The booklaunch event of my novel The Adventures of SahebaN: Biography of a Relentlessc Warrior at Renaissance Books in New Westminster was a warm and inspiring event, thanks to Lavana La Brey (for having us), Nefertiti SheLa Morrisson (for hosting), Wendy Harris (for her vision about the novel), Valerie Parks, Franci Louann, Enrico Renz, Christopher Hamilton, Ibrahim Honjo, Sana Janjua, Idrian Burgos and Randeep Purewall.
Many interesting points came out during discussion; some required more time including the one about names that had also come up at the November 20th event at VG Playroom in Surrey. It expresses the thought that there are perhaps too many unfamiliar and difficult-to-pronounce names for the reader to deal with in both my novels, and if those could be made easier or replaced with more familiar names from the same cultural context, it’ll help the reader stay with the story.
This is not the first time i have heard these thoughts but this is the first time i’m taking the opportunity to respond to them. The words ‘reader’ and ‘readership’ mean two different things to me. A reader is one individual, readership is a category. I have deep caring for the reader with who i share my feelings and emotions, ideas and thoughts. Readership is an entity created by the marketing wizards of the publishing industry to coerce writers to write to make more money for them; they named the deity ‘readership’- but i’m an unbeliever anyway.
Most people who edited or evaluated my novel Skeena prior to publication told me that there were too many unfamiliar names in the first chapter, suggesting that it could be a barrier for the reader right at the beginning. About The Adventures of SahebaN also, it was noted for example, that the ‘N’ at the end instead of ‘n’ makes the protagonist’s name even more unfamiliar. Both these observations were, and are, correct. But from 2003 to now, each time i was presented with these ideas, i gave them my sincere honest thought, each time i chose to not act on them because these observations are correct from a certain point of view, a vantage point, that isn’t mine and when i deliberate on it i don’t want to own it.
Before coming to Canada, i had known that whoever ever colonized South Asia including the British, tried to change names of conquered places, peoples and things; and, because they were the conquerors they didn’t just try but they actually did change them. So, to this day, i hear this city or that road in Pakistan being renamed to be reclaimed by local people. A few years in Canada, and i realized that the same thing had happened here. The names of colonized peoples, places and things were changed. That brought to mind all the Hollywood movies showing the immigration desk at New York harbor where people were given ‘easier’ and ‘familiar’ names as they were stamped in to become US citizens. In our loving or hating relationships we give each other names to own parts of each other. Skeena begins with a description of that name from three different languages and cultures, and later in the novel, the character talks about a few ‘pet’ names her lover has for her that speak more to his own state than to hers. In SahebaN, i use my power as a writer to give ‘pet’ names to countries, people, places and organizations. Names are a currency of ownership; it’s important for me to know who has it in my novels. In other words, a name is an essential part of a character and its context, and i’m unwilling to alter it unless the theme/context of colonization or appropriation needs to be expressed.
As a Colored writer in Canada, i’m ‘expected’ to write about my ‘cultural’ themes, preferably keeping myself confined to those, while affirming all the prevalent myths about them; but not just that, i am required also to disburse my art in a form that is easily ingest-able and digestible for the local, mainly white, readership. Since i actively avoid the various channels established by the local structures to make literature acceptable for that same readership through processes, courses and workshops, my writing remains untamed and uncensored, and that at times, can be a bit unexpected for a reader. Also because not only that i live in the ‘West’ but i choose to write in English, there is this assumption that i’ll make it palpable for the ‘English-speaking reader’. What is an ‘English-speaking reader’ is a good question to ask because my ‘English-speaking reader’ lives in Pakistan, India, Malaysia, UK, Denmark, Netherlands, Australia, Canada, USA; and, so which ‘English-speaking reader’ would like less and easier names in the first section of Skeena? Those right here in BC Canada! In BC Canada, my English-speaking readers include people from Lahore, Chandigarh, New Delhi, Karachi, Toronto, Mississauga, Birmingham, London, New York, San Francisco, Suva.
Literature 101? Yes, i know it too. As a reader i have put away books that required too much effort from me to go into them, some i returned to and picked up and some i didn’t. That’s okay. So, if you are not a Punjabi, and you go to a village in Pakistani Punjab, it’ll seem crowded, noisy and full of unfamiliar names and words- just like it is in the first chapter of Skeena. It’s difficult for me to make it any more manageable, easier or hollywood-bollywood-lolliwood familiar because it’s not that village, that theme or that context.
This brings forward the concept of my ‘primary’ readership that i’m expected to be true or loyal to. The underlying fatal assumption that writers write for specific readership groups or that they should write for specific readership groups may be true for paid writing where a writer agrees to produce materials for a specific set of people, say, for clients of a health service, students of a particular discipline, the employees of a company. But creative writing? I don’t know about you, but i don’t write for any particular group, and i’m not ‘true’ to any readership. I write to share my understanding and view of different contexts and themes with anyone or no one, and my art needs only to be true to its own context and to my perception of that context, because that in reality, is the only thing i have to offer my reader.
There’s a saying in Urdu, ‘who sees the peacock dancing in the jungle / jungle main mor nacha kis ne dekhha‘, that highlights someone’s failure to project their awesome art to a wider mainstream audience. This saying is based on a similar fatal assumption as the above, that the peacock dances for a human audience or that the peacock should dance for a human audience. The peacock dances to lure a mate, and that’s who gets to see one of those amazing and unmatched dance performances not to speak of the stunning wardrobe that is lavished by the gifted performer at the lift of the curtain. A flower does not bloom to be praised or revered, it blooms because it’s a natural expression of a plant who is expecting to grow ripened fruit and seed out of it.
So, if the name SahebaN originates from a folk lore character of Punjabi love story Mirza-SahebaN, then this is one of the ways to deliver it in English: with a (silent) capital letter ‘N’ at the end. And my reader who may be unfimiliar with this name, will find some expression to feelings of frustration within the novel where at a couple of places this name thing does come up.
Photo by Ibrahim Honjo
Libros Libertad 2016