Photograph by Wahaj Alley
On: Bland Food, Binders, and Being Outspoken
It was early evening in Karachi, and Bina Shah, Ed.M.'94, was settling down with a cup of tea. Dinner was hours away, and she had a phone interview lined up with an American reporter. She was taking a break from work on her seventh book, a feminist dystopian novel in the tradition of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale but with what she calls a "distinctly Asian phenomenon" — that of the rising male-to-female birth rate and the consequences for society. As any talented writer will tell you, Shah isn't sure the novel is any good.
"Every time you write, you're taking a gamble," she says. "I am plagued by fears that it's a ridiculous premise or that it's completely unbelievable."
By that measure, Shah takes a lot of gambles. Not only has she published four novels and two short story collections, but she's also a journalist, contributing regularly to The International New York Times, Al Jazeera, and Dawn, Pakistan's oldest English-language newspaper. She posts regularly on her blog. She's active on Facebook and Twitter. Her writing, it seems, is everywhere.
Pretty impressive for someone who never really planned on being a professional writer. When she came back to Pakistan after her year at Harvard, where she had been drawn to the Technology, Innovation, and Education (TIE) Program and to professors like Eleanor Duckworth and Gerald Lesser, and a year writing medical manuals for a software company outside of Boston (plus four at Wellesley as an undergrad psychology major), she had no idea what she was going to do.
"I was dislocated. I was very lost," she says. And so she started to write. For two technology publications, using her tie skills. For cultural websites and literary journals. And then for herself: short stories, which led to her first collection, Animal Medicine, and then a year later, her first novel, Where They Dream in Blue. "The writing really helped me find myself." And so, she jumped in headfirst.
"Once I decided I was going to go for it, I always thought I'd go for it in a big way. I always hoped I'd be known internationally," she says. "I always had that kind of attitude: I'll do it myself and figure it out as I go along."
It's not the first time Shah had to figure it out as she went along. Just after she was born in 1972, her parents took her to live in the United States while her father, Shafqat, was getting his master's degree in foreign affairs at the University of Virginia. The initial plan was to live abroad for two years.
"He decided to stay on and complete his Ph.D. That decision was influenced in part by political events," she says. Her uncle, Zulfiqar Ali Shah, had been jailed by then-Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, (the father of future Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto), for his association with Pir Pagara, a spiritual leader of the Sunni Muslim order of the Hurs. It was feared that Shah's father might be next. "So he made the swift decision to stay on in Virginia," she says. As she wrote in a piece published on Medium, the decision was not only swift, but also nerve-wracking. "In a midnight escape more thrilling than the screenplay of any movie, my father, mother, and I fled to the airport, where friends arranged for us to be driven straight onto the tarmac, avoiding passport control and Bhutto's cronies in the immigration department," she wrote. "We boarded a plane to go straight back to the United States, where my father had been invited to continue his studies and earn a Ph.D. We arrived in New York City 24 panicked and frightening hours after we had left Pakistan. My father did not even have a valid student visa, but the immigration officer let him into the country on the strength of my father's still-valid student ID card from the university. It was a gesture of generosity my father has never forgotten." They stayed until 1977, when Bhutto was deposed and it was safe to come back.
It was a tough transition for a five-year-old who loved her home in America.
"Virginia was idyllic: The area is green, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, lots of horses and farms everywhere," Shah says. "Charlottesville is a charming university town with lots of international students whom my parents were all friends with. They were raising their children together, so it was a community within a community in which we socialized."
Times weren't always easy — the curriculum was challenging and political uncertainty at home stressful — but there was a built-in support system among the graduate students, who helped one another with babysitting and through illness, Shah says. "I remember a lot of dinners and get-togethers, everyone celebrating each others' holidays. My parents are still friends with all the people they knew there, even though they're spread all over the world now. For me it was very tranquil and a time of utter freedom and happiness."
And then the move back to Pakistan.
"I suffered tremendously from culture shock. I was never happy about being here and always wanted to go back to the United States, which I considered my home," she says. In Karachi, she was teased for having an American accent and not being able to speak Urdu. She missed the bland American food she had come to adore. "I missed so many brandname foods, the stuff you grow up with: Kraft marshmallows, Ruffles potato chips, Jell-O, Kool-Aid." Occasionally she got to taste them again: The Americans in town had access to a commissary where these brand names were sold. Shah remembers that at her school, the Karachi American School, the commissary food was valued similarly to gold. "Sometimes we had school picnics and we'd get fed with food from the commissary. I remember a picnic where we got Oscar Meyer beef franks and grape soda. I told my teacher it was the best meal I'd ever eaten."
For this westernized girl, the culture shock those first few years might have been even harder if it hadn't been for her mother, Nasreen, the woman she describes as the first feminist in her life.
"My father's family was very socially conservative. The women of the family observed purdah, which is a type of seclusion practiced mainly by people who consider themselves descendants of the Prophet Muhammed," Shah says. "They wouldn't go to school. They wouldn't go outside of the house unless heavily veiled and accompanied only by male family members. They would never work. So I saw this extreme environment, and while my immediate family did not practice this, we were affected by the restrictions for women." As a result, she grew up hearing a lot about what girls could and couldn't do — but not from her mother. "My mother insisted on me being allowed to travel on school trips and participate in extracurriculars like sports, music, and drama. But there was always tension in the house, not because my dad minded those things, but because the extended family might disapprove."
Shah, too, might have accepted things as the way they were for certain members of the family if her mother hadn't protested so vociferously about them.
"My mother was a big influence on my father, too, giving him the courage to oppose a lot of the restrictions and not apply them to his own family. But with family pressure he might have just carried on with the traditions."
Still, as she wrote in a blog post explaining why she calls herself a feminist, "no matter how visionary or open-minded my parents were, they still had to make compromises for the restrictive environment in which we lived, and I was the victim of those compromises." As Shah got older, when visiting her father's family in Sindh, about two and a half hours from Karachi, she was no longer allowed to play freely or visit the men's section of the house. The family farm was off limits because it was improper for women to be seen by "ordinary laborers." She started wearing baggy shalwar kameezes — loose pants and tunics.
When it was time to think about college, there was pushback when she suggested applying to schools outside of Pakistan.
"Going to college in the United States was a very contentious subject and almost didn't happen. It took a lot of convincing for my father to agree to send me," she says. She considered the Ivy Leagues and the University of Virginia, but her family finally said yes to Wellesley for one big reason: It was a women's college.
She was elated. She was going back to America, the country she longed for. Yet, as is often the case with things we desperatly want, the return didn't quite start out the way she expected. "I had a rebellious attitude, but it was so suppressed and repressed that I felt guilty for wanting to do all the things that other kids, especially boys, got to do," she says. Mixed with guilt was a new longing — to be back in Karachi. "I felt disloyal for being homesick for Pakistan, rather than America. I had for 12 years considered America home and felt homesick for it while I was in Pakistan. I wanted to return to America like a salmon going back to its birthplace. But now, at 17, I was separated from my family and my friends and Pakistan. That felt so antithetical to what I expected."
In time, shah began to love america again, with Wellesley's ideals of freedom and sisterhood easing the transition. And it was at Wellesley that she eventually found her voice. "Being away from the suffocating environment of Pakistan, because it was nowhere near as progressive as it's become today, at least in the intellectual circles I move in now, helped me to find my voice," she says — the voice that would allow her, decades later, to plunge into writing that covers taboo and divisive topics like women's rights, beggars, Muslim male privilege, honor killings, and head coverings for women. A voice that allowed her to write in her newest novel, A Season For Martyrs, about Benazir Bhutto — the daughter of the man who wanted to jail her uncle, and herself a controversial figure in Pakistan. Surprisingly, despite this history, Shah was distraught when she heard the news in 2007 that Bhutto, the first female prime minister of a Muslim nation, had been assassinated.
"I was at home, it was about 6 p.m. in the evening, and it was flashed on the news," she says. "I ran out of my room into the living room and stood and watched. It was awful." By then, Shah says she no longer had conflicted feelings about Bhutto. "In a way I worked them out when she returned to Pakistan for the last time to try and fight the elections. I felt she'd changed, become more mature, and learned from her past mistakes. She'd also distanced herself from her husband, who had been accused of the corruption… . What happened to my uncle was because of her father, not her. She was a different person from him, and I don't think she would have done the same thing."
Since then, Shah's strong voice has also allowed her to become the go-to person in Pakistan on issues related to education and girls and learning. In The New York Times, she recently talked about teaching liberation to girls in her country and girls being left out of sports. Al Jazeera interviewed her about Boko Haram and a girl's right to go to school. And on the BBC, where she is a frequent guest, she has talked about genocide, provocative photos of women in the media, and another controversial figure in her country: Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who was shot while on her way to school and eventually awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The criticism swirling around Malala isn't surprising, Shah says.
"There's always a backlash against anyone feted by the international community, read: the West," she says, "and anyone who exposes the darker side of Pakistan to be picked over by the world, which she did by virtue of being shot just for wanting her education. What happened to Malala says very bad things about Pakistan, which people were ashamed of, and they deflected by turning her into a villain. The more she accomplishes, the more they'll continue to hate her. Pakistanis are very conflicted about people who succeed in our society, especially on their own terms, or at least on terms that are not set by the 'chattering classes.' What a great phrase!"
Shah, too, faces criticism, sometimes quite personal, not only for being outspoken, but also because of her link to the United States. "Anyone with a Western outlook is treated with suspicion even as Pakistanis have a fascination/admiration for the West, as a result probably of our colonial past and then the very close client–patron relationship we've had with the United States since 1947," she says. "We're repelled by the very thing we are attracted to. I think this is really a colonial legacy."
Still, she never shies away from her bicultural upbringing or education — or for continuing to identify, as she has over the years, with both homes.
"I've always had two time zones in my head, Pakistan and the United States," she says. "Somehow I always find myself thinking about what time it is in Pakistan and America. I think I exist in two spaces in my head, Pakistan and America, almost all the time." It's why she tells people she's a "bridge" for both cultures. "But a bridge encourages traffic in both directions," she says. "Americans might be uncomfortable with me because of my Muslim and Pakistani background, but they trust my opinion when they learn how westernized I am."
Asked if she's ever worried about her own safety, given that a close friend of hers, Sabeen Mahmud, the owner of a progressive cafe in Karachi where Shah wrote two of her novels, was gunned down in her car one night last year for being outspoken, Shah says not any more than anyone else.
"Living in Karachi, everyone's worried about their safety. It's a big, lawless city with a lot of crime," she says. "Lots of armed guards everywhere with automatic weapons, guarding the airport, the malls, the cinemas. It's comparable to Johannesburg or Rio de Janeiro in terms of street crime. But I watched Sicario, [the movie] about the drug cartels in Mexico, and that struck a chord with me, too, the organized violence, which we have a lot of as well. Much of ours is politically motivated. It's second nature to be conscious of security or lack of it when you live in Karachi, not necessarily because of the work I do."
In any case, Shah says nothing will stop her from being outspoken.
"Do you remember the phrase they used back in the early '90s to make people aware of AIDS? 'Silence = Death.' I guess that's how it feels for me," she says. "If I don't get to speak out and express myself, I'll die."
And so she continues to write and edit, with her own style.
"When I'm writing a first draft, the writing is all over the place. It might happen early in the morning or late at night. Whenever inspiration strikes," she says. "But when I'm editing, then it's much more dreary: from 10 a.m. until about 1 or 2 p.m. in the afternoon, then I quit for the day. I'm a restless writer. I'm always getting up to walk around and trying not to get distracted. I drink a lot of water when I write. I become very crabby and I don't want to be around people very much, so there's very little socializing."
There are, however, binders.
"There is a group on Facebook called Binders Full of Women for women writers, after that famed statement by Mitt Romney in the U.S. election. I keep trying to exit the group and someone always adds me back in," Shah jokes. "But in my own writing, I do use binders. I print out the whole manuscript after I've written it and then divide the pages — there are more than 300 of them usually — between three different binders, and I edit with a pen." It's a skill she learned when she interned at Oxford University Press in Pakistan in 1991. "The classic way to edit a manuscript was with editors' marks, which I learned while I was there. I still use a very corrupted version of them when I edit my own work. You can scribble notes in the margins, write out different versions of sentences. You have no idea how good it feels to just strike through a paragraph you don't want anymore with a red pen. Clicking the computer keys isn't nearly as satisfying."
As Shah finishes the interview and heads back to slog away again on her new novel, she laughs when asked if it's harder to write the beginning of a novel or the ending.
"Getting started isn't easy, but by the time you're near the end, I'm near a nervous breakdown," she says. "Something people don't realize is how exhausting it is to write a book, how much it takes out of you. Remember how you felt at the end of your first-year exams? Like that. I do it to myself over and over, which must mean that I like it."