Bina Shah (IWP ‘11) has published two collections of short stories and five novels; her latest, the feminist dystopia Before She Sleeps, was published by Delphinium Books in 2018, and translated into German and Turkish, with other editions to follow. A recent essay on “Rumi’s Women” appeared in IWP’s volume The Same Gate: A Collection of Writings in the Spirit of Rumi; Bina speaks about the experience here.
Bina’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Pakistan’s biggest English language newspaper Dawn, the literary journal Granta, and many other international newspapers and journals. A frequent media commentator on women's rights and female empowerment in Pakistan and across Muslim countries, she lives in Karachi, and blogs at The Feministani.
> In which of your works do you feel your voice comes through the clearest?
Possibly an earlier novel called Slum Child (Tranquebar 2010) in which I wrote from the viewpoint of Laila, a 10 year old Christian girl growing up in a Karachi slum. She sees things clearly and gives voice to exactly what she thinks. Although people said her voice was too adult, I intended her to be looking back on events in her childhood, and to relate them as an adult. That voice has honesty and clarity, but maturity only comes in at the end. Just like me, it takes her time to understand what she has seen.
> What reading is in your pocket, on your work desk, under your bed, on your phone? What languages do you read in?
I read in English, Urdu and Sindhi in translation, and I’ve started to read a little in French. I’m finishing up Jennifer Acker’s The Limits of the World about the Gujarati Indian community in Kenya and America. I’m also reading Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China by Leta Hong Fincher. Next on the list: The Gendered Brain by Gina Rippon. Also on my desk is a book I just finished. It has really moved me the most out of everything I’ve read this year: Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, a play in poems about a town that resists occupation by going deaf.
> What mark has your time in the IWP, and in the US, left? What, if anything, do you follow in contemporary American literature/culture?
During my time at the IWP in 2011, I was lucky enough to meet Ilya and listen to him read from Dancing in Odessa, his previous collection of poetry. He made an impression on me: a tall, hard-of-hearing Russian-American poet who looked so lanky boyish but whose insights were those of a very wise soul. Deaf Republic has just blown me away. Every poem in that book is a revolution; it will change the way Americans think about poetry and politics. This is the crossroad today in American literature: the intersection between art and resistance. I follow this development closely as literature and culture and politics interact. Look at how women are dressing up like Handmaids from Atwood’s classic to protest the rollback in women’s reproductive rights.
> Who among living writers writes so that your heart leaps with joy? Is there someone whose new publication you’d never miss?
I would not miss another novel by Tan Tweng Eng, the author of The Garden of Evening Mists. I’m completely in awe of his talents. I think a lot of people are waiting for his next one.
> If a traveler to Pakistan asked for a short reading list of works that nail its current spirit, what would some titles be?
Red Birds by Mohammed Hanif, whose characters are epic, chaotic, confused and battle-weary, hurt and vulnerable, but still trying to make a buck. Thinner Than Skin by Uzma Aslam Khan, which captures the complications of love across countries, including the incredible northern region of mountains and glaciers, one of the most unusual books about Pakistan I’ve ever read. The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack, by IWP’s own HM Naqvi (IWP 2010), whose old protagonist – selfish, irascible, decrepit, full of knowledge – is the city of Karachi in human form. And The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch by journalist Sanam Maher, about a girl from the lower middle classes who claws her way up into a modeling career and social media stardom before being murdered by her brother for honor. To show the formidable misogyny and patriarchy that women in Pakistan are up against.
> In what way - if any - does translation figure in your literary thinking/reading/writing?
I had to read a lot of Sindhi and Sufi poetry in translation when I was writing A Season for Martyrs. I regret that I am weak in Sindhi, my native language, so I couldn’t read the original work of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, the Sufi poet known as the Shakespeare of Sindh. There is a good translation in English of his work by Christopher Shackleton, but at the time I was writing my novel it had not yet been published. I feel frustrated that I can’t access literature in Pakistani languages firsthand; I have to rely on English translations which aren’t all that masterful.
I’ve also resisted being translated into Urdu because I fear mistranslation: many errors can be made in translation, some of them deliberate. There is also the risk of being willfully misinterpreted or misunderstood by conservative or right-wing elements who might deliberately misconstrue some of my feminist writing or be offended by it. These are dangerous times for free thinkers and progressive-minded people in Pakistan. The government is clamping down on dissenters and it sometimes feels like walking a tightrope. I avoid this by writing in English, and being very careful about what I allow to be translated.
> Has the wave of creative writing “training” (MFAs, writing courses, etc.) made an impact on the literary life of Pakistan? How so?
There are a lot of young Pakistanis trying to write and some are getting published here and there, online, in journals, and even by local or Indian publishing houses. But they haven’t yet made the leap to literary writing as a profession, they indulge in it as a hobby, or dabble in it apart from their day jobs, so I don’t think they are really ready yet to invest thousands of dollars in an expensive creative writing program. There are no MFAs or structured writing programs in Pakistan, so these courses are very expensive and so available to only a select few, who have to travel abroad to attend them. As such they haven’t made a huge impact on Pakistan’s literary life.
> What gratifying or hopeful developments in social life or politics have you seen in the last, say, decade?
I’m seeing a greater awareness of women’s rights in Pakistan, India and the Middle East and Africa – what is often called the global South, the Muslim worlds, the Middle East, etc. Women are realizing that the cultural, social and religious constraints on their lives can be contested. They realize they have the power to speak up and take control of their futures. It’s as if half the population was asleep and now it is waking. This is an exciting development to witness and to be a part of.
> The most constructive stance a writer can take in the public sphere right now?
Oh, this is a tough one. I think writers need to stand for progressive values, but they must always remember that their primary charge is to record the world as they see it. As Hanif Kureishi says, anything else is advertising – or propaganda, in this age of nationalism and isolationism. There’s nothing wrong with having a political stance, even as a writer – George Orwell did it with aplomb. But he did it through his writing, his fiction and his essays. He wasn’t bombastic about it, he didn’t claim to have all the answers, but he knew exactly what side he was on – the side of socialism and democracy. A writer must exhibit integrity in her own stance, rather than try to tell other people what to think or believe.
> Your utopia?
Where not a single woman is harmed because of her gender.