To Be A Woman Is To Be In Battle Constantly: Fatima Bhutto
She comes from impeccable political pedigree, has grown up in exile, seen her beloved father assassinated. The life lessons from these lived experiences come together beautifully in Fatima Bhutto’s narratives, the violence, the searching, the bereftness, the suffering and the quest for resolution, all come from a space of deep introspection. In her latest book, and her second novel, The Runaways, she brings together three different narratives from three corners of the world, each with their own stories of pain, grief, violence and perhaps, hope. Coming on the heels of her non-fiction book, Songs of Blood and Sword, this book is an exploration of identity, religion and youth in an age that is being rapidly defined by violence.
SheThePeople’s Ideas Editor Kiran Manral spoke with Fatima Bhutto about her writing, being a chronicler of history and how she navigates identity and violence in her work.
The Runaways “deals with questions about modern Muslim identity in a world aflame with violence.” As a young Muslim woman yourself, how much does your search for your identity in a post 9/11 world inform your writing?
It’s not so much searching for identity – I don’t think we in the East believe in ‘identity’ the way the West does because we come from a heritage of multiplicity. People are a hundred things in our countries, you can’t confine them to one – but it’s more about negotiating an identity that seems to be imposed on you. In a post 9/11 world, there seemed only one way to be a radical or a Muslim or an Arab woman according to the West and I think we struggle against these narrow definitions all over our part of the world. My identity, however, doesn’t really inform my writing. My writing is pushed more by what I’m feeling at a given time, what disturbs me, what haunts me.
My identity, however, doesn’t really inform my writing. My writing is pushed more by what I’m feeling at a given time, what disturbs me, what haunts me.
Moving from the personal narrative in Songs of Blood and Sword, to the fictionalised narrative in The Runaways, how much of a writerly shift did you have to make and what was the process like?
Fiction is like another language; it has different grammar and tones and sounds to non-fiction. It really feels at moments like talking in another tongue, it’s what makes it so challenging and so exciting. I wrote non-fiction for years, but I truly feel myself in fiction.
Having grown up with a ringside seat to the cloak and dagger of Pakistani politics, and then the murder of your father Murtaza Bhutto, which you did chronicle in your previous book, did you feel at any point that you were too close to the subject of your writing to make it objective? And how do you detach yourself enough to put the story down without reliving the trauma?
My father Murtaza was my best friend, he was not just a father who I adored but a man who taught me how to survive the world I was born into. And the key was love. That’s what I learnt from my father who raised me as a single parent. So when I was writing Songs it was a love letter to him, it was the story of a man’s assassination and the story of his life as seen by his daughter so it was a deeply personal story. During my research when I found things that surprised me, I allowed myself the surprise and even at moments perhaps even disappointment and I think that carried through to the final book because they were parts of my journey. But to answer your second question, it wasn’t really possible to detach myself and writing Songs was very painful. I had to sit in the same room as police officers who had been there while my father was bleeding to death on the road, to ask if they had fired at him and to listen to their answers. After the book came out I went on tour with it for almost two years and every time I sat on a stage I had to relive the most painful moments of my life, it was difficult for me.
My father Murtaza was my best friend, he was not just a father who I adored but a man who taught me how to survive the world I was born into.
How did the story of The Runaways come to you, and the lead protagonists?
I started writing it in 2014, it was after that summer that Daesh burst out onto the world stage in a terrifying manner. I had been travelling at the time and I was in Europe and as upset as I was about Daesh I was also upset by the way that Europeans were talking about radicalism – they had no clue about their roles, their country’s roles in the terror that we live within the world today. They were speaking about infestations of migrants to Europe as though they weren’t people, as though their wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan hadn’t meant they had some responsibility to these people displaced by war and violence and fear. And I was talking to a friend one day who told me, you should write about that. I thought it was too heavy a topic when he suggested it but the idea stuck with me and the story was born in my mind as seen, initially, through two young men Sunny and Monty walking in a desert as they wage a war against the world.
They were speaking about infestations of migrants to Europe as though they weren’t people, as though their wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan hadn’t meant they had some responsibility to these people displaced by war and violence and fear.
As a writer, and a chronicler of history so to speak in both fiction and non-fiction, what is the burden you feel every writer faces when putting down the narrative that a lot of readers don’t really realise? Do you think writers must keep this responsibility of being chroniclers of their times in mind when writing?
I think in our part of the world our writing cannot help but be political. Politics and the currents of the time shape how we live, how we love, how we eat, how we dress, how we move through the world – certainly it does in India and Pakistan. In the West they seem to feel they can cut off from the times, but I’m not so sure we have that luxury or in fact that inclination.
As a young Muslim woman do you feel your quest for identity and self differs from that of a young Muslim man? If so, what are the ways in which this particular quest diverges? Do you, at any point, feel that there is a certain exoticism in the way the West would perceive you and your writing?
I don’t think it has anything to do with being Muslim. Look at the world today – where can you point to where women are not fighting? Where women feel they have the equality and liberty and safety they deserve? To be a woman is to be in battle constantly. Regarding the second part of your question, I think the West is desperate to prove its own narrative at the moment (i.e., that it is the only space of freedom and liberty for women – clearly this is a narrative under massive duress right now) and so it doesn’t quite know what to do with Muslim women which they have never been able to understand anyway.
The Runaways is the story of two boys, Monty and Sunny, and also of Anita Rose. Why did you alight at this particular juxtaposition of characters rather than have it a singular narrative?
It began with Sunny and Monty and eventually Layla and Anita Rose and the other characters were born around the story. I didn’t choose it, it appeared and I surrendered to it and followed them. You are slightly helpless in fiction in this way, the story decides and you simply follow.
You are slightly helpless in fiction in this way, the story decides and you simply follow.
You have grown up with violence, had violence impact your family, suffered the consequences of that immediate violence. Would you say the violence in your book is a catharsis of sorts for you to reconcile with the lived experience?
I am haunted by violence, having lived through it most of my life and at a close angle. I don’t think you can ever have catharsis from it but I write about it because I want to understand it and I want to expose it to air so it’s weakened in some way.
From the writer of The Shadow of the Crescent Moon in 2013 to The Runaways in 2018 what has changed within you, what are the issues you now deal with, what are the conflicts within you that have been resolved and what are the new conflicts you now grapple with?
Oh so much. Everything has changed for me in those years. The Runaways is a reflection of a lot of that upheaval but I suppose I won’t even really be able to tell you what new conflicts are rattling me till I start to put them down…
Photo courtesy: Caroline Issa
Kiran Manral is Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV