Today, the Dames are pleased to turn the spotlight on literary fiction author, Shaheen Ashraf-Ahmed. Welcome, Shaheen. Tell us about your latest book, A Deconstructed Heart.
My latest book is a story of an Indian family living in England who are trying to stay connected, despite the unraveling of traditions and social structures that would normally keep them together. It begins with a middle-aged college professor, Mirza, whose wife has just left him. He responds by having a breakdown. He moves out of his house and into a tent at the bottom of his garden, much to the consternation of his neighbors and students. Mirza is tormented by a ghost: the cranky spirit of his old teacher, who cannot comprehend the dysfunctions of modern life. A niece, Amal, is dispatched by the family to “rescue” Mirza. She ends up feeling solidarity with him in his loneliness and soon falls for his student, Rehan. When Rehan disappears, Mirza is forced by his niece’s suffering to face the world again. Together, they have to rebuild a new idea of what family can be.
Sounds intriguing and I love that you have so many facets that appeal to me as a reader: a bit of mystery, a little romance, a touch of fantasy. Definitely a book I want to read. Can you share a little bit about what you’re working on now or what’s coming next?
I’m writing a short story series, The Purana Qila Stories. I have published two stories from that historical fiction series on the Kindle: A Change in the Weather and The Dust Beneath Her Feet. The stories are interconnected and introduce readers to a family living in or around a compound in India; the stories explore how time and emigration break open a once tight-knit community as characters grow up and/or move on, sometimes moving far away, with consequences for those they leave behind.
In The Dust Beneath Her Feet, I wanted to write a strong female character and was inspired by the real-life story of my aunt. Safiyah has to raise two daughters alone after her husband moves across the country to find work. Partition is looming in India, the new border with Pakistan cuts off husband and wife and travel is perilous. Safiyah hears a rumor about her husband and is forced to make a difficult decision.
My sister and I just published a book based on our great-aunt’s life—or really, the first 20 years of her life, and we’re currently working on the second book in the series. We really enjoyed the research and getting to know her better than we did when she was alive by re-visiting the stories we heard as children. What do you consider the single most satisfying aspect of being a writer?
I would have to say that nurturing the creative side of oneself is the ultimate satisfaction as a writer. It is a side of ourselves that, as women, we may not always get a chance to develop, and I feel truly grateful that I started down this road. Apart from raising my children, nothing that is this hard is so gratifying.
I also love being in a community of writers-readers, a community like the one here at the Dames of Dialogue blog. I have met some wonderful and supportive people who love books as much as I do and who have given me so much encouragement.
We’re happy to have you with us and hope you’ll come back to visit often. Who were your favorite authors as a child? Have they influenced your writing career in any way?
I grew up with a very limited library, which I now realize was a blessing in its own way: I was forced to read classics to stave off boredom, and I was soon hooked. I read Jack London, Austen, the Brontes, anything and everything I could get my hands on. I must have read The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, at least twenty times; I can still remember some images and lines by heart. When I was eleven, an uncle introduced me to Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie and there started my love affair with South Asian literature. I have to believe I was influenced by every book I ever came across; some for the musicality of the words, some for their pace, others for their careful construction. I’m still learning!
“…influenced by every book I ever came across;”—that’s one of the best answers we’ve ever gotten to that question. Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
I did not realize, until I started writing, how influential my mother was in sparking my interest in telling stories. I grew up with her memories about life in India, and they were always so vivid. My mother lived in poverty, but she and her siblings were often left to their own devices and had great adventures that made me laugh and filled me with wonder. I can’t imagine the sacrifices her family made to get her and her siblings through medical college and eventually, she went on to become a doctor in England. I often think about her journey and I still turn to her when I am researching historical details for a story.
How wonderful that you admire your mother and find inspiration in her life. What are major themes or motifs in your work? Do your readers ever surprise you by seeing something else in your stories than you think you wrote?
It’s interesting that you should ask me this question, because a reader just pointed something out in A Deconstructed Heart that I had not realized. She saw that Mirza’s act of smashing wine bottles after every party, because he did not drink, led to his wife’s interest in creating mosaic art with the glass shards—an interest that led to her expressing herself as an individual and ultimately leaving him. It was a connection that I did not catch. It’s wonderful to hear fresh perspectives from my readers.
I would say that I am interested in loss, in all its forms. I think about how immigration/emigration affects our personalities and who and what we have to leave behind each time. As someone who has lived in India, England, Scotland and France (during college) before settling in America, I think about how we often we are compelled to say goodbye throughout our lives.
How do you classify yourself as a writer? Fiction or non-fiction? Specific genre such as mystery, short story, paranormal or more general such as women’s fiction, Appalachian, etc.
While I write historical fiction, I would classify myself as a writer of literary fiction above all. I think my themes may resonate with women in particular, but the word ‘literary’ captures my aspiration to write well, above all else. As someone who has published poetry, the beauty of the written word is my overarching preoccupation when I sit down to write.
Any teachers who influenced you…encouraged you or discouraged?
I was very lucky to have a headmaster at my Scottish elementary school who saw that I could write poetry and started a gifted creative writing class for a few students every Thursday. I used to look forward to those lunch hours spent reading and discussing poetry by famous poets and sharing our own. Mr. MacDonald allowed us to express ourselves and never made us feel as if our opinions did not matter. I remember being nine and telling him that I thought Shakespeare was over-hyped (!) —an opinion I have since disowned, by the way—but Mr. MacDonald never let me feel that I had no right to my own thoughts. I think independent thought is critical to developing your own, strong, voice as a writer.
Sounds like a wonderful teacher and as a teacher myself, I applaud his vision. Have you bought an e-reader? What is your overall impression of electronic publishing?
Electronic publishing is simply an extension of the democratic process of allowing every citizen a voice, as I see it, the same way that blogging has widened a field once dominated by the newspaper and magazine industry. Of course, there are books that are not of sufficient quality to be published, but that is also true of some books in print format.
I resisted the idea of an e-reader because of my devotion to printed books, until my husband bought me one. I soon realized that the e-reader is highly convenient for traveling. I hate to be bored and must always be reading something; I love being able to carry the next novel I’m reading wherever I go, without worrying about how to pack it. I now have three titles on the Kindle and I’m happy to report that the process of publishing in this format has been painless.
I still love the printed book as a work of art, but I know that with new multimedia formats being developed for online newspapers and apps for the iPad, the e-reader will not be far behind in being able to offer a multi-sensory experience.
Last year, a multimedia version of T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland was released for the iPad, which combines written text with videos of actor readings. It was wonderful. You only have to look at this year’s Snow Fall project on the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2012/snow-fall/#/?part=tunnel-creek) to see the possibilities of multimedia for the reading experience. This is the future of electronic publishing, and I think it’s very exciting.
Like you, I resisted the idea of an e-reader until my husband gave me one for my birthday. After I learned how to use it, I was sold but I still love my print books, especially my favorite “comfort” reads and can’t imagine myself ever parting with them. How do your characters “come” to you? Are they based loosely or closely on people you know?
I don’t try to imitate anyone I know when I write, but there are minute elements, a way of dressing, or a sense of humor, that I can trace back to a certain person. However, my characters are a combination of the work of my imagination and a few traits in people close to me that probably only I can identify. I think I’m getting the balance right, because several people who know me have suggested different muses for my characters, never the same names!
I think most writers do the same thing; combine traits they’ve noticed in real people with a good dose of imagination to create their characters. I know I do. Do you have any good suggestions for overcoming writer’s block?
I find that the best way to overcome writer’s block is to read someone else’s writing. You need to take the pressure off yourself and forgive yourself for not being able to write at that precise moment; it can be inspiring to divert yourself with someone else’s moment of success. I’m also a big believer in listening to my instincts. There is a natural rhythm to writing that, at least for me, can’t be forced. Some very successful writers are highly disciplined and make themselves churn out a certain number of words each day. I envy them, but I know that I can’t write like that. I only sit down to write when I know I will be able to write something true, that I can stand by.
Oh, I envy writers who can do that, too. I’ve never been able to tie myself down that way and when I try, my writing definitely suffers for it. What are your thoughts on the standard writing advice, “write what you know”?
I think there’s certainly truth to this saying, but as a writer of historical fiction, it would be more apt, perhaps, to say instead, “write what you want to know.” The research involved in writing a work of historical fiction requires humility, being prepared to admit that you don’t really know enough, and must go find out for yourself and ruthlessly fact-check.
For example, I thought that the character Imran in my stories, A Change in the Weather and The Dust Beneath Her Feet, would like scooters. However, I had to be careful, because scooters were not available in India until the early 1950’s. Therefore, I could mention his love of his scooter in A Change in the Weather, which is set in the 1950’s, but in The Dust Beneath Her Feet, which is set in 1947, Imran can only look longingly at Italian magazines featuring the Lambretta, a scooter that will be manufactured for the first time during the following year in Italy. To mention my character riding a scooter in India in 1947 would have been anachronistic.
Yes, Christy and I ran into that problem when we were writing Whistling Woman. We researched everything from how a dead body was prepared for burial in the late 19th century to how homemade jams and jellies were preserved. It was fascinating…and all too often, madly frustrating!
Thank you for joining us today, Shaheen. I’ve enjoyed getting to know you a little better, both as a writer and a person. To find out more about Shaheen and her writing, visit:
“They are extraordinary, and worthwhile.”…Shannon Blue Christensen writing about Shaheen’s short stories, The Dust Beneath Her Feet and A Change in the Weather at irevuo.