South Asian Heritage Month Spotlight Series: Qaisra Shahraz
Updated: Jul 21
Qaisra Shahraz FRSA is the Founder and Executive Director of MACFEST, the Muslim Arts and Culture Festival. She is a critically-acclaimed novelist, scriptwriter, and author of The Holy Woman, Typhoon, Revolt, The Concubine and The Slave Catcher, all translated into several languages. She has appeared in many international literary festivals. A critical analysis of her works can be found in a book entitled The Holy and the Unholy: Critical Essays on Qaisra Shahraz’s Fiction (2011).
A peace and gender activist, advisor to Asia Pacific Writers, Qaisra is a former Ofsted Inspector, Quality Manager, and Director of Gatehouse Books. Qaisra won the prestigious National Diversity Lifetime Achiever Award for services to ‘Literature,
Education, Gender and Interfaith Relationships’ (2016). She gained the University of Salford Alumni Achievement Award for outstanding contributions to society in 2018.
In 2017, Qaisra was recognised by ‘Lovin Manchester’ as number 1 of 50 Most Influential Women in Manchester, and was included in the Muslim Power 100 list. Qaisra appeared in Manchester Metropolitan University's list of of 11 Extraordinary Women
to mark International Women's Day 2019.
1. How would you describe your writing for someone who has never come across your work before?
My dual heritage (British and Pakistani) has shaped my literary work: I am happy about this. My short stories and novels are set in the UK, Pakistan and around the world. I have specialised in and created a niche for myself, writing about rural life in Pakistan. I love writing about village life, which is very strange as I have lived for most of my life in Manchester, a large British city.
My themes are varied, international and also cross-cultural. I describe the horrors of the Holocaust in Train to Krakow, the partition of India and Pakistan in The Journey, the invasion of the Incas by the Spaniards in 16th century Peru, and black slavery in The Concubine and the Slave Catcher. Three of my stories, A Pair of Jeans, The Elopement and Escape, dealing with cross-cultural issues, have become academic texts, studied in particular, in German schools for their Abitur exams. The novel I am currently working on is set in Morocco and Paris. The others, The Holy Woman, Typhoon and Revolt are primarily set in Pakistan. They cover wide-ranging themes: patriarchy, women’s rights, superstition, racism, migration and mixed-race marriage.
My 14 episode drama serial, Dil Hee To Hay, The Heart is it produced and shown on Pakistan Prime TV in 2003, explored gender issues and marital relationships.
2. Who are your favourite writers of South Asian heritage and why?
There are many wonderful younger generation Asian writers like Mohsin Hamid, Nadeem Aslam, Kiran Desai and Kamila Shamsie. I love the poetry of Ahmad Faraz, Allama Muhammed Iqbal, and novels of Bapsi Sidwa of Pakistan, although I read her very late. Other favourite authors include Anita Desai and Vikram Seth. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: her Householder, read as a teenager, left a deep impression. Amitav Ghosh’s Glass Palace is unforgettable. I met him at the Sharjah Book Fair, such a lovely humble man! I love these authors and their books for the same reasons: excellent writing, entertaining (keeping mewell hooked), dealing with serious subjects, and above all:they transport me into other worlds and lands. I can identify with these as a person of South Asian heritage. Their books are all great reads and the poetry so uplifting and gorgeous!
3. If you could only recommend one book, whether novel, poetry collection or non-fiction, from a writer of South Asian heritage, what would it be?
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. I absolutely loved it, even though it is one of the longest books I have ever read (over 1400 pages) in 6 days, on a holiday in Devon. Set in India, A Suitable Boy is the tale of Lata - and her mother's - attempts to find her a suitable husband and the story of newly independent India. This book was simply enchanting and truly hooked me in - I could have carried on reading hundreds more pages! I can’t wait: the film has just come out.
4. What are you reading at the moment?
Manchester: in other words, edited by Paul Dobraszczyk. It is a factual book, giving a multi-faceted view of Manchester. It contains contributions by many authors, including myself. It is due out soon, published by University of Manchester Press.
5. Could you tell us about the role of literature in your upbringing?
My father studied English literature. As a teenager I was fascinated by his old copy of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet that I came across in a bookcase in Lahore. I read his notes in the margins, in his beautiful handwriting. To this day my father’s handwriting remains the best in our family. I remember my mother eagerly waiting for the women stories published in the Friday edition of the Daily Jang, a famous Pakistani Urdu newspaper. No way could we disturb her during her reading!
I fell in love with the novels of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy after reading Persuasion and Far from the Madding Crowd when I was 15. Within two months I had read all of their work. During my ‘A’ level literature course, George Eliot’s masterpiece Middlemarch cast a spell. I went on to to study this amazing book as part of my first and Master’s degree in literature, focussing on the story of Dorothea Brooke and gender issues. I also studied Classical Civilisation. I really enjoyed the work of ancient Greece and Rome; the tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, comedies of Aristophanes, as well as the epics of Homer and Virgil. I never forgot poor Dido, tragically abandoned by Aeneas, or Lysistrata in 411BC Athens egging the women on to rebel against their husbands in order to end the Peloponnesian War.
As a 17 year old I spent my pocket money on buying a book each week. I delighted in touching the beautiful silky covers of Penguin classics with their orange and black spines. I gained so much pleasure watching my collection grow, and my bookcase become populated with the work of famous European, British and American writers.
Now with my multiple careers I struggle to find time to read books, such a pity. Literature is an important strand of the festival I run. My academic background in literature helped influence my writing. For my novel Revolt, I was fondly described by my publisher as a ‘Pakistani Jane Austen’. It is humbling to be compared to her, but Jane Austen is Jane Austen.
Literature also was the backbone to my personal interest in gender issues. I discovered through Dale Spender’s book Mothers of the Novel that over 300 English women writers before Jane Austen were virtually deleted out of history.
6. When did you realise you had a passion/skill for writing?
I wanted to write from the age of 14. My school friends tell me that I had a passion for making up and telling stories. I took it up professionally as a student at the age of 19. The first person to read my piece of fiction was Professor Michael Schmidt, famous poet and founder and director of Carcanet Press, who was then teaching poetry at the University of Manchester. My first article, with a two-page spread, was published by She magazine. However, for most of my life, writing has remained the poor sister of my demanding careers in education, gender and peace activism. Sadly In this period of MACFESTUK, my writing career has again taken a back seat.
7. Do you write in other languages? If so, which languages do you write in and what are the differences you feel in writing in another language as well as English?
No I don’t. English is my first language of communication. I do have an ‘O’ level in Urdu. I really wish that I could write in Urdu at a higher level as it would have greatly helped me in translating my own drama serial scripts for Pakistani producers and directors. I would have thus had more control over my work. I love Mushairas (poetry readings) and Urdu poetry, and enjoy listening to it. I have also realised that I have no control over the quality of the translations of my novels abroad. However I was delighted with the Urdu version of my The Holy Woman, as I could understand it. I use alot of Urdu words where appropriate in my novels set in Pakistan, to contextualise the story, dialogue and the world I depict.
8. What advice do you have for emerging writers of South Asian heritage?
Keep writing. With the internet, the world is your oyster in terms of research, access to information and publishing. Keep polishing your work. Ensure that any piece of writing submitted for publication is top notch and of a high standard. Get it professionally looked at, or edited for longer pieces like novels. You need to grab the reader’s attention from the first few sentences. Make the most of your dual heritage. Schools are crying out for materials from diverse voices. However - don’t fall into the trap of just writing about that. Write what you want to write, in any genre that you feel comfortable in writing. Don’t become too regimental with your writing, if short of time, write anything rather than wasting time and fretting over a sentence - just move on. Better to be productive than have writer’s block.
Manchester City of Literature would like to say a huge thank you to Qaisra for taking part in our South Asian Heritage Month Spotlight Series. Be sure to keep up to date with Qaisra's work over on Twitter, Facebook, and on her website: www.qaisrashahraz.com