Getting the ‘name-thing’ out of the way

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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

Buy SahebaN
the-adventures-of-saheban_cover_nov61 Libros Libertad 2016
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Waxing (non) Poetic at Vancouver’s CO-OP Radio

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Yesterday, i had an interesting conversation about my just-launched novel The Adventures of SahebaN: Biography of a Relentless Warrior with Pamela Bentley and RC Weslowski, two of my favorite poets, slam artists and radio hosts at Vancouver’s CO-OP Radio. You can listen to it if you like. There are excerpts from the first SahebaN story ‘Vital Parts’, and a couple of verses from the novel.
coopradio.org/content/wax-poetic-6

Of course, i’m more absent-minded than Pam gives me credit for, so the second time i get the chance to pitch the event at Semiahmoo library, i give the wrong date. It is DEC 3rd not 4th. And, regarding distribution, anyone can ask a bookshop or a library anywhere to get it for them.

Earlier, i had a warm and cozy first launch at VG PlayRoom with Host Virginia Gillespie, Guest Speaker Liam Paul Wallinger and many beautiful peers, friends and family. For photos and other outcomes from events, view this page:
saheban.wordpress.com/photos

Next event is Surrey Muse on Friday November 25, and on November 29 and December 3rd

the-adventures-of-saheban_cover_nov61The Adventures of SahebaN:Biography of a Relentless Warrior
A novel by Fauzia Rafique
Libros Libertad 2016
The story of a woman who was forever curious about an object called ‘pee-nuts’.
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‘Something in that name…’ by Fauzia Rafique

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In the Pakistani city of Sargodha in 2007, i was launching the Punjabi edition of my novel ‘Skeena’, and had just heard some wonderful things about it, and also the very best review called ‘Peerni’ from a poet/educationist. Questions followed, and the first person wanted to know who my favourite novelists were. Easy, i thought, and began my SalmanRushdie-MargaretAtwood-ToniMorrison-LindaHogan bit.
‘Salman Rushdie, Marga…’ I could not finish the first name of the second novelist because five six people (actually men) had risen from different locations of that small hall, and they were all speaking at the same time.
I stopped to listen.
‘What kind of Muslim are you that you are taking the name of that Murtid (apostate)?’ An outraged man asked.
My answer was as unbelievable as the question, ‘i am a human before being a Muslim’.
At this, the hall became more restless, and the local organizer and my publisher were there on both my sides.
‘The question period is over’, someone said.
I was led away, and out the side door. The event ended.

There’s some good news that may not be available later in this post. Out of the 55-60 (or 45-50) people present there, i was supported in private by two women and a man of Christian descent who were working with a local human rights organization.

Together, we were reminded of Ayub Masih, arrested for blasphemy in 1996, and tortured, for suggesting to his Muslim neighbour to read ‘The Satanic Verses’ before going against it, and for showing preference for Christianity over Islam. After years of international lobbying while he was being tortured in prison, in 2002 he was acquitted and taken away from Pakistan. The extent of torture suffered by Ayub Masih led John Joseph (1932–1998), the then Roman Catholic Bishop of Faisalabad, to commit suicide in protest against the cruel treatment of Pakistan’s minorities by it’s Muslim governments.

Back at the rest house i found an uncompromising silent stance from my companions that said it’s FINAL that Salman Rushdie has insulted the Prophet and he deserves to be punished; this isn’t up for discussion, Bibi, and it doesn’t matter if Iran has withdrawn the fatwa or not. My publisher gave the most elegant response. He said, ‘It’s not what he wrote, it’s what people associate with it. You know that it’s a sensitive issue to mention that name here’.

Sure, i knew, i had removed it from the Punjabi edition of ‘Skeena’. I knew it to be a sensitive issue in the general social environment but this was not a general ‘public’ gathering. Most people attending Skeena launches were left-leaning or progressive writers, artists, activists and journalists. I didn’t think it would be such a taboo with this set of people. The silencing, but more so, the sense of endangering other people felt oppressive but we were leaving in the morning.

Look what happened to me
We travelled back to Lahore, and i went to my family. When i was asked how did it go in Sargodha, i said, ‘look what happened to me…’ and began to tell my story, but before i could finish, the senior member of my family squirmed in his chair and then asked in a voice angrier than i had ever heard, ‘How could you take that name?’ For some reason, i was again not expecting it. Discussion became hot, and when it came to religion and religiosity, my respected elder told me to not ‘play smart’ with them, but to answer one simple question: do i believe in god or not. I said not. And that was the first time i was asked to leave a forever loving home. I did (but not for long). What puzzles me is that for those two family members, this was no ‘news’, they knew for many years that i don’t believe in god, i don’t practice religion, and that i think it’s influence suppresses the life force of people especially women, making them willing slaves to oppressive living conditions and/or to the interests of extreme religious groups. It is in my poems and stories; the character Skeena in the novel then being launched, denounces Islam at the end. So, why was i asked to leave after this discussion and not any time before? That name, perhaps.

While meeting a Punjabi poet and author at an event in Lahore, the ‘how could you?’ came up. I asked him ‘Can’t we even say what we think? We are not insisting that others be convinced’. The person just looked at me, no discussion.

Later, in an informal and warm home environment, i was asked by a group of friends to furnish them with the ‘why’ of mentioning ‘that name’. By that time, i had realized that it was not taking ‘that name’ that had appeared so unbelievable of me to all my progressive friends but it was it’s projection in a positive affirmative role that was causing the problem. From the sincere attention being paid to me over fine whiskey and golden garda, i felt that i needed to provide a reason, a justification, some rationale for what was being seen as my indiscretion, oversight, mistake. But while presenting my case to my enlightened writer, artist, activist friends in the room, i was not allowed to question the withdrawn guilty verdict given by a dead extreme religious leader. Challenging.
‘He is a very interesting storyteller’, I said, and that to me clearly expressed my involved experience of reading fiction by Salman Rushdie.
The faces stared at me in silence.
This was definitely not enough. Okay, ‘the master of magic realism, a world renowned author, he got the Booker of Bookers’, i said.
The faces remained unchanged.
So, i took a pause and began to roll a joint. For me, reading is to enjoy the story and the way someone told it, without analyzing or categorizing or rationalizing my likings and dislikings. But at that point, i was required to actually think why i like Salman Rushdie’s novels. It was difficult when their themes could not be mentioned so i couldn’t say ‘i like the fun way he integrates religion with the story’; and especially, when his being an interesting storyteller, the master user of magic realism, the Booker-winning world-renowned author, were all deemed insufficient. Am i expected to find something that the world has yet not found? To save my face that inexplicably was lost in the eyes of my friends, i had to come up with something. So i decided to share another factor that increases my level of comfort with it.
‘There’s no male nostalgia in his narrative’, i said.
‘Male nostalgia!’
This did draw some interest, and i was asked to elaborate on it.
‘Sometimes, i find strong male nostalgia in a story, plot, characters or underlying themes where for example, in a seemingly ‘equitable’ or ‘humanitarian’ theme environment suddenly you are confronted with the author’s desire to revert to a time with values that were, among other things, way more advantageous to men. The inconsistency is usually shocking enough to throw me out of it. But i am never confronted with that in Salman Rushdie’s novels; family, status, tradition, religion, nothing is held sacred’.
My friends appeared relieved. I had provided them with something unique to me, like a damaged leg or a crooked eye or some other disability, that had caused me to like the work of a Murtid. My offence was forgiveable because i had committed it under the understandable ‘influence’ of being a woman, an acknowledged aggrieved interest group. At that point, though Lal Masjid had happened the previous year, supporting women’s rights in Lahore was not that risky.

Extreme religious mindset
From Sargodha on, almost everyone i met had a similar response. Firm refusal to discuss the fatwa, The Satanic Verses or Salman Rushdie; and, a ‘betrayed’ outrageous persona saying ‘how could you?’. The last aspect involving the element of endangering my communities was the hardest to take because the fear, of course, was real. This same stance with unimportant variations was taken by people across the board; people who did not know each other to have developed the same positions by exchanging views. Also, out of nine cities, Hyderabad was the only place where religion was mentioned (by a leading Sindhi nationalist) in the context of Skeena, a novel that explores the negative impact of Islam on women. Can’t forget the chill that also did descend on my ‘social’ life.

Back in Canada, in 2009-10, i found Salman Rushdie’s (old) wall on Facebbok, it presented the most blatant written expression of the ‘nature’ of religious extremism- what it creates out of people. The unreason, intolerance, violence, bigotry, threats, and the filthiest verbal abuse- it was all there. I am glad that the owners began to confront this abuse, ended it, and developed a new page (Sir Salman Rushdie Fans), but i hope that the old page is archived somewhere for record.

In 2011, with an escalation in blasphemy killings in Pakistan, i became more and more involved with the movement against religious extremism. During that time, i realized that the blasphemy case against Salman Rushdie is crucial in fighting the mindset that supports the concept of anti-blasphemy in Muslim contexts. Though there are, and were, other Muslim authors accused of blasphemy but none gained this kind of Pan-Islamic exposure or became so central to the fight for freedom of expression around the world. For reasons, The Satanic Verses is one of the very few things where all major sects of Muslims find agreement: a purposefully created rallying item that can bring together all shades of Muslims in a ready condition to follow the Extremists’ agenda. It reminded me of the ease with which a progressive gathering of aware people in Sargodha turned into the voice of divine-ordained conservative intolerance. Something in that name?

A Harem and a Whorehouse
Something in that name hits a nerve where others fail. That nerve connects to a Harem and a Whorehouse. The Prophet’s exalted Harem is projected by the blaspheming author as a lecherous Whorehouse via the abuse of the names(!) of Pak BibiyaN, the Pure Respected Women, the Mothers of the Believers. Names again, so what may be hidden in these 11 names, i wonder, if not the ‘honour’ of a family. A family that over 1.6 billion Muslims (or about 23% of the world population) look up to and strive to follow.

Salman Rushdie can not be pardoned because the Muslim family structure must provide complete control to men over women, ‘harem is the cradle of Islam’, and Muslim men are reared on the idea of having the power to have multiple wives. The Prophet had 11 at the same time (13 in all), but the followers are allowed only four at a time. The promise of whatever number of hooris in the afterlife, and at least a mini-harem in this life, is at the heart of Muslim male psyche. And why not, it gives them decisive and absolute advantage over women, and so on all systemic structures, sanctioned by the Divine and duly practised by His Messenger. This is the family value that keeps the ultimate control of Muslim men over the persons and properties of their women, wives, daughters, sisters, mothers.

Imagine, the audacity of a Muslim male who tries to destroy the sanctity of that multiple-wife dream with ridicule, shattering that multiple-hoori promise by making fun of it. Salman Rushdie has attacked the very basis of this main method of societal control, the sacredness and the validity of the harem that assures Muslim men and women that having many wives is morally correct and religiously desirable. And even if most Muslim men don’t have multiple wives, they always can; it’s about what you are worth in relation to each other. In that case, how can i, a woman, even argue with a man bringing a second, third or a fourth wife, especially if he can ‘afford’ it and can keep ‘justice’ between them! What a creepy mind that thought of marrying women to ‘help’ them out, and that introduced the idea of keeping ‘justice’ between them- thirteen marriages in one lifetime, 11 at the same time, includes a child-bride! O’ what a disgusting family and what perverted sex life for a sanctified role model of 1.2 billion people!

To be honest, when i read The Satanic Verses, i felt that the author had made a successful fictional attempt to improve the living conditions of some women characters by moving their worthy names from one oppressive institution to another, less, oppressive institution. Instead of always having a ratio of 11 to 1 in a Harem, the women may have it 1 to 1 in a Whorehouse, at least in the most often-occurring situations. In place of being dependent on one man for the scocio-economic and psycho-emotional well being of 11, they can make their own money and take their own decisions while enjoying all the benefits of self-respecting working women. Most of all, the possibility, the mere possibility, of having a choice where they may refuse a client while they can’t refuse a husband, especially the one heading the most sacred Muslim family unit: ‘M’s 11’.

To explore the connection between that Sacred Exalted Harem and the Whorehouse in The Satanic Verses is a compelling call to sanity for Muslims. And the question i like to pitch is this: What is the difference between a Harem and a Whorehouse?

This came up while reading ‘Joseph Anton: a Memoir by Salman Rushdie’.

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A taste of Triple

My upcoming novel Triple is about people who live in an inclusive society of all living beings that is now surrounded by exclusive societies of humans, much like ours.

The story is told by Human Blue Fern in three parts: Sunset, Keemat, and Desire. Below, view the Narrator’s statement and the three passages that begin each section.

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Excerpts

Triple

A Fantasy

Fauzia Rafique

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‘I am the medium’ i said, becoming it.

And in this role, i am poised to relate the story of Sunset, a fast disappearing culture that has decided to stay.

As for myself, i am a healer of Sunset living in a Keep; a fish out of water, i will bring you the ocean in a drop.

                                                Human Blue Fern

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1

Sunset

Extending from the Oceanbed, Sunset rises above the three-sided bowl of Hena valley to reach the Skyhole; securing in its lap, the Desert, Forest and the Doorstep.

Seen from the ground Sunset appears to be narrow but it does not suffocate, encage, surround, imprison. More like home, boundaries set us free.

Inside it, an absolute sense of trust and caring. Sweet water of the stream, a home in the trunk of the largest tree. Fruits, vegetables, grains and meat. White flowers of cotton. Colors oozing out from wood and stone.

A scene, a theme, a flashback!
A song, a word or a life long story.
Whatever is presented is received by all.

Knowing each other’s vulnerabilities we nurture us, healing. Pain abandons the bodies leaving the spirits unscathed. Joyful in our movements and fulfilled in our time, we continue to grow into the persons we desire.

Away from Sunset, we enjoy immunity. Keepers stand aside lifting the barriers. Beyond the governing laws of all cities, we are the other.

Being with us is simple but entrenched. To have the desire and the ability to let go of physical weapons, poisons from the blood, violence from the soul, and, the fear of death.

What remains is crucial to us.
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Keemat

Facing each other across this desert, we look to our South, you to your North. What you see is real but it’s not the only scene, only view. Nor yours is the only vantage point.

Still you choose to fly your thoughts in tunnels, narrow and cold; constricting the flow of all life-inducing energies. Perception of realities, unchallenged lies. Distorted your stories serving the obsession to control to grab to snatch to seize power over others.

Wearing your clothes, we may appear to be the same but we are distinct – set apart, by the values of our cultures. Yet the line dividing us is almost invisible.

As we come across, anything will give us away.
A walk, a look. A joyful rhythm.
Anything unfamiliar will give us away.

And when that happens, you will pounce on us from all around.
Slow death, your hands.
Or a sudden short enchantment of an uncomplicated mind. A mind addicted to the creation, and recreation, of seemingly inconsequential deaths.

No death is without consequence as is no life.
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Desire

The very maximum required for us to live is also the very minimum we must acquire to live.

Clean air, nutritious foods.

Joyful togetherness.

Artistic creations.

The elements of our desire are all here with us.

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Creative Commons Licence
fauziarafique2012

This unedited version may change
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Fauzia
July 2012
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