Sorayya Khan is the author of three novels, Noor (2003), Five Queen’s Road (2009) and City of Spies (2015). She was awarded a US Fulbright Research Grant to conduct research in Pakistan and Bangladesh for one of her novels, and received a Malahat Review Novella Prize for what became a window into City of Spies. In 2006, she received a Constance Saltonstall Artist Grant, which took her to Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where she interviewed tsunami survivors. Over the years, her work has been published in various literary quarterlies, includingThe Kenyon Reviewand North American Review, and several anthologies. She is the daughter of a Pakistani father and a Dutch mother, was born in Europe, and moved to Pakistan as a child. She now lives in New York with her husband and children.
NAW- Please tell us about your book City of Spies. What is it about? How did you get the idea for it?
City of Spies is a coming-of-age story of a young girl who is trying to make sense of her world during a particularly politically turbulent time in Pakistan’s history. The seed for it came from a short Urdu newspaper story that my father read out to me when I was a teenager. A small boy had died from one day to the next for no apparent reason. The boy was a fervent supporter of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and believed that the Prime Minister, despite having been sentenced to hang, would live a life at least as long as the little boy’s. The boy had died and so, too, did the Prime Minister. The irony stayed with me and when I decided to write about that time period of Pakistan’s history, it was waiting to be explored.
NAW- Tell us about the research you did for the book? How did you go about it?
I researched the book for several years, even as I was writing my other novels. I scrolled through reels of microfilm in libraries (in the days before everything was available online) and read news accounts of political events in several international and domestic newspapers and magazines. I looked at photographs from the early 1960s when Islamabad was first being built and spent a few afternoons reading through Doxiadis’ plans for Islamabad that I found online. I studied images of the 1970s, online and otherwise. I gathered details from friends and acquaintances regarding their experience of the 1979 events and interviewed others who were affected. I researched the timeline of political events in a wide array of available material. I read as much as I could find on Islamabad during that time, and supplemented that with books on the politics of the time period, including The Siege of Mecca by Yaroslav Trofimov, If I am Assassinated by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, as well as others on more obscure topics, such as books my parents collected on Islamabad’s plants and birds.
NAW- Tell us about the character of Aliya. How did you develop the character?
Aliya is a young girl of eleven when the novel opens and, when it ends thirty months later, she is thirteen. She has a mixed heritage in that she has a Dutch mother and Pakistani father. She is a precocious child with a strong sense of justice, as most children have at that age. I suppose I developed the character by living with her for years and imagining her in countless scenarios before she evolved into the narrative voice of the novel.
NAW- You have built two plots into the book, two storylines as it were. Did you originally structure the book this way, interweaving multiple themes?
My interest in this story is fundamentally an interest in colliding worlds and our complicity in such relationships. It was always my hope that I could weave together different lives–and the derivative of this is an engagement with mutiple themes.
NAW- You have chosen to draw upon your Pakistani ancestry for your plots. Were you apprehensive at first when you researched in Pakistan? How familiar or unfamiliar is Pakistan to you now?
I have been thinking about the story of 1979 almost since I left Pakistan. Researching these events was part of my life even before I was a writer. Pakistan is as familiar to me now as it can be to anyone who lived there in the 1970s. It is the source of my creative work and intellectual engagement, and in these ways, along with our visits to see family, I keep the country close.
NAW- It’s not unusual for readers to draw parallels between the author’s life and the protagonist given that Aliya shares a lot of similarity with you. So did you originally plan it through Aliya’s eyes? Because the way the book is structured, it stops one from enjoying fiction thoroughly as the writer and Aliya share many life histories.
I feel like I have done my job as a writer if I have convinced you that the story is true. One of the most common questions writers receive from readers is, “Did this happen to you?” Readers frequently conflate the narrator of a novel with the writer, as if there is more truth in the story if it happened to the author or that a story is not really a story if the events actually happened. Perhaps the conflation of author and narrator is compounded in City of Spies because the novel chronicles actual historical events. The fact that the novel is written a bit like memoir does not make it my memoir. Aliya is looking back on certain events in her life from the vantage point of being older and having in her possession an understanding gained from the passage of time. Aliya is an imaginary and fictional construct despite living in a time and place I lived and sharing a similar heritage. Her life is very different from mine (and Aliya’s is so much more interesting!). As a writer, I knew that I wanted to explore Aliya’s world, but it took me several drafts written in different and sometimes alternating perspectives, before I understood that the story was, indeed, Aliya’s and that she was equal to the task of telling her own story. Once I understood this, her voice rang loud and clear and she carried me away into her world in the way I wish for my readers.
NAW- There are very few Pakistani novelists of merit as of now and majority are published abroad. How was your book received in the subcontinent?
There are plenty of Pakistani novelists of merit, not all of whom are published abroad or in English. I’ve been pleased and excited about my book’s reception in the subcontinent.
NAW-Tell us about your other books.
My first novel, Noor, is a story built around the 1971 war, specifically the period after the war. A returning soldier brings home (to Islamabad) a young girl who he and his mother raise as their own. Years later, his youngest grandchild, Noor, awakens memories of his war experience in her paintings and, over time, transforms the family.
Five Queen’s Road is set in Lahore and follows the story of a family from right before Partition to about ten years afterwards. The Muslim family shares a divided house with a Hindu family and their lives are intertwined by life, hate, and love. And into this mixture comes a foreign family member who carries the weight of her own history.
NAW- Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming works?
I am currently at work on something that is not fiction
NAW- What do you do when you are not writing?
Read, exercise, enjoy the outdoors, spend time with family. And, of course, think about writing.
NAW- Tell us about your publishing journey. Any advice for upcoming authors?
My advice for upcoming authors is: Love what you are doing because the journey may not be easy!