Politics is a reality that shapes us all, says novelist Sorayya Khan

Politics is a reality that shapes us all, says novelist Sorayya Khan

In her latest novel, City of Spies, political intrigue in Islamabad in the 1970s is seen through 11-year-old Aliya
Updated 27 Aug, 2015

Sorayya Khan turns the phrase ‘the personal is political’, a rallying cry for feminists in the ’60s, on its head because for the Dutch-Pakistani writer it is the political which becomes personal.

In her book Noor, Ali who briefly served in the Pakistani army during the 1971 war is forced to confront his past through his relationship with his adopted Bangladeshi daughter and granddaughter. In Five Queen’s Road it is Partition that leads to Dina Lal, a Hindu reluctant to move to India, and his colleague, Amir Shah, living in the same house in Lahore. In her latest novel, City of Spies, we see the political intrigue and tension that has gripped the city of Islamabad in the 1970s through the eyes of an 11-year-old Aliya.

Recently, caught up with the author to talk about how she went about penning City of Spies, her writing ‘quirks’ and what inspires her to write about politics. Many writers have ‘quirks’ or a very particular method to their writing — Maya Angelou apparently writes “lying on a made-up bed with a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible”, Murakami goes for a run, a swim or both after writing for a few hours, and Nabokov would initially write his novel on index cards. What about you? Is there a certain ritual that you have to follow or a ‘technique’ that you stick to when you’re writing?

Sorayya Khan: I don’t have much of a ritual, except that I try to get to work as early as I can every morning, before my mind is cluttered by the news or emails or a list of daily chores. For most of my writing life, my children’s schedules disciplined me to make use of whatever writing time I had and although they are now grown up and no longer home, I’m unable to shake the nagging thought that I’m about to be interrupted. I always break up my writing day with some form of exercise because I can’t sit for hours and, besides, it helps me think. I can’t imagine writing or living without this form of replenishment. What makes City of Spies so engaging and refreshing is that it’s told from the perspective of an 11-year-old. What made you chose to tell the story from the perspective of Aliya?

Sorayya Khan: Although I always knew that the story would be Aliya’s, I didn’t immediately know I would tell it from her perspective. Early drafts were written in omniscient points of view, but the story required her voice and language. I chose to tell the story of an 11-year-old girl because those early years of adolescence seem especially well suited to a story of a character making sense of her world while struggling with conflicting identities. I like that age when children have a strong sense of justice and try to be honest with themselves. I thought Aliya’s lens would offer a compelling story of a difficult time, not just in her own life, but in the life of Pakistan. It seemed to me that a coming-of-age story could also be a story of political awakening. The novel really captures and brings to life Islamabad in the late ’70s. How did you go about researching on the background to your story?

Sorayya Khan: It helped that I lived in Islamabad in the late ’70s, but I researched the novel in many ways. I think I tried the patience of everyone I knew with questions. I scrolled through reels of microfilm – in the days before everything was available online – and read news accounts of various political events in several international newspapers and magazines. I looked at photographs from the early 1960s when Islamabad was first being built and spent a few afternoons reading through [Constantinos] Doxiades’ plans for Islamabad that I found online. I studied images of the 1970s, online and otherwise.

I gathered details from friends and acquaintances regarding their experience of the 1979 events and interviewed others who were affected. I researched the timeline of political events in a wide array of available material. I read as much as I could find on Islamabad during that time, and supplemented that with books on the politics of the time period, including The Siege of Mecca by Yaroslav Trofimov, If I am Assassinated by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Zinky Boys by Svetlana Alexievich, as well as others, such as the Asian Study Group books my parents collected on Islamabad’s plants and birds.

I want to see how characters negotiate the world, and how the world shapes their decisions, says the author. — Photo:  Barbara Adams
I want to see how characters negotiate the world, and how the world shapes their decisions, says the author. — Photo: Barbara Adams Towards the end of the novel, a now grown-up Aliya confesses that “My rule as a journalist is simple: I don’t tell Pakistan’s stories. Now, more than ever they make people throw up their arms in despair.” It’s a statement that many Pakistanis can relate to. Would you say her thoughts mirror yours?

Sorayya Khan: Aliya is only partly honest when she says that she doesn’t tell Pakistan’s stories, because she has done just that, albeit not as a journalist. I have lived abroad for a long time now and, like Aliya, routinely witness people’s frustration with Pakistan. Pakistan is poorly depicted in the news, for which it often has itself to blame, but what I also despair at is the inability of others to recognise a shared history with Pakistanis. This reaction is part of what motivates me as a writer. In the end, a novel allows us to see ourselves in others and in this way offers a sliver of humanity to its readers. In all my work, but perhaps especially in City of Spies, I am interested in exploring how our very different worlds are indeed connected. You often explore how the past influences the present and how politics end up shaping the personal relationships between the characters in your books. What is it about politics that inspires you and how do you end up choosing what to write on?

Sorayya Khan: It’s less that I’m inspired by politics and more that I accept it as a reality that shapes us all. I think of politics and history as being the larger structures in which we live our lives and, therefore, an obvious setting in which to explore characters and their struggles. I want to see how characters negotiate the world, and how the world shapes their decisions. I’ve written about families in particular because I’m curious about whether families can survive not only their internal dynamic, but also external forces, like the turmoil of Partition or 1971 or the hanging of a prime minister. I don’t necessarily believe that I have chosen my subject matter, rather I feel claimed by it. I’m compelled to wrestle with it, as if imagining my characters and their struggles helps me make sense of history and politics. What books are you currently reading? And which ones are currently on your wish list?

Sorayya Khan: I just finished reading The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly, a tremendously disturbing tale of 1990s Burma. I’m about to start Clarice Lispector’s Hour of the Star that was a gift from a Brazilian friend, and I have two other books on my night table, Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese and Birds Without Wings by Louis De Bernières. I’m dying to read Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know and Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place.