Set across Pakistan and the UK, the latest literary offering by Sabyn Javeri—best known for her bestselling debut novel Nobody Killed Her—is a collection of short stories titled Hijabistan or ‘land of the veiled’. Over 16 stories, she attempts to smash stereotypes, spotlight and dissect our (and her own) subconscious biases, and stretch the short story form.
Some of the short stories in Hijabistan are footnoted, informing the reader that these have been published earlier in literary journals/magazines—some as early as 2008—and approximately a decade before Nobody Killed Her was released.
In an email exchange, she tells HuffPost India about the kinds of stories she wants to tell, her storytelling influences and how the hijab is not just a ‘simple physical garment’. Edited excerpts:
Have you always written short stories? What was it like compiling these 16 stories into a collection?
I have always been more interested in the stories we tell ourselves than the ones we tell others. I’m interested in the idea of denial, of omission and of delusion. Growing up in a dictatorship during the Islamisation era, I remember people all around me telling themselves stories to get by and the very first short story that I published in an anthology, And The World Changed, was about this. This was in 2005 when I had had my first child, so the birth of my career as a writer and as a mother coincided. The attention I got from my first publication gave me the confidence that my stories mattered, that I, too, had a voice. And from there on I started writing short stories regularly. One of the reasons I wrote short stories instead of attempting the novel early on was because I am not privileged enough to be a full-time writer. I have always worked, studied and parented at the same time, finding whatever hidden moments I could to write.
Compiling the stories has been like reflecting on my journey as a writer. As a young immigrant woman in the UK my concerns were that of the diaspora, of being boxed by my colour and religion. And over the years, especially with the move back to Pakistan, they have become more about being typecast as a woman. It’s interesting for me as a writer to see through this collection how my concerns have expanded from the personal into the political. I have moved from telling stories that I had heard to telling stories no one wants to tell. The uniting theme being the stories we veil or hide.
“It’s interesting for me as a writer to see through this collection how my concerns have expanded from the personal into the political”
It seems like short story collections have been in the spotlight lately. What is it about the form/genre that appeals to you? Which writers, for you, are exemplars of the form? And what are some of your favourite short story collections—of all time or from among your recent reads?
In the eastern canon of literature, the short story form has always been very active, from Ismat Chughtai, to Kamala Das, to Mahasweta Devi, Namita Gokhale, Anita Nair, Anjum Hasan, to name just a few outstanding collections. But yes, it seems to be having a boom in the international publishing scene these days with established novelists like (Haruki) Murakami, (George) Saunders, Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Adichie adopting the form. Traditionally, in the West, this form was discouraged because it was considered less commercially viable and more suited to literary journals or women’s magazines rather than publishing houses. But things are changing and I wonder if more than anything else it is due to technology. It is quick and gratifying and many compare the short story to a one-night stand and the novel to a relationship. But for me it is appealing because it is so much more challenging. It is like a snapshot. A moment in time. Yet that moment has to tell such a large story.
My all-time favourite collection is I Sweep The Sun Off Rooftops by Hanan Al-Shaykh for the simplicity of her storytelling and the gravity of her themes. And, of course, everything by Ismat Chughtai for her wit. I’m not a big fan of the American short story (except by the diaspora like Jhumpa Lahiri) but I love Indian, Lebanese, Egyptian and South American authors. I think the plurality of identities and the depth of matter you find there is not always present in the singular view point presented by American or English authors.
Can you talk a little about the title Hijabistan? Of course, the hijab or veil runs like a recurring theme throughout this collection. You use it to dissect the dichotomy of the ‘Good/Bad Muslim’, the stereotypes that surround it (through the patriarchal as well as the western lens), and also the freedoms presented and curbed by it. It’s not just a garment; in these stories, it comes alive, and gestures towards something more…
Yes. It’s not just a veil, but the suggestion of veiling something deeper. It is the idea of a voyeuristic society that is watching from behind the curtain. When I first started writing these stories, they were about strong heroic women who wore the hijab but I soon realised I was more interested in the stories they were hiding, the ones they didn’t want anyone to find out. And there were so many layers to what was covered by a simple physical garment. I wanted to explore this metaphorical hijab. There are stories here that are inspiring and uplifting but also those that are darker and somewhat sinister, which discuss sexuality, promiscuity and the idea of piety not being defined by appearance. They challenge one’s internalised patriarchy and make you question your own prejudice. They call out the fact that we put women on a spectrum of good girl and bad girl with no room for in-between. The darker stories crash that notion and I’m not surprised that many [on social media] are angry because no one wants to admit that subconsciously we are endorsing patriarchy and misogyny.
“There is a stereotype of Muslim women out there who wear the hijab, that they will be submissive doormats.”
The Girl Who Split in Two, The Hijab and Her and The Good Wife are more overtly politically charged—invoking ISIS, the jihad in Syria—while some of the other stories are more personal, local in their preoccupations and domestic in their settings (whilst also speaking to universal issues of identity politics). How important is it for you to write about both Karachi within and ‘Pakistaniyat’ (as one of your characters calls it) as well as Muslims world over—and for your collection to reflect this range?
These stories were written when I was living abroad and my concerns were broader. I was writing about terrorism while I sat in the UK because of the global threat of ISIS and terrorism being flashed in our faces continuously and my loyalty as a Muslim being questioned. However, when I moved to Pakistan I realised the real terrorism is the patriarchy in our society! And so my focus became more personal, more micro. It took me a while to realise that the personal is political and the political is personal.
“I had noticed that if you flashed your identity as a Muslim you somehow became a spokesperson for all Muslim women in the west.””
I wrote the Headscarf and Her based on a personal experience because I had noticed that if you flashed your identity as a Muslim you somehow became a spokesperson for all Muslim women in the west. This is unfair. As for the Pakistaniyat… you can take the girl out of Pakistan but not the Pakistaniyat out of her! Karachi with all its kachra and chaos is my city and to not write about it would be like to disown a part of me. Strangely I feel the same about London. So yes, it’s extremely important for me to write about identity, belonging, and most of all, being a woman.
“In this case I tell people, please do judge a book by its cover!””
The cover artwork (by Samya Arif) is particularly striking. Nobody Killed Her (2017) also features a woman in a hijab and sunglasses on the cover, but the colours and other artistic elements make them both, dare I say, provocative, and playful. What story do you want your covers to tell?
That of survivors and not of victims. There is a stereotype of Muslim women out there who wear the hijab, that they will be submissive doormats. I want to show a different side; I want the world to realise that they can be just as kick-ass and fiery, and full of agency though their idea of empowerment may not necessarily collide with yours… I have to say the cover gets more compliments than the book. And in this case I tell people, please do judge a book by its cover!