You are an acclaimed writer, essayist and a professor. Tell us in detail about your foray into the field of writing and ultimately teaching? Was this something that you always wanted to do with your life?
You know, I never thought I’d hear the word “acclaimed” used in relation to me, so it’s a little disconcerting! But, thank you. I guess I always wanted to learn and read. That drove me in all kinds of ways and when there was family pressure to study something more lucrative and vocational, I couldn’t connect with the idea. I tried, but the desire to think and write was profound and I realised, as I grew older that it was what kept me grounded. So I came to college and ended up majoring in literature and then ended up in a PhD programme in literature, much to the dismay of my family. They were baffled, thought I was wasting my talents and should be trying to make more money. The departments were English departments, but I went into them also because I could do interdisciplinary work and cultural criticism there. That’s what drew me to the field. Then I realised in graduate school that I loved teaching and that was a great because it meant that I could happily reconcile the demands of my profession—that is, research and teaching. I always had a dream of a book-lined room just focused on writing and reading. I’m lucky. I have that now. It’s great!
Growing up, who were some of the authors that you greatly admired?
I can never answer that! It’s too difficult! I read pretty indiscriminately—anything and everything. No high versus lowbrow or genre distinctions. And I’m glad I did that. I do remember that I was about 12 when Wilfred Owen’s anti-war, anti-nationalist poems had a profound effect. It’s not that he’s the author I admired the most, just that I think it’s the first time an author shook me. Now the list is vast, of course.
How were you as a child? Were you fiery and ambitious or quiet and thoughtful? What camaraderie did you share with your teachers?
Can I say fiery and thoughtful? I certainly wasn’t quiet. I was very much into my books and wanted to read but also loved argument and conversation. The ambition was always to have a modicum of independence. There’s an incident that keeps coming back to me, which I think had a profound effect. I used to carry a book everywhere with me. An older cousin, a phupho’s son, said to me when I was about 10, “Read all you can now, because once you are married, your husband won’t let you.” Of course, I had a fit and said, “Then I won’t marry.” Turned out not to be true. But I did gravitate towards happily nerdish people and the more people I found like that, the less isolated I felt. And of course at some point it ceased to be an issue. About teachers: You know we moved a lot and I cycled through many schools, so I didn’t really have a chance to develop many relationships with my teachers and I often felt like an outsider. But there was an English teacher, Mrs Islam, who is a bit of a Karachi institution, who really helped me channel my thinking and energies. She is a terrific teacher and knew how to encourage the critical, questioning, and rebellious energies of her students and transform and direct them intellectually. I think I learned a lot from her and she helped me at a certain point in what was a difficult childhood.
Please tell us about your time spent undertaking your PhD. How challenging at first and ultimately rewarding later, did you feel it was?
I loved the work and what was challenging about the work was also what was rewarding about it. I loved having the time to puzzle through complex and difficult ideas. But I guess there were other challenges, family incomprehension, things like my mother’s younger sister and her husband giving my mother a hard time with how I was wasting my life, and the guilt that came with the knowledge that she had to be subjected to that kind of silly pressure. But the biggest challenge was that I have lived with chronic and almost constant physical pain since I was nineteen—migraines and osteo-arthritis, and the migraines were undiagnosed for years. So I had to learn to adapt my life, had to take some time out during the PhD, try to figure out how to deal with it and accept the constraints that come with that and which compound the necessary solitude of writing and research. I still struggle with that. On the other hand, I had full funding from Brown University and my advisor, Professor William Keach, was terrific, supportive, and a profoundly decent and warm human being. So nothing to complain about. I was very privileged.
You are the recipient of a prestigious award. What according to you has been your biggest achievement until date?
You are referring to the MLA award for my academic book, and I have to say I’m grateful to my colleagues in the profession for that recognition. Labouring in anxious pre-tenure obscurity can skew one’s sense of the world and that was a lovely reminder that the world out there was paying attention. But, you know, I got a couple of awards for my teaching from my students—A Professor of the Year Award from the Muslim Students Association and a Student Choice award—and I think those are the ones that moved me the most. Reaching out to my students still feels like the biggest achievement.
‘I always feel I’m behind on something and, like most academics, I over-commit’
What are you currently working on?
Two books. An academic one: tentatively called Space in Another Time on Greece and the idea of Europe, concepts of history and postcolonialism. The first bit of writing from that, comparing a Greek writer, Stratis Myrivilis and Qurratulain Hyder, will be appearing next year in a volume called The Postcolonial Contemporary, edited by Gary Wilder and Jini Watson. Also a second novel, which I can’t talk about yet as its just too early.
How do you divide your time between full time teaching and writing?
Badly! I always feel I’m behind on something and, like most academics, I over-commit.
Please tell us about your forthcoming novel?
Sure. It’s called The Empty Room, spanning the years 1969 to about 1979. Urvashi Butalia picked it up and it’s coming out with Zubaan press in December. It’s about a woman, who is a painter, who lands in a bad marriage. It’s also about her brother and friends who are writers, pamphleteers and activists in a decade which is often overshadowed by the horrors of the Zia years but in which the foundations of what Zia was able to do were laid. In some ways, it’s also about a corner of Karachi where a certain Urdu-speaking culture thrived after Partition. You know, after I sent out the manuscript, I saw there was a lovely piece by Sibtain Naqvi in Dawn about North Nazimabad being an intellectual hub from the 1950s to the 1970s: “History: the City of Lost Dreams.” I had set out in some ways to write about that space, which is also the world I knew growing up. At the same time, I was trying to imagine how a generation of educated and talented women, who went into marriages thinking they couldn’t leave, lived their lives. Also, my family and milieu were Urduphone. Of course, they are bilingual but English was peripheral and for a long while I was this weird child obsessed with English literature. But as I grew older, I realised that there were profound ways in which Urdu had shaped my imaginative life and I’ve tried to write about a space in which those connections are in play.
What motivates you to write, especially fiction?
Sheer pleasure. I love language and the way sentences form, and the way words and ideas have to bend to each other—the pressure to be precise, the joy of finding the right formulation. That’s true of both the fiction and the academic work. They afford different idioms and formal languages for engaging the world, but there’s a continuity between the two for me. You can explore different aspects of human experience and sociality in each and yet both give mean opportunity to learn something new and in some depth. I’m drawn to theory and systemic explanations in my academic work, and in my fiction I have to really think about how people with distinct consciousnesses, experiences and temperaments encounter and live those abstractions I deal with in scholarly life. Of course, I don’t mean to minimize the frustration and exhaustion, the days of despair and sheer, bloody labour of it all.
What is your vision for Pakistan?
You know the question makes me a little a nervous. I sort of want to say, “Who am I to have a vision for Pakistan. I live abroad and I don’t want to be someone who gets kudos abroad and then comes back and tries to lord it.” I don’t say this in defence of nationalism but because I think that structures of globalisation can marginalise people who really are doing serious collective work “on the ground”, which is responsive to the necessities and specificities of the space. Having said that, I have certain ethical and political commitments to equality and justice and those I would love to see instantiated all over the world. I hope my work is true to some of those ideals.
And how does your Pakistani identity impact your work while living abroad?
I’m not sure. Identity is such a complicated and fluid thing. I grew up in Singapore and Karachi with brief stints in Lahore and Peshawar and, still, given my Urdu speaking background, had to come to the States to realize that the heavens wouldn’t collapse if you added something other that lahsan to masoor ki daal. I’m not being flippant, we have so many ethnic and religious tensions, and we seem to have weaponised national identity. I remember a fellow student asking me at high school if I was Hindustani—never having been to India at the time—and being utterly upset. So, I think, I always have the sense when I’m working that there are multiple histories and voices elsewhere and that one has to be attentive to the contingency and limitations of one’s own knowledge and claims. I suppose, one could say that my awareness of my identity has resulted in a kind of productive tension that keeps me honest—at least, I hope so.
How can Pakistan improve its academic environment and encourage young scholars and writers?
I feel that there needs to be more access to education—for everyone—more social, economic, and financial investment in state universities—in other words, less class bifurcationin education. I also think there needs to be a very concerted and sustained attempt to integrate vernacular and Anglophone education. I realise it might seem hypocritical for me to say this as I am so much a product of private school Anglophone education, but I feel that that’s a serious limitation in my own formation. The English language issue is a symptom of our class divisions, which are pernicious and brutal, but it also drives and exacerbates those divisions. I also think that we have to think less hierarchically—one has to give students room to breathe and question and explore and create, room to argue and debate. The absence of this kind of space is usually attributed to religious extremism in Pakistan, and that’s certainly one of the sources. But a certain kind of stifling deference can be found in all sorts of social and political contexts in the nation and can also be attributed to hierarchies of class and an abstract veneration of elders and supposed social “betters,” regardless of what they do.
Who are the writers and academics of Pakistani origin that have impressed you and/or informed your work?
Off the top of my head: Fehmida Riaz, Sara Suleri, Javed Ghamidi, Nadeem Aslam, Mohammed Hanif, Salima Hashmi. I’m sure I’m missing quite a few. If I could throw in TV personalities, I’d say: Moeen Akhtar, Anwar Maqsood, Haseena Moeen, Bajia. Shows like ‘Waris’ and ‘50 50’. There was real wit and thinking there.
A RECOGNISED SCHOLAR
Sadia Abbas is not just an acclaimed writer but also an essayist and a professor currently teaching at the Department of English at Rutgers University, Newark. She currently also serves as an Affiliate at the Women’s & Gender Studies Programme and also as Adjunct Professor at the Stavros Niarchos Hellenic Studies Centre at the Simon Fraser University. She hold a BA degree from the Wellesley College and a PhD from Brown University. She won the Board of Trustees Research Fellowship for Scholarly Excellence in 2014, which was a Rutger’s University Fellowship.
Sadia Abbas was the co-winner of the MLA First Book Prize for 2014 for At Freedom’s Limit. She won the Dembo Prize for Best Essay published in Contemporary Literature in 2011 and is the proud recipient of the Students’ Choice Award, 2016. That same year she also bagged the Professor of the Year Award, which was from the MSA.
A LITERARY ICON
Abbas has written At Freedom’s Limit: Islam & the Postcolonial Predicament. Her recent book The Empty Room has also been released. A book on Hellenism and Postcolonialism, tentatively titled Space in Another Time is under progress.
Published in Daily Times, August 19th 2017.