“Nobody thinks of protecting others from themselves. It’s the people who claim concern and love who damage us the most.” ~ This House of Clay and Water
Faiqa Mansab’s debut novel spoke volumes with her readers. Through her story, spanning the lives of three individuals, trying to break the moulds that society created for them, she has managed to capture the essence of what it is to find your own place in the world so hell-bent on showing you yours.
In a tête-à-tête with SRR today, Faiqa shares her love for writing, her publishing journey, and about her experience under Elif Shafak.
Before we delve into the questions and her wonderful answers, our humble as ever Faiqa has this special note for beloved SRRs:
“Dear Raccoons, thank you so much for embracing me so lovingly within your august circle of readers and book lovers. I am delighted to be here on the same platform as you. It’s an honor. Thank you.”
We get into the questions now.
Q: Any particular research that you did to bring out the characters like Bhanggi, Nida and Sasha? Especially a character like Bhanggi who is so torn between his emotions and everything that we as individuals take for granted.
A: I did a lot of reading because my personal interactions hadn’t been so informative that I could draw the kind of character I wanted. I can understand why hijras would be suspicious of anyone trying to ask questions about their community and life and I’ve tried to show that as well in the novel in the scene with the foreign correspondent and Bhanggi. Why would they or any community trust someone who is an outsider and has not proved themselves enough of a supporter and sympathizer?
I read many books too, to learn more about transgenders. Jeffrey Eugenides, Michel Foucault, Peter Scholz, and so many more. My aim was to create a character that wasn’t one dimensional. We view people who are different from us as somehow subhuman. That’s dangerous. I didn’t want to add to that narrative.
I am in constant fear of grand narratives that overwhelm dissent and singular voices. Characters that feed grand narratives are puppets, stereotypes, and my stories will never be a part of that.
Q: They say that artists create their own parts in fragments of their characters. Is there a fragment of yours in any of your characters? If yes, which one and how?
A: I think if that’s true, then it must be all of the characters. Awais Khan a budding writer from Pakistan said something really wonderful about this book. He said none of these characters are without flaws, and even Saqib has redeemable qualities. I think it’s a huge compliment. I do find Bhanggi and Zoya to be more of my blood than the others. Someone else said that Lahore itself is a major character in the novel. So I don’t know how much a writer’s vision is translated into their story and how much is imagination. It is an interesting premise to ponder for the readers I guess.
Q: Now they also say that freedom of expression comes with a cost when it comes to any artistic creation. Can there ever be a balance sought between being politically correct and free expression of thoughts in a work of fiction?
A: Diplomacy is great. So is being politically correct. It just has no place in story-telling. I tell stories to portray the truth as I see it. I stress on this…my version of truth. It may differ from everyone else’s but as a writer I have to be honest to my worldview or else I wouldn’t be writing. Why do people spend their lives writing about people who didn’t even exist? It’s a need for the storyteller to engage with others and share their worldview. They do because everyone comes back and says you know what, I know such people. Isn’t that what the whole business of storytelling is about? The truths that facts will never cover?
Facts are misleading, truth rarely is. I love writing fiction. There is nothing that sets us free like writing and reading fiction.
Q: I read somewhere that your pre-MFA story had elements of magical realism. So why did you decide to forego that?
A: I love magical realism when done well but I don’t think it’s something that calls to me. This story that developed from the initial scribbling is much stronger and truer than my first conceptions of it. That story had a jinn, Nida was not this tragic a hero, knowing her own limitations so well and understanding how her social threads bind her. As the characters developed, the story left the realms of magical realism of its own accord and I was relieved really. I decided to forego it for the same reason that I forego a beautiful line I’ve written with much care and devotion. If it doesn’t ring true, it must go.
Q: What next now? Magical Realism? Politics? And when should we expect it?
A: I’m a writer and hope to remain one for as long as I have breath in me. My next one is in the works. It’s a complex thing, full of its own throbbing life-essence and energy, and we’re struggling to overpower each other these days. I am sorry to have to tell you that it’s stronger than me for now. But I’ve locked my writerly horns with it and hope it will be done by end of this year, insha’Allah.
Q: This is something we all want to know. How was it working with Elif Shafak? Tell us some of your memories.
A: You know how you’re dying to meet an idol and when you meet them finally they’re either rude or disappointing? She was the exact opposite.
When my university sent her my proposal, saying I wanted her to be my supervisor. She replied to me on email and thanked me for giving her the opportunity to work on this with me! She thanked me! Such unbelievable charm! Then we met at her favourite, La Petit Maison in London for the first time. She is very soft-spoken. It always took me a while to understand that she was saying I should change a certain way of what I had written, it always sounded like a compliment the way she said it.
So, the critique I’m talking about was, before you all die of anticipation, that Saqib was coming across as too much of a single-minded and single-dimensional character. At the time he was, because I hadn’t really started writing about him much. So, then I reworked the chapters backwards with hindsight since the story had finished. She was happy. Thank God.
She is really a wonderful person. Humble, helpful, and polite. She always paid for my coffee also, even though I nearly fainted with shame, because being from Lahore I just can’t let anyone else pay…you know? She laughed and said, I’m from Istanbul and the same applies, but I win because I’m your supervisor and you’re a student.
She is a woman’s woman. I felt like I could ask her any question about the craft and she would always respond honestly. I’m very grateful for that experience.
Q: Having your first book published by Penguin Random House is an awe-inspiring thing. Tell us something about your publishing journey.
A: Thank you. It certainly is and I am still overwhelmed by the fact. It’s all thanks to Mita Kapur, my wonderful, and sartorially magnificent literary agent. So, this brilliant woman started the lit-agent trend in India. I am so lucky to have Mita as an agent. She’s known for her excellent taste in everything, including books. I still remember the email she sent me with the Penguin offer and I couldn’t believe it.
Once I’d screamed yes from the rooftops, she wrote another one introducing me to Ranjana Sengupta who acquired the rights to my book for Penguin. Ranjana is another accomplished woman in the world of publishing. The fact that they both believed in my book and stand behind it even today, is the reason it’s seen the light of day. The publishing industry is tough, competitive and I knew no one. I have no contacts at all.
I was a nobody with a story and if it weren’t for people like Mita and Ranjana, people like me would never get published. It’s heartening to know that the publishing industry has such wonderful people at the helm.
Q: How long did you take to finally finish the book? Tell us something about the editing part of it.
A: Two years. I wrote the first draft in the first year of my MFA and then I edited and pruned and polished it for the next year. By 2015 I was sending it out to agents in the UK and US. Mita signed me up in 2016. See, for me editing and polishing the MS is the most important part of writing. The first draft is more an outline. It’s a shell or a structure, the scaffolding. Editing is when you add the details; polish the dialogue, delete all the extraneous, self-indulgent scenes and descriptions.
Editing is largely throwing out a lot of good stuff to make the story tighter, stronger. Any fool can throw out a bad line; it takes a real pro to throw out a good one. Someone famous said that.
Every day I would read the MS top to bottom, deleting, adding, and polishing till I whittled it down to 85k. when I realized I couldn’t take anything out, I couldn’t add anything, I didn’t want to touch any word or phrase, that’s when I sent it out.
Q: Selfish as we are, we won’t allow you to go without a few tips on writing!
A: Not selfish at all! Thank you for this opportunity. I feel so important! I’ll give you the advice that I have on my vision board.
> A book and especially a novel, must be a habit. (Leo Tolstoy)
> The only standard of achievement for a first draft is the accumulation of pages. (Stephen King)
> This is sacred work. (Allegra Goodman)
> Write bravely. Write concisely. Write now. (Anton Chekhov)
> Scorn the vague, the tame, the irresolute. (E.B. White)
Hope you all enjoyed the interview.
For those of you who have read “This House of Clay and Water”, do share your experience about the book in the comments section.
Faiqa’s book is available on Amazon here:
About the Author:
Faiqa Mansab lives in Lahore with her family. She has an MFA in creative writing with a distinction. Her MFA thesis won an award and was later published as This House of Clay and Water. She teaches creative writing to Mphil students at Kinnaird College for Women Lahore and Forman Christian College University Lahore.
SRR wishes Faiqa all the luck for her next story. Needless to say we are eagerly waiting.