Sorraya Khan on “Writing the Wounds of Pakistan: Tales of a Novelist’s Journey”

April 30, 2015

History & Literature

Writing the Wounds of Pakistan: Tales of a Novelist's Journey

Writing the Wounds of Pakistan: Tales of a Novelist's Journey

by: Sorraya Khan

Series: Arzu Center Lecture Series

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Sorraya Khan spoke at Habib University's Arzu Center on Wednesday 29th April, 2015. The topic of the discussion was "Writing the Wounds of Pakistan: Tales of a Novelist's Journey" and she was joined by Kamran Asdar Ali and Asif Farrukhi who moderated the session. The talk was about her journey as a novelist and how she tackled difficult topics for three novels she published in the past decade.

A bit about the speaker first:

Sorraya Khan is the author of three novels, NOOR (2003), FIVE QUEEN’S ROAD(2009) and CITY OF SPIES (2015). She was awarded a US Fullbright Research Grant to conduct research in Pakistan and Bangladesh for one of her novels, and received a Malahat Review Novella Prize for what became a window into CITY OF SPIES. In 2006, she received a Constance Saltonstall Artist Grant, which took her to Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where she interviewed tsunami survivors. Over the years, her work has been published in various literary quarterlies, including The Kenyon Review and North American Review, and several anthologies. She is the daughter of a Pakistani father and a Dutch mother, was born in Europe, and moved to Pakistan as a child.

She now lives in New York with her husband and children.


The session started slightly late as everyone gathered in the hall and Asif Farrukhi began the session with Sabeen Mahmud's remembrance. He shared with the audience that he and Sabeen were in contact regarding hosting one session of Sorraya Khan at T2F and that planned event remained in his computer as Sabeen is no longer in the world to finalize it. Kamran Asdar Ali shared his feelings, starting with poetic phrases and then recalling creation of Peace Niche (T2F), how it affected the cultural and social landscape of Karachi.

Asif then introduced Sorraya to the audience and talked briefly about her novels Noor, 5 Queens Road and City of Spies that were dealt with topics in post 1971 Pakistan, post partition and post Bhutto's hanging respectively. She focused on family as a unit for her stories and how it was affected by these events, narrating them from a woman's perspective.

Sorraya began her talk by telling the audience she will combine topic with a question "Where do stories come from?" and explain her journey through it. She had the entire speech printed in her hand from where she read it out to the audience. She spoke up the challenge of being a writer, that no writer knows his worth except what the reader assigns it after reading through it and judging it. Stories that the writers write come from reality and society, the subject matter often taking the lead to claim the writer (as was the case with Sorraya) which is explored through various dimensions of the society such as political, sociological etc. She wrote what was meaningful to her and explored family folklore that has been ingrained within us.

Her first novel, Noor, explores post 1971 scenario that deals with some sensitive topics that both Pakistan and Bangladesh have blind spots about. Each of the two societies have their own demons about the war and are not willing to confront it, and they are not alone as such demons exist in every society for the past they have experienced. Sorraya recalls listening to radio during 1971 war as a 9 year old child, then as a 10 year old she visited her grandparents in Lahore and on Mall Road saw banners that said "Bring Back Our POWs (Prisoners of War)". This memory and those of houses, abandoned by East Pakistanis, stayed in her mind as she explored the effect on families whose members fought the war. She interviewed former military officers, 28 years after 1971 war, and came across revelations that shook her ... not because they were grisly but they were committed by normal human beings. One retired Major even discussed with her the topic of rape of Bengali women during the interview, while other officers took a break, confessing that he had waited for 28 years for someone to ask him this question but none ever did.

Sorraya's second novel, 5 Queens Road, is about post partition stories and inspiration came from her grandparents house in Lahore on a street also called '5 Queens Road'. It was a house from colonial era which its British owner had sold to a Hindu name Dina Nath just before the partition and Sorraya's grandparents later shared the house. She had briefly stayed there as a child and when she moved to the US, she came in contact with a young man named Usman from Lahore who tutored her on Urdu language. When she asked him if he knew about her grandparents house at 5 Queens Road, not only he did but he lived nearby, having studied in school with Dina Nath's grandson. The house has now been demolished because of its dilapidated condition but it continues to live on in Sorraya's memories.

The third novel, City of Spies, is about Islamabad in post Bhutto hanging where spies of Pakistan and US look into the lives of ordinary people. As a 17 year old, Sorraya had moved to Pennsylvania where she studied at a remote college where students had no interest in events outside and didn't even know Pakistan existed. Realizing the affect of Bhutto's hanging on local and international affairs, she decided to research about it and looked through newspapers, coming across various articles and clippings that she kept with herself and added more over the years. Because of the nature of the story and technicalities of handling it, she dealt with the subject matter after writing three novels, two of which were published, and then dealing with the collection she had. Many of the articles and clippings left a lasting impact on her mind as she recalled them over and over in years to come, and only let her in peace when she transferred them into the story.

The real life events are what inspired the stories Sorraya wrote and families she explored that were affected by them. Sorraya also mentioned that she is asked a lot who are her favorite authors and inspirations from the literary world. Although she doesn't have any favorite author, she was inspired from time to time from some great literary works including that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

With that Sorraya ended her talk and floor was opened for Q&A. Students asked her various questions, from society's blind spots to such events of the past to patriotism and how difficult it was to explore sensitive issues.

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