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 forÂ Women, this year, and I am starting my semester as an MFA student at West Virginia University thisÂ semester. I will be teaching, as well as taking classes and writing. I have never taught in the US before, soÂ 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 ofÂ other writers. It can be a line or a dialogue between characters that can trigger my imagination. I keep aÂ diary and pencil with me at all times. I write down words, numbers, pieces of conversation, andÂ memories. I have to be in a certain frame of mind to be able to write. I canâ€™t write when I am tooÂ depressed or too jovial.Â As a writer, you are not only exploring your characters but yourself too. When every piece, you unravelÂ an aspect of your personality. When I was living in Arizona and writing a short story for a creative writingÂ workshop, I surprised myself by realizing how foreign Lahore felt to me and my story pivoted aroundÂ characters strolling in New York, DC or Boston. I discovered that I write better when I am in the sameÂ place that I am writing about. I have to experience monsoon (even if I have experienced it a thousandÂ times before), I have to drive by the canals, I have to stop by shrines and the old city and I have to take aÂ bus ride home. I know as a writer you rely heavily on memory and this is almost like my weakness. But ohÂ 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 doÂ creative writing exercises when we were growing up. Whenever we went somewhere, for instance theÂ zoo, a park or another city, my mother asked us to recollect an important episode from that experienceÂ and write it down. It soon became a habit which required discipline. But I realized my zest for writingÂ after my grandmother passed away and I felt I had to capture every essence of her on a page. I beganÂ a lot more and soon realized the sanctity of the written word. What was the inspiration behind your debut novel â€œAshes, Wine and Dustâ€?Â I wrote the book when I was very young, seventeen, and of course it has had several re-births till then. IÂ distinctly remember being on call with a friend and telling her that I have been seeing two characters inÂ my head, a young girl and her brother. I told her the entire story in fifteen minutes. It felt like a hugeÂ weight had lifted off my chest.Â Writers tend to leave remnants of themselves in their characters.
Your main character, Mariam, isÂ enveloped in an air of death, loss and mourning. Does it reflect any traumatic event or incident inÂ your life?
I think we take away from the sanctity and the originality of the character when we try to find traces of aÂ writer in them. But as a literature student, I understand how pertinent and relevant this question is. IÂ donâ€™t think Mariam resembles me, some of my closest friends disagree but then some of your closestÂ friends might not really know you completely. Did I lose someone as a child? Yes, I did. I lost myÂ grandparents. But did I reflect on the tragedy the way Mariam did? No, I did not. I feel Mariam is muchÂ more sensitive and beautiful as a person.Â I was sixteen when my grandmother passed away and it was the first funeral I witnessed in which I couldÂ understand what was going on. Sometimes funerals become a spectacle. It becomes less and less aboutÂ the person who has passed on, and more about family politics, gossips, what to serve, what to wear, wasÂ there a will, who did he/she love the mostâ€¦. all kinds of insignificant things. I wanted to capture thatÂ through the eyes of a child.Â It was challenging because I had no younger nieces or nephews and I barely spent time with children. ButÂ somehow after graduating I ended up teaching fourth graders and began deciphering their psyche. IÂ realized that it is possible for a nine-year- old to feel so passionately about something the elders totallyÂ 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 birthÂ to?
Absolutely. You canâ€™t control anything in life, but while writing a story, you take the role of the creator. ItÂ is gratifying, but it is also frightening. At times I feel so imprisoned in my characterâ€™s head that I have toÂ 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 asÂ an author in Pakistan?
Writing seemed easier after I delved into the publishing world. I did not know any writers in person, norÂ did I know the process of publishing. I had to do thorough research. I met publishers in Pakistan whoÂ clearly stated that they were not interested without even reading the manuscript. I donâ€™t know what theÂ rejection was based on. Maybe they were keen on publishing Urdu writers, or maybe I did not have aÂ famous surname. I was not going to use and hunt for contacts anyway. That is not how I wanted to beÂ published. I really hope publishing houses at home start taking an interest in indigenous writers and helpÂ promote them. Many new writers in Pakistan go ahead and self-publish, and then they donâ€™t understandÂ how to market their book. You are criticized for being published overseas, and you die in anonymity ifÂ you run after a local publisher. People need to understand how hard it is to find someone who picks upÂ your book, actually reads it, adopts your characters and do justice with your work.Â It was after I was nominated for a prize that agencies started taking interest in my work. I ended upÂ working with an incredible agency in New Delhi.
How did the being nominated for the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize change you? Were you expectingÂ the nomination?
I was 21, and it was the first time the manuscript was read by someone other than myself. It was aÂ surreal experience. I was not expecting it. They received more than a hundred manuscripts. I came homeÂ from work and saw that Muneeza Shamsie had tagged me in a Facebook post, I was surprised. At theÂ 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 â€œAshes, WineÂ and Dust.â€ I was changing everything. Call it a failure to understand the craft of writing. The very firstÂ uncertainty, when you are still trying to understand who you are as a writer. It was important for me toÂ fail at that stage. It taught me to revise, re-draft and be more disciplined.Â 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 firstbornÂ 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 itÂ changed you as a person?
My family has always been very supportive. In a family of civil servants, engineers and doctors, it isÂ 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 youÂ 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 andÂ 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.