“People would prefer a woman to remain unhappy rather than reclaim her agency”

June 23, 2024

A conversation with Sana Mohsin, winner of the 2023 Zeenat Haroon Rashid Writing Prize

“People would prefer a woman to remain unhappy rather than reclaim her agency”

Sana Mohsin, the recipient of the 2023 Zeenat Haroon Rashid Writing Prize for Women, was born in Lahore and has lived in Canada, Japan and Switzerland. Her work, Rabbits, was praised by the competition judges as “an affecting story with a powerful central image that builds with an incredible sense of momentum to an absolutely haunting finale.”

Mohsin received her undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, studying economics and English; and her graduate degree in literature from York. Her work has been published in Acta Victoriana, the Hart House Review, the Decameron Writing Series, VIBE and more. Her debut chapbook Grief Grows Elsewhere was published in 2022 by The Soapbox Press. She is currently a researcher and editor. She also conducts poetry workshops at the Lahore Heritage Club.

In the interview with The News on Sunday below, Mohsin talks about what it means to be a woman in Pakistan; the plight of arranged marriages; the use of flower imagery in her work; and how AI scares her.

The News on Sunday: Congratulations on winning the ZHR Writing Prize. Where were you when you first heard the news?

Sana Mohsin: I was in this room when I got a call from a British number and I thought it was probably a scam. But then I received a message from them. I couldn’t believe it for a while – actually, a couple of hours. It finally hit me that it had really happened. You’re always a little hopeful when you’ve made the shortlist. There’s always a small chance that something’s going to happen, but when it actually does, you’re in disbelief. Winning the award was an honour, especially since some of the writers long-listed with me were people I admire a lot.

TNS: In your story, you have touched upon many aspects of what it means to be a woman in this country – from the plight of arranged marriages to ageism; loneliness in marriage; and a general lack of agency. How did you deal with all these themes in one story?

SM: I think in the beginning when I was planning it in my head, I did think that the story was trying to do too much. I thought about several themes: infertility, abusive marriage, arranged marriages, etc. But as I started writing, I realised that the story wouldn’t make sense until I put all these themes in it because being in an abusive or toxic relationship - with your husband or your parents - is not simple. There are always multiple reasons behind it.

For example, [take the] Baji character. Why was she in this relationship [her marriage] in the first place? It was because her parents had certain expectations of her. Now, why did the parents have those expectations of her?... It keeps going back. I think the main inspiration [for this story] came from growing up in Pakistan and seeing the women around me. Every single person has a story. You find out how that person has lived her life and how heartbreaking it is. And I think this is not unique to Pakistan. I have also seen people abroad being really unhappy throughout their lives.

TNS: Would you some day want to focus on some of these themes in a novel?

SM: I think I would really like to. I am actually in the midst of planning something like that. I want to try my hand at a bit of historical fiction, focusing on the 1970s era. I would like to explore what it felt like to have agency in that era as a woman and as an artist. I think it would be fun to explore some of that. I come across so many inspirational artist figures from that era. Zubeida Agha, I guess, is one of those. So, I think it would be fun to explore something like that while keeping these themes in mind.

TNS: You discuss the intricacies of a South Asian marriage and how it’s sold to women as their life’s prime purpose, often at the cost of their agency. Can you elaborate on this?

SM: That is one of the themes of the story. Again, it came from observing the women around me. The portrayal of women in Pakistani media has generally been limited to the domestic sphere and around their families. There I not much interaction with the public sphere. This is changing now, but not as much as I think it should. It goes back to hearing the stories of the women around me. I have always been a little sensitive, even when I was younger, so I ask about these things, remember them, and internalise them. It is hard not to. It’s hard to separate what you see and what is expected of you.

Marriage is an important reality of life, and I acknowledge that, but there are so many power dynamics behind it. It is like, how do you compromise your sense of self with a patriarchal institution? That is the question I am still trying to find an answer to.

TNS: In your story, you compare women with flowers. At one point, you write, “... like a wilting flower, Baji bends into herself.” Why did you choose this comparison?

SM: I do use a lot of flower imagery in my work. It started as something I liked, like comparing things to flowers. But I think there is something about the quality of flowers that makes comparing them to women fitting. The flowers have a kind of delicateness. Think of the bent head of a flower bud and you can compare that to the bent body of a woman. I think maybe subconsciously I did compare the two in my mind. And there is always that domestic sphere interference, which includes the garden.

TNS: Your story highlights a particular form of arranged marriages in our society where women are coerced or emotionally blackmailed into accepting proposals. Will you talk a bit about it?

We say it is a man’s world, but I think we have this women’s world that only we can access.

SM: Yeah, I think the kind of coercion that happens in the society these days is apparent. I am kind of seeing that especially since marriage is still something that you aspire to as a woman in Pakistan. Even though more women are now well-educated and most women I know are not married, are working, and have master’s degrees, it still feels like there is something missing in their lives. When I came back, and it has been more than a year now, after my master’s, everybody would ask my parents, “When are you getting her married?" They never really talk to me directly because it is still not acceptable to talk to women about this since women are usually infantilised.

So, this is my firsthand experience. So much has happened in my life, but the conversation is always about when my parents are “getting me married.” The cognitive dissonance is significant. The guy himself doesn’t really matter. Only his profile and his qualities matter. It’s about how much he is earning and what his parents do. The man as a human being ceases to exist, and it’s about what he can offer as a commodity to the woman. Such marriages are bad for men as well, for everyone.

TNS: In the story, the protagonist seems to gradually regain her lost confidence and strength as she becomes more and more involved with this family of rabbits. Is there a connection between the two things?

SM: I think there is a connection here because the more she starts immersing herself into these rabbits, the more she detaches herself from her own family and from her in-laws. She finds like this third place to put herself into instead of the toxic cycles that she is already in. It is almost like when you’re young and you’re playing pretend. It is her own version of a doll house where she can escape whatever is around her and focus on a single thing. It is like a source of agency for her.

TNS: In your story, you also discuss how women often stay in bad relationships out of fear of being alone despite already experiencing loneliness. Why do you think is that?

SM: I think it’s because the ‘other’ option is just not there in the first place. You stay in these marriages, but if you want to leave, you can’t because that option either doesn’t exist in your mind or is not presented to you. Many families say, “No matter what, you can’t come back; just deal with it.” So, the option isn’t there from the beginning. This is when your life becomes a cycle of abuse. You just get used to it. People tell women to offset that by having children, but how much can you really interact with your own child? That’s not a substitute for companionship. One of the problems is that we don’t have examples of women being alone, in the country and around us. Even if there is an example, it is considered a social taboo; she has stepped away from the norm.

TNS: Why don’t we have examples of women living alone, having stepped away from the norm and succeeded?

SM: I think we are so used to women being unhappy that the opposite doesn’t click in our minds in the same way. Even though I am educated, I consider myself a feminist and all that, I would have a bit of bias against someone who’s stepped away from the norm. It is the kind of thinking that has been ingrained in me from a young age. That is the kind of thing you have to unlearn as a person. People would prefer a woman to remain unhappy for the rest of her life rather than take some of her agency back in order to live a life that is worth living. I think people forget that we have only one life. It is really not that serious. Like, just leave him; dump him.

I think one of the reasons for that is that in this society having a mask of perfection is very important. You can’t really be yourself. You have to give off this carefree vibe that everything is okay and perfect. There is nothing wrong with our lives; this pressure to be perfect ruins many relationships.

TNS: Do you think that is changing, even slightly?

SM: I would like to think so. I try to think about how different my friends and I are from my mom, for example. I don’t think my mom’s generation could’ve gotten away with some of the things I’ve done, and will do, inshaAllah. I think there has been a change, a hopeful one. I feel it. Even in conversations with my school friends and people my age, [I notice that] there is still pressure that you should have a husband and be a good wife, but at the same time, these women have businesses and are doing really well. I think maybe there is a lot more pressure because women are expected to do it all now. So, it is a different kind of pressure, maybe.

TNS: Have you faced any challenges as a woman writer?

SM: I haven’t faced any yet. As a woman writer, I may just want to write about women or women’s problems. I think we have a wealth of stories and information that is exclusive to women. I think that is an advantage for women writers. I can’t think of any disadvantages. We say it is a man’s world, but I think we have this women’s world that only we can access, and I like that.

TNS: What are some of the books that you read this year that left an impact on you?

SM: I am at a point where I can read anything because, during my undergrad and master’s, I was exposed to a lot of different things. That said, I now focus more on the craft and style of writing than the plot. Recently, I read The Rainbow by Yasunari Kawabata, which I really liked. It’s a bit short, but I liked the way he is very sparse with his writing. It’s very sparse, but at the same time, it does a lot. I feel like he really is the master of his craft. I started reading Anaïs Nin, a prolific, almost controversial French writer and contemporary of Henry Miller. I want to read Henry Miller next to kind of grapple with all of that. I think it’s about the craft at this point rather than the plot or something to read before bed. I take reading a lot more seriously now, with a pen in my hand, noting down everything I find amazing. I have started thinking about the writing process a lot more.

TNS: When did you decide that you were going to write and what were some of your early influences?

SM: I think I always liked reading. In the back of my mind, I always thought that I would write, but I didn’t really start until I went to do my undergrad. That’s when I got involved in literary journals. I was editing poetry and short stories there and that kind of inspired me to submit my stories and actually start writing and get more involved in this process. It’s been four or five years since I started writing. I started with poetry in the first year. Then, I had an idea for a short story that I wrote in 2020. It wasn’t this one; it was something else. After that, my hands sort of loosened, and I thought that maybe it was something I could do. My earlier stories didn’t go anywhere. The ZHR Writing Prize was something I was aware of for a while, but I never actually had time to write anything for it. Last year, I decided to write something for this prize, and then I wrote Rabbits, and the rest is history.

I had this idea at the back of my mind about an unhappy relationship with a bit of fantasy where the woman kind of leeches the life out of the man the more abusive he is. I started writing a bit of that but then thought the idea was a bit too juvenile for me to continue. I am not exactly sure how that idea converted into the physical manifestation of rabbits in the story, but it just did, and I started writing with the rabbits in mind.

TNS: What do you think about AI and writing? Is it going to take your job?

SM: I don’t think it is going to take my job. I think writers are safe for now, especially creative writers because AI cannot create an original idea. But otherwise, AI really scares me. It’s just too powerful. I use it sometimes to make lists and schedules, but I still think that this thing is too powerful.

Mohsin’s award-winning story, Rabbits, can be read here.

The interviewer is a staff member

“People would prefer a woman to remain unhappy rather than reclaim her agency”