In the first ever author’s interview on Curious Book Fans site we talk to Sorayya Khan, author of novels Noor (2003) and Five Queen’s Road (2009). She was born in Europe, grew up in Pakistan and now lives in the US. She received a Fulbright award and Constance Saltonstall Foundation Artist Grant. Her story, “In the Shadows of the Margalla Hills,” won the 1995 Malahat Review First Novella prize. Her work has been anthologized in several collections, including Bapsi Sidhwa’s City Of Sin And Splendor: Writings On Lahore.
Intrigued by her splendid family saga Five Queen’s Road and her internationally diverse background we were very curious to hear more from Sorayya herself.CBF: Whilst reading Five Queen’s Road I had you earmarked as the daughter of the Dutch mother and Pakistani father who feature in the story. Are these characters based on your parents and did Five Queen’s Road and the families that lived there really exist?
Sorayya Khan: The inspiration for Five Queen’s Road is drawn from real events in my family’s history. Five Queen’s Road, in fact, was once the real address of my father’s parents’ home in Lahore (which no longer exists). My grandparents moved into Five Queen’s Road much like Amir Shah does in my novel, as a result of an invitation extended to them by a Hindu man who chose to stay in Lahore in 1947. My father married a Dutch woman and as children we spent time with my grandparents in their fabulously run down but wonderful home. While these facts are shared by the protagonists in my novel, the characters themselves are very much their own people that have propelled the shape of the story into something very different from my family’s history. The starting point for the novel comes from my family folklore, but the dream that is Five Queen’s Road is very much its own story.
As a writer, I am interested in the relationship between the personal and the political. A very general way of saying this is to suggest that I’m interested in the relationship between the character or a family and the larger structures in which the person or family exist. In Five Queen’s Road, my family’s folklore offered me a starting point to conceive of such a relationship.CBF: What sort of books do you imagine you’d be writing today if you’d grown up in Pakistan instead of more liberal countries?
Sorayya Khan: I think of myself as having grown up in Pakistan. Although in my childhood travel to Pakistan was always a constant, my family moved from Europe to Islamabad when I was 10 and I left Pakistan for my college studies when I was 17. I have spent a few long periods in Pakistan since then, and although I have lived in the US for many years now, I still endeavor to visit as frequently as possible. I believe that the subject matter of my writing is a function of my relationship to Pakistan. I can’t imagine what books I might be writing if I hadn’t grown up in Pakistan, nor really can I imagine writing at all. Pakistan—the place, the people, the history, the politics, the culture—is endlessly absorbing to me as a person and as a writer; all my fiction writing is grounded in Pakistan. My interest in writing stems partly, I think, from being half-Pakistani and half-Dutch, an identity that has provided me with an “outsider’s” perspective in two cultures and makes me comfortable as an observer, a necessity as a writer.CBF: Which up and coming and which established Pakistani writers who write in English you would recommend to curious book fans to watch out for?
Sorayya Khan: I’m happy for all the emerging male writers who are producing work in English, such as Mohsin Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist), Mohammed Hanif (A Case of Exploding Mangoes) and Nadeem Aslam (The Wasted Vigil). I look forward to reading more works by women writers, several of whom have published short pieces in Muneeza Shamsie’s And the World Changed. These include Sara Suleri Goodyear (Meatless Days), Uzma Aslam Khan (Trespassing), Sehba Sarwar (Black Wings), and Kamila Shamsie (Burnt Shadows). I’m always looking forward to more work by Bapsi Sidhwa (Cracking India) who, in fact, has edited her own anthology on writings on Lahore, City of Sin and Splendour, and, rumor has it, will be completing a new book soon.CBF: You have been engaged in some charitable work with tsunami victims in Indonesia. What were your thoughts and feelings after talking to tsunami survivors and how do you find ordinary people mentally survive in the aftermath of such a great disaster?
Sorayya Khan: I traveled to Banda Aceh, Indonesia in May 2007, two and a half years after the December 2004 earthquake and tsunami devastated the city and killed more than 60,000 people. I was already involved with the Aceh Relief Fund (a non-profit organization) when I received an Artist’s Grant from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation in Ithaca, NY to support a project that would take me to Banda Aceh. Following news reports of the devastation that the tsunami caused, both in terms of its natural force, but also in terms of the utter desolation it reaped on families, I became curious about what, if anything, the narratives of tsunami survivors might have in common with war conflict survivors. (As part of my research for my novel, Noor, I interviewed soldiers who’d fought in the 1971 conflict between West and East Pakistan out of which Bangladesh was born.) I became interested in the possibility that while war and natural disasters are in fact entirely different, in some ways, the end result – the complete desolation people are left to live in and with – is, in fact, very similar.
Upon my arrival in Banda Aceh, I found that the topography of the place (even more than two years after the tsunami struck) was very similar to a war-torn region: destroyed homes, battered landscape, barracks-like housing, devastated families. The Acehnese people and culture were astonishing. Their ability to survive and their resilience seemed possible because of their deep rooted sense of community, great love of family, and their deeply religious beliefs. Their resilience seemed all the more astonishing, given that prior to the tsunami, Acehnese society was already strained by a long term political conflict with the Indonesian government in which thousands of their people were killed or disappeared. Along with the conflict survivor struggling to overcome immense injustice, all Acehnese defer to faith in their graceful resumption of life.CBF: Can you give us any hints about what your third novel will be about please?
Sorayya Khan: My new novel is tentatively titled, Land of the Pure. The novel is set in Islamabad, Pakistan in the late 1970s during a time of political upheaval and growing anti-American sentiment. Aliya, a Pakistani-European girl, is best friends with Lizzy, an American and a classmate at the American School of Islamabad. Aliya discovers that Lizzy’s mother is involved in a hit and run accident that takes the life of Haneef, a little boy who is related to Aliya’s family. The story takes place over two difficult years in Pakistan’s history that include General Zia’s military coup d’etat, the hanging of Prime Minister Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto, and a deadly attack on the US Embassy in Islambad. The novel is a portrait of a family and a coming-of-age story that explores Aliya’s conflicting identities and loyalties.CBF: Thank you for your time and we wish you success with your next book.
(N.B. You can order Five Queen’s Road by emailing BuffaloStreetBooks at hotmail dot com, while Sorayya’s other book, Noor, is available from links below.)
Special thanks to koshkha for her generous help in making of our first interview.
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