Fatima Bhutto was all of 15 when she first published her book, 8.50 a.m. 8 October 2005, a first-hand account from survivors of the 2005 earthquake that devastated Pakistan.
The granddaughter of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and niece of Benazir Bhutto, Fatima has often declared that she has no desire to run for political office.
She has also published a book of poems titled Whispers in the Desert and a memoir Songs of Blood and Sword, which was published in 2010.
Her novel, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, is out on the stands now. Excerpts from an interview.
The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is your debut novel. Tell us a little about the book.
It is the story of three brothers set in Pakistan’s tribal regions over the course of one morning. It’s a novel about how violence fractures our idea of home, of safety, of collaboration and how eventually it erodes how we think of resistance and survival.
The three characters — Aman Erum, Sikandar and Hyatt — have distinct personalities. What was your inspiration?
Each brother developed at his own pace and each surprised me with his journey and choices. I didn’t start writing knowing what would become of the brothers. I had vague ideas but the characters took over as I began to write and I found myself following them.
I was even more surprised with Mina and Samarra — I initially thought I was writing about three brothers, but at some point, these two women became the heart of the novel for me.
They say when you write a book you forge a deep bond with your characters.
Fiction is a strangely intimate space; I feel very protective of these made-up people. While I was writing, I thought about them constantly. And I never wanted to judge them — I suppose fiction is a magnanimous space too. I still feel very attached to them.
The novel is set around the fictional town of Mir Ali. How much research went into its environment?
Growing up, I often travelled around the northern regions of the country. When I began writing and was doing a column for a Pakistani paper, I found myself still entranced by that part of Pakistan. But times had changed and those places from my childhood and memory became cities under siege; you no longer knew who controlled what and whose mercy you depended on.
I wanted to write about these lost cities. Mir Ali is, however, not a fictional town. It’s a real town in Waziristan that I fictionalised.
Have you incorporated any real-life incidents into the novel?
Some of it comes from historical happenings, some from personal observations or experiences, but the landscape of the book is fictional. The real life incidents that sneak in are always the things that disturb us enough to wind their way into that space... the very premise of the novel. That a family cannot pray together at the mosque on Eid because of the violence enveloping their town comes from real life.
You were born in Kabul, grew up in Damascus and live in Karachi. Does your experience with these three different cities influence your writing and way of thinking?
I think it predisposes you towards the underdog, towards the shadows and the unseen.
In Songs of Blood and Sword, you broke the silence around the Bhutto family and violence in Pakistan. How did you deal with the controversy?
According to Sufi and Hindu tradition, controversy is only controversy if one attaches one’s mind to it. It’s just another wave in the ocean if one doesn’t.
How do you make the switch between poetry, non-fiction and fiction? What have you enjoyed working on the most?
It happened naturally. I never planned to go from one to the other. In fact, I was supposed to be working on a non-fiction book when I was secretly writing The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, so I’m quite pleased my plans were disrupted.
Of the three, fiction has been the most liberating and the most challenging. It is a genre that demands compassion. Fiction doesn’t allow you loyalties. It doesn’t absolve you of your prejudices; rather it requires empathy.
Why do you think the subcontinent seems so obsessed with family names?
What are your expectations from The Shadow of the Crescent Moon?
My hope is that some young people in your country and mine will read it and realise that love is more powerful than hatred and violence.