By Amber Romasa Nagori
No true work of art or literature was ever created sans the sincerity of its creator. Anton Chekov powerfully worded the thought, saying a writer has to “sign a contract with his conscience”. While interviewing Bina Shah, the author of two books Animal medicine and Where they dream in blue, I caught glimpses of this creative honesty.
Bina was born in Karachi, but left for the US at the age of two months. She was still a child when she returned and spent the next twelve years in Pakistan and then went to the States to Major in Psychology, followed by a Masters in Education from Harvard. On returning she got involved with education by trying to bring computers to children in schools. Next, she worked for IT magazines for several years before becoming dedicated to fiction writing.
In her two books she has incorporated the elements of Pakistani as well as American life. Animal medicine infuses the Native American belief that each animal carries its own wisdom with local tradition of folklore and story telling. ‘Where they dream in blue has as its central character Karim, an American of Pakistan origin, who visits the country of his parents.
Bina’s writing has earned her high praises. Yet she seems media shy. It was difficult to pin her down for an interview, but when she got around to answering the questions, she freely talked about her writings, sufism, the creative process a writer goes through and much more. Analyzing the artist rather than the art is an extremely complex process. But Bina Shah managed to convey the most complex thoughts and issues with such directness and refreshing honesty that I enjoyed every bit of it, and so would the reader. Dawn: What inspired you to become a writer?
Bina Shah: Recently I found an old journal I kept as a fifteen year old that started off with the sentence, “One day, when I am a professional writer, I will….” It was quite illuminating for me because it revealed to me that I had always wanted to write. I suppose the love of books came first, and then the desire to write. I was also lucky to have some excellent teachers in high school and college who inspired me. They convinced me that I had some kind of talent and that I should keep working on it. I didn’t believe them at first, but as the years went on and I developed some confidence in my ability, I realized they were right all along.
Dawn: You are a journalist and an author. In your opinion what are the differences that exist between the two forms of writing? Or do you agree with Anton Chekov that ‘A writer is just like a reporter’?
BS: In both forms of writing you are telling a story, it’s just that in journalism the story concerns factual events, and fiction comes out of your imagination. A journalist has to be very careful to keep her own subjectivity out of reporting and stick to an objective viewpoint. Present the facts and let the readers draw their own conclusion. The minute she starts putting her own spin on events, even with a phrase or a few words, to influence the reader into agreeing with her line of thought, she’s crossing the line between being a journalist and being a writer. A writer, or author, is of course trying to convince the reader of her own point of view, but she disguises it in the guise of characters, plot, and so on.
Dawn: Animal medicine is an extremely imaginative, exciting book. What led you to write a book for children and choose animals as symbols of strength, courage, etc?
BS: Animal medicine didn’t start out as a children’s book; it was more a collection of stories about children and animals. There is a lot of adult-oriented fiction that has a child as the main character. But the style and the whole animal scene, I guess, did have some appeal to younger people, though I never intended it that way. I’m still not quite sure how it made the transformation, but it did, somewhere along the line!
As for using animals as symbols of strength or courage, there’s tradition in Native American culture of animal magic, animal wisdom, where different North American animals represent different values or attributes. I just took that concept and adapted it to our habitat in the subcontinent and this is what came out. It was a very experimental book, no matter how you look at it. People still ask me if the book is for veterinarians.
Dawn: Your second book is called Where they dream in blue. Could you comment on it?
BS: The original title of the book was Everyday saints but my editor convinced me that it was too mundane a title. He was right, there are a lot of Baptist churches in the United States that seem to use that phrase a lot, so I’m glad we dropped it. He helped me come up with “Blue”. It’s reference to the importance of dreams in the Sufi tradition, and the colour blue, of course, which I took to be a symbol of Karachi and its people.
Dawn: In the book you have referred to blue as the colour of sufism, is this symbolism universal in sufism, or is it more regional?
BS: The shrines in this area are a beautiful blue-green; I’m not sure if that’s local thing or if it’s a worldwide phenomenon. I do know green is representative of the Islamic world in general, but this particular blue-green seems to be specialized for sufism, here at least. I suppose I should do some more research and find out; if anyone has the answer, please let me know.
Dawn: You observe Karachi and its problems with as Bapsi Sidhwa says, an ‘eye for detail’. Moreover, your characters and the book are not pessimistic or gloomy. Instead there is confidence, your protagonist is not only an observer, but also a doer. How come?
BS: I didn’t see the point in writing a book about someone who just sat and cried over how bad Pakistan is. I love this country and I think it has a lot to offer in terms of meaning and purpose. At the same time, I’ve grown up in Karachi and am well aware of its problems and shortcomings. The idea was to portray someone who comes here and is overwhelmed at first by all the negativity, but somehow manages to find a way out through all the desperation and create a more positive reality, even if it is just an illusion, or a “dream”.
Dawn: It is said writing a book is an extremely engrossing process, and the characters are the writer’s creation. Do your creations live on with you even after you have finished the book?
BS: I can’t say I sit and have tea with them on a regular basis. They’re more like old friends that I met on a trip somewhere exotic, whom I remember fondly. I suppose I’ll have to live with them in some way, as long as people continue to read the book. It’s still too early to tell if they’ll live to haunt me, though.
Dawn: Do you think that your book will be of interest only to people who know Karachi, or do you envisage a wider readership?
BS: Anyone who is interested in Karachi will, I hope, find this book interesting. The character of Karim is a useful device to introduce the city to someone who has never been here before. Through his eyes, you get to discover and know the city as a newcomer might. People who live in Karachi or are from here might relate better or be more sympathetic to a different character: Nazli, or Akbar, for example.
Dawn: I am interested in the creative process you go through while writing a book. Do you have a clear-cut story line and well-delineated characters before you start writing, or do these things evolve as you go along?
BS: It starts with an idea that pops into my head — it could be inspired from a phrase, an image, a story I read in the newspaper. Then I go through several days or weeks of thinking about the story, developing it, without writing it down. I start thinking about characters at about the same time. Then I try to write notes about my characters — what they’re like, who they are, what they like to eat, or read, how they dress. I outline a general plot, but that usually changes quite a bit by the time I’ve reached the end of the story. As I go along, I add details to the characters, keep working on the plot, add bits and pieces as I go. It’s a very involving process, and it’s not something that follows a strict line from A-Z. I’m still not very experienced at it, to tell you the truth.
Dawn: From Rumi, Hafeez Shirazi, Rehman Baba, Buleh Shah, Farid, Shah Inayat Sachal to Sami, all giants of sufi poetry, you chose to dedicate your book to Shah Latif. Which aspect or genre of his poetry appeals to you the most?
BS: I’ve read parts of Shah jo risalo (in English) and essays on his poetry, and I’m just fascinated by its depth, the layering of symbolism within very simple but powerful folk tales. His ideas and his use of language are breathtakingly beautiful. Although his writing is very rooted in the traditions and culture of Sindh, there is a universal appeal to his work that I think transcends both time and geography. I wish I could have done my college thesis on him, if I’d majored in literature.
Dawn: Your plans for the future? Are you writing another book?
BS: I am working on quite a lot of things at the moment, some short stories, a few essays, and maybe plan for another book. I can’t tell you anything about it just yet though in case the characters plan a mutiny and refuse to be written about. It does happen, sometimes.