First of all, huge congratulations on your Stoker and Nebula award nominations! How are you feeling?
It’s quite surreal, to be honest. One doesn’t expect dreams to come true in such a way, does one? I feel grateful and happy. More so because I think I might be the first Pakistani to have hit the ballots and I’m proud to represent my country of origin. May this encourage other South Asian, especially subcontinental, writers to overcome their fear and pursue professional publishing seriously. Yes, there is a place at the table. Yes, it can happen to us as well.
The title of your story is “Ishq” — what does it mean?
“Ishq” was originally an Arabic word, but in 1400 years, it has crossed over into several other languages including Urdu, Hindi, and Farsi. You’ll find plenty of Pakistani and Indian movies with “Ishq” in the title, and unfortunately that has somewhat robbed the word of its spiritual significance.
The word “ishq” means “passionate love.” However, in Urdu, Arabic, and Farsi at least, it has mystical connotations. In Sufi circles, some writers in the Naqshbandi tradition have written that the word is derived from “ashiqa,” which is a creeping vine. When the vine of Ishq takes root in the heart of a lover, all other-than-God is effaced. The epitome of Love is when the Lover is annihilated unto the Beloved and the drop returns to the Ocean. That pain and longing for one’s beloved, whether human or divine, is part of its meaning.
You do an excellent job of creating atmosphere and a strong sense of place. Is this important to you in your writing?
I’m a writer displaced from his origin. Perhaps that is why setting has become crucial to my work? I tend to do a lot of research on a place before I set my stories there. Often it slows me down, but I find the outcome is usually worth it. Especially because I do want to feature my hometown, my country of origin, its people and traditions, in my work.
As far as atmospherics go, I find horror works best when a story is steeped in the world wherein it happens. The sense of place, the inversion of familiarity, how convergence of the natural and the supernatural turn it frightening, even vindictive, from page to page and scene to scene — all of that helps me, the writer, achieve the intended effect of the uncanny or horrific, depending on the piece.
Regarding this story, in 2013 when my father was visiting from Pakistan he told me about Teddi Gali — Narrow Alley. Our ancestral home is two streets away from the gali and the story about the runaway cow intrigued me. In this sense, the setting came first and the story later.
Illness, decay, and death feature prominently in “Ishq” and you don’t shy away from graphic descriptions of the effects of illness — cancer, for example. Why did you make this choice?
One of my cousins had polio when she was young. I watched her limp from place to place and I’m quite sure she was the character I had in mind when I wrote the story. I used to wonder how different her life would be if she didn’t have the disease. Her hopes and dreams and capabilities — would they change? How would she get married in Pakistan where disability, especially in a girl, can become a massive hindrance to her getting married?
I work in healthcare, so I see a lot of disease. Cancer of course is, as Siddhartha Mukherjee put it, the “emperor of maladies” and has taken so many so young. Also, it is genetic and familial, and helped me structure the story the way I needed to. Hence the choice.
Horror is my first love and will always be. Shying away from graphic description? I learned not to do that from the great and very gritty Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto, whom I encourage every lover of good stories to read.
What do you like to read?
Everything, I guess. I read Sufi poetry in English and Urdu, love sonnets, lots of science articles. In fiction I tend to gravitate toward dark or weird fiction and occasionally hard science fiction. Ted Chiang, Liz Hand, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Flannery O’Connor. These days I’m on a Kelly Link and Naiyer Masud kick. I also want to read more stories and books in Urdu, but I find I’m a slow reader these days with a newly developed mild attention deficit. So I have been focusing more on short fiction in English.
Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
I’m working on an SF short story for an editor. I don’t attempt a lot of SF because I find it difficult to write good stories rooted in actual science; they demand a lot of research and background reading. The idea for this one, though, has been haunting my head for a while now and I finally decided to get down to it. I’m a slow writer these days and can take anywhere from three to six months to write a short story — yeah, go figure. Hopefully that will change in the coming years?
One can dream, right?
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