NEW DELHI (Reuters Life!) - When Maha Khan Phillips set out to write a novel as part of a creative writing programme, she didn’t have to look much further than her native Pakistan for ideas.
Partly inspired by her desire to change global perceptions about Pakistan, “Beautiful from This Angle” is a satire on Karachi’s party circuit and the television media set against the backdrop of honour killings and a feudal society.
The novel, recently launched in India, revolves around columnist Amynah Farooqui and her two friends who set about making a documentary on violence against women and find the perfect subject in village woman Nilofer.
Phillips has previously published a children’s novel but with “Beautiful from This Angle”, the London-based financial journalist offers readers an insight into post-9/11 Pakistan.
The 34-year-old told Reuters in an email interview that Pakistan is a multi-dimensional country that needs to be portrayed more positively by the media.
Q: How much of ‘Beautiful from This Angle’ is inspired from real life?
A: “Well, it’s satire. So I have taken a situation and a group of people and exaggerated them. But many stories in the book are based on real, albeit less dramatic events. The only story that is based entirely in truth and is shockingly underplayed, is Nilofer’s story.
“My family has a farm close to Rahim Yar Khan and there was a woman there who was treated as brutally as Nilofer claimed to be treated in the book. I remember that my father had to bring her into our house and stand guard with a gun because her husband and his mother wanted to kill her. It was very shocking to me.”
Q: Did you set out to write a novel about Pakistan that would in a way change people’s impression of the country?
A: “This book definitely stemmed from a desire to turn things on its head a bit. I live in the UK and I am married to a man who is half-English and half-French, which has exposed me to a world where people have only the media on which to base their opinions about Pakistan. The narrative in the media seems to be one dimensional.
“Either we are all terrorists or we are all victims. Pakistan is a multi-dimensional, extremely complicated place. I wanted to show, in part, that women can be the ones who make things worse for other women. I also wanted to show how ridiculous some of the media stories are about Pakistan and Islam.”
Q: As Muslim women, Amynah and Nilofer are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Are things changing for the better for women in Pakistan?
A: “I think as long as you have structural violence which is in effect institutionalised, things will not get better, no matter how hard individuals try and change things. We need better government, better civil society. We need education. We need a judicial and police system that works. Otherwise, there can’t be any lasting change.”
Q: Was the main character meant to reflect you?
A: “Everyone is assuming that but it’s far, far from the truth. I am as removed from the party scene as can be imagined and I am pretty boring. I had a misspent youth like everyone else but nowadays my social life consists of reading my son his bedtime story.”
Q: How difficult is the transition from financial journalist to writer?
A: “To be honest, it was the financial journalism that was hard. I hated math and economics in school. I studied politics and international relations and then international conflict analysis/mediation at university. I thought I was going to save the world. I took on a job in financial journalism in the interim while I looked for work I wanted to do.
“I barely knew what a stock or a bond was. But then I realised that, even in financial journalism, it always comes down to the human factor. Who is winning and who is losing? And why do we care? I started to enjoy it. When it came to the writing, I was a bit braver — because after that experience of writing about things I didn’t really understand myself, figured I could try anything.”
Q: What next after ‘Beautiful from This Angle’?
A: “Who knows? I am trying to write a thriller but it’s early days.”
Q: What’s your writing schedule like?
A: “I wish I had one — but life is rather hectic at the moment, between work and my family. I tend to snatch moments, late at night, whenever I can.”
Q: Any advice for aspiring writers?
A: “This may be really obvious, but someone told me once that writing was 10 percent talent and 90 percent dedication and that really, really helped me, because the dedication bit, I could do. It didn’t seem so overwhelming then, to complete a novel.”