For this third entry we’re looking into a new set of chances and challenges of multilingual writing with the wonderful Fatima Taqvi, author of meticulously crafted stories deeply rooted in history and lore like “Secrets of the Kath” and “The Third Feather”. Fatima is from Karachi and currently lives in London.
SH: Please tell me a little bit about your multilingual background. Which language do you write in, and what led to that decision?
FT: I’m from Pakistan, which is home to many languages. For conversational purposes Urdu and English are what was spoken in my home, with Arabic and Farsi playing fleeting roles when poetry and religion came up. As I grew older, everything but English was largely pushed aside as the alarming business of focussing on school-approved subjects began, with sciences and art all being taught through an English lens.
Much of the hierarchy in language politics in Pakistan is still dictated by the legacy of British colonial language policies. On top of that, I’ve traveled between Pakistan and the UK, so English is something I’m used to proving my worth in.
After many years of not using my brain for more than conversational Urdu, creating fiction in my mother tongue does not come easily. I do find myself composing stories in Urdu for my child, and I have a hankering for seeing a revival of Dastangoi, which is the name of the centuries old but now largely neglected verbal art of storytelling. I do think for the foreseeable future it will be in English that I author what I do.
As you are using Urdu in (oral) storytelling, is some of it still echoing in your thoughts when you write in English? What’s going on when this happens?
I’ve noticed that for my writing in English, because my settings are often places where English isn’t being spoken, the inner voices of my characters present themselves in Urdu. Especially when I write dialogue. And that really works for me! I love when Urdu sayings and metaphors try to sneak their way everywhere. This is a great asset for my stories set in Pakistan because it is the voice my characters are using in any case. What remains then is to write them in English with a gentle hand.
A lot depends on activating triggers. Certain places, times of year, religious holidays, do have a flavor that pulls my mind towards parsing my first thoughts in Urdu. There is never a time when I visit Pakistan where I don’t resolve to write a novel set there completely and utterly drenched in the culture of my city of Karachi.
But these states of mind are not constants. I can also find myself being clumsy in Urdu as I shift from English being in the driving seat to becoming a passenger again.
Is there a need to “translate” stuff sometimes, even while feeling most proficient with English as a writer? Things you’d like to express but English doesn’t provide easily?
There have been times while reading something in Urdu when I feel this cannot be crossed over into English without losing something. However I haven’t experienced this myself in my own writing yet. Anything I want to take from Urdu into my stories I have been able to convey albeit with a slightly inelegant excess of words. Perhaps more than words I find the social mores something that I have to explain, which used to put me in danger of over-explaining. I find it funny now, this feeling I had as a newer writer of needing to over-explain my writing, and how it was reflective of my own need to justify my presence and who I was to the wider world. Growing older helps! And I cannot over-emphasise the importance to me of reading and absorbing literature by authors with more grace and expertise who lead the way for people like myself.
We are learning words by context and repetition; they can sink into us, take root, and grow their own reality. How much non-English vocabulary (if any) do you feel you’re able to include to make stories set in your part of the world ring true?
This is such an important question because it relies on readers, editors, and publishers being inclusive to these ideas.
Starting out I wasn’t very confident including Urdu vocabulary in my work. I attended some online SFF writing classes held by award winning SFF author Usman Malik for South Asian writers, and I remember one of the first things he said was to not diminish our languages when including them in our stories. To not other them by italicizing them, and that the best stories make the readers work a little.
My first two short pieces “Secrets of the Kath” and “The Samundar Can Be Any Color” that I sold to promarkets both include non-English words not just in their substance but also in their titles. (Big thank you to Vajra Chandrasekera, Rasha Abdulhadi, and the Strange Horizons team, as well as to Wendy Nikel and the Flash Fiction Online team!)
Those Urdu words, in the middle of English as their supporting cast, feel like little magical paper boats set free, bobbing along into further and further seas, always intact and never overcome by the water.
You were talking about the way colonial policies are still dictating the use of language. Thinking of more than language, extending the scope to narrative structures and theme, how do you navigate between these influences? And is the English language (and its narrative baggage) pliable enough to fit your story purposes?
I navigate between these by being mindful. I critique how I feel about characters. I seek out other opinions and perspectives.
I wouldn’t call myself successful yet at incorporating narrative structures that aren’t popular and aren’t considered saleable in my work. As a newer writer, I have spent so much time absorbing and learning story structures touted by modern English literature. This has its own satisfaction when executed well, of course, but I would like to be more multidimensional in my work eventually
Themes, though. I believe I couldn’t tell (or try to tell) the stories I’m truly passionate about had I not been fluent in more than one language. The mainstream publishing world has cultivated an appetite for stories that perpetuate structural exclusion. Coming at storytelling after being marinated (as it were) in a different cultural context, I have navigated issues from multiple perspectives. That really helps catapult me into a torrent of “what ifs.”
The English language is pliable. Mainstream sensibilities, curated as they are by stakeholders who have historically smoothed over atrocities and have been discouraged from the discomfort of self-reflection, are less so. I see there is still a long way to go until a wide range of stories that feel like home to me are given a home. And yes, that affects my starting point when approaching my own writing. Paradigms currently reign as default positions that can feel like a cop-out even when diverse characters are given space. This is reflected in the language for sure, and I’m interested here in the absences and empty spaces where I would expect a character’s core to be. The end result is not representative in an impactful way to my mind, despite the occasional stray samosa, mangled linguistic reference, or exoticised surface trope. I do understand that stories with these can still be enjoyable to many! My point is as an author I’m hoping for more from my work.
But is there also a flipside, an expectation to see certain tropes in a certain way, making it harder to transform the material? Or preventing you from telling stories where these influences aren’t visible at first glance (or at all)?
It’s something to think about — what would a story look like if these influences weren’t visible. I feel the influences, even when ostensibly quiet, dominate the writing nonetheless. When writing in English there are certain expectations that can be fused into surface story when the setting is a typically “othered” culture. It’s not necessarily every storyteller’s job to work in opposition to these, but how they are addressed and engaged with I think indicates the skill of a master storyteller.
I would like to write from a position where I don’t feel constrained in the telling of stories with certain features just because people will assign them their own associations that I do not intend to direct them towards. I feel this is very unfair. It means I may have to work harder towards having fully fleshed out stories - the worlds within losing time wrestling to be something beyond the supposedly colonised parameters the English written worded analysis has historically put them in. This story then has to spend time proving or disproving certain notions in relation to these assumptions. I don’t mean to say it’s never fun to lean into surface stories and the assumptions they bring, or that these assumptions are never true. Just that something meaningful to me in terms of culture and religion may not carry the same associations for English readers as they do to me.
Circling back to the layer of language: is there a favorite word (or concept) in Urdu you wish you could transfer to English?
I would have to be a lot better at Urdu, I think, to identify the best answer to this question! If I had to pick something, I like the grammatical construct borrowed by Urdu from Persian called “izaafat”(اضافت). This mainly pertains to poetry and poetic prose.
In which one word is placed first, its descriptor second, and the two are connected with the vowel sound “e.” Instead of a descriptor, the second word can also be a word possessed by the first with the “e” in between the two.
For example, “roz-e-naakaam” would mean day-of-unsuccess. Which could read as an unsuccessful day, or the day of the failures. “Chashm-e-nam” would mean eyes-teary. Or teary eyed.
Used effectively izaafat can result in a tumult of sensory immersion in a couplet given as asides that add to the progression of understanding melding into the main idea.
Additionally, izaafat contributes to the work of the couplet which has been described by the poet Ghalib (who was himself an unparalleled expert) as the creation of meaning (“maa’nii-aafriinii”). In fact, in a truly great poem izaafat facilitates a multivalent sentence structure, opening the way to a multiplicity of meanings and readings. For example, “sabaq-e-shauq” used in one of Ghalib’s verses would mean lesson-of-zeal, or zeal’s lesson. But is it a lesson for zeal? Or a lesson taught by zeal? It’s a grammatical construct that frees sentences, and perhaps thereby our own thoughts, from a narrow horizon.
Thank you so much for your observations about the impact of culture and history on narratives, and for evoking the images of stray samosas and paper boats made of words!
Look for Fatima’s forthcoming story in Fantasy Magazine, and listen to more of her thoughts on speculative fiction in her podcast Saying the Unsayable. She (and her podcast) can be found on Twitter, or on her web page.