Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Conversation with Shaila Abdullah

Having just read and reviewed the novel Saffron Dreams, I am now honored to present this interview with award-winning writer Shaila Abdullah.

1) Shaila, you are so gracious to do this interview.  Please tell us a bit about your background, such as where you grew up in Pakistan, where you attended school, and when you came to the United States.

SA: I am a Pakistani-American author and designer and currently based in Austin, Texas. I grew up in a city called Karachi in Pakistan that is all too familiar for Americans nowadays. I came to the U.S. in 1995 after having an arranged marriage. I have been writing on and off since 1993. My new novel Saffron Dreams explores the tragedy of 9/11 from the perspective of a Muslim widow. My 2005 debut book, Beyond the Cayenne Wall is a collection of stories about Pakistani women struggling to find their individualities despite the barriers imposed by society. I also work for a nonprofit as a media designer.

2) I loved Saffron Dreams and already want to reread it.  Although Saffron Dreams reads like a memoir, it is not autobiographical. Tell us about the inspiration behind this book.

SA: Thanks, Susan, I am glad you enjoyed the book. Writing it was a true labor of love. I am sure there is hardly a person in the U.S. who was not affected by the events of September 11 in some way. For me, the event was double-daggered: grief at the loss of innocent lives and horror at the distortion of our own identities as Muslim-Americans that followed. Saffron Dreams evolved on the basic premise that the preservation of cultural and religious identity of any group is the cornerstone of a civil society. In Saffron Dreams, the protagonist Arissa Illahi, a veil-wearing Muslim woman, loses her husband in the tragedy of 9/11. You are right, the novel is not autobiographical, although there are some similarities between the character of Arissa and myself.

3) I see Saffron Dreams first and foremost as a love story. Of course, there's love-making. The love scenes between Arissa and her husband, Faizan, are notable and beautiful, fit well into the story, and make his death even more poignant. Was it easy and natural to write about this part of their relationship, of the intimate encounters between them?

SA: Not at all. In fact, they were the toughest to write. I grew up in a society where couples don’t normally show their affection for each other publicly. As such, I had to work really hard on those scenes and scribe them in a way that was palatable for all readers.
(You did a beautiful job. The love scenes flow well and are exquisite.)

4) The little details in Saffron Dreams have a lot of impact and helped draw me in. For instance, Arissa, the protagonist, says that she does not like to sip her Starbucks coffee through the tiny slit on the top of the lid.  I identified with her, and I feel the same way (although I drink tea, not coffee) and lift off the lid when I drink.  Does this detail also apply to you?  Again, although the book is not autobiographical, how much of you is in Arissa?
SA: You got me. Yes, I do that. Some details of the character’s life do match mine. For instance, we are both writers and artists and had arranged marriages. Both the character and I have flawed sense of directions. But that is where the resemblance ends; the character’s challenges are many and far, far greater. Certain characters in the novel were modeled after members of my family, though. A cousin who died after three years of marriage, leaving a pregnant wife behind drove the character of Arissa’s husband, Faizan. The cousin’s compassionate and loving parents inspired the characters of Faizan’s parents, who step in to help Arissa get back on her feet.

5) One of the important messages of Saffron Dreams is that all Muslims should not be held responsible for the actions of a few terrorists.  With the passing of time since 9/11, do you think the attitude of Americans has improved?
SA: America is a very resilient and educated society. We are moving in the right direction where people’s perceptions are concerned. But there are still questions that need to be answered without fear of a backlash and those have to come from the right sources. Where the media instilled fear in the heart of the nation about Muslims after 9/11, lately they have also attempted to learn the true meaning of Islam by bringing in renowned and respected scholars and researchers to interview. There still needs to be more dialog with positive role models of Islam. There is a great need in the U.S. for various religious entities to come together and build bridges of understanding and tolerance to find common ground.

6) Can you recommend other Muslim-American authors?  Do you think there is a need for more books written by Muslim-American women?
SA: Khaled Hosseini and Mohsin Hamid (although he now lives in London) come to mind right away. Mohja Kahf is another great addition to the mix. She is a breath of fresh air because she provides a lighter spin on being a Muslim and take on tough issues. Of course, there is always room for more writers. If nothing else, to provide opportunities for dialog, understanding, integration, and occasionally, even a few laughs.

7) Shaila, I understand that in addition to being a writer, you are also a designer--you designed the gorgeous cover for Saffron Dreams--and a mother.  It must be hard to find the time to write. What advice do you have for time-pressed aspiring writers, especially for women?
SA: If you think there is a no room in your life to pursue your dream, then you are doing a grave injustice to yourself. Most of Saffron Dreams was written during nighttime because my own days are packed with a full time job as a designer, family, my own freelance business, and various voluntary activities. My advice to aspiring writers is to focus on perfecting your writing and not get deterred by rejection. Set time aside to write and be regular about it. Pour your heart on paper and work your magic. We all have it in us. Some of us are simply more disciplined and serious about it than others.

8) In the book, Arissa is a planner, although her plans for the future are shattered. Are you also a planner, and if so, to what extent do you plan out your books and stories?
SA: I can be a planner in some things in life and in some other things, not so much. If I have to do a presentation, I will plan early, work hard and show up fifteen minutes early. My first book was not planned and evolved out of journaling and writing short stories. The second one was incredibly planned; it had charts, timelines, two groups of beta readers with their own tasks and timelines.

9) I read that there will not be a sequel to Saffron Dreams (although I still harbor a shred of hope that there will be) but that you have other books in the works.  Please tell us a bit about them.
SA: Sorry Susan, there will not be a sequel to Saffron Dreams although my next book is the one the character is shown working on in the novel. It is about the street children of Karachi.

10) I am anxious to get my hands on a copy of Beyond the Cayenne Wall, your collection of short stories about Pakistani women.  Do you have a favorite story in this book?
SA: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust is my favorite story in Beyond the Cayenne Wall. It is also the more tragic one. In it, a woman ragpicker, tired of putting up with her parasitic spouse, decides to kick him out of her life. That decision comes at a hefty price.

Shaila, thank you very much for doing this interview. Your work is absolutely brilliant and I can't wait to read more of it!

SA: Thank you and thanks to the readers of Suko’s Notebook. You can find a wealth of information on my website including a reading guide, excerpt, reviews, and buying information. Readers who sign up for updates on my website will get a free excerpt of my 2005 book, Beyond the Cayenne Wall.


  1. I accepted your invitation on Mervat's blog and linked over here to read the interview, not having any idea what it would be. I was surprised and pleased. I think you did a good job on the interview and you definitely made me want to get the book. I think anything that will help us open dialog and reach more understanding is not only good, but essential, especially now.

    Thanks for presenting the reading public a resource we might not otherwise know about.


  2. I have nominated your blog for an award - check out my blog at http://lauragerold.blogspot.com/.

  3. Great interview. The book does sound very good.
    I like her advice to writers.

  4. Your interview with Shaila Abdullah nade her book very real, almost like an autobiography. I hope you'll be able to interview more writers. It's a great bonus. thanks.

  5. Hey Suko! Loved this interview with an obviously very talented author. This one is definitely on my to be read list!

  6. Hi, thanks for visiting my blog. Your book-blog is very interesting, esp to bookworms like me.

    This interview (and the previous review) was really relevant to me, as I am from India and am interested in women's writing from the subcontinent.

  7. Thanks for stopping by, Sucharita. I hope you will visit again.

  8. You have done a wonderful job with the interview. I love how open Shaila was in your interview. Thank you for this. I look so forward to others.

  9. Very interesting and insightful interview Susan. Your interview with the author illuminates the need for women, or anyone with a creative gift, to absolutely make the time for self expression in one's day to day. If we can find time to work, we can also find time to express our authentic self, which is oftentimes buried underneath the layers of conditioning.

    To quote David Bowie "You just scream with boredom". Well, the way out is to evolve, and the way to evolve is to challenge one's self in areas unknown but where there is a calling.

    Well done. I will plan on reading the book. May I recommend "Three Junes" by Julia Glass for your bookclub?


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