Contemporary Pakistani American Women Writers: Writing their own stories, finding their own voices

Source: http://insideislam.wisc.edu/

Source: http://insideislam.wisc.edu/

Pakistani women’s writing in America has evolved over the years with renewed interest in South Asian Women’s writing and in Muslim women. Contemporary Muslim Pakistani women’s writing has come to the fore with their distinct voices, expressed in their novels full of diasporic anxieties and individual desires. Their distinct voices, chart their lives, not only as Muslim women in the US, but also as Pakistani American women, balancing both socio-cultural affiliations and immigrant American lives. But before such attention was garnered towards Muslim Pakistani women’s individual voices in fiction, one of the first authors to generate interest in Pakistani women’s writing was Sara Suleri with her memoir, Meatless Days (1989). Suleri’s hybrid Pakistani experience, of growing up in Pakistan in a politically conscious family with a politically active father, details Pakistan’s changing political landscape and her journey of self awareness in an upper-class Pakistani household. Suleri’s mixed race identity makes her memoir an interesting addition to the already popular fiction by Bhapsi Sidhwa. As a novelist who originates from Pakistan and resides in America, Sidhwa’s novels have documented the lives of Parsees in Pakistan and in America. Her religious views, different from that of Muslims in Pakistan, and her family’s position within the higher echelons of society, once again singles out her fiction as Parsee Pakistani fiction, rather than that of showcasing Pakistani Muslim identity in fiction. Despite her pronounced Parsee identity, Sidhwa’s Ice Candy Man (1988) – later published as Cracking India (1991) – and An American Brat (1993) displayed her deep connections with Pakistan, its journey towards Independence and the political upheaval, as well as the diasporic dilemmas of a young Parsee girl in the US.

Following in the footsteps of these literary stalwarts, young contemporary Pakistani writers in America have been making small steps towards correcting what Kamila Shamsie (an acclaimed Pakistani British writer) once called the “lack of reckoning.” Though they are not writing socio-political critiques like their male counterparts, such as Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), contemporary writers Shaila Abdullah, Nausheen Pasha-Zaidi, Nafisa Haji and others have made inroads into the field of contemporary South Asian American literature with their novels by exploring the experience of Pakistani American women, and especially Pakistani Muslim women.

The Colour of Mehndi (2006) by Nausheen Pasha-Zaidi

The Colour of Mehndi (2006) by Nausheen Pasha-Zaidi

Nausheen Pasha-Zaidi’s first novel The Colour of Mehndi (2006) examines the life of a young Pakistani American woman battling depression. Her social obligations and her own interpretations of her duties to her family, together with the societal stigma against mental health issues, drives Nazli, the main protagonist to suicide. The protagonist, who struggles to maintain her myriad responsibilities to her family and her community, finally succumbs, not only because the demands were high, but also because her cries for help are ignored. By narrating the story through recollections – Nazli’s records of her life in emails and tape recordings – Pasha-Zaidi reveals the unseen pressures of balancing both the American way of life and Pakistani Muslim traditions when individuals lack inner strength and familial support. The subtle criticism against stereotyped expectations – to appear fragile and submissive”[1] while at the same time being a competent career woman: to be an American and a tradition abiding Pakistani Muslim at the same time – comes through Nazli’s life and its many tribulations.

Shaila Abdullah’s debut novel, Saffron Dreams (2009), explores the life of a young Pakistani American woman in the aftermath of 9/11 and the loss of her husband. Socio-cultural challenges of being a single parent to an autistic child, and the emotional trauma of losing her husband in a place where she is treated as the Other is portrayed through Arissa, the main protagonist. Arissa, facing racial discrimination and distrust due to her hijab, decides to change her life and carve out her own niche while balancing her many responsibilities. Her journey from being a frightened, recently widowed young woman to an independent working woman in America displays her own strength as an individual. At the same time, the novel examines the importance of socio-cultural networks of family, friends and communities that assist Pakistani American women in their passage to becoming  American: by “fit[ting] two lands in [their hearts and lives and loving] them equally.”[2]

While both Pasha-Zaidi and Abdullah write about immigrant women’s experience in America, Nafisa Haji presents the call of the roots and conflicting cultural affiliations of a second-generation young Indo-Pakistani American woman’s experiences through her debut novel The Writing on My Forehead (2010). Family secrets, re-visiting the past, and reconciliation with the renewed Otherness that was thrust on the second-generation of ethnic American groups, especially those belonging to Islamic faith in the aftermath of 9/11, are traced through the novel. One young woman’s journey to reveal her family’s secrets and understand her roots becomes a socio-cultural passage to understand Pakistani identity, and second-generation Pakistani American identity.

Source: RidzDesign (www.ridzdesign.com)

Source: RidzDesign (www.ridzdesign.com)

Each of the three authors highlight a Pakistani Muslim American identity that strives to negotiate between religious affiliations and cultural identities, both ethnic and diasporic. These contemporary authors attempt to negotiate between the stereotypes associated with their religious identity and the individual choices that make distinct women characters through their fiction. Both Abdullah and Haji continue their portrayal of individual women characters that defy religious stereotypes and ethno-social stereotypes through their other books that explore Pakistani Muslim American women’s lives. Most importantly, through their fiction both Abdullah and Haji address the change in the individual awareness of Pakistani American identity for women in the aftermath of the catalytic events of 9/11. The terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 not only become a turning point in the narratives of both their first novels, but also an important episode through which the protagonists learn to re-negotiate their own individual identities.

The Muslim identity of the protagonists also plays an integral role in contemporary Pakistani American women’s fiction. The increasing visibility of diasporic Pakistani Muslims in America as well as the misrepresentations rampant in social media about Islam and women’s place in a Muslim society would have played a crucial role in the narrative importance given to Islam and its impact on the socio-cultural lives of immigrants. But most importantly, instead of defying or explaining the stereotypes about immigrant Pakistani Muslim Americans, all three authors present individuals in search of their own agency, while negotiating ethno-religious demands on their lives. They present religion as just another part of the lives of these Pakistani Muslim American protagonists who choose to follow it in their own ways. Therefore, Pasha-Zaidi, Abdullah and Haji, negotiate religious stereotypes and ethnic stereotypes of Pakistani Muslim American women, through their novels by representing individual women’s re-negotiations of religious, ethnic and diasporic demands on their diverse lives.

As Leah Milne argues “contemporary ethnic American women writers,[then] have a complicated and conflicted attitude towards (in)visibility, suggesting that visibility is not the automatic cure for invisibility or the stigmas associated with it.” But being ethnic and (in)visible does not stop oneself from establishing individuality either. As contemporary Pakistani American women writers have demonstrated, their unique voices expressed through their fiction enable them to gain visibility as individuals and not as representatives of the larger ethnic minority communities. Their individuality is expressed through not writing about their collective experiences of being Pakistani and Muslim in America, but by writing about individual women and their diverse choices that map their lives. Instead of presenting homogeneous views of the Pakistani American experience of immigrant or second-generation women, each of the authors articulates the need to be different in order to define and decide the lives of their women characters in their respective fiction. They present the Pakistani identity as well as the influence of Islam in the lives of their protagonists, not as a central element, but as another trait that adds to the individual characters. They, therefore, voice unique lives and present diverse stories that reflect select stories of the Pakistani American women’s experience in and among the Other in the US.

Footnotes

[1] Nausheen Pasha-Zaidi. The Colour of Mehndi. Mumbai: Frog Books. 2006. 190.

[2] Shaila Abdullah. Saffron Dreams. Michigan: Modern History Press. 2009. 174.

Shashikala Assella

Dr Shashikala Assella completed her PhD on Contemporary South Asian American women’s fiction in the Department of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham. Her research interests include postcolonial literature, gender studies and popular culture especially from Asia.

About Shashikala Assella

Dr Shashikala Assella completed her PhD on Contemporary South Asian American women’s fiction in the Department of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham. Her research interests include postcolonial literature, gender studies and popular culture especially from Asia.
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