Exploring Identity and Literature with Faiqa Mansab
"This House of Clay and Water" was one of those books that I just can't seem to get out of my head. Here we got the chance to speak to Faiqa Mansab, the woman who wrote this absolutely brilliant work of art. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Kingston University. She was also long listed for Getz-Pharma Fiction Prize and German Consulate Peace Prize at Karachi Literature Festival 2018 and Awarded the BRITISH Chevening Scholarship 2019.
How did you start your journey into writing?
I am a second generation writer. My father was a poet and essayist in Urdu and Punjabi. He is better known as a politician but he was a respected writer. Both my parents were voracious readers and so I grew up with books.
I think a writer's journey starts with reading. I used to read everything. I used to write a lot too. My first book was read by my friends. I always knew I was a writer.
Our theme for our July issue is “Identity and Self”? What does that theme mean to you personally?
Identity is a construct, determined by culture, and society and it is based on gender, religion, nationality and race, among other things. Self is something you are born with and you shape as life goes on. Self should be more than identity.
How did you come up with the idea for “This House of Clay and Water?”
For me any story begins with a character and the plot follows. So this story began with Nida and Bhanggi and later Sasha joined them. The story of a character is always more important to me than the plotting of a book. I feel character is plot, as E. M. Forster has so famously said. So for me Nida and Bhanggi were the story and plot.
Who are the characters of “This House of Clay and Water” inspired by?
No one really. Characters are hatched in imagination and don't necessarily have a real person behind them. Although when I was researching Bhanggi's character I came across Michel Foucault's books and a diary of a hermaphrodite he had unearthed. It was called Herculine Barbin and it really helped me with Bhanggi's character.
What is the importance of this book to you personally?
This book is very close to my heart. The story and characters, especially Bhanggi are so special to me. This book is my dream come true. Moreover, Elif Shafak was my supervisor for this book and I love her books. This book is also the fruition of a two year MFA and I received the Best MFA Thesis Award for it from Kingston University London in 2014 when I graduated. I received a high distinction and so this novel is a symbol of my hard work, my belief in myself and my work. I am very proud of this book.
From what I took away from it, the characters of the book each seem to be searching for themselves. What make this journey of theirs so important?
I think a journey inwards is what teaches us wisdom. Sasha's journey is false. She pretends to be on a journey and thus fools herself. Bhanggi is the most advanced spiritually and so he helps Nida on her journey.
Such a journey is about peace. When one is at peace with who one is, then everything is more tolerable.
What are your thoughts on the Pakistani publishing industry.
It's in dire straits, if what we have can be called an industry. Except for Mongrel Books and Kitab Books, started by writers, who actually buy books from writers, there isn't anyone. We need our own headoffices of the Big 5 here. India is no longer publishing Pakistani Writers because of the ban. It is quite depressing.
As a young girl, most of the literature I found for my age revolved around the lives of young white characters, who I had a hard time relating too. That slowly seems to be changing. Why do you think representation in literature is so important?
Representation is everything. Books are like a mirror to life. If we don't see our own image in the mirror but someone else, what will happen to our identity? Identity when constructed in false images will create individuals who are confused and have a splintered world view.
This is the heritage of imperialism and colonialism. Colonial subjects were sold the idea that they are British subjects.
English was the official language. English literature was the superior literature, and slowly over time we lost our languages and culture because culture is embedded in language and tradition. Take away language and literature and art and suddenly there is a vacuum and it was filled by imperialist propaganda. English was the language of power. English literature was the most refined and best art. So on and so forth.
It was all a construct.
The Jungian mirror image was distorted and we had generations who had a splintered identity. A broken image of self.
Now, things are changing.
Does writing coming out of Pakistan in general do justice to the realities here or do you think we face a problem of pandering to the whims of a white audience.
If writers were pandering to white audience we would all have tons of books published already. No two writers are the same. We all write according to our own experiences and our own imagination and creative vision.
Writing in English gives the impression that perhaps writers pander to the West. Our country has a long history of multi-lingual writing and we still thing of English as a foreign language. Because now the imperial narrative is to sell the language of power to us through O and A levels and TOEFL IELTS and such. We are now sold this idea that we need certification to be able to use 'their' language. It is just a language. History has imbued it with power.
Writing is about story. Yes politics is never far from most writers work especially in a country like ours but not everyone chooses to wrote politically. Art is not bound by any rules if you've mastered them first.
You talk a lot about very controversial themes in your book, what kind of response did you get?
It has become a bestselling novel in India and Pakistan and that is rare for literary fiction. I am so grateful to my readers who gave this book so much love. It has touched many people. I get wonderful messages from readers even now and it wa spubkished in 2017. That is absolutely amazing.
Yes there were also readers who were uncomfortable with the themes, and that is a good thing because being uncomfortable means you are thinking out of your comfort zone. Thinking out of your comfort zone means you are growing. I always liked such books. A book that doesn't change you or disturb you or move you, is a useless book, in my opinion. A novel can do much more than a factual book.
How do you think we can move forward and change mindsets regarding these taboos around a woman’s place in society?
Educating our children in New ways. Rather than regurgitating old habits and old ideologies of patriarchy, we should raise our children with a greater understanding of equality and humanity.
We treat children rather poorly. Treat children better and you will have a better world of adults.
cover image: Literarycatt.wordpress.com