Bina Shah is from Pakistan, and has a B.A. from Wellesley College and an M.Ed from Harvard. In addition to being brilliant, she is also an incredibly accomplished fiction author. Her stories frequently contain politics satire, discuss social issues, and appeal to audiences across the globe while still being rooted in Pakistani culture. Wanting to learn more about her career and her latest science-fiction/dystopian novel, Before She Sleeps, I was able to interview Shah for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: What were some stories you loved experiencing as a kid? Are there any you still enjoy revisiting?
Bina Shah: I loved the entire Chronicles of Narnia series as a child; someone gave me the entire set with the really old illustrations by Pauline Baynes – the one with the cover of the box shows Diggory and Polly riding on Fledge, the winged horse (and I only just realized that in Islam, there’s a winged horse named Buraq which was said to have taken the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, for a visit to Paradise!). I spent a good two years immersed in the series, reading and re-reading; sheer escapism from a confusing childhood. It’s hard to go back and read any of the books I loved as a child, though. All the emotions I felt as a little girl: confusion, boredom, loneliness, sadness seem imprinted on their pages along with the joy and delight.
Yanes: Since you are from Pakistan, are there any science fiction and fantasy stories from your home country you’d recommend to readers across the world?
Shah: I’m grabbing this from the Reddit AMA: a short story written in 1905 called Sultana’s Dream by a Bengali writer, Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hosein. She was one of the Islamic world’s first science fiction writers, and Sultana’s Dream is about a utopian world where women rule everything, men are segregated, and women scientists use solar power and control the weather. It’s so subversive, so advanced for its time and so funny that I couldn’t help but be charmed by its vision of a gender-reversed, technologically-advanced Muslim society.
There’s also a series of fantasy stories written by Sami Shah (who now lives in Australia) called Fire Boy and Earth Boy, which is “a two-part urban fantasy set in modern-day Pakistan, where djinns roam the street alongside corrupt cops, hustling beggars, and creatures from the darkest corners of Islamic mythology.” (That’s from Good Reads). I haven’t read the books but they’ve been attracting fantasy fans for a while now. I like the idea of fantasy grounded in Pakistani reality.
Yanes: When did you know you wanted to become a writer? Was there a moment in which this goal crystalized for you?
Shah: When I read The Diary of Anne Frank, another book which was a major influence on my life, I decided I wanted to become a famous writer, like Anne. I became obsessed with writing, but when I went to college I was urged by my parents to become a doctor or lawyer, and the idea of being a writer faded away from my consciousness. It somehow didn’t occur to me that I could make a career out of writing, and if I was going to go into the arts, I wanted at that point to be a musician. I ended up majoring in psychology, then doing a masters in education. When I came back to Pakistan after my studies, I started to write again seriously. I would say it crystalized when I was about 26, and got my first book of short stories published.
Yanes: You were a fellow at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. How do you think this experience helped you become a better writer?
Shah: The fellowship came at a time in my life when I was seriously doubting whether or not to continue with a writing career. I had published five books: two collections of short stories, three novels, all in Pakistan and India. But I just didn’t know where to go with it. My aspirations were bigger, but there was a closed door in front of me.
Going to Iowa really restored me. I was in a place where writing, books and literature were given a kind of respect I desperately needed to be in touch with. I spent three months with 35 writers from all over the world, reading, writing, and having fun. Iowa is where they told me that my work mattered, my writing mattered, and I should keep doing it because I had a unique voice and perspective that could benefit the world.
Yanes: Your recent novel is Before She Sleeps. What was the inspiration for this story?
Shah: Growing up as a girl and living as a woman in Pakistan means operating under the type of constraints and pressure that nobody else in the world can imagine or understand. It’s similar to Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, or Iran, but perhaps a degree or two lesser than because we are not officially a theocracy, so many of those constraints are societal and cultural rather than religiously or legally mandated. I wanted to write about the restrictions we face, but I wanted to write about it metaphorically rather than literally. I wanted to make art out of the idea of resistance.
Yanes: In addition to The Handmaid’s Tale, what other stories do you think influenced how you crafted Before She Sleeps?
Shah: 1984 by George Orwell. I read it when I was very young, probably twelve or thirteen, and it scared me. There is a scene I’ve never forgotten, where a policeman hits Winston’s lover Julia in the solar plexus with a rubber truncheon. That scene of violence against a woman resonated hard with me; Pakistani women were protesting the Islamization of General Zia and were similarly beaten in public by the police. Winston’s paralysis reminds me so much of men’s inability to stand up for women and protect them from misogyny.
Yanes: There are many elements of Before She Sleeps that feel incredibly topical. Are there specific modern issues you were touching upon when writing this novel?
Shah: The issue of the missing girls, the ones that should be alive and aren’t, because of sex-selective abortion, or being killed after birth because they’re unwanted girls, or just not being fed or looked after so that they die, which has led to the skewed sex ratios that are becoming a reality in rural China and India. That is an issue that I just couldn’t let go of when I was doing the world building in Before She Sleeps: the idea that there just aren’t enough women left in the world, and that throws everything out of whack.
Yanes: In a recent AMA you did on Reddit, you mentioned that Before She Sleeps took four years to write. How did this narrative evolve over the four years? Were there specific themes you realized needed to be fleshed out?
Shah: Not themes as such but it took that long to work out a viable plot, and then to fine-tune characters, dialogue, so on and so forth. I had to take a long time to be very clear about things like motivation and the psychology of the characters, too. One of the secondary characters changed from completely evil to only somewhat misguided. Then my editor proposed doing away with a lot of backstory and changing the pacing so that it moved faster – like a thriller rather than a literary work. I trust him so I took the risk and agreed to do what he suggested. We performed what I can only describe as major surgery and shifted a lot of things around to clean up the narrative timeline. It was painstaking, at times ponderous and at times vigorous – and it was certainly the most challenging work I’ve ever done on a book.
Yanes: When people finish reading Before She Sleeps, what do you hope they take away from it?
Shah: I want them to really fall in love with the characters as human beings, full of flaws and making mistakes, and struggling really hard to make sense out of the most abnormal circumstances. I want them to consider very carefully their own attitudes toward women in this part of the world and not evaluate the characters by their own standards, but to give in to my premise just for the duration of the book. I want them to think about the bravery of women who try to reclaim their agency when they have little to no choice about their lives.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Shah: I’m too exhausted to think about what’s next. Ask me the same thing next year!