In Conversation with Kanza Javed

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Taskeen Zahra chats with Kanza Javed, the brilliant young author of 'Ashes, Wine and Dust', who also has the honour of being the youngest and the only Pakistani writer to have been nominated for the Tibor James South Asia Prize.

Tell us a little about your educational background?

I just received my postgraduate degree in English Language and Literature from Kinnaird College for Women, this year, and I am starting my semester as an MFA student at West Virginia University this semester. I will be teaching, as well as taking classes and writing. I have never taught in the US before, so I am very keen on entering this academic space.

How would you describe your writing process?

It is very mysterious. I have not fully comprehended it myself. But I draw inspiration from the works of other writers. It can be a line or a dialogue between characters that can trigger my imagination. I keep a diary and pencil with me at all times. I write down words, numbers, pieces of conversation, and memories. I have to be in a certain frame of mind to be able to write. I can’t write when I am too depressed or too jovial. As a writer, you are not only exploring your characters but yourself too. When every piece, you unravel an aspect of your personality. When I was living in Arizona and writing a short story for a creative writing workshop, I surprised myself by realizing how foreign Lahore felt to me and my story pivoted around characters strolling in New York, DC or Boston. I discovered that I write better when I am in the same place that I am writing about. I have to experience monsoon (even if I have experienced it a thousand times before), I have to drive by the canals, I have to stop by shrines and the old city and I have to take a bus ride home. I know as a writer you rely heavily on memory and this is almost like my weakness. But oh well, I will learn with time.

Do you remember at what point in life you decided to become a writer?

I was very young, probably eight, when I wrote my first story. My parents made me and brother do creative writing exercises when we were growing up. Whenever we went somewhere, for instance the zoo, a park or another city, my mother asked us to recollect an important episode from that experience and write it down. It soon became a habit which required discipline. But I realized my zest for writing after my grandmother passed away and I felt I had to capture every essence of her on a page. I began a lot more and soon realized the sanctity of the written word. What was the inspiration behind your debut novel “Ashes, Wine and Dust”? I wrote the book when I was very young, seventeen, and of course it has had several re-births till then. I distinctly remember being on call with a friend and telling her that I have been seeing two characters in my head, a young girl and her brother. I told her the entire story in fifteen minutes. It felt like a huge weight had lifted off my chest. Writers tend to leave remnants of themselves in their characters.

Your main character, Mariam, is enveloped in an air of death, loss and mourning. Does it reflect any traumatic event or incident in your life?

I think we take away from the sanctity and the originality of the character when we try to find traces of a writer in them. But as a literature student, I understand how pertinent and relevant this question is. I don’t think Mariam resembles me, some of my closest friends disagree but then some of your closest friends might not really know you completely. Did I lose someone as a child? Yes, I did. I lost my grandparents. But did I reflect on the tragedy the way Mariam did? No, I did not. I feel Mariam is much more sensitive and beautiful as a person. I was sixteen when my grandmother passed away and it was the first funeral I witnessed in which I could understand what was going on. Sometimes funerals become a spectacle. It becomes less and less about the person who has passed on, and more about family politics, gossips, what to serve, what to wear, was there a will, who did he/she love the most…. all kinds of insignificant things. I wanted to capture that through the eyes of a child. It was challenging because I had no younger nieces or nephews and I barely spent time with children. But somehow after graduating I ended up teaching fourth graders and began deciphering their psyche. I realized that it is possible for a nine-year- old to feel so passionately about something the elders totally disregard. It was possible. We underestimate children. They see, know and remember everything.

Do you enjoy having an unrestrained, rather manipulative power over the characters you give birth to?

Absolutely. You can’t control anything in life, but while writing a story, you take the role of the creator. It is gratifying, but it is also frightening. At times I feel so imprisoned in my character’s head that I have to take a long jog and understand him deeply.

With the lack of publishing houses and a surge in piracy, how would you describe your experience as an author in Pakistan?

Writing seemed easier after I delved into the publishing world. I did not know any writers in person, nor did I know the process of publishing. I had to do thorough research. I met publishers in Pakistan who clearly stated that they were not interested without even reading the manuscript. I don’t know what the rejection was based on. Maybe they were keen on publishing Urdu writers, or maybe I did not have a famous surname. I was not going to use and hunt for contacts anyway. That is not how I wanted to be published. I really hope publishing houses at home start taking an interest in indigenous writers and help promote them. Many new writers in Pakistan go ahead and self-publish, and then they don’t understand how to market their book. You are criticized for being published overseas, and you die in anonymity if you run after a local publisher. People need to understand how hard it is to find someone who picks up your book, actually reads it, adopts your characters and do justice with your work. It was after I was nominated for a prize that agencies started taking interest in my work. I ended up working with an incredible agency in New Delhi.

How did the being nominated for the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize change you? Were you expecting the nomination?

I was 21, and it was the first time the manuscript was read by someone other than myself. It was a surreal experience. I was not expecting it. They received more than a hundred manuscripts. I came home from work and saw that Muneeza Shamsie had tagged me in a Facebook post, I was surprised. At the ceremony, I was introduced to the world of writers, agencies and publishers.

In your eyes, how important is it to fail in life?

When it comes to writing, failure is inevitable. I was very uncertain with the initial draft of “Ashes, Wine and Dust.” I was changing everything. Call it a failure to understand the craft of writing. The very first uncertainty, when you are still trying to understand who you are as a writer. It was important for me to fail at that stage. It taught me to revise, re-draft and be more disciplined. A few rejections also enable you to understand your work better. Some editors tell you specifically what is not working and you should sometimes take it into considerations. The first book is like your firstborn child and you are not willing to hear any negative remarks, but you have to open yourself to criticism.

What kind of response have you received from your family and the society at large? And how has it changed you as a person?

My family has always been very supportive. In a family of civil servants, engineers and doctors, it is interesting to be a writer.

What advice would you give to a younger you?

Remain patient. Read more. Remember when the editor asked you to amputate that paragraph and you cried about it; she was right. It did not make sense. The book read better without it.

What advice would you give to all those young females that aspire to become novelists one day?

This is for all the young writers who are finding their way; writing is hard work, remain disciplined and patient.

Is there another book or a sequel in the pipeline?

I am working on something. Let it be a surprise for both myself and the readers.

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