Because of an attack of childhood polio, my parents were advised not to send me to school. 'She'll get married, have babies,' the doctor said, 'She's not going to become a professor or doctor, is she?'
I was taught to read and write in English by a tutor at home, and I allayed my loneliness by voracious and random reading. I gave my Metric examination privately at thirteen, and graduated from Kinnaird College for Women in Lahore in 1957. I got married at 19, and produced two babies. And then, on a trip to the Karakoram Highway, I heard the story of a young Pakistani girl who had dared to run away from an intolerable marriage, and had been killed in the Hindukush mountains by her tribal husband. The girl's story obsessed me, and I began to write. I thought I would write a short story, but it grew into my first novel, The Bride.
An American friend sent the manuscript to Dr Herbert Schumann, a professor of creative writing in Washington. He found me a literary agent at Curtis Brown. I had no idea how miraculous it was for an unpublished Pakistani writer to find a reputable agent in America: let alone a publisher. Then began the cold drizzle of rejection slips: "We love the writing, but Pakistan is too remote in time and place for the novel to be commercially viable - etc."
During this time I wrote The Crow Eaters. Curtis Brown sent my books to their counterparts in England. I began receiving rejection slips from both sides of the Atlantic.
Curtis Brown tried to place the books for two years before giving up; and I gave up writing for almost four years after that.
Since English fiction was not published in Pakistan, I was advised by a friend who loved The Crow Eaters, to self-publish. The typesetters did not know English and the checked pages erupted with new The Crow Eaters was finally published in Lahore in 1978. I peddled the book from store to store; an experience I wouldn't wish on anyone.
The self-published edition was sent to A.D. Peters in England, and this time round it was accepted by Liz Caulder at Jonathan Cape within the month. It was published by them in 1980 and it won the David Higham Award for first books. They published The Bride in 1982, and it was only after Cape had published both books that I began to write again.
My family and I semi-migrated to America around 1983. I had already started writing Cracking India (Ice-Candy-Man in Britain) We moved to Houston in 1984. St. Martins had just publishedThe Bride, in the US and I began reviewing books for the Houston Chronicle .
The move to Houston proved fortunate. I met Phillip Lopate and Rosellen Brown who suggested I teach creative writing, and with that suggestion launched not only my teaching career, but also exposed the irony inherent in the future staked out for me by my doctor: I became a professor.
I conducted a Novel Writing Workshop at Rice (Special Programs) , and I taught the University of Houston. Donald Barthelme proposed me for the membership to PEN USA. In 1988 I conducted a Graduate Seminar: 'Humor In Novels' at Columbia University. I also taught at Mount Holyoke, Brandeis 1998, and University of Southampton 2002.
I was selected for the Bunting Fellowship at Radcliffe (1986-87) and also received an NEA grant in 1987. These provided me with the means to finish Cracking India. Cracking India was published in England by Heinemann in 1988, in Germany in 1990 (where it won the Literature Prize in 1991), and in America by Milkweed Editions in 1991. It was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a selection for Quality Paperbacks. It was also listed among the 200 best books in English by The Modern Library (Picador, June 1999, London) It was made into the film Earth by Canadian director Deepa Mehta in 1999 and my latest novel Water, is based on Mehta's film of the same name.
In 1991 I got the Sitara-i-Imtiaz, Pakistan's national honor in the arts and in 1994 the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writer's Award.
I got my American citizenship in 1992, and with it my passport. Few Americans realize what a blessing this is.
Milkweed Editions published my novel, An American Brat, in 1994. It is a novel of cultural clashes, and the adjustments and compromises required of a young Pakistani/Parsee woman who decides to settle in America.
My play, An American Brat, was produced by Stages Repertory Theater in Houston in March 2007. It played to full houses received critical acclaim. My play, Sock'em With Honey, played in Leister Haymarket and played in London in 2003 for 2 weeks.
It has been a long haul for me as a writer, but when I was inducted into the Zoroastrian Hall of Fame during the Millennium Celebrations in 2002, I felt the struggle was vindicated.