February Issue 2011
Interview: Maha Khan Phillips
“I wasn’t setting out to reflect on anyone but to write satire”
– Maha Khan Phillips
Maha Khan Phillips talks to Newsline about writing, reading and her novel, Beautiful From this Angle.
Being a financial journalist, why did you choose to write fiction?
I wanted to write fiction long before I became a financial journalist. Becoming a financial journalist was a total fluke. It was meant to be something I did short term while I looked for a job in international conflict mediation. But now I’ve been doing it for 11 years and it became interesting once I realised that even in finance it always comes down to the human element — who is winning, who is losing and why do we care?
I used to write fiction, scribble for myself and would have kept doing that as a hobby, but a friend of mine convinced me to do an MA in creative writing at City University in London. You had to produce a novel in order to graduate. That novel was Beautiful from this Angle.
Is the Karachi party scene, as described by you in the book, reminiscent of parties you attended while you were here?
I hope people realise that the book is meant to be satirical. I’m not suggesting that every person at every party that Karachi has ever had is an alcoholic or a drug user. But I know people who have problems with both.
Which character do you most empathise with: Amynah, Henna or Mumtaz?
I don’t think you can write characters without empathising with all of them in some way. I don’t associate with any of them personally, but I do feel like I understand them. Although biographically, my family does have a farm near Rahim Yar Khan where my character Henna lives, thankfully I have none of Henna’s issues to deal with!
Do the characters bear any resemblance to real-life characters?
No, although many people seem to think so. I think that happens when people read too much into characters and compare them to real life, particularly if they know the writer.
You touch on a host of buzzwords: terrorism, bin Laden, the ISI and ‘honour’ killings. Why did you decide to include all of them in one book?
I touch on the issues that keep making an appearance in the western media. I really just set out to write something funny that turned the idea of western perceptions of Pakistan and oppression and terrorism on its head. I wanted to write a satire and say, look, women are capable of exploiting other women too.
We aren’t all victims in this country, despite what people abroad seem to think. And isn’t the media ridiculous sometimes? Is it really Islam that is to blame for the lack of justice for victims in this country? Or is it our lack of functioning institutions? I wanted to have a little fun with all of it, and keep it light-hearted and not take it all too seriously.
I’m a journalist — I know how much pressure journalists can come under to get a story or a scoop and how easy it is to follow the herd and how voices get lost in the desire to make everything nugget-sized and full of sound bites, so I wanted to play around with that idea.
You broach the subject of exploitation of women in Pakistan in a very cynical manner. Does that stem from personal belief?
I don’t want to suggest that women don’t suffer in this country. We all know there are terrible things going on, but this seems to be the only narrative that we get abroad. ‘Honour’ killings, ‘honour’ killings, ‘honour’ killings. Islam, Islam Islam. There is more to this country than ‘honour’ killings. Imagine if Newsline started to highlight every female victim of gun crime in the US on their covers. Well, we’d have a very skewed picture of the place, wouldn’t we? What if we started to say that Christianity was solely to blame, rather than the Americans’ legal right to bear arms? What if we said, ‘Well now we know never to visit the US, they are all butchers and murderers and alienated souls?’ I do object, and I am cynical about, the way that women who have suffered have their stories taken away and marketed for them. I can show you a picture a friend of mine took of a bookshop with at least a dozen books with women in burqas talking about their mistreatment. Why the same image on every cover? Because it sells. Is it then about helping women or selling books?
Is there a message in the narrative?
Just that it’s easy to make assumptions and believe the clichÃ©s, but life is never that simple.
Is your book a true reflection of the elite in Karachi?
You’ll have to ask the elite of Karachi who have read it, not the writer! But again, I wasn’t setting out to reflect on anyone but to write satire, where everything becomes larger than life.
What do you plan to write in the future?
Well, assuming I ever get the time between a full-time job and my son! No seriously, I hope to write a thriller.
What do you like to read?
Everything I can get my hands on, but mostly fiction, non-fiction, particularly on the current political scenario. Also, trashy romance novels, political thrillers, genius literature where every word makes your head spin and comic books. And all our Pakistani writers, of course. How much amazing stuff has come out of Pakistan!
Maheen Bashir Adamjee is an APNS award-winning journalist. She was an editorial assistant at Newsline from 2010-2011.