In You Can’t Go Home Again, Sarvat Hasin strings together stories of Pakistan’s urban young – shuttling between Karachi and London, the past and the present, as the characters grapple with love, friendship, and their deepest fears and insecurities. The storytelling style is entirely different from that in her debut This Wide Night (2016) – a loose retelling of Little Women set during the Bangladesh Liberation War – which was also long-listed for the DSC prize. The 26-year-old Hasin has been called Pakistan’s new literary voice, her writing compared with Mohsin Hamid’s and Kamila Shamsie’s. Speaking to Scroll.in, however, Hasin explained that disconnecting from how other people might perceive her work is crucial when she’s writing. Edited excerpts from the interview:
What spurred the multi-perspective narrative in You Can’t Go Home Again?
It came about quite naturally. I wrote the first story and then just continued to chase what I found interesting about the rest of the characters. Short stories allow for a lot more discovery than a novel. You don’t always have to see the whole picture, you can let it build as you go.
Djinns and chudails feature prominently in every character’s journey, which is interesting as they’re all young, educated and fairly privileged. What inspired this?
The urban legends we used to scare each other when I was a child were all circling this premise. I wanted to play with the idea of superstition and tradition: these characters are young, educated and fairly privileged and certainly believe they are above these things but can’t fully detangle themselves. Home is not just a physical space but a culture: a nest of family, beliefs and expectations.
A line that stayed with me is when Maliha, a television star, realises that when it comes to criticising women “the physical is the safest glut. Women have been taking hits for having bodies for centuries.” It shows how easily women normalise body shaming. At a time when globally, women are speaking out, how do you view #MeToo from a subcontinental perspective?
I didn’t write the book with a view to engaging with a political agenda. I wanted to show the female characters encountering their bodies and the assumptions around it: Sabah as a child is coming to terms with her body changing under the gaze of other people. Maliha’s is heavily tethered to her job as an actress. Naila’s possession of her body and other people’s is tangled in ideas of love and marriage. None of these characters has ownership over them. Shireen’s attempt to get closer to feeling like she belongs in hers, by taking up boxing, is the only example of them having an awareness of this pattern.
You mention your mother’s bookshelf in the acknowledgments. What were your early reading experiences like?
My family are big readers but my mother’s bookshelf is especially wide-ranging. She’s a much more diverse reader than I am: I fall into small pockets of things I find interesting but her taste is infinitely more interesting. Her bookshelf was a really good grounding in both literary and genre fiction. Now, my tastes are more dictated by external factors: reviews, prizes, magazines, what my friends are reading. My mother has excellent taste but isn’t discriminatory in the same way.
London, where you live currently, and Karachi where you grew up, are recurring places in the books. Tell us about your relationship with both the cities.
It is an easy division in some ways. I spend time in Karachi with my family and London feels much more like a city for work and for my friends. It isn’t a question of one or the other that comes up on a day-to-day basis: my relationship with each sits side by side.
Mohsin Hamid once said that the need to write fiction comes from the inability to entirely accept our world as it is. As a woman from Pakistan, how challenging is it for you to not let the politics seep into your writing?
I think you have to let the story tell itself. I don’t see my writing as apolitical. All the choices these characters make, all the paths that are available to them emerge from the context of their country and class and education, making it inherently political. Their lives don’t exist in a vacuum: if they did, there would be no plot to struggle against.
You’re the fiction editor at The Stockholm Review. How do writing and editing come together for you?
I think the creative impulse comes from a similar pace and just a strong love of wanting to be involved with writing in different ways. We all complain about it but there’s a certain joy in being edited. I write to be read, and being edited is to be read most deeply. It’s another opportunity to engage with a text in another way.
What are you working on next?
I’m deep in first draft territory for a new book at the moment, and also writing more essays and poetry.