What made you write The House of Clay and Water, the theme about orthodoxy in Pakistan?
I think that one writes stories one is meant to be. I come from a household where Punjabi Sufi poetry is being played at the background. I had been reading English Literature, followed by a graduation in American and European literature; and along all this, I was even indulging in the works of Ghalib, Faiz, Mir and short stories and novels stating the biases women face in Pakistan. I loved all the three dialects and even wanted to delve in French and Persian. I read anything and everything I could find, except the comics. I don’t think a novelist makes a deliberate step to write about social issues.
This House of Clay and Water is a metamorphism of another book which I had been writing prior to MFA. It encapsulated the elements of Magical Realism, had a jinn and a lot of philosophy. Even after 60k words, the story was still unfolding and the idea wasn’t very clear. Although I got positive reviews from my fellow mates, still I was sure that the story had to go. So I started with it again, and it had ‘reality’ in literary terms. The female protagonist of the previous book had clung on to me and moved to this new premise, albeit a little stronger and more articulate. I am very proud of my legacy and my writing clearly states the customs, privileges, tragedies and sorrows of my place. This novel doesn’t talk about orthodoxy waging wars on turf but the orthodoxy pertaining in spiritualism, on Sufism, on tolerance.
Have the characters in the book been inspired by real-life people?
No, they haven’t been inspired by any real people. But if you ask me will I ever meet the kind of people in the book, and if the answer is no then it means I have failed as a writer. They aren’t real but they are realistic. Difference, peripheries, centers all fascinate me. Human beings are conditioned to behave in a certain way in a given situation just like Pavlov’s dogs. If we go against it, we are deemed to be tagged as mad or become a target for hate. I wanted to write about women, who go against the grain; they are intolerable and worse than men. They have to be ward off in order to re-establish social order. Issues like eunuchs, hermaphrodite, castrati’s weren’t considered aberrations until the British came along. Before the British, hermaphrodites were treated with due respect, even if not with equality. It’s high time we need to do better for women and transgender.
Tell us about your writing routine.
Coffee is the key. Nothing fancy, just hot and at least two large mugs to start me off. I have a beautiful study consisting of a lilac ceiling and matching rug. I have a white colour mantle containing books. My writing table faces the wall which is adorned by works of Van Gogh and Monet postcards, inspirational quotes and advises from coveted writers. I sit and stare, drink my coffee and feel so small and miserable. To make myself a little better, I need to have another mug. While sipping while I have felt a little ambitious, I open my laptop and start with going through what I had written the previous day. If I don’t come across any mistakes, I start writing, but if I encounter some mistakes, I start rectifying them until I am tired. Then another mug of coffee and I start writing something new. This is my routine on good days. On days, I am unable to curb the feeling of smallness and insignificance, then I spend the day sitting on my lilac armchair and reading Proust.
Do places have a role to play in your writing? Do they determine the setting or inspire you in some way?
The place is important. Location is something political and becomes the heart of the story and at times, it is the only story. For me, the place is often Lahore. I have accepted the fact that I can never understand it completely owing to the fact it is so Protean and so complex and hence that is why I can write about it. I am in love with this city and I love writing about it.
Who are your favourite authors?
Authors who have inspired me include Bohumil Hrabal, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Milan Kundera, Anton Chekhov, Helen DeWitt, Jostein Gaarder, Emily Bronte, William Shakespeare, Khalid Hosseini, Ghalib, Charles Dickens, Harper Lee, Colleen McCollough and many, many more writers which I haven’t mentioned. The list is endless.
Your advice for the flourishing and striving writers.
Learn the art of editing your own creation. Read it again and again, seep into it until you are sick of it, so that you can see beyond your love for it and hence see the mechanics of sentences and paragraphs. Then get rid of everything extraneous.
About the Interviewee: Faiqa Mansab completed her MFA in creative writing with a distinction and an award for the best thesis. Her novel “This House of Clay and Water” is the final version of her MFA thesis.