Liberty market, a crescent-shaped open air mall, was a five-minute drive away from our house in Lahore, Pakistan and contained two of my favorite places, the bookstores Iqbal Books and Book Gallery. Book Gallery, an airy, one-story establishment, was at one end of the crescent. It housed every Enid Blyton imaginable and so, like all English-medium-educated Pakistanis, I read my way up the Blyton ladder, from Enchanted Forests and Dreadful Children to Malory Towers and Famous Fives. The Book Gallery clerks never batted an eyelash at my weekly purchases, not even once I graduated to James Hadley Chase, Jacqueline Susan and Harold Robbins.
Iqbal Bookstore was at the other end of the crescent next to Shezan Bakery. Every week, while my mother stocked up on cream rolls, naan-kathai cookies, lemon barley squash and other goodies, I was allowed to go next door by myself. Iqbal’s was a cramped space with wall-to-ceiling books, no natural sunlight, and the odor of soggy newspapers. Yet, to me, it was an Aladdin’s cave of shimmering light bulbs shining on precious books. The stout, portly man who perched at the counter, his folded arms resting on his watermelon belly, was the cave’s grumpy genie, whose job it was to scrutinize customers and their tastes in reading material.
I don’t know how or from where Iqbal’s books were acquired, but it was on those haphazardly stocked shelves that I discovered Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Sandra Harris’ The Nice Girl’s Handbook, and Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl. As I flipped through Sex and the Single Girl, I tried to ignore Iqbal’s genie’s glare, but the deeper his frown grew, the greater grew my fright that my mother would walk in and the genie would get me into trouble. When my mother did pop in to say it was time to leave, I hastily replaced the book and scuttled out without daring to look back.
Three weeks later, leaving my mother at Shezan, I mustered up the courage to enter Iqbal’s, cash clenched in my palm. The genie’s eyes were fixed on me as I pretended to nonchalantly check out a MAD comic, a Biggles’ Adventure, a P.G. Wodehouse, all the while inching my way to the shelf holding Sex and the Single Girl. It was still there. I picked it up. I said a small prayer. I went to the cash register. The genie looked me up and down. He took the book from me. He looked the book up and down. And then, in a masterfully sanctimonious tone, he said,
“Do your parents know what you are reading?”
I am no stranger to the moral brigade, although until Iqbal’s genie, my exposure had been limited to clothing. Growing up in Saudi Arabia, I saw the mutawah, the moral police, whack my then-elementary-going sister’s legs because they’d decided her knee-length socks under her long dress were too short. When we moved back to Pakistan in the 1980s, random men would stop me in the markets to tell me that I needed to cover up my sleeveless arms, while random women believed it their duty to chastise me for being dupatta-less.
The run-ins with the genie made me realize that my reading material had always been policed too, no matter that I hid behind sofas and curtains to read, or covered book covers with paper. My parents’ friends—anyone really, as the genie demonstrated—could ask me what I was reading at any time. “What are you reading?” might be a polite conversation starter in some parts of the world, but here it stopped being smalltalk and instead became the manifestation of control.
In the Pakistan I returned to, control was focused on preventing the unmarried from gaining sexual knowledge or having pre-marital sex. Because sex outside wedlock is illegal in Islam, Pakistanis—Muslims everywhere—form entire morality enforcement industries to make sure the genders are kept separate in order to avoid temptation. Thus the “concerned citizens” telling me to wear long-sleeved apparel only and cover my chest with a dupatta. Everything is everyone’s business, and those of us girls who were curious about sex were suspect because good girls from good Muslim or Pakistani families do not even think about sex. And they certainly do not write about sex.
My first stories were Enid Blyton-influenced, full of Pakistani kids running off to join Mr. Galliano’s circus or being sent off to the reformist Whyteleafe School or indulging in midnight feasts with scones and clotted cream. Gradually, as I transitioned into my own, my fiction began to be colored by the world in which I found myself. My fledgling attempts were often based on newspaper reports. I wrote a story about a woman who’d married the man she wanted but was murdered by her family, not because she married the man of her choice but because they could not stand the dishonor of her having sex with a man who was not their choice. Another story concerned a prostitute-mistress who was adamant that her married feudal lover marry her; instead he poured acid on her face. Yet another told the tale of a mother-in-law who wanted her son to divorce his thirteen-year-old wife even though a doctor had assured her that, once the girl began her periods, she would easily conceive. One more story followed a single girl resorting to a backstreet abortion even as her married sister routinely used abortion as birth control in hospitals.
A friend I showed my stories to suggested therapy, for surely so much doom and gloom, such darkness, this fixation with sex and society, meant that I was suffering from depression and needed tranquilizers. Not true. We are all products of our milieus and, unless our daily surroundings can offer us stress-free-care-free living with only an occasional blip, our stories will reflect the truth of our daily existence. Pakistani literary novels such as Trespassing by Uzma Aslam Khan, Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie, and The Shadow of the Crescent Moon by Fatima Bhutto investigate the tumultuous hearts of a precarious daily existence, and even quick-lit—also known as chick-lit or dick-lit, though I prefer quick-lit because this variety of novel always boasts a lightning fast pace—is not exempt.
In countries such as the U.K. or the U.S., quick-lit can submerge itself into the shenanigans of a flighty spendthrift shopaholic, or finding Mr. Right, or getting someone to love you just as you are. Although the young female protagonists in Pakistani quick-lit novels such as Karachi You are Killing Me by Saba Imtiaz and Beautiful from Another Angle by Maha Khan Philips are also true to the genre, with women on a quest for true love and career fulfillment, their worldly worries cannot help but be punctuated by the backdrop of bomb blasts, load shedding, corruption, and guys who milk sexual double standards. Even the delightfully vapid Butterfly, in Moni Mohsin’s brilliantly breezy satirical novel Diary of a Social Butterfly, is not exempt from distress on the streets infiltrating her drawing room. And so my society and culture instinctively colors my writing too: marriage is the means to having sex, otherwise sex is taboo, and sex—being the complicated creature it is—complicates everything.
One day in the late 1990s after I’d married and moved to the U.S., I was reading a short story in a literary journal when I came upon the word “vagina.” I slammed the journal down. My stomach churned, my cheeks flushed, I was dizzy. My reaction perplexed me. After all, a vagina is simply a female body part, so why was I mortified? Iqbal’s genie, who I’d thought long excised, seemed to have only been buried and now leapt to life. I decided I was going to write through my discomfort and shame and battle both the genie’s censorship as well as my self-censorship by writing a story with “vagina” in the very first sentence. And so was birthed Papa’s Girl, a story set in the brothels of Bangkok, where a young boy is witness to his father’s dallying with a child prostitute and is consequently traumatized for life. It eventually appeared in the anthology A Letter from India.
I settled with my morning cup of tea in front of the desktop computer, which made its usual slow zing-zong-zung sing-song to connect to the internet. My baby son gurgled in his bassinet beside me as I began to check emails—suddenly I saw an email that caused my heart to hammer and sink, hammer and sink. The email was from a Pakistani woman. She had just read Papa’s Girl. How, she asked, could any woman, but in particular a Pakistani woman, a Muslim woman, write such blatant filth? How could I have such vile, vulgar thoughts? Was I trying to be sensationalistic in order to become famous and rich? Was I trying to impress the West? Did I want everyone to have free-for-all sex à la the West? Did I belong in the red-light district? Hadn’t my parents taught me right from wrong? Why hadn’t my husband stopped me? Something, she concluded, was definitely wrong with me; furthermore, she added, I did not deserve to have children, and certainly not sons.
I was stunned by this stranger’s vitriol and sickened at her implication that I was unfit to have a son because a mind like mine might not know its boundaries. This was not just one genie policing a bookstore or the genie within me kicking its legs; rather, this email was a battalion of genies challenging my very thoughts and my freedom as a writer.
I had previously written a satirical column for two years for a national newspaper in Pakistan and addressed nudity, abortion, homosexuality, adultery, the perils of having a big bosom, amongst other social no-nos, but I’d barely received any feedback except for a few people telling me that it was a good thing I wrote in English, the language of the liberal elite, rather than Urdu, the language of the masses and the Mullahs—because otherwise, there would have been calls for my blood.
Call it naïve, but I’d expected the same silence to greet Papa’s Girl. Instead there were reviews. Critics liked it and called it good and bold, but many readers labeled the bold bad. On my part, I had not meant to be bold or bad or good or sensationalistic or shocking or any such thing. Papa’s Girl was one of the first short stories I’d ever written and, to this day, I have little inkling of how the voice of a hurt child trapped in a grown man’s body emerged from me.
Typically all censure could be boiled down to three categories: 1) I was mentally depraved; 2) I had a disreputable background; or 3) My parents had failed in giving me good morals and values—what is known as as tarbeeyat. The first I could live with, since depravity concerned me alone. However, the other two, in criticizing my unsuspecting parents and family, always hurt. The woman’s irate, hateful email included all three, as well as the upsetting conflation of the morals and beliefs of my fictional characters with my personal morals and beliefs.
“Context matters,” I told my Indian best friend that evening over the phone.
She agreed. “Context matters.”
“There is art and there is propaganda. Propaganda dictates. Art offers choices, depicts the choices.”
“Writing about an issue—in this case, child prostitution—doesn’t mean I endorse it.”
My friend was quiet for a moment and then divulged that she and her husband had been fighting over Papa’s Girl. According to him, stories with subjects like these were literary voyeurism.
“He’s adamant,” she said, “that Papa’s Girl is pornography.”
I’d thought I would never be subjected to anything as damaging as that morning’s email, but obviously I was wrong. Even worse, this judgment had not come from a stranger, but a man I liked and who knew me.
“It’s so fierce,” my friend said gently. “What made you write it that way?”
I told her I had to go, and hung up. I had a headache. I swallowed down painkillers my husband handed me with a glass of water. It did not help. Hugging my baby son only made me feel worse. What if, in the future, mothers forbade their children to play with him because I was his mother? My husband, also upset, sat on the stoop beside me and held my hand. These were my choices, he said: to stop writing, or to write meek stories, or to learn to stop being sensitive to judgment and just believe in myself. I squeezed his hand and kissed my son.
But there were genies all around me.
Conversations at the time with myself:
But it’s not Racy, or Sexy, or To-Be-Read-By-Candlelight.
It’s about a child prostitute, and another child affected by his parent’s indiscretion.
Yes, but there’s a vagina in the first sentence and your language continues to relentlessly batter the reader.
I didn’t want to use euphemisms for a child’s reality.
Congratulations. You didn’t.
Am I a bad person?
Don’t be absurd.
But it’s explicit.
A week later my friend and her husband were still arguing. In between, they’d even stopped talking for a while. I tried to lighten what I saw as my fault with a joke or two, but there was nothing to laugh about.
“I asked him,” my friend continued, “is Nabakov’s Lolita, about a predatory older man, porn? Is Tom Perrota’s Little Children, about a convicted pedophile who moves into the neighborhood, porn? Is Akhil Sharma’s novel An Obedient Daughter, about a daughter who decides not to be obedient after all, porn?”
In college, I had a roommate who housed a stack of Playboys because, she said, the articles were good, which they were. I was, therefore, quite aware of porn and erotica, the crudeness of the former and the sensuality of the latter. Papa’s Girl was certainly not sensual, so it could not be erotica. But it was graphic, so could it, perhaps, be porn?
The only other contemporary stories that I could find that frankly discussed sexual politics was Ginu Kamani’s short story collection Junglee Girl, but Kamani was Indian and not Pakistani and, also, I could not find out whether she’d faced any backlash.
Then there was Ismat Chugtai, also Indian, but Muslim and a pre-/post-1947 partition of the Subcontinent luminary of Urdu literature. Chugtai’s short story Lihaaf, Quilt, landed her in court on obscenity charges on account of lesbian content and caused her enough strife, marital and otherwise, to be a story she ultimately wished she’d never written. Chugtai’s struggles with the meaning of freedom, literary and otherwise, in the context of being female, Muslim and a sexual being, was manna to my hungry soul. My healing, per se, had begun, and it continued when I read Chugtai’s essay, The Lihaaf Trial, in which she also chronicles Saadat Hasan Manto’s court trial for his short story Bu, Odor.
Bu is a story about a young man whose wedding night is haunted by the earthy smell of a woman from his past (eerily enough, Papa’s Girl is also a story about a similar haunting, but at the time I had not read any Manto). Bu’s language is sensual and Manto does not believe in euphemisms, but it was not the story or its content on trial but, rather, a word. In Bu the word “bosom” had given offense, and when the prosecution and defense argued over whether “bosom” was obscene, Manto said: “What else did you expect me to call a woman’s breasts—peanuts?”
I too was someone who wanted to call breasts breasts and a vagina a vagina. As such, Papa’s Girl had inadvertently afforded me the gift of recognizing who I was and acknowledging that that was who I wanted to remain, both big steps in my journey as a writer. Although many years have passed, I think my friend’s husband continues to believe that Papa’s Girl is pornography. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines pornography as “material (as books or a photograph) that depicts erotic behavior and is intended to cause sexual excitement.” As far as I’m concerned, anyone excited by Papa’s Girl needs to see a therapist at once. To echo Manto, “If you find my stories dirty, the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories, I only expose the truth.” African American writer Pearl Cleage is also a source of solace and strength to me, for she says, “It’s hard to tell the truth in a world that rewards you for lying, but without the truth there is nothing. Everybody cannot handle the truth, this is true, but that is their challenge, not yours.” I would have sent an email to that angry, upset lady, but, no: filth is in the eye of the beholder, and if all she took from my story was filth, then it’s her waste to clean up, and not mine.
Iqbal Bookstore has long closed down, but sometimes I return to it in my imagination, and there I am standing before Iqbal’s genie, a disreputable tome clutched to my chest. The genie’s frown grows stronger, bigger, longer until it delivers its almighty and powerful blow:
“Do your parents know what you are reading?”
I imagine myself standing tall, straight, erect. I imagine myself matching glare for glare, word for word. I imagine saying, “Mind your own business and stay out of mine.”
Soniah Kamal's debut novel is An Isolated Incident. She is also an essayist, literary critic and book reviewer. Find her at soniahkamal.com and on Twitter @soniahkamal. She is a Paul Bowles Fellow and the recipient of the Susan B Irene Award.