Finding her song

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PUBLISHED
May 01, 2022


KARACHI:

I read Skyfall and I decided I must know the journey behind it. So, I decided to find more about it in a conversation with Saba Karim Khan, who is not just an author, but also an artist, and a mother. During this interview I also learned she is a filmmaker, award-winner, educator, anthropologist, entrepreneur and above all, a storyteller.

SD: First, the S word. A lot has been said about Skyfall. It has been reviewed and critiqued and praised. On a personal level, what did you learn when writing Skyfall?

SKK: Skyfall, especially while I was writing, and even after, felt like an experiment; I am trying to absorb and process some of its repercussions. The most luminous take-away for me, from writing and publishing Skyfall, was the indispensability of finding our song(s). It was one winter at NYU (where I work), when I heard a guest speaker rehash a version of Thoreau’s words and it was a game-changer: “Most men and women lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them,” he said. “What’s your song?” He asked us to scribble our song on a piece of paper, before sharing it with the person sitting next to us. Of course, it felt daunting, unreasonable almost, trying to conjure up my “song” within five minutes, especially because in addition to my pipedreams, I had two tiny daughters: a one-year-old and a 2.5-week-old. Nonetheless, that was a light-bulb moment—those words shifted something fundamentally within me, unchained me. For far too long, my middle-class complexes, even conditioning, had kept me trapped. They’re important, of course. Certain elements like a cheque at the end of the month, some sort of stability and desire for upward mobility; but it doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive to one’s dreams; there can be ways where both go hand-in-hand. And so, I concluded that I didn’t want life to pass by without so much as attempting to pursue my calling and that marked Skyfall’s inception.

Subsequently, I realized though, that one’s song, by itself, isn’t enough. In order to pursue further, one has to sing it – I’d have to actually write the book; clock in those hundreds of hours. And I’d have to do it, not knowing if anyone was going to offer me a publishing contract or not; Skyfall could become a door stopper and its journey could end right there or it could blossom and arrive at a bookshelf. There was just one way to find out—so, I took my chances and wrote. I feel, we hinge ourselves way too much on final outcomes—they do matter, but the process, crafting the world around Skyfall, was also a big part of the prize. That was news to me.

SD: Covid is a harsh reality. Parents have had to survive keeping their children engaged. Children have put up without parks and social gatherings, which are a big part of early development. As a parent of two, how has the pandemic affected you while also being a part of literary world?

SKK: As I’ve written in the chapter, Pink Tax, which I contributed to a book titled, Mothers, Mothering and Covid-19: Dispatches from a Pandemic, published by Demeter Press, Canada last year, it’s been somewhat of a patriarchal pandemic. In many ways, I’m still new to mothering and this pulled the rug from beneath my feet. I say this, accounting for all the privileges I have. I am mindful that mine is one of several such stories. The burden of care that has fallen on mothers is difficult to deny. It has exposed how fragile the groundwork for feminism really was. And whilst survival was under threat, people were expecting writers to produce a magnum opus. The pressure of productivity felt entirely misplaced and only exacerbated in the already chaotic world we were in.

Nonetheless, on a personal level, that isn’t the complete story. Without romanticizing the loss and trauma the pandemic has brought in its wake—homeschooling, healthcare issues, working from home—it also introduced an unexpected and paradigmatic twist in my own identity as a mother: it has shifted my relationship with my girls significantly, the bond we share, to an unprecedented level of intimacy, trust, and undistracted time. Previously, with the stricter work-home dichotomy, I was always on a timer, which meant I had not experienced the emotional tug of being with the children in the absence of a device or work interruption. With the pandemic, that side of things was almost a Eureka moment, where I comprehended just how unadulterated and rewarding motherhood can feel, as an end in itself. Despite all the other pull factors and literary hats I wear, I will tweak Mohsin Hamid’s words to incorporate motherhood: I may or may not be a good mother, but I recognize good-mother-ness is the standard I’m most likely to measure my worth in this life by. I doubt I’d come to this without passing through the portal which was this pandemic.

SD: What literary pilgrimages have you embarked upon since Skyfall scaled such soaring heights?

SKK: Well, it’s only when a book is out in the world that you realize, a chunk of the work is yet to be done; the months following Skyfall’s release have been spent speaking about it, forging human connect over fiction—book talks, festivals, book clubs, one-on-one conversations. It’s generative but also takes a concerted effort to keep up with it.

I particularly enjoyed the panels and interviews I did last year and this year at the Emirates Literature Festival and at the Lahore Literary Festival. Especially, a panel titled Desi Drama, which I chaired with storytellers from India and Pakistan, and another session where Dr Pragya Agarwal interviewed me about my work on #metoo and feminism in South Asia.

My primary focus at the moment is visual storytelling; I’m in the post-production phase of an illustrated storytelling project titled, “How Stars are Born out of Anarchy”. It delves into the elusive idea of “Home”. The topic is quite personal to me, given my own identity as a diasporic female writer—how we navigate nostalgia and come to forge wounded attachments with home. It is similar to The Guardian’s treatment of Khalid Hosseini’s book “Sea Prayer” and should be out later this year. I’ve also just received an award from NYU to produce visual stories about partition and feminism (microplays, a story told through dance and movement choreography and an illustrated story). I’m really excited about these projects, especially as partition is still a virgin territory for me in many ways.

Outside of that, I was recently commissioned to start a literary column for Khaleej Times – titled Readers’ Bloc. That’s a canvas which seems as thought provoking as it is fun. Most recently, I’ve written on “raising a reader and “the fight for diversity in storytelling. The latest one unpacks whether motherhood and writing are oxymorons. So quite cathartic, in some ways!

SD: I see that you are always engaged with something bigger than just being an author, producing good stories. You are contributing to art, filmmaking, and the likes, pushing the creative boundaries with every endeavor. Would you like to elaborate on that? Does it seem like a necessary evil to stay relevant in a fast-paced, digital age?

SKK: Speaking of necessarily evils, social media seems to fit that bill better. It is such a double-edged sword and I have yet to figure out my relationship with it.

However, there are various avenues to push creative boundaries which I find rather therapeutic, reflexive, and exploratory—a way of stripping open the creative cookie-cutter mould. In many ways, each of these forms, whether it is art, story, film, or academic research, seems conversant with each other and I’m keen to unleash that synergy and cross-pollination.

Visual storytelling, in particular, is definitely one of my “songs” – a path I’ve dared to tread on at my own will. This is something that I would be happy to engage myself with for the rest of my life. If there’s one thing I’d tell my younger self, it would be to have embarked upon the filmmaking track sooner. It is interesting because as anthropologists, we are people-watchers. We often spend time consuming life, soaking in places and experiences. Filmmaking feels similar, a form of travel, often without going anywhere; I’m talking about travel through experience-sharing and gaining, which holds just as much power to transport you into whole another world. For instance, filming in Lyari, sometimes so much as a silent smile or a gaze during a documentary interview, a visit to a local vendor to film B-roll, a street play, a ghazal, brings a completely different perspective in addition to all the versatile exposure that contributes to the film.

While we are on that note, “Concrete Dreams: Some Roads Lead Home” is another initiative in all of my humble efforts. It was my first outing with documentary filmmaking about street-child footballers. Incidentally, what sparked this enterprise was a piece I wrote for The Express Tribune some years ago titled: Pakistan’s Street Children: Concrete Dreams. 1.5 million children occupy Pakistan’s streets today—these kids are three square meals away from anarchy. They’re exposed to hashish, gang warfare, and sexual abuse and get away, begging or cleaning windscreens. Their shoes become make-shift pillows and they pull banners off street poles and use these to protect themselves from cold. Yet, that is one side to the story. With Concrete Dreams, I tried to challenge myself by portraying how these aren’t purposeless street kids. They are dreamers, go-getters, who went from having no birth-certificates to using sports to bring change into their lives. I wanted to hammer in the fact that dreaming big, working hard towards those dreams, and becoming ‘somebody’, isn’t just the territory of the privileged.

Filming with these young footballers opened avenues into parts of my home-city, Karachi, which had remained tightly shut off from the realms of our posh, air-conditioned living rooms. The experience was an eye-opener, reacquainting me with a city I called my own. It offered glimpses of hope, folded into crevices where it seemed you’d only find darkness. Similar to the characters in Skyfall, the heroes of Concrete Dreams also combat “quiet desperation”, yet they are adamant not to downsize their dreams to fit what they are told is their reality. On the contrary, they’re looking to outstrip their reality to encompass their dreams. That is the whole story. In short, directing Concrete Dreams was a chance to put Pakistan on the map for the right reasons – I wasn’t going to pass on that.

 

SD: Would you say winning the prestigious Best Short Film award at the NYC International Festival was a turning point? Prior to this accolade, your entrepreneurial venture, Concrete Dreams, had already gained recognition. How did this prize enable your literary pursuits?

SKK: We recently found out that the documentary has won the Best Short Film award at the NYC International Festival; earlier it had been officially selected and won Best Documentary Award at festivals in Paris, Berlin, Toronto, USA, India, and Sweden. More than personal validation as a documentary-filmmaker—which, of course any award offers—I’m particularly gratified that we are finally able to show a side of Pakistan to the world, which rarely makes it to the global rumour mill. It gives me hope for where to go next with both my written and visual stories; whilst I don’t want to gloss over Pakistan’s problems in my work, this helps me not to feel pressurized to play to a gallery, by milking a story of oppression and bleakness about our home country, in order for it to sell.

It feels like a sufficient reclamation, for it is only when we start placing our own bricks into the wall, piece by piece, that a new wall will eventually stand tall. It reminds me that no step is too small or too insignificant—the point is to start small but start straightaway.

SD: How can literature and the written word empower society and specifically women in South Asia?

SKK: So much of it is about voice, about a seat at the table, without feeling like an imposter—for South Asia in general, but especially for women. Time and again, people will say, the novel feels extinct, who reads now anyway? But I think, as Mohsin Hamid once told me in an interview, the novel, if anything, has donned renewed significance today; in a world where everything seems to be some sort of breaking news, the novel rises above that clutter, even if fewer people read it. I also think fiction offers a medium that allows things to slide—sometimes things that might be spoken of only in whispers; otherwise, such as women who are labelled “troublemakers”. That is especially important in morally policed societies, such as those in South Asia.

But most importantly, I think literature and the written word enable new forms of contention and dissent, of entertainment and reclamation, without always having to hold a placard to register your protest. It carves out space for women to be shown as quietly fierce. It paves way which illuminates how women from the global south can exist beyond the two polarized ends of the spectrum—either veiled and oppressed, or vile and fast. Instead, our stories are vehicles to show raw, vulnerable, resilient, and much more nuanced women, who are not force-fitted into boxes—rather stripped out of them. Literature modifies the whole range of what it means to be empowered, even if that definition doesn’t fit into the arithmetic of western feminism. It allows for space to speak as equals, without pandering to western tropes and without anyone else speaking on behalf of us or running to rescue us.

Originally published at tribune.com.pk

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