Not soon after her much-criticised interview, in which she claimed that eating in restaurants and lingering in bookstores are “forbidden luxuries” in Pakistan, appeared in the London Evening Standard, Fatima Bhutto spoke at the London School of Economics (LSE) to a full house about her new book, titled The Shadow of the Crescent Moon. Waziristan, a region the host of the event described as a twilight zone between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and one that is in the news for all the wrong reasons, is the setting of her latest novel.
Commenting that being on a book tour is what she imagines being a prisoner of war feels like (being shunted from room to room and interrogated with the same questions) Fatima said that she wanted to write about northern Pakistan but did not choose Peshawar, Bajaur or Banu as these were settings that had too many prejudices, such as the Taliban and drones, attached with them. Thus, she picked the small town of Mir Ali, albeit a highly fictionalised one, as the setting, for she felt it did not already have a singular meaning attached to it.
Fatima also believes that characters unfold on their own when one is writing fiction. “It’s a strange process … You think you are building people, but they make themselves and they change across the writing of the book.”
The people in her book are struggling with things she herself is curious about, and in each of them there was something she sympathised with, whether it was their fears, longings or their suffocation. “In all of them, even the ones I didn’t agree with or felt offended by, I didn’t feel I could judge them.”
She was particularly intrigued by a character called Meena, who actively starts looking for funerals to go to: “Every morning, she finds out what soyem is happening where, and she turns up and starts asking questions. Meena used to disturb me very much when I was writing. She used to rattle me and as her story started to unfold, I started to see more of her, rather than creating more of her.”
“You let the characters be, which is curious. You don’t actually have the control you have with non-fiction where you build structures which are very definite. With fiction, you observe and follow along,” she said, adding that she got unreasonably attached to these characters that “don’t exist for anyone but you [the author].”
When asked if writing is her way of being political without actually entering politics, Fatima said that Pakistanis do not have a choice but to be political. “It’s what determines how you live and how you die, it is no longer an option to step out of politics.” As far as supporting a particular party is concerned, she said she only supports people on the ground who are doing good work.
She also feels that when Pakistan is talked about, it is in terms of CNN headlines and Newsweek stories rather than people. She also laments the fact that these headlines are dehumanised, that a report on drone strikes will say that some people killed may have been suspected underage militants, when it should really say children. “I wanted to write about people, about children, not underage militants,” she proclaimed.
When it was mentioned that it is these same people who will become journalists and lawyers, Fatima said exasperatedly: “That’s why we are where we are! You restrict voices to those who can speak English or have been educated abroad, or have computers and can use Twitter.”
She also said that democracy in Islamic countries will take time, as they haven’t been decolonised as yet in the true sense, and the problem does not lie with Islam. “Islamic countries will build their own version of democracy. It will not be like western democracy… it will be unique to where they are, and to their heritage and culture.”
On the media
Fatima believes the media is not thoughtful anymore, nor is it the incredible force of change it used to be. For this, she blames General Ziaul Haq; both his twice daily censor checks for all newspapers, as well as the fact that “journalists were publicly flogged and sentenced to death” in his time “and have learnt their lesson”.
She also thinks language is a barrier, for to know the true state of affairs in Balochistan, one needs to read newspapers coming out of Quetta rather than national papers: “I went to Quetta in 2007 where local journalists were doing tremendous work at a great cost to their lives, but they are not on Facebook and you can’t retweet them.”
“Malala is important because she is a new voice. I think that’s part of the reason there is so much hostility [against her]. It is our duty to support her and the thousands of Malalas in the country who don’t yet have a voice,” she said.
“Malala has been treated unfairly in Pakistan. People say she is washing [our] dirty laundry in public. Well then Pakistan should clean its laundry up,” she added, taking the opportunity to deal with people who blame her for the same thing: “It’s my right to criticise Pakistan because I love it… It is my duty to speak when I see something wrong, especially because a lot of us live outside the problems and have privileges that millions don’t.”
She said if she is to speak about positive stories, “I would like to know what they are.”
Fatima’s book The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is out in Pakistan “after considerable south Asian bureaucratic delay”.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 30th, 2013.