By Farzana Hakim
In my early writing days, after I’d written new chapters of a story, in excitement or, perhaps, in seeking motivation to continue, I’d email them to a loyal best friend; an avid reader and Head of English at a secondary school. Her feedback was gold to me. However, when she questioned my plot, suggesting it might be linked to some ‘apparently’ real happenings in my private life, I started feeling differently. Surely, my characters weren’t anything like me; nor did the storyline have any connection to what had ‘apparently’ happened in my life? Suffice to say, I didn’t send any more chapters, making her wait until the book was published!
After publication, other friends who’d known me for years began blurring the lines between fiction and my reality, saying they could see me in it.
To this day, I can’t see the correlation. Other than the east London setting, my book is not about me or my family. Yes, the characters belong to my background and ethnic group. Yes, the things I explore are common themes within the British South Asian community. Yet, my novel is not about me, nor is it about the issues I’ve personally experienced.
To rephrase that last sentence: my novel may not have been about me, yet it was written about issues I’d seen within the east London community I’d grown up in. This is why many people, especially those from my community, have been able to relate to it, as I can – which is why I wrote it. And yes, my work has been labelled authentic. Readers who don’t know me personally have been drawn to its truth and courage.
I guess I could go on and on and talk myself into a never-ending hole, trying to explain my book as purely fiction.
Moving on to my second book, though, inspired by a significant event in history which has impacted my family and millions of others, this question becomes even harder to define. The debate, fiction or reality, and sorting my book, about the Partition of India and Pakistan, into a genre-specific category, has made me alter the whole submission package. From ‘Historical Fiction,’ I’m now seeking publication for it under the ‘Narrative Non-Fiction’ banner. Keep your fingers crossed for me!
Having grown up hearing stories from my elderly relatives and their friends, about how the Partition of their once prosperous and loving homeland in India happened, to becoming forced migrants and resettling in a new place in Pakistan, and then emigrating to the United Kingdom as early as the late 1950’s, motivated me to research and write this story. Doing so impacted me emotionally as I delved more deeply into my grandparents’ – and their parents’ – lives. I explored heart-rending themes: honour-based killings, rape, communal violence, bereavement and murder, to name just a few.
As I wrote these, there were times when I completely broke down. So immersed was I in this history and in the backdrop of a war-torn divided land, as well as in my characters’ helpless and troubled minds, I cried, wailed, gasped and even laughed, sometimes. Although the plot is 70 per cent fictional, the bare facts were enough to cause me a huge amount of distress.
Now, call me sentimental. Call me an emotional writer. Because that’s what I am. And I’m not ashamed to admit it. I invest a lot in my characters’ emotions. I make them likeable and I make them hated with a passion, giving them raw and authentic emotions. I put them in impossible situations and I make them persevere, despite all the odds. Isn’t this what all writers do?
Yes, it is. But often, a writer succeeds in detaching themselves from the worlds they create. I find this hard to do. Maybe this is why my trusted friends say they can find me in my stories.
Moving on, I wonder how many writers will write gloomy stuff when they’re feeling low? I guess, I can self-diagnose – I do this, too. Writing came to me as a form of therapy. I was poorly, dealing with the physical and mental stresses of an auto immune disease, which completely altered my lifestyle. Two back-to-back major surgeries later, I was sore and bedridden. With my i-pad as my writing companion, I discovered the notes feature. Away I went, leaving the reality of my condition, entering into a world of soldiers, conflict and forbidden love. When writing some scenes, those with a hospital setting, for example, I was able to extract emotions and feelings from my own recent and painful experiences, lending depth to my storyline. Prior to my surgeries, I couldn’t have told you what a painful spasm in the chest feels like; nor could I have related the helplessness a person might feel around hunger. I wasn’t able to swallow any solid foods, having eight weeks of only liquids in my post-op diet.
But, as my story progressed, so did my health. It’s interesting to note also, my relationship with my husband was at its strongest at this stage. He was my right arm when I was poorly: in sickness and in health, as they say, and he honoured this whole-heartedly. He helped me heal and get back on my feet again much sooner than I’d anticipated. So, naturally, the love between the soldier and his unusual suspect in the story I was writing, was raised to its peak too. I wrote entirely from my heart. I gave them such a deep and meaningful bond and in no way was this relationship cliched or cringey. Far from it. My soldier will win hearts when people read about him trying to save his ‘Lady Taliban.’
My editor’s hat is on and I’m hoping to have it polished by the year 3000! Seriously, though, I hope to tell you more about it soon.
It’s fair to say, in my experience, I can’t entirely ignore my reality in my writing. Fiction is like that. We can’t completely disavow the real world when we’re creating. It wouldn’t feel right and it would lack power and any meaning. Our emotions are strong and our biases even stronger. We knowingly, or unknowingly, pour our sentiments into our writing. Whether our fictional stories should impinge on our personal lives or journeys is a question I’m still debating.
One thing I’m certain of: I’ll never stop writing from my heart and I pledge to always write with courage and freedom.
In her heart-rending debut, Sweethearts of Ilford Lane, author, Farzana Hakim, set out to write a story her readers could relate to. Her second novel, The Silence of a Deep River, a thought-provoking family saga based on the Partition of India and Pakistan, did the same. As an oral historian, collecting stories from people connected to Newham for her research, rekindled her ambition to have more voices and stories from the South Asian diaspora heard.
Currently, Farzana is editor of Thursday Connectors at Write On! Magazine. She’s the host/founder of the Hear My Voice, creative writing workshops and she’s working with Inspiring Futures, to de-colonise the literacy curriculum in Primary Schools.
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Call me an emotional writer. Because that is what I am.