Happy or not / Grateful or what?

It’s as if i’m a passed away author, fifty or so years have gone by, and now my work is in the public domain. Some writers and publishers are crazy about my Punjabi novel ‘Skeena’, so they go ahead and convert it from Shahmukhi script to Gurmukhi, edit it, get someone to create a brand new cover page, dtp it, print it, and send it to a bookstore near where i live.

I’m not kidding.
Gurmukhi edition of novel ‘Skeena’ now available in India and Canada

Last month, Rajwant Chilana, an author and the owner of India Bookworld in Surrey, contacted me to say that Skeena’s Punjabi edition had arrived and he invited me to come and see it. First, i thought, the bookstore has acquired the Shahmukhi edition from Sanjh Publications in Lahore but then I remembered that when someone from a Sikh cultural background says ‘Punjabi’, they mean Punjabi in Gurmukhi script, just like when someone from Muslim cultural background says ‘Punjabi’ they mean Punjabi in Shahmukhi or Arabo-Persian script.

I went and saw it, it was in Gurmukhi. Skeena’s Punjabi edition got published in India after twelve years of being published in Pakistan and its Gurmukhi edition got published after eight years of getting published in Canada (script conversion and editing by Surjeet Kalsey, limited edition, Libros Libertad 2011). It took so long because as an author i was unwilling to pay the printing costs as is still customary in Punjabi publishing. Indeed, it is a compliment to me and my work that a group of people invested their time and money to bring out a nice edition, and now it is finally available to all Punjabi readers, and that makes me very happy.

Yet there is this feeling of taken-aback-ness, curiosity, and i must admit- some amusement. In this scenario of un-asked permissions, un-authorised script conversions and un-acknowledged royalty rights, the aspect that intrigues me the most is the brand new cover art. Indeed, the woman on the cover is sitting in a much favored pose for women on book covers in South Asia, the popular ‘waiting-bride’ pose.

Covering Skeena

Below is the original cover art of Skeena: a stylized depiction of a woman lying on a bed with an open book, her body tattooed with decorative shapes and newsprint, with a background of minarets and moon.

Painting by Ahmad Zoay, Cover design by Sadaf Chughtai

At the back, to point to the possibilities of how a woman’s person may flower, and, to counter the male gaze, the figure is turned upright- thanks to graphic designer Sadaf Chughtai in Lahore.

I am grateful to publisher Amjad Saleem Minhas for giving me the right to choose the cover art for the debut edition in 2007, and later to Manolis Aligizakis for keeping it for the English edition in 2011. I had chosen it after going over hundreds of paintings and drawings. This was important to me because my novel Skeena traverses a delicate line- it is based on the cliche plot of a young Muslim woman who is brought up in a Punjabi village and she arrives in Canada via an arranged marriage- in this cliche plot original real life characters breathe, reside and flourish changing the nature of the plot and its situations. The cover art expresses a part of Skeena’s essence, and it serves as a caution to people of a conservative traditional mindset to not pick it up. I was also aware that it can alienate a portion of Skeena’s ‘natural’ readership of women who may find it hard to pick up the novel, buy it and read it in public- but, there always is a first time.

What we have on the cover of Gurmukhi edition now is a realistic projection of a Muslim woman from lower middle class or from the more conservative sections of middle class. Nice art work, i especially like the thoughtful expression on the woman’s face where she seems determined to figure things out for herself, the soft colors and contours of the image provide a palpable base for her efforts. It depicts the apparent or outward mannerism of Skeena at least as it is in the first three sections of the novel. But Wow! Catch me if i fall, what a transformation. If the original was a caution because of a woman’s sprawling non-pornographic nudity, than this is an invitation because of the harmlessness of the fully-clothed safely-sexy ‘girly-book’ look. Indeed, based on the cover, it can easily pass for an A. R. Khatoon or a Razia Butt kind of novel that feeds into and perpetuates most of the entrenched systemic myths and prejudices about women and people in general.

A few years back, a friend in Lahore who had immensely enjoyed reading Skeena, asked a woman who was studying it for her research, to encapsulate Skeena and she had instantly responded with ‘She is a rebel’. View it here:
it’ll-live-for-a-long-long-time-a-comment-by-younas-khan/

Given that it is the same novel, let’s see if the ‘invitation’ works better than the ‘caution’, as we know that Skeena’s Shahmukhi edition is Pakistan’s all-time best-selling Punjabi novel since 2008.

Fauzia Rafique
October 15, 2019

Skeena
Gurmukhi Edition
Script Conversion & Editing: Harbans Singh Dhiman
ISBN 978-93-5231-317-4
India Bookworld, $15
604-593-5967
info@indiabookworld.ca
Sangam Publications, India
sangam541@gmail.com
01764-501934
..

Getting the ‘name-thing’ out of the way

fr-renbooks-nov2016-byhonjo-1b

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
..

Waxing (non) Poetic at Vancouver’s CO-OP Radio

coop_logo

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’.
..