I never wrote an outline because a story has its own wayward way of expressing itself. One paragraph gave birth to the next and the next. If I introduced a new character, I would work from the very beginning to imbed the character throughout the story. I knew where I was heading when I started to write and I had the end in view.
I was a child when Partition took place and Ice Candy Man (ICM) stayed in me for a long time. It struck me also that I heard hushed conversations not meant for my ears about someone’s daughter-in-law, sister, or mother which bewildered me. I didn’t know what they were whispering about, but as I grew up, I discovered they were talking about hundreds of thousands of women who were kidnapped and raped during Partition. I never met anyone who admitted to having a family member taken away. This was because it would dishonor the family. In fact the brutality the women were subjected to was meant to not only dishonor the family, but to also dishonor the race, the tribe and the religion the women belonged to, whether Hindu, Sikh, or Muslim. I felt very strongly that these bestial kidnappings should be recorded.
When I started writing ICM, I had the image of an incident in mind. Men in carts drive into our house intent on looting, thinking we were Hindus. A memory of my mother standing on the veranda with her hands on my and brother’s heads. Apparently, and I am not sure if I recall this or it is a part of an oft narrated story: our Muslim cook comes out saying ‘Bastards, they are Parsi and not Hindus’ and the men drive away. I used this incident as a climactic scene in the novel.
When I start a novel, I imagine a scene and often it takes place in the middle. What brought The Crow Eaters to my mind, was a remark by my mother: ‘You know, your father wasn’t always like this. When we were introduced, he asked me ‘Which is your favorite color?’ and I said ‘Blue’ and then he wrote me love letters on blue writing paper.’
By the time I arrived at this point in the story, I had created Faradoon Junglewalla and Jerbano, and a host of other characters who completely took over, and my poor mother remains a lesser but equally memorable character in it.
Writing involves editing and reediting, and I must confess I quite enjoy editing. I don’t think I could write a satisfactory story without editing it. If I write about my friends, I disguised them thoroughly, often changing their sexes. I blithely write about my close relatives, knowing that even if angered, they will eventually forgive me. I seldom wrote really unforgivable stuff about them. When I include someone as a character in my work it is my way of honoring that person –though I have found this sometimes misunderstood.
I smoked a lot when I wrote. I often wrote in bed, lying on my stomach, or slouching on pillows. I wrote in my children’s exercise books, or on rough pads. My first two novels were written entirely by hand, which I typed – misspellings and all – on my father’s ancient Smith Corona typewriter. Nergis Sobani kindly corrected and typed the fair copies. Once I got hold of a computer, I realized that what I wrote by hand in an initial draft of, say of about seven pages, it expanded to more than 20 pages by the time I had worked on it on my computer. In fact while I was writing Ice Candy Man (Cracking India) I semi-moved to America, and it wasn’t until I received the Bunting Fellowship at Radcliffe, which included a Macintosh computer, that I was able to complete the novel.
An American Brat was prompted partially by my own experiences when I migrated to America from Pakistan. As the mother of two daughters, I had to come to terms with the challenges and fears that western influences typified, and navigate the unchartered terrain to accommodate the change. Parsi girls who marry outside the faith are not permitted to attend Zoroastrian temples or partake of attendant rites. One of my daughters decided to marry out, but given the rigidity of the non-conversion laws, there was not much we could do to reconcile her with the religious community. In An American Brat I’ve tried to represent sympathetically each character’s point of view and what motivates the mother’s actions. There are no villains or heroes here, only people doing their best to cope as they face the challenges of adapting to two startlingly different cultures – the conservative East and the free-wheeling West.
While I was writing An American Brat, I spent most of the nineties in Lahore because my mother was severely ill. This time nourished me and whole swathes of the book move between Pakistan and the United States. Although I became an American citizen in 1991, It wasn’t until my mother had passed away that I began living in America.