“The wonderful thing about Jaipur was that although big names like Coetzee and Pamuk and Diaz were there, you felt that people were in fact just as interested in discovering new writers.” – File Photo
Raised in Paris, Mauritius and Pakistan, Shehryar Fazli now lives in Islamabad where he works at an international think tank. He graduated from McGill University and theUniversity of Massachusetts Amherst. Here he talks to the Herald about his debut novel, Invitation.
Q. Has Invitation been a long time in the making?
A. Yes. I started a novel about 11 years ago. None of what I wrote back then survived except some basic idea of a narrator who returns from the West after a long exile. I had those few pages lying around for years. Finally when I gave it another go, a story developed around that basic premise.
Q. When did you decide to set Invitation in pre-prohibition Karachi?
A. I was discovering more about this very fascinating time in Pakistan’s history — when popular demonstrations helped oust a military regime, democracy was being introduced for the first time, and then it all went wrong. I decided to eventually put my narrator in that mess and see what happened. I liked the results.
Q. The 1970s are almost a mythic time for people of our generation. There was so much happening that we can barely imagine possible now. You weren’t around then but have witnessed some equally tumultuous moments in Pakistan’s history. Why did you not choose to write about what you had experienced, the way other Pakistani writers have with 9/11, for example?
A. Well, let me first talk about what I liked about that period as the setting for this story. Shahbaz, the young narrator, lived his last 19 years in Paris which, in May 1968, went through a major historical convulsion itself. Shahbaz does not feel a part of it. He comes back to Karachi to settle a family property dispute on his father’s behalf. But, more than anything, for an abstract sense of citizenship. That was a time when I think many in Pakistan were acquiring a taste for it. That is, after all, what democracy is supposed to provide. Back then, democracy was just coming to Pakistan. So what better time for Shahbaz to make his entrance? Of course, things do not quite work out for him or many of the people around him. And the title perhaps conveys a sense of that promise.
Q. In many ways, Invitation is about just that — a search for a sense of belonging. It has been described as ‘Karachi noir’. Stylistically, is this how you write? Or is it a tone you developed specifically for this novel because of its setting?
A. I was a little surprised to see it described as ‘noir’. Not that I have an objection to that description but I never thought of it as noir myself. The voice I wanted, which is Shahbaz’s, is one that is on the surface constrained but with something a little reckless underneath that occasionally emerges in bursts. So it did not have much to do with the time of setting but with this particular, strange creature that is Shahbaz.
Q. Initially I found the tone of the narrator distant but as I began to get to know him I realised it was perfect. He is often distant and cold and no hero, as much as he would love to be. It’s not easy to decide to write in the voice of a person who is not likeable and it’s not something most writers would do for fear of alienating most readers who would rather relate to someone ‘nice’. And yet here you are.
A. I do not subscribe to that. I think unlikable narrators are far more compelling. And your description, I think, is absolutely right. His constraint, his inability to act, is what makes him such a nasty piece of work. The voice, I think, reflects that. But it was Evelyn Waugh who said that the job of fiction is to spread sympathy to unexpected places. I do hope readers warm up to Shahbaz eventually, despite everything, in the way they warm to a monster like Nabokov’s Humbert or Ishiguro’s Stevens in Remains of the Day.
Q. Invitation was launched in India where it has been published and you attended the Jaipur Literary Festival. Do you think festivals like that are important for writers to promote their books?
A. Before Jaipur, I attended the Kolkata Literary Festival which was my first event. We then did a launch in Delhi and I had two sessions in Jaipur. The Kolkata Festival, like Jaipur, had this buzz and energy to it because events like these, more so than any single book launch, bring together people who just love books. So it puts a writer, especially a first-timer, into contact with an audience he or she probably would not meet otherwise. The wonderful thing about Jaipur was that although big names like Coetzee and Pamuk and Diaz were there, you felt that people were in fact just as interested in discovering new writers. So, to answer your question, absolutely.
Q. Your novel is a welcome change to what the world has come to accept as Pakistani literature in English. It’s a throwback to a time when Pakistan was not known for what it is now. Do you think you are at a disadvantage, having distanced yourself from the 9/11 stories that are so popular nowadays?
A. Well, I would not like to think that readers are coming to these books because of the topic but because of the writing, the characters, and the human stories. I set my novel in a particular period not to educate but to explore a character’s very personal relationship to the events around him and I hope that it is that personal story that people are attracted to, just as I hope they are approaching a so-called post-9/11 novel not to learn anything new about 9/11 or terrorism, which there is plenty written about in other forms. And if that is the case, then I do not worry too much about being at a disadvantage because somehow my “topic” may be considered outdated.
Q. I know this may be a little early to ask, seeing as your very first book has only just been published, but what’s next?
A. I am somewhere close to midway through a second novel which does indeed take place in Pakistan. I think I will remain engaged as a novelist with this country for a while because there is such rich material here which I have not begun to tap. But yes, I would not want to confine myself to any particular subject or style or perspective. For example, one day I hope I can write a book from a female character’s point of view.
This book is available at Liberty Books