Many of you may have heard about the anthology of short stories, Austenistan published by Bloomsbury, edited by Laaleen Sukhera and written by Laaleen, Nida Elley, Saniyya Gauhar, Mishayl Naek, Gayathri and Mahlia Lone. Each of us has stories within us. But what does it take to put them down and have them published. Let’s ask the Austenistanis
As a debut fiction writer, what did you learn working on this book?
Laaleen: Only write fiction if your heart is really into it. Don’t do it for money or fame or prestige, do it for the sake of creative expression. Saniyya: That writing fiction is harder than it seems! It’s mentally and physically very challenging – this act of creating something from scratch.
Mishayl: I learnt that creating fictional stories and characters require well thought out storylines and more research than other editorial work. I had to really imagine the characters and think of life stories in order to make them seem real. It was much more fun than journalism but infinitely more difficult.
Gayathri: I learned that we all have snippets of stories within us but that putting them together to create something new is hard.
Sonya: That you can’t cram-jam everything and their mother into a short story! Also, I learnt that as a writer, you have to ‘show’ and not ‘tell’ – don’t hand-hold your readers, they’ll tune out.
Nida: I’ve been writing fiction for the past 15 years now, but this is the first time one of my short stories has been published. Apart from consistently writing and working on your craft, getting your work noticed has a lot to do with love and luck.
Mahlia: I learnt that writing fiction is a skill like any other.
How is Austenistan different from the novels or anthologies of other Pakistani contemporary authors?
Nida: As far as I know, this is the first time Pakistani authors are openly paying homage to another great writer of another era and culture.
As (Pakistani English language) writers as long as we pander less to foreign readers, and focus more on being authentic, our work will thrive.
Laaleen: I have the deepest respect for all our authors and budding writers but I’d have to say we take ourselves less seriously than most. We have incorporated humour as well as social commentary in our interpretations of Austen’s novels.
Gayathri: Austenistan is a refreshing and unpretentious selection of stories. Just as with Jane Austen’s novels, Austenistan is set in a certain milieu of society, but the themes of joy and despair of womanhood depicted are universal.
Sonya: I think Austenistan’s stories touch upon subjects which haven’t really been explored in local fiction before. I think some South Asian writers have played it too safe when it comes to fiction, where they continue romanticizing our neck of the woods; such as, the smell of fresh jasmine and what not. Fiction on contemporary Pakistan has only now started to become popular. Why? Because it’s raw and refreshing.
Did you just sit down and dash off the story or did you carefully construct the plot line first?
Saniyya: Even though I had the outline of the basic plot in my head, once I started writing, the characters literally bounced off the page and took me in directions that I hadn’t planned and they even started telling their own stories, in a manner of speaking. At one point, I couldn’t keep up; as the dialogue just started spilling out from I don’t know where! And there are certain characters that I didn’t plan on having in the story but they just sort of “appeared.”
Laaleen: I started with a vague feeling of what I wanted to portray, sketched out characters and situations, and then it literally took on a life of its own! I think I can speak for all seven of us when I say that we now think of our fleshed out characters as real people now, with their idiosyncrasies and foibles!
Gayathri: I wrote the story at a very stressful time in my life. I had just packed up and moved from Pakistan to Jordan with my family. The weekend after we arrived in Amman they explored the city while I sat in a bare flat and dashed off my story to make the deadline. Needless to say, much editing followed!
Mishayl: Usually I think about what I’m writing for ages, mentally considering opening lines and sentence construction. In the case of fiction writing I did the same, but my editing process was much more intense.
Sonya: I’m a bit rash, so yes I dove right in and let the story take me along, not the other way around.
Nida: My writing process consists of day dreaming all the time, focusing solely on characters and plot lines some of the time, and letting the writing take me where it will the rest of the time.
Mahlia: I dashed it off and then went back, fleshed out the characters and tightened the story. The self-editing never really stops.
Why did you choose to tell this particular story?
Mishayl: As a voracious reader, I have never found a story which I believe reflected my life in Pakistan. I wanted to tell the story of the lives of ordinary 30 year old women in Karachi so we too were represented. It’s important to construct a full picture of Pakistan and show we are just like everyone else.
Nida: I found the idea of creating a character like Saira Qadir challenging, because she is so unlike me in many ways. The fun for me lay in finding a way to make this manipulative and selfish character not only sympathetic, but also lovable. Also, there is no limit to the number of Lady Susan-like characters in Pakistan.
Mahlia: I wanted to send a message to young teenage girls that nearly everyone gets married, but not all girls get a chance to complete their education, have a career and be financially independent, which in turn gives you options and the freedom to choose your life.
Ideally, what response would you like to elicit from the reader after reading this book?
G: Whether you are a Janeite or not I hope you delight in these stories of a few proud, brave, mad, bad, kind, good and fabulous women of Pakistan.
Saniyya: I would hope that after reading the stories, the reader feels that they have been through “an experience.” An experience that at times makes them laugh, cry (in a good way) and makes them feel as if they have actually been there with the characters – that they in fact, are part of our stories– that they are a guest at the wedding, that they have been privy to the conversation in the lounge; that they have attended the party in question…
Although our underlying theme is that Austen’s world is similar to ours, none of us are making any kind of social commentary, philosophical argument or judgment. We are simply telling a story.
Nida: As with all storytelling, I hope they’ll allow themselves to inhabit each of the characters’ points of view for a while, so they might relate or better understand or, at the very least, see the world through the eyes of a few modern-day Pakistani women.
Laaleen: To laugh with us, cringe with us, and hope with us!
Sonya: Glowing reviews, lots of fan-mail and a desi Darcy to finally take notice of my existence.