Sunday, October 4, 2015

Why Saadia Faruqi Turned to Fiction

In the 19th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Saadia Faruqi, author of Brick Walls (FB Publishing), discusses using made up stories to convey real truths.

Since Brick Walls has been published I’ve had the opportunity to visit a lot of cities and give a lot of talks. I’ve spoken to a diverse audience about my interfaith work, my article writing, my non-profit consulting. The most frequent question I get asked, though, is why I decided to write fiction. I’ve been writing for years, and it’s mostly been boring, technical, non-creative work. Where did the sudden urge to write not one but seven short stories come from?

It’s an interesting question, of course, one that every writer is asked at some time or the other in their career. Why write fiction? Why not knit or paint or work in a real office at a real job like normal people? Why spin stories, of all things? Really, why? That’s a good question.

At one book signing I decided to explain my emotions at switching from non-fiction to short fiction writing. I believe the exact question was, “how did it feel when you started writing short stories?” There was a long pause as I tried to collect my thoughts. Then I clumsily tried to explain that it felt like taking a shower naked in the rain. Imagine the shock at hearing such a – naked – statement coming out of the mouth of a hijab-wearing, fully covered Muslim woman. I don’t know why I said what I did, and followed it further by talking about passion, exhilaration, freedom. It was the only way to let my audience know the immense difference between the two forms of writing. Freedom.

Fiction is such an invigorating and enriching form of writing. There are no statistics, no facts, no truth, except the truth in the writer’s head. There is no right or wrong, no correct or incorrect way of relating events. Does a writer have responsibility to get facts straight? Absolutely, as long as they are related as facts. The thing with fiction is that we can bend information to suit the story, the plot, even the characters.

Certainly this causes problems for people who have mistakenly started reading a book to get some facts. Do you think you can learn about China by reading a fiction about Chinese immigrants? Can you learn about America by reading Stephen King or John Grisham? Can you even learn about Pakistan by reading my book Brick Walls? There is no right answer because the question itself is strange. How can you learn anything by reading fiction? For fiction is imagination, creativity, fun-filled falsities that mean not to harm but to entertain.

Admittedly I embarked upon this journey—to write short story fiction—in order to show readers the true beauty of my birthplace, Pakistan. I was frustrated by the lack, in our media, of factual information about Pakistan away from stereotypical images, so I decided to write some non-factual stories based in that country. Storytelling is a great way to tell people a little something that helps them see the big picture without getting caught up in the facts and figures. Storytelling is a far richer and more vibrant way to say something, even though you’re not using any pie charts or citing any research from an academic journal you can only access if you work in a university. When we read a research paper aloud, people fall asleep. When we tell a story, people are jolted awake, and if the story is great they’ll be thinking about it for the next few days. That’s my motivation to switch from the non-fiction to the fiction format: to jolt people awake, to get them talking, discussing, understanding, perhaps even accepting.

My hope: to tell it like it is, but in a story format, so that it is true but not true, correct but not really. None of the things in the book really happened, but all of them happen every single day. Does that make a lick of sense? If yes, then I’ve done my job as a writer.