“Ban on books from India forced our publishing industry to sort itself out”

February 14, 2021

A conversation with Safinah Danish Elahi

Safinah Danish Elahi is a writer, a poet, an entrepreneur and an Early Learning Years educator. Located in Karachi, she has been teaching at a pre-school in Karachi since 2015. Her interest in the law and world affairs led her to pursue an LLB degree. A mother of two, she often finds herself juggling many roles. Her published works include her poetry collection The Unbridled Romance of Love and Pain (Markings Publishing, 2019) and a novel, Eye on the Prize (Liberty Publishing, 2020). She recently contributed to the short story anthology, The Stained Glass Window which is based on the coronavirus pandemic.

Elahi frequently contributes to online platforms to share her experiences and knowledge on parenting in the new tech age we live in. In early 2020, she launched her publishing platform Reverie Publishers, mainly to help revive the romance of reading and writing in Pakistan. Reverie has published The Verdict by Osman Haneef and will soon be publishing the much-awaited memoir by Aamer Hussain, in a collaboration with Ushba Books.

Deeply immersed in the harsh realities around us, Elahi’s stories give powerful, matter-of-fact voices to the many characters that she creates, highlighting their extraordinary - and sometimes ordinary - struggles that are all but overlooked in the mundaneness of the daily grind. In a conversation on Zoom with The News on Sunday, Elahi candidly talks about criticism of her work, writing and publishing in Pakistan and her relentless faith in the country’s evolving literary scene.

The News on Sunday (TNS): You are a short story writer, a poet and a lawyer. That’s a whole lot of different things. Were you a writer first or did you decide to study the law first and what inspired the shift?

Safinah Danish Elahi (SDE): I began pursuing the degree much later than the writing but there are times in life where you’ve reached a certain point where you need more things to do to develop a wider perspective. I think that is what motivated me to pursue a law degree. My writing started when I was at university. When I was 18 my writing professor, in the American University of Sharjah, told me that this could be something that I could take up as a career. But I was 18 and we don’t really take things seriously at that age. However, I kept noting down my thoughts all the while either by blogging or by writing a short poem or just taking notes on my phone. I am an introvert as it is so I have a lot of conversations in my mind but with the poetry book, it was the first time that I decided to share a little bit of my journey [with the world]. I had started writing Eye on the prize before I decided to publish the poetry book so I didn’t know where I was going with that. I just thought it was an interesting story, this whole private schooling and competition thing between parents and how healthy/unhealthy it is to take your notions as a parent and stifle your children with it. So, I started writing for my novel and reached out to someone, an editor, and asked if it was an interesting idea because as writers we are the most self-doubting individuals there are [chuckles]. She said yes and really encouraged me to continue writing.

TNS: Your book The Unbridled Romance of Love and Pain consists of short, easy to understand, heartfelt poems, something that one feels like revisiting after finishing the book. When and how did you decide to put pen to paper to write it?

SDE: When I started putting these thoughts together, some of the poems that I ended up putting in the collection were from a decade ago. I never thought that I would put it in a book form because this was just a conversation with myself. Some of it was the stuff that I was feeling, some of what was going around me, borrowed feeling as I like to call it. Maybe four or five months before publishing it, I got to interact with a writers’ circle, young writers who were writing and sharing stuff with one another. Although the circle was there to critique your work, being actively involved in such activities gave me the confidence to take that criticism. It’s like you’re throwing some really raw feelings of yours to a group of people, who are going to comment on it in your face, so it can really prepare you for the big, bad world. It also gives you the ability to improve your skills.

TNS: Who were some of the poets that influenced you to take up poetry?

SDE: I think Rupi Kaur is one. She is often criticised for being too literal, but her collection Milk and Honey really spoke to me although she has a completely different style in terms of how open she is about some topics that I have felt that maybe Pakistani audiences aren’t ready for - like a lot of sensual stuff. I like to read Mary Oliver from time to time and works of TS Elliot. When I was compiling my poetry collection, I wasn’t really copying any style because not all of my poetry rhymes, some of it may even have a lyrical quality but in terms of style, it’s free verse. That said, the collection deals with themes of identity, love, pain, friendship, motherhood, travel, the beauty of the universe and self-worth.

TNS: Recently, short poems or what is sometimes called “Instagram poetry” came under a lot of criticism for being too simplistic. Some critics have gone on to say that it cannot even be classified as poetry. What are your thoughts on that?

SDE: I feel that while some of the criticism is valid. However, a case in point, Rupi Kaur has five million followers, so her words are resonating with some kind of audience. The kind that maybe that wants something doesn’t require three readings to understand it. It is shorter and more accessible which is what commercial fiction also is in the end. By all means, you could say that it is Instagram poetry but at the end of the day, it’s just people trying to share their thoughts [on different mediums]. I think that this short form of poetry is a new form of art and maybe there is an audience for it. For example, people have really enjoyed the Unbridled Romance of Love and Pain. Some have even come up to me and said that it was the best thing that they read, which is absolutely wonderful to hear. People have an appetite for all kinds of literature. But there will always be people who will question its very form.

TNS: Your recent novel Eye on the Prize is about helicopter parenting, a theme that has not been discussed a lot in literature coming out of Pakistan. Where it earned a lot of praise for its cutting portrayal of problems faced by a certain class, it also drew flak from certain book bloggers for its characters being too sketchy and inconsistent. Could you elaborate a bit on that?

SDE: When I was writing my novel, I tried to make my characters as humane as possible. They belong to a sub-set in our society - the privileged class. I wanted to bring attention to their lives, and that all that glitters is, in fact, not gold. They have their own struggles and the choices they make for their children – albeit having everything one can dream of – can ultimately be flawed. If I am writing a story about three women the idea is to highlight the kind of unrealistic expectations the society puts on them so much so that they end up looking for self-worth in ideas not worth investing one-self in. Social climbing, appropriating importance to things like placing their child in the best private school there is, and within that system, scoring first place in everything. The kind of pressure they end up putting on their children is detrimental to their mental health as well as depreciating the very idea of good parenting. While their lifestyles may be enviable to some, I, as a writer, have to do justice to what my characters are going through. I can’t just introduce themes that are irrelevant because that story will not be supported. Like Shezray is a hardcore businesswoman and there are many instances in the novel where she is questioning her parenting style, where she is questioning her ability to connect with her child. She knows she needs to be present for her child but her work takes up much of her time. Which is what my target was, to understand that this woman, who is really strong, may even come across as a little aggressive, but she struggles with a work-life balance as well. She feels that maybe she is not emotionally available for her children and that eventually costs her something she values greatly. I read somebody’s review saying that my characters are not held accountable and I found it really strange because are all characters in our lives in the real world held accountable for what they do? A [heinous] crime may be punished to some extent but there are things that people do in the social realm – embarrassing someone, being catty, having an affair, not being present for your child, breaking a marriage, lying about things – and get away with. Most of these people are not held accountable for what they have done. I like to keep my stories slightly open-ended as well. Because I think that the reader also has to be given the benefit of doubt that they are going to think about what could’ve happened – it can’t be a Cinderella story.

TNS: A ban on import of books from India came into effect last year. It also affected local authors in many ways. For one, they are now left with very few options as far as publishing their books is concerned. What do you have to say about that and what has your experience of the publishing industry in Pakistan been like?

SDE: It has been like a two-way street for me. I think that the ban on Indian books has forced our publishing industry to finally sort itself out. Pakistani authors have had the option to reach out to Indian agents for the longest time. Writers would reach out to agents and publishers in India as they have the big five publishers located there. They also appreciated Pakistani fiction because it had a different flavour. A lot of those publishers were sending a lot of those copies back to Pakistan because of the readership in Pakistan as well. The publishing industry in Pakistan never really developed for years because essentially we were all outsourcing our talent and buying back from them. We had Liberty Books, we had a distribution network, maybe some very small presses, but other than that nobody was really working towards it. Now, because of the ban, we have these independent presses coming up. Reverie Publishers was conceived to fill in this very gap. To make a little contribution to the literary landscape. Right now, marketing and distribution of books is not great but I feel that all these things can be developed and they slowly are. Publishing a book in 2025 will be very different from publishing a book in 2021. Because it takes a couple of years for any industry to develop. There needs to be careful planning and substantial recognition given out to writers. Commercial feasibility needs to be calculated too. Right now you are not publishing books because you are not selling them enough and because it is not commercially viable to produce a book but I think that once this marketing and distribution thing is sorted out, it will be a good industry to delve in. I believe we could have corporations doing collaborations with publishing houses, which will then give publishers enough room to promote their books. The statement “the publishing industry is dying because of the book ban or that the writers will not be publishing anymore” would be a little premature. That’s maybe just me being optimistic. I feel that if we all do our bit we can increase our readership. All of it is a bit disjointed right now. But I think there is scope.

TNS: So you’re saying that a thriving publishing scene will be possible in some time in Pakistan?

SDE: Yes I think so, and I’ll tell you why. I feel like there are enough platforms in Pakistan, there are literature festivals, there’s the British Council, but all of these different platforms are disjointed and working independently. I feel that publishing houses should have a direct link to all these festivals, all these platforms where authors can talk about their books being published. The audiences we (publishers and writers) are looking for are already tuning to these platforms. So if all of them sort of had a collaboration, a consolidated effort on a national level, I think it would do an excellent service to the writers and readers of our generation. Because what happens is that either you are affiliated with one organisation or the other, even the literature festivals themselves are not on the same page. I feel like we’re missing out. Why is it that there’s no consistency nation-wide? I’ll give you an example of the movie industry. So there is a distributor who goes to the cinema owner, the cinema owner and the distributor charge a fee for their services, the film producer is responsible only for producing content. Other aspects, like marketing, are taken care of by professionals. So with books as well, duties need to be outsourced to relevant people who have expertise. If there were to be a stronger distribution network, a marketing team, publicists who are hired by publishers to connect to the bookstores and the audience, things would not be as ineffective as they are now. Most publishers do not even think about publishing fiction because it is such a risky venture. Who will distribute it? Who will market it? And more importantly who will buy these books? With school textbooks, at least publishers have confirmed orders to keep them afloat in the business.

TNS: What more do you think can be done to encourage new writers given that writing is not a particularly lucrative field?

SDE: I feel that we have a really long way to go. We need to first mature as a society to even consider making writing our sole source of income. It is only recently that music and art have become professions we culturally accept as careers. We need to give due recognition to the written word. Stories need to be told. We need to create spaces where we can appreciate writing because what is a society without ideas? It may sound idealistic, but with the publishing house, my aim is to be able to establish a model that is sustainable and at the same time pays the writers their much-deserved royalties. As of now, my humble contribution would be that there is my publishing platform and it will be open for submissions, initially for short story collections, just to get your name out there and then hopefully if things work out then take in submissions for novels as well. Once the marketing and publicity base is made, it’d be easier for the publisher to sell the book of a new writer as well. Right now what’s happening is that publishers only pick up writers who have a following of their own so that their books get sold which is also okay because at the end of the day the publisher also has to survive. To bring a new writer you need to have a good marketing base.

TNS: You mentioned paying royalties to your writers, so is that not the practice right now with the publishers in Pakistan?

SDE: It is just that publishing is so limited in Pakistan that publishers are extremely careful about what they are publishing. So internationally, what happens is that when you submit a manuscript, it’s accepted through either an agent or unsolicited or however it works you are given an advance to finish the novel. Then, the publisher gets an in-house editor to edit your manuscript, working with the writer. First, you have to give an advance so the writer can focus on writing. What happens in Pakistan, apart from some small presses that do follow the procedure adopted internationally and are doing some great work, is that the writer ends up getting royalties much later and there isn’t much guidance during the process of editing and proofreading. The writers should get their advance so they know how serious the publisher is about the writing as well and how they respect the writer’s work. Publishers should also have a dedicated team of editors, designers and PR professionals who will help guide the writer to produce good quality work. This was also one of the reasons that I came up with my own publishing house. It’s a droplet in the ocean but change needs to start somewhere.

The writer is a staff   member

“Ban on books from India forced our publishing industry to sort itself out”