Below is an interview I did with Zehra Naqvi, from B.C, for the blog Nineteenquestions.com
Zehra Naqvi is a writer and editor. Her work has been published in The Talon, Schema Magazine, and Jaggery. She was the winner of Room Magazine’s 2016 Poetry Contest.
When did you realize you wanted to be writer? You have a PhD in Finance. Was writing something that came to you later in life, or was it something you were always pursuing?
I always wrote. I always loved writing. It was a part of my education, but also a part of my own life. I have always had a journal. I didn’t have a particular idea about writing for others, but for me writing was one of the best ways to express my feelings and to share my ideas with others. Yes, I went to a field that is far from writing. It is assumed to be in a way contradictory or in conflict with what I am doing right now. And there’s truth there. But also, my life is not only my academic background. I think writing came to me, probably as a rescue when my husband was arrested. This is where I started writing opinion pieces, and sharing them with newspapers—basically writing publically. Later on, when I decided to write a memoir about this period of my life, I think this is where I decided to take writing as not just a hobby, but as a tool for me to just survive in this world.
How much have your political experiences been the motivating factor behind your writing? Your first book was a memoir about your husband’s arrest and detainment, your second novel is about Muslim women in Canada, and then this latest one is about the 1984 Tunisian Bread Riots and the 2010 Jasmine Revolution. What is the impulse behind your writing? Why do you write?
I write, first of all, especially with these two latest novels, to tell stories. To tell stories, principally, and very specifically, of Muslim women. It’s very important these days, more than at any time before, to put our stories out there, in the public sphere. For centuries and till now, we have always been talked about. Stories have been told about us. And I don’t personally identify with a lot of these stories. Some of them are nice; some of them are horrible. I do not want to be portrayed as an oppressed, passive, Muslim woman. If I don’t say anything about this, it means I agree or it doesn’t bother me. So for me, writing is also a political tool. Not only to survive, but to say to people around me: “Look, I exist. I’m here. And there are many other women here as well, and they have different stories. Let’s read about them and let’s know about them.” Yes, it’s political activism, but I think the power of stories is very, very important. And I don’t want only one story to define Muslim women, or women in general. I want multiple stories and I want mine to be also shared.
And I suppose there are challenges that come with that. I was at your book launch for Mirrors and Mirages in 2014 at the Vancouver Public Library. I remember you had come to talk about this book, but a lot of the questions you were receiving from the audience were Islam 101 questions, about sharia law, why you wear the hijab, about banning the niqab—
And this hasn’t changed—
Is that frustrating? How do you deal with often not being able to actually talk about your books, the stories you have written, and talk about yourself as a writer?
I have to tell you something. You’re right. I have always been struggling as an author with this. But also my background in finance—people rarely ask me about things going in finance, and always just see the hijab and focus on that. By the mere fact, that I am Muslim, I am supposed to embody all the knowledge about Islam. This is also part of the ignorance. However, I think, by continuing doing what I’m doing, in terms of writing these stories—these are Muslim characters, but I don’t really talk about hijab in my books. Yes, I do in Mirrors and Mirages, but it is only one aspect. I also don’t specifically talk about religion. Religion is a detail in the background. So by continuing I’m humanizing Muslim women, whether they have hijab or not, and also introducing this religion to the readers, without those stereotypes. Making it more like a learning experience, rather than a traumatizing experience about violence, and women being raped, and Muslim women being oppressed, and things like that. And yes, we really have a long way to go, but I can already see little changes. Recently, I have had a few interviews about my book in the mainstream media, and there was a story that was focused on the book and about the women in the books. That was really refreshing for me. There will always be questions on the side, which I find totally fine. We are not living in a bubble of only Muslims. We live in the world, and we are affected by everything happening. But I can tell you that the more we try to tell these stories, different ones, not just stereotypical stories about Muslim women, and as diverse as possible, one day people will realize.
Thank you for taking that on.
Well, someone has to.
Yes, as a writer I can count on one hand actual wholesome representations of Muslim women, whether in TV shows or books or literature. There are so few.
Absolutely, and we need more. Not just, you know, “for diversity,” but to be taken seriously for who we are, for what we are, and for what we are saying. Not just as a symbol or a token. We also need solidarity between women. We cannot only talk about oppression happening overseas, and not really talk about what’s going on here. We need intersectional stories, of women, of their struggles. Muslim voices are definitely important today, need to be taken very seriously, to fight what’s going on around us right now, xenophobia and islamophobia. We can’t just count on having open mosque events. These things have been happening for years, many people are still stuck in this narrative of hate. So literature, art, media, and TV are very important in changing these misinformed realities.
You’re also quite involved in the political sphere. You ran in the 2004 Federal elections as an NDP candidate. You’re a human rights advocate. You recently spoke at a rally about islamophobia and xenophobia after the Quebec mosque shooting. What do you think about the term literary activism? Do you see your writing as literary activism?
I am totally fine with that term. I think that’s a very noble thing to do. Writers have been always been doing this. I don’t pretend to be inventing this sort of activism. Basically, every writer has a message in his or her work. This is something that has been done since the beginning of time. Aristotle, Plato, they used writing to convey their philosophical ideas. Here in Canada, there are authors who focus on feminism. Or take the example of Lawrence Hill, who is an author who writes about Blackness and Black lives, either historical or present. There are many, many authors who do this. I am very privileged to be able to insert myself somehow within these diverse voices and complex stories to open a window into stories about Muslim women, or what’s going on in Tunisia, for example. At this moment this is what I am best at and what I would love to continue to do. If you can change things with books, then I’m happy to do that.
Muslim women writers often have to put on these different hats. There are so many things going on around us, that we are asked to or compelled to address, whether what’s in the news, the latest thing targeting our communities—the racism, the politics, the everyday. How do you maneuver between these different roles?
Well, I think first of all, each of us has to focus on our strengths. My strengths are more in writing and speaking about things that I feel passionate about, such as social justice, human rights, and accountability for politicians. I have those issues that I’m fond of, and feel strongly about. I keep educating myself about them, and thinking and writing about them. It can be overwhelming too. We cannot really change the world on our own. Nevertheless, I think each one of us has some value. I see some continuity in the work that I do. If we talk about fighting islamophobia. I don’t think it will be enough to just make a speech and go to a protest, and then go back to normal. There has to be continuity and work done at different levels. We cannot just fight islamophobia and remain silent about other injustices. We have to understand what other groups have been going through and also develop networks of solidarity. It’s a holistic approach. We also have to keep the big picture in mind: we need to speak out against every sort of injustice that we encounter, and this is where I try to basically find intersections among all these issues. We should have a broad approach if we are serious and really want to change the actions of some of the people we are seeing around us.
So it’s more about taking a holistic approach, rather than seeing each role as separate?
Absolutely. The other thing I also wanted to add that also affects me personally is the whole idea of national security. The discourse about national security that has been normalized and accepted by many politicians participated in the creation of islamophobia and this fear that many have. So we cannot just fight against islamophobia and forget about this climate of fear that was installed after 9/11. It became the norm for many Canadians and for many people around the world, without questioning what will happen to people who are targeted by abusive and intrusive laws that allow surveillance, spying on people, and arrests without due process. So all these things have different layers and intersect, and we have to understand all these forms of injustice.
There are so many op-eds out there, including about national security. People are talking about it. Yet these issues persist. Will writing more articles about it actually help? I’m wondering what’s needed and what’s absent when it comes to writing about issues such as national security?
First of all, yes, we think that maybe writing wouldn’t be enough. Or maybe, as you said, there are plenty of papers and books about it, but we also have to look at the other side. We are fighting this mentality of imposing surveillance on citizens or arresting citizens because of their cultural or religious background. The amount of money, time, and books involved on that side is really huge and incredible. We cannot think, “I’ve done my share, and that’s it.” This is a continual struggle. I guess there are many voices, but we need more, as long as things don’t change, as long as our voices don’t reach the politicians. Writing today is often seen as being powerless. But remember, many revolutions in the world, the French revolution for example, they happened with words and ideas. A lot of philosophers at the time shared their ideas, and their ideas brought people up.
We live in a world of instant results. We want to see the results right away. Results and changes do not happen over night. Sometimes not even during our lifetimes, but maybe later on, through generations. So whatever we can do today to plant those seeds, more generations will be coming and watering them.
You mentioned the power of story. You have written op-eds, you’ve written a memoir. You’ve written novels. How do you determine which genre or which format is the best for a story?
I like stories—fiction or non-fiction. But you know, this element, where we have characters that are not necessarily from the reader’s time, but there is a connection between the reader and those characters, that’s the kind of story that I like. I like biographies and I also like novels where I can really put myself into the life of those characters created by the writer. I try to share these kinds of stories with the reader. Even if you don’t like some aspect of a character in a book, I think the humanity should always be there. I try to create this in my books.
I see that in your books. It’s so much more interesting to learn about the Tunisian revolution through characters like Nadia and Lila. It’s so much more engrossing. You enter a reality; it becomes your world, more so than when reading a newspaper article.
Exactly. You have a love and hate relationship with the character. We discover a friend or someone we don’t like or a new reality. I think we can read about a woman with a niqab and not necessarily be scared of her or judgmental of her. We can sympathize. We can dislike. But we cannot hate the person in it. What I really don’t want to happen is this feeling of superiority: “Look, I’m here, privileged, having all these rights, and over there they have none and we should go and save them.” This is what I would love to avoid and I try to find an alternative. To see the human side of people regardless of their religion, how they look, how they dress or don’t dress. To focus on what they think, how they react to those situations. That’s very important for me.
Did you always consider writing fiction, or was it something you considered after you wrote your memoir?
I loved fiction, but I didn’t start with fiction. After I finished that memoir, I wanted to continue writing, but I wanted to try something different, and create imaginary characters based on my observations and reality. So, in a way, you don’t know what is really reality, what is really imagination, but develop a bond with the characters and it creates empathy. I found writing fiction closer to who I am. I can write another memoir and it would be different focusing on other aspects. I think with these fictional stories we can go wherever our imagination can take us. With non-fiction, we are more limited to facts and reality and we cannot just make things up. With fictional stories we can make things up but they can still be very close to reality.
Would you then say your fiction is autobiographical mixed with imagination?
Yes, I think all authors do that. They don’t live in Mars and then come write the stories here. They live here, on Earth, surrounded by parents and friends, and they always get inspired by things happening around them. Some things are going to be written in a way that is very far from reality, but some others are going to be very close. I do both. In Hope has Two Daughters, I speak about growing up in the 80s in Tunisia. I grew up in the 80s in Tunisia. There are a lot of similarities with that political climate. But I am not Nadia. She’s not me. Many things happened to her that didn’t happen to me, but I have seen some Nadias around me. And this is how I got the idea to write and put them in one character and create this story.
What is your writing process like? How do you begin and finish your book?
I’m not an author who has a plan before writing. I have ideas and I put these ideas together and they evolve. For this book, I knew that I wanted to write about those two times. And then later on I started thinking about these two women. And then the mother and her daughter. Things evolved and unfolded gradually. The same things with Mirrors and Mirages, I wanted a story about four different Muslim women living in Canada, from different backgrounds, and I wanted to create these multiple images of Muslim women, but I didn’t know what would happen to each one of them. I don’t want to confine my stories in a plan. I would rather let it flow slowly.
So there must be surprises along the way, as well.
Yes, for sure. This is something I love. I like to surprise myself, and it gives me more joy in continuing writing because I discover things.
What are some of the challenges you have faced in the publishing industry?
Publishing is very challenging. I write in French, so my books are translated in English. Even for me, writing in French has not been easy, because it’s hard to find a publisher. In French Canada, it’s mainly Quebec, and mainly Montreal that has monopoly of promoting books. For someone living in Ontario, writing in French, I am a minority within a minority. To be accepted by a publishing house is a challenge. It’s easier when you have something published. And then later on, to get translated is another challenge. I think it’s important to write good stories. And each time look for the best and hope for the best. There are many, many good authors who do not get published just because of the logistics.
What advice would you give to young writers, particularly from marginalized communities?
I think we should start somewhere. I don’t think it is easy to come from certain backgrounds and penetrate this place called Canadian Literature. But I think it’s important to believe in ourselves, because we can easily be discouraged. Continue believing in the power of words and ideas, believing in the capacity to bring change for ourselves and others. We should start. Writing blogs is very important for me. They are short-term projects. A book can take over a year or even more. Blogs can keep us reading and thinking about what’s going on. They can also sharpen our writing skills. Sharpen our capacity to come up with short stories that make sense. Keep us in the business. We don’t want to get rusty. It’s easy to lose our capacity to write and summarize our complex ideas into two or more pages. I think blogs are very helpful. Other people are good at poetry, or spoken word. I see a lot of marginalized young people using poetry or songs. Whatever we are good at, we have to continue doing it and sharing it with others. That is my advice.
Thank you so much for talking to me. What’s next for you?
Well, I have been writing another book. I’m working on it. That’s going to take me some time. I don’t want to stop.
Is there anything you can tell me about the book?
This book is going to be also about women. I’m going to have something more historical. A woman growing up in the 30s in Tunisia in a Muslim society so different from today. I want to revisit those times, see how people lived, behaved, especially women. It is another attempt at going beyond simplistic stereotypes and diving into the lives of women of that time.