Ever since Pakistani writer Fatima Bhutto‘s first emergence into the public fray, when she was only 25, as an outspoken political commentator and columnist, her strong, clear, singular voice about the gross injustices practiced in her country have not gone unheard.
The charismatic granddaughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s first democratically elected Prime Minister, vows to never go into politics, a profession that has decimated her family in the last 35 years. In 2008 she published her first boook, Songs of Blood and Sword, a tribute to her father politician Murtaza Ali Bhutto, murdered by circa 100 policemen outside her front door in Karachi in 1996 when she was only 14 years old.
The book also recounts the tortuous story of her country, only 67 years old, and the rise of the powerful Bhutto dynasty originating from Sindh. Since then, Bhutto has put personal tragedy behind her and followed her true destiny – to be a writer- making the transition into fiction with her excellent debut novel, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon.
Set in Waziriztan, one of the autonomous tribal areas in northern Pakistan, currently so frequently in the news, it’s the story of three brothers who must attend Friday prayers in three different mosques because life has become too dangerous for them to pray together. Through the back stories of her rich characters, that include two women, we discover the dilemma of living in a country torn apart by different forces, the Taliban, the army, American drones overhead and how local people must make sometimes questionable decisions just to be able to survive.
Poetic, and wistful, Bhutto’s novel is also full of suspense, reading at times almost like a thriller, as well as bringing into focus a clearer picture, giving the reader an intuitive understanding of what daily life must really be like for those held hostage in their own homeland, the native soil of their ancestors.
When did you know with clarity that you wanted to be a writer?
I don’t remember wanting to be anything except a writer. I was fascinated by books and by words and was always writing little stories and letters and then stapling them together so they looked like a book. I loved reading and was enchanted by libraries and these far away places accessible only by the imagination.
Who encouraged you?
Both my parents, but in different ways. My father first took me to libraries and bookstores and always encouraged me to write – even though we lived in the same house he would write me letters and put them under my door as though they had arrived by post. I would then write him back and place the envelopes on his desk. My mother read to me at night and she used to whisper the words, reading them with awe and it created a sense of wonder for me to listen to her.
How was the journey through your first work of fiction, what did you learn?
How to give up control. That’s very hard in non fiction because you shape everything – you determine what research is used, who you interview, whether you support the issue at hand or whether you reject it. But fiction is about empathy, it demands compassion – it has no space for bias or for judgment. And do that you have to trust the characters and observe them rather than direct them.
How did the story come to you?
In little parts. I was disturbed by the idea of a family separated by violence. But also I wanted to write about betrayal and how much one has to betray in order to survive in the modern world.
How did the characters and plot develop?
The characters grew constantly and whenever I thought I understood them and their decisions they would take a different turn and in that way it was them who determined the plot. I would be surprised at many points but how something I thought would happen would fall away as I wrote a scene and be replaced by a new possibility or perspective. There is a great liberty in fiction – you observe as a witness, you don’t have the power to decide or to direct. A greater authority is given to the moment rather than to the author.
You come from a political family and have no intention to go into politics. Is writing the best way for you to encourage social change and to speak out about issues that are important to you?
I like what Octavio Paz said about the duties of a writer – the only duty is to observe the world around them as truthfully as possible. That is all. The duty of encouraging change or sparking protest do not belong to the writer, but if there is something one deeply believes in then of course it is something you will try to bring to light.
You say that in South Asia women are very strong, why is it that federal laws do not protect them and why is it that despite their strength they have not been able to overturn these?
Women are strong in that they fight with a sense of belonging and a feeling of togetherness – their resistance is peaceful and it is carried out to help not just themselves but the community of women around them. You see this across the world really, not just in south asia. But South Asian women are strong because they fight against great unfairness and injustice. The power behind those laws is enormous – they come with the weight of the state, the courts, the legal community, many parts of society and the police. If one of those groups stood alongside the women brutally affected by them then how long could they last? Not very long. But change of that measure requires people to connect, to work alongside each other and to their battle as one and the same. And that hasn’t happened yet.
Do you have hope that these laws such as the despicable hudood laws [making among other things, death by stoning for adultery part of federal law] in practice in Pakistan since 1979 thanks to General Zia will be scrapped in the near future?
I do. Laws that are so barbaric and unjust cannot be held in place forever.
What are to you the greatest impediments holding back Pakistan, a country with plenty of natural resources?
People’s voices are restricted to a very small group of people –that suffocation of voices means power becomes centralized in the hands of very few. It’s a reason for the many excesses – as you said, Pakistan is a very vibrant country with so many different philosophies, languages, religions and legacies. It is not a singular place, it is a place of a thousand different ideals and it’s time we start opening the doors for those to be expressed.