One of the boldest voices of our time, author Fatima Bhutto, in her latest novel, examines the changing Muslim identity. She shares with activist-writer Gurmehar Kaur her influences and the need to be political and vocal in today’s increasingly violent world
It was a couple of months after announcing to the world that I would be publishing a memoir, about my late father, when I was gifted a copy of Fatima Bhutto’s memoir, The Song Of Blood And Sword (Penguin, 2010). I was told it would comfort me as I was still dealing with the media ruckus I was embroiled in after I expressed my opinion on our freedom of expression on university campuses, and on wanting peace between India and Pakistan. I remember reading her book, cover to cover, in a single sitting, occasionally tearing up. This was a heartbreaking memoir of another daughter who had lost her father way too young and was left to grieve, even as an entire country talked and commented on her most personal tragedy. Her story was a warm hug when I needed it the most, and ever since I’ve imagined many conversations with her.
Bhutto is easy to relate to—not just because of our shared experience but because she is a strong feminist voice who takes on religion, gender, politics and race through her words. She never shies away from saying it as it is, surprising her readers with every publication. At the age of 15 she published her first book, Whispers Of The Desert (OUP, 1997), a collection of poetry. Her second was a work of reportage, 8.50am 8 October 2005, which records real-life accounts from the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. Her memoir followed, creating an uproar—she is, after all, a member of one of Pakistan’s most turbulent political dynasties. And in 2013, she published her first novel, The Shadow Of The Crescent Moon (Penguin, 2013), longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction. After five years, she’s back with her latest work. The Runaways (Penguin Random House), which releases next month, is a sparkling novel that in its nuance and tale boldly questions the modern Muslim identity in contemporary times.
Her warm hug has now become a larger embrace, with her latest novel delving further into the larger themes of freedom and identity in today’s troubling times. And, I finally get to interview Bhutto, ask her all those questions that have been building since her words first calmed me. Being on either side of the hemisphere at the given time, we’ve decided to meet on FaceTime. Seconds later, we’re sitting across screens. A fresh-faced Bhutto with her soft voice, kind eyes and relatable energy of a fiery, opinionated young woman establishes an immediate kinship, as she tells me about her new novel and her life as a writer. Excerpts from our conversation:
Gurmehar Kaur: Being an urban, educated, young, vocal brown woman, do you feel representative of a certain brand as a writer, especially when this is the narrative the West seems to focus on?
Fatima Bhutto: In our countries (the Indian subcontinent) it doesn’t feel like that, but it does feel that way when I travel. That’s because most of the people have no idea about the reality of where I come from. And because I fit their idea of an independent woman, and not the version of the woman they think the country I’m from produces, it becomes confusing for them. But independent women can come from anywhere. In fact, we should come from everywhere. The West comes with preconceived ideas of how women are from my side of the world—our view of the West is developed because we study their countries, we’re exposed to their culture, we’ve suffered their involvement and we speak their languages, but they don’t have anything to do with us, so they’re invariably shocked and confused by us.
GK: Writing, in my experience, is far from glamorous, but it is cathartic. Where does your writing come from and what made you turn to writing?
FB: I was raised by a single dad who happened to love books. He introduced me to books from an early age, and it was so much fun because he would read to me in accents and voices. Writing kind of came from there, it came from this wonder that I had for literature, from a young age. My father told me that I could be anything and anyone I wanted. In the sixth grade, there was a poetry project, and I remember showing him the poems I had written. He said I should publish them. I was 12 years old and thought my father was being completely ridiculous. But he sent it to publishers, and my first book was published. After he was killed, writing was the only place from where I could think and share what I felt.
GK: Your father is such a big influence in your life. Do you feel the pressure of following through with the legacy of your father? Will we ever see you in politics?
FB: This year marks 22 years since my father was killed, but what changed for me over the years is knowing that as long as I’m here, he’s here, and there is a certain peace that comes with that. And that’s why I don’t feel any pressure. I know that my father’s only wish for me was to be happy, strong and at home in the world. He would tell me that if one has a voice and the privilege to be able to do what one wants, then your journey should be something bigger than yourself. So that’s how I’ve always thought of things—that’s how I’ve tried to live and work. I find myself incredibly fortunate being a writer and doing what I’m doing. That’s my way of being political—it is to think about the world and write about it.
GK: Your latest novel does take your political ideas forward. The Runaways also looks at the changing Muslim identity. Why is it essential to talk about that today?
FB: I’ve always lived in Asia, be it Syria or Pakistan—and here is something that connects us. If I talk to you and you’re from India and I’m from Pakistan, there is a certain shared experience. I will understand how your family life is and we will sort of know this about each other. The first time I left that was when I went to New York, and I was in my second year of college when 9/11 happened. Then, when I was pursuing my Master’s in London, the London bombings happened. We came of age in this environment and world. Things were said and felt about people from my part of the world, and this was immediately isolating. I remember being asked—as a Pakistani woman how are you so confident? How are you allowed to be who you are? I would turn around and say, my country is filled with strong women. In this age of information it’s shocking that this kind of ignorance is allowed. At airports, I’ve been questioned because they see my Pakistani passport. It happens on a lot of insidious levels. They don’t realise how narrow their view of our part of the world is. I get whitesplained all the time—I get told that I don’t understand certain concepts because of where I’m from—as if liberty and equality is a Western project! But I was raised to use my voice, and that’s what I do with my books.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.