Ten Questions for Author Saadia FaruqiPosted: July 28, 2015
Houston-based author Saadia Faruqi, recently released her debut short story collection, Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan. Deonna Kelli Sayed caught up with Saadia to discuss the book, her interfaith work, and what it is like to live in a chai-free household.
Deonna Kelli Sayed (DKS): You are in an elevator with someone and you have a minute to convince them to read Brick Walls. What do you say?
Saadia Faruqi (SF): Remember when short stories were in vogue? Well, those times are back with Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan! What’s that, you ask? Well, Brick Walls is a collection of short stories based in Pakistan, my birth country. Although the characters are fictional, the situations they face are very real, very tough and very different from the image of Pakistan in western media. The stories are a portrait of everyday life with all its challenges and realities. The best thing is that they showcase the beautiful aspects of Pakistani culture: the food, the scenes, the people with kindness and courage in their hearts.
DKS: How did the story collection come to you?
SF: I am a speaker and trainer on all things Muslim, from cultural sensitivity training for law enforcement to interfaith gatherings in churches and classes at local community colleges. For the last several years I was noticing more and more of my students asking me questions about Pakistan: it’s food, it’s culture, it’s people. The questions they asked were innocent but very telling: How did I learn English? dId I live in a house or a tent? Was I allowed to leave my house? I realized that due to international events there was a lot of media coverage of Pakistan, but not really a lot of accurate information, and Americans were curious to learn more. I write a lot of non-fiction and opinion pieces, but I decided that fiction would be a different yet perhaps more effective way of sharing the stories of real Pakistanis.
DKS: What do you hope people take from reading Brick Walls?
SF: My aim is simple: tell the stories that are not being covered by the media. I hope that after reading the story collection, people will appreciate the real Pakistan: the struggles that Pakistanis face and the great strength of character they have. Don’t get me wrong, by no means do I hide the ugliness of society, because every society has those unsavory elements. In fact each story in Brick Walls deals with one socioeconomic problem prevalent in Pakistan: poverty, gender discrimination, political chaos, terrorism, you name it, it’s there! But the focus of the story is how the characters deal with these situations and show their beautiful spirit, their courage, their sacrifice. When they reach the end of the book, I want my readers to be filled with a sense of hope and happiness, even though some of the stories are sad.
DKS: Is the book available in Pakistan? If so, what has been the response from readers here and abroad?
SF: Sadly, my publisher hasn’t been able to negotiate with Pakistani booksellers successfully so far, one of the downsides of a small press. Brick Walls is extremely popular with Pakistani immigrants in USA and Europe, as well as by the average white American. It’s been little over a month since the book was released, and already I’m getting some wonderful reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. I’ve actually been very surprised at the response, because I wasn’t expecting it to be so warmly positive. I’m very grateful for the support I’m getting from my readers, because let’s face it, for a debut author from a small press, grassroots support means the most.
DKS: What were the biggest surprises you encountered during the writing process?
SF: I would have to say that I was surprised at how easily I adapted to fiction writing. Although according to my mom, I used to write stories as a child, I really hadn’t even thought about writing fiction for the last twenty five years or so. People constantly ask me whether I’ve studied creative writing or at least taken some classes in the disciple, and I have to be honest and say absolutely nothing. I don’t have any training in the art of writing fiction, so I do want to assure other budding authors that’s okay to start fresh, to take chances and start writing even if they don’t have that degree.
DKS: Is there one particular character or story that spoke to you stronger than the others? If so, why?
SF: That’s like asking a mother which of her children she loves the most. How can I answer? If I think about it, though, one of the characters who may be closest to me is Rabia in the short story “Bittersweet Mangoes.” She is a spoilt rich girl from a political family whose brother has aspirations to be the next Prime Minister by fair means or foul. But during university, Rabia is exposed to the poorest of the poor quite unexpectedly and it completely changes her outlook on life. Something similar happened to me when I came to the United States. While I was in college I started volunteering for a nonprofit organization and had some eye-opening experiences with sick children that really changed my life goals in a very drastic way. Fifteen years later I’m working with nonprofits like Rabia, so perhaps that’s way I feel a certain affinity with her, because I understand that helping people is more important than making money.
DKS: What do you plan to write next?
SF: Ah, there are still so many stories to tell. I may write another collection about Pakistan, but I fear that would belimiting. The market for short story collections isn’t too big, which I think is very unfortunate because the short story format is really a unique way to tell multiple situations and viewpoints more successfully than a novel. On the other hand I’m also dabbling with a novel about a Pakistani American woman who goes back to Pakistan and what she learns about herself and her birth country in the process. So we’ll see which one of my urges wins!
DKS: There seems to be a growing number of Muslims engaging creative endeavors (art, writing, fashion, film, music). What will the Muslim creative landscape will look like a decade from now?
SF: You’re absolutely right, we are seeing a new generation of Muslim writers, poets, artists and even comedians coming of age in a very different environment than their older, oftentimes immigrant counterparts. At the same time I see a pushback from more conservative sources, for instance the proponents of what is popularly known as Islamic fiction or Islamic art, which typically means a lot of censure in terms of topics and content one can depict. For instance, when I sought reviews of Brick Walls from Muslim publications a few rejected it based on the fact that I had written about non-Islamic issues such as alcoholism or atheism. It’s really sad to me that we somehow feel the need to limit our creativity to appease the sensibilities of certain groups of people, and it’s complicated even more by some very good relationships I have developed with a few writers and publishers of Islamic fiction. I guess we have to agree to disagree in this respect, but because I feel strongly that we often don’t give our upcoming Muslim writers, artists and poets a free from censor environment to grow and be published, I created Blue Minaret, an online literary magazine to showcase such talent. I can predict that online spaces such as Blue Minaret, YouTube and others will result in more exposure and ultimately more acceptance for Muslims who want to write or draw or paint about non-traditional topics. I’m very hopeful that things will improve in the years ahead.
DKS: You do interfaith work. What role can storytelling play in bridging communities?
SF: I believe that storytelling plays a huge role in building bridges and creating understanding. A couple of years ago I went to a lecture by Eboo Patel, the founder of the wildly successful interfaith movement among youth. At his book signing I had the opportunity to ask him how to improve my own interfaith efforts and activities. I suppose I was expecting an academic response, but what he said was so simple yet so intriguing. He said “Just tell your stories… Your family, your life, your kids. Talk about all that.” After I was done being slightly irritated at what I took as his lack of response, I thought about it and realized how true this was… When I talk about what Islam says, people get turned off, because it’s how every pundit and academic is speaking on the news. But when I explain how I do things in my home, and the struggles I and my family face as American Muslims, people sit up and listen. They really listen and ask questions. That’s the main reason I decided to write Brick Walls in the form of short stories, because I realized the power of personalized storytelling to bring home powerful messages. After all, that’s the basics of writing: showing, not telling.
DKS: You have an afternoon sit back and read. What are you reading, and what sweet or savory do you take with your chai?
SF: First of all I have to be honest and disclose, at the risk of offending all desis everywhere, that I don’t drink tea. Yes I know, how can I be Pakistani if I don’t drink that ubiquitous drink that others seem to consume at all hours of the day or night? I don’t know and I hang my head in shame at this treachery. But it is what it is, I’m not a tea (or coffee) drinker. But when I sit down to read, I’ll probably have a can of diet coke in my hand, although I prefer not to eat anything because it distracts me from the joy of the book. Really, I’m not kidding. As for what I’m reading, currently it’s Undivided, the true account of a Christian mother and her Muslim daughter. Before that I just finished The Blind Writer, a collection of short stories by Indian American author Sameer Pandya. And of course I always have a few religious non-fiction books at my bedside, such as Jonathan Brown’s Misquoting Muhammad, which I recently completed, and Reza Aslan’s No God But God, which I’m reading for the second time in three years, just to keep things fresh in my mind. So you see, no chai, but lots of great books!