do it. I gave the stage to the minor characters as well because they always get left out and, sometimes, their points of view are the most interesting.
If you were asked to rewrite the novel by narrating the story from one character’s perspective, who would it be?
SFS: I honestly wouldn’t be able to. It would break the book.
What can we expect in the sequel?
SFS: High jinks, bombshells, time warps and a visit to our very own corner of the world.
What are some of the trends and future directions that you see in sci-fi writing emerging from Pakistan?
SFS: I see a lot of talent in the writing arena in Pakistan and an increasing enthusiasm to let go of the old and embrace new tropes, whether its SFF branching into dystopian sci-fi, space operas or horror. Usman T Malik has released an excellent anthology of speculative short fiction, Midnight Doorways, Bina Shah is writing a sequel to her brilliant dystopian sci-fi novel, Before She Sleeps, Omar Iftikhar has published his promising debut, Divided Species, a sci-fi novel set in Karachi. I have recently completed work on a new YA fantasy that I’m pitching at the moment. I have to say it is a very exciting time for writing in Pakistan, particularly speculative fiction, and I’m looking forward to reading all the brilliant work that is set to emerge from our region.
A law graduate from SOAS, London, Taha Kehar is a novelist, journalist and literary critic. He has authored two novels ‘Typically Tanya’ and ‘Of Rift and Rivalry’.