Thursday, June 16, 2011

Book Review & Interview: 'Beautiful From This Angle' (Maha Khan Phillips, Penguin India 2010)

(Published in Paper magazine, May 2011)
Satire and the City

Beautiful From This Angle (Penguin Books India, 2010) is a novel about three young women who have been friends since childhood—Amynah, Mumtaz and Henna—and who really couldn’t be any more different from one another. Settings range from Karachi high society parties to rural Sindh.
Khan Phillips ingeniously demonstrates the great divide within the ‘haves’ of Pakistani society in her novel. In one scene, protagonist Amynah argues with her Dubai-raised boyfriend, Kamal; she doesn’t want to invite his financiers to a society event—
‘But Kamal, they were so…well, uncultured.’
‘Just because they were wearing shalwar kameezes at a party where everyone was too cool for that…’
‘It’s not that, and you know it. But did you see the way they were staring at the women? They acted like they were in a brothel. And they didn’t make conversation with anyone. It was weird...’
‘It’s not that simple. These guys have connections in the government…This is how it works in Pakistan.’
‘Well, they were ogling at me like I was a prostitute.’
‘That’s because half of them are from the MMA. They had left their wives at home in purdah and were enjoying a very sinful glass of whisky.’
(Condensed from page 103).

Khan Phillips also pokes fun at clichés created by writers from the western hemisphere, who exoticize the middle east to such an extent that it sounds medieval, barbaric and invariably ridiculous:
These are the books whose covers always show pictures of women in burkas looking vulnerable and oppressed, with blazing, haunted eyes, and that are so avidly read and published in the west.
Amynah is writing an I’m-oppressed novel of her own, so she has highlighted certain sentences that appear in all the books. Some of the most frequent ones (with various phrasings) are:
            It was then that I realized that my husband was a monster.
            It was then that I realized that I had married a man I didn’t even know.
            I had no rights; I was at the mercy of Islam.
            Islam bound me; Islam kept me in captivity.
            My son was lost to me.
            My daughter was lost to me.
            My dog Fifi was lost to me. (This was from Amynah’s book).
            (An extract from page 24).

Through its wry comic-drama, Beautiful From This Angle takes readers on a journey through social hypocrisy, excess, competitiveness, frustration, corruption, abuse, friendship and love, with Khan
Phillips’ warmth, wit and a touch of nostalgia. 

Maha, I applaud you on your refreshingly entertaining, thought-provoking fearlessness. Did you intend to break the stereotypical South Asian mould created by wannabe-God-of-Small Things writers?
Yes! Breaking the stereotypical mould of wanna be types!
No seriously, the truth is that if I could write with the elegance of Arundhati Roy I would be thrilled, and would probably be trying to be a different kind of writer. But I don’t have that level of talent, and even if I did, it’s not something that interests me. You can’t really pretend to be something you’re not. For years, I let that fact stop me from writing anything. I thought that, if you came from Pakistan, you had to write a certain way, because that was just what one did. I love those books, I just don’t write them. It’s so refreshing, in my mind anyway, to see the stuff that is coming out of Pakistan (or Pakistani writers, the two terms aren’t synonymous) at the moment.
Do any of your characters’ experiences in BFTA mirror your own while growing up in, or visiting Pakistan?
Well, my family does have a farm close to Rahim Yar Khan, so I did draw from elements of that. We spend every winter on the farm, the whole family gets together from different cities and parts of the world, and I love being there. And of course, you can’t grow up in Karachi without experiencing some sort of social scene, but I have to say, it was never as extreme as my characters’ experiences!
Even several of your minor characters remind one of actual people in Karachi and Lahore; were they heavily inspired by real-life people or is this purely coincidental?
This is one of those things that always amazes me. People tell me that I drew from this person, or that person, and often, I don’t even know the person they are referring to. Of course one hears stories and sees things and takes bits and pieces and quirkiness from what’s happening around, but that’s as far as it goes! So please don’t tell me that Mumtaz is actually based on your second cousin’s aunt’s nephew’s best friend, I really can’t handle it!
How about the lead character Amynah Farooqui; addictions aside; she’s a natural novelist and sardonic to boot; she’s 5’11” and you’re very tall yourself – most Pakistani girls, particularly from Karachi, aren’t extremely tall. Are parts of her a conscious or unconscious reflection of yourself?
I think you must be thinking of my sister, Tia, who is indeed an Amazonian goddess. I am only 5’7! Nothing conscious, but I can’t vouch for the unconscious!
One of the main things that struck me is how you got away with writing candidly about sex and freely using four-letter words (f***, coke, etc). Does it help to write as a married woman and that too, an expat with a European husband? Do you think you would have been able to write BFTA if you’d been a single girl living in Karachi or married to a typical desi guy obsessed with what people think?
Listen, when you’re in the middle of a book reading and you’re saying the word f*** and then you see your grandmother smiling from the front row, it’s all semantics, really. I wrote the book, and didn’t really think about the implications. My family is proud and traumatised in equal measure! And for the record, I would never have married anyone who was obsessed about what other people think! I do think though, more than marital status or location, it comes down to maturity and family. I would never have had the confidence to write this book if I was in my twenties, say. And I really am blessed to come from a family of creative types – on both sides. Artists, writers, puppeteers! (Well, my brother Fahad is a boring banker but we forgive him because we know that he would be making films or something, in another life!) And almost all the women in my family have managed to turn their creativity into something commercially viable, which I always find extraordinary. When you have that kind of love and support from family who let you loose to try your own things, you’re pretty lucky.
How long did you have the concept of this novel brewing in your head? Did you note it down instantly or was it one of the things that took years to develop into a project?
The idea came quite quickly, in a matter of minutes. (I was under pressure, I had to tell the head of my course what I would be writing about, and so I sat in a cafe and drank a coke and scribbled this idea down) But it was re-written several times, and changed each time. Without giving too much away, characters that survive in the book didn’t, the first time around. And there was an FBI agent, who didn’t make the final editorial cut. I really was fond of him...
The book mentions that this novel was written during a graduate level course at City University. How different is it writing as part of a course rather than writing it at your own pace.
For me, it was incredibly helpful, probably because I’m a journalist. I thrive on deadlines. I don’t think I would have written the book any other way. It would have lingered on and on...
What are the best and worst reactions you’ve had so far by readers/critics? Any threats yet?
There have been some really great positive reactions, and it’s been very gratifying. The criticism has been twofold, one that I used clichés (but from my point of view, that was the point because it was necessary for the satire and because I was looking at the media and how it latches on to stereotypes) and second, that Pakistanis shouldn’t be writing these kinds of books because they reflect badly on the country. I don’t buy into that. I really don’t. Writers are always writers first, and if you’re going to write then you should write the story that you want to tell.
You have a background in financial journalism, published children’s book before BFTA, and are reportedly writing a thriller next. What’s your main reason for leaping from one genre to the next?
It’s because first and foremost, I’m writing for fun. It’s not my bread and butter, which is the journalism. I’m writing because I love writing, and I want to play around with different things that interest me. Why pigeon hole myself? I’ve always wanted to write a thriller. I may or may not get there (it’s difficult, with a young child and a full time job, etc) but why not try? And one based in Pakistan – imagine the possibilities! I’m also part of the way through a second children’s book. The first featured my nephews, Saif and Taimur, as the main characters. Now my own son Rohan is a little older and more interesting, and my other nephew, Azlan, is around. I quite like the idea of writing stories about them, and for them. Something to embarrass them all when they are older!

How much do people want to read about Pakistani society from our relatively privileged perspectives rather than the romanticized ‘Behind The Veil’-type horrors that you satirized in BFTA? Will this help create a whole new audience?

I think one of the saddest things is the fact that authors writing in Urdu don’t get translated into English more, because that would really be interesting for the world (and for me, because my ability to read Urdu is appalling, I’m ashamed to say). But I do think the audience for “Behind the Veil” type novels is not necessarily going to be the same audience as those who read “Beautiful from this Angle”.  I’m not sure it will do anything to the audience as they are probably completely different. It will be interesting when the book comes out in France though, to see how it does there, because, at least in my experience, that really is a culture that has bought into the “Behind the Veil” psyche. Women who wear hijab must be oppressed, don’t you know? 

The lack of major publishers and the complete absence of literary agents in Pakistan is another hurdle; what kind of advice would you offer to aspiring Pakistani writers with few contacts in the literary scene towards getting published, regionally and internationally?
It is tough, isn’t it? But, as much as some people don’t seem to like the idea, Indian publishers have provided great opportunities for Pakistani writers. And they all have contacts on their websites and people actually do read the stuff that comes in so, I would say, go for it. It’s always easier to get published when you already have an agent, as publishers see this as a filtering process whereby they don’t get alot of writing they aren’t interested in. So it’s absolutely worth trying to get an agent first.

What’s next on the cards--another book? A screen adaptation? Or a daring Urdu translation of BFTA?
How much fun would it be to have your novel turned into a movie! I would love that. But no offers yet... as I said earlier, for me, the writing has to take a backseat to a full time career and a young son, so while I really hope to finish my thriller, I’m not putting myself under any pressure to do it any time soon.

No comments:

Popular Posts