This is a pre-print for an article submitted for consideration in New Writing 2009, Copyright Taylor & Francis; New Writing is available online here.
In the summer of 2008, I was asked to be a guest speaker at a conference entitled ‘Creative Writing and How to Teach it’. I was surprised to discover that my biggest aid in sharing what I presumed to know about writing turned out to be a writer’s journal I had to submit as a small part of my final year dissertation, rather than the advice I’d read in what seemed like a million books devoted to the subject. Keeping such a journal is hugely important – it constantly challenges your reasons for writing in a specific way, about certain things. It helps you to address, analyse and explore the blocks and difficulties that may arise and it forces you to maintain focus. Most importantly, it provided me with many moments of realisation about who I was and what I valued most, otherwise known as personal voice. Worlds at Play is the speech I eventually delivered:
I once read somewhere that ‘language is a pre-condition of consciousness’1 – a profound statement and one which I think honours the work of a writer, because without being able to give a name to the world inside and outside of ourselves, we have no way of understanding it and therefore of learning how to interact with it in new and exciting ways. At the start of my journey as a creative writer, I had no idea how much I would come to learn about myself and more importantly how to change the lens through which I viewed my world. In my opinion, this amounts to our job as writers; to be able to dip into the different lives inhabited by our characters and experience the sheer delight of discovering what happens when two or more of them, with all their past and personality and baggage, come together and interact in the face of challenge or unusual circumstance.
When I began brainstorming ideas for my final year project at Brunel, I came across one piece of advice which stood out time and again in all the creative writing textbooks: always write about what you know. I’m a little dubious of this statement because I believe that a good writer who is able to to research efficiently can write about anything they please. But it is a good starting point. I’ve come to learn that it is most important to write only about that which inspires excitement, strong emotion and passion in us. Only by doing so can we guarantee the commitment crucial to those long hours spent moulding and refining our words, subjecting them to the necessary tools of our trade, such as character, description and dialogue, to name but a few.
For me, there was no circumstance more unusual, no subject better known to me and certainly nothing which arouses more emotion in me than my childhood. I’m a Scottish-Pakistani woman born and raised near a small town in Central Scotland; I was the youngest of seven children, and my parents owned three corner shops, all run by the family. Perhaps most importantly, however, in our little village, we were the ethnic minority. As I grew amongst all the racism, the long, back-breaking hours and the beautiful Scottish scenery, I found myself increasingly frustrated by my lack of cultural identity.
When it came to writing about my experiences, I remembered a fundamental rule of writing: if you want to write, first you must read. One of my favourite books is the awe-inspiring Wild Swans by Jung Chang. In it, she portrays the history and culture of a nation through the lives of three generations of women, including her own. I felt the book was hugely important because it removed a deep-rooted aspect of enigma from China’s image to the rest of the world and if there’s one thing I’ve observed in our current social climate, it’s that people fear what they don’t know.
It is apparent that no similar work of non-fiction has been written about Pakistan. Considering the increasing intensity of fears sparked by the 9/11 and 7/7 bombings, I personally felt that the mystery surrounding Pakistani culture and religion was rapidly leading to dangerous levels of ignorance and even hostility towards the Western Pakistani community. So I set out to write a book which subverted homogenous representations of Pakistani Muslims.
My dissertation provided the perfect vehicle for exploring different approaches to my subject matter, and by forcing me to choose only one aspect of it to focus on for the length of a chapter, I ultimately the discovered the importance of personal voice, which I’ll come back to later. My initial research began as an effort to emulate the basic format of Wild Swans by focusing on three generations of my own family. Their stories would relate to the build-up, climax and aftermath of one significant event relevant to the lives of each generation: Partition, Migration and Settlement (the story of my siblings and I, who were born and raised in Britain). I began interviewing my mother and father in an effort to deduce which themes and events to focus on for my chapter and in the end I was overwhelmed by a wealth of material.
My dad told incredible stories about his own father and his brother who both served in the British Army, and of his monumental journey across India into Pakistan. My mother also held me captivated with her recollections of what life was like as a woman at that time and of being the daughter of a woman who was born deaf and therefore mute.
But despite hearing many tales from my parents that would provide excellent writing material, it just wasn’t enough. Every book on creative writing I had been reading at the time emphasised that detail is what makes excellent – or even good – writing, and there were many obstacles in acquiring this which I ultimately failed to overcome. My reliance on parents’ memories had made my writing stunted and demanding to read.
The important lesson l learned here is that early on in the writing process, a decision must be made about how much research is required to tell each character’s story. We read books to become absorbed in a moment other than that of our own present, and the writer’s role is to capture a series of distinct moments so that the reader’s emotions are fully aroused. And the moments in my parents’ stories simply could not come alive unless I knew what it was like to feel Pakistani soil under my feet, or to have someone communicate with me using only their hands and their eyes. Now I’m not advocating a writing process that requires us to live the lives of our character, because for those of us with active imaginations, our very safety may be compromised! I’ve simply come to believe that in order to write about anyone who is not ourselves, we have to make what effort we can to aid our imagination.
As frustration mounted with the number of hours I had spent arduously transcribing the interviews I held with each of my parents, I remembered that it took Jung Chang well over seven years to research and write Wild Swans. The research phase must have required extensive travel from her home in London to different areas of China to speak with relatives, sift through records of political operations relevant to her family , and to see first-hand the places where the events in her life took place. I, on the other hand, can barely speak Punjabi or Urdu, and had neither the time nor the money to travel to South Asia. The idea of a Pakistani Wild Swans was laid to rest.
I began again by analysing the work of other authors who sought to write new representations of Pakistani Muslims and found that the number of books being published in the past couple of years on the theme was growing. The work of Sarfraz Manzoor, Yasmin Hai and Imran Ahmad forced me to admit my own ignorance of the sheer diversity of voices within the Pakistani and wider South Asian community in Britain. The experiences of Asians born and raised in Luton compared with those from London, Yorkshire or any number of British localities varied significantly. It was also becoming increasingly apparent to me that the term ‘British Muslim’ has become problematic, as it appears to be synonymous with ‘English Muslim’. I began to see the importance of drawing on the entirety of my own experience as a Scottish Pakistani to relate my family’s story.
At first, I was extremely apprehensive about delving into my Scottish background, because I felt that in many ways, I had no right to ascribe the country’s solidly defined cultural traditions to myself, and I had little knowledge of it’s famed geography or its diversity of people. Having read the work of the authors I mentioned earlier, however, I saw that this is a central dilemma concerning ‘British’ Asian identity: Do I really belong? And if so, what aspects of my lifestyle, cultural values and customs make it so? What makes an account of Scottish Asian life perhaps more intriguing is the fact that historically, Scottish people have already had to define themselves as something intrinsically different from the English at a time when they were an imposing colonising force. These themes concerning nationhood and identity were central to a module I took at university called Writing India. Among many other issues it dealt with concerning the Indian sub-continent, the concept of nation as the culmination of purposeful collective will was an idea which I found bore strong relevance to my own questions of identity. Yet when one considers the impact of a recent, growing influx of migrants into Scotland, the question must be asked: Do the Scottish people feel they are being colonised once again, and if so, could this be the reason behind those more infamous aspects of their culture – ignorance and racism?
In this way, I discovered personal voice. The continual practice of writing about the details of my own life eventually made me realise how subjectively I viewed the world without any awareness of doing so at all. To illustrate my point, I’ll read a part of my story which tells of a day out with my father and sister to the beautiful Loch Lubnaig in the Trossachs:
As we ate, the silence around us was complete, save for the pervasive patter of rain on the loch, the trees and the roof of our blue van. I sneaked a glance at my dad. There was a look on his face I’d never seen before. His moustache danced with delight as his jaw worked to release every delicate flavour, and his eyes flitted without cease from loch to tree and back to his food. It was as if his eyes were greedy, unable to take in enough of the splendid sights before him. R____ too, seemed to be spellbound by the endless ripples of water continually radiating outwards, each one striving to maintain its beauty despite the surrounding deluge. From where I was sitting, I couldn’t see the grey sky above the radiance of the trees.
Another writer I admire very much is Carlos Ruiz Zafon2, who once wrote that a story is a letter the author writes to himself, to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise.
Throughout the writing of my story, I discovered that writing, like life itself, is all about choices. Choices of words, of actions and of observations. Whether we make these decisions consciously or unconsciously dictates whether we as writers are truly able to see from our characters’ perspectives.
1 Nazeer, K. (2006) Send in the Idiots. Bloomsbury Publishing, New York.
2 Zafon, C. R. (2004) Shadow of the Wind. Phoenix Fiction, Great Britain.