Blog: The Pakistani-born British writer, Qaisra Shahraz, and her visit to Lancaster University

qaisraThe novelist, screenwriter and college inspector, Qaisra Shahraz, visited Lancaster University on March 11th, at the invitation of the Department of European Languages and Cultures and the AHRC Project Hub: ‘Authors and the World’. She led a morning discussion with a final year group of undergraduate students of literature and migration and, in the afternoon, held an extended debate with colleagues and postgraduates on the nature of celebrity, the special responsibility as a writer of representing the position of Muslim women in the West and the role of chance in getting published and attracting a global readership. Her extremely personal account described how one of her first short stories ‘A pair of jeans’ was noticed by a government official in the German Education department. Its discovery led to its inclusion in the sixth form curriculum in Germany and subsequently in an anthology of leading English writers for use in schools across the country. Qaisra Shahraz’s resulting celebrity consolidated by repeated speaking tours and workshops, had brought home to her the power of writing to mould public consciousness. It had caused her to change the ending of the story so that it carried a more affirmative message for women in general but particularly for young, second generation Muslim immigrants raised in the West. As in the cases of celebrated writers such as Charles Dickens, Romain Gary, and Arthur Conan Doyle, plot, character and ending had become the interactive outcome of the relationship between author, text, reader and the cultural moment.

Qaisra Shahraz also spoke of the outsider/insider relationship with rural origins experienced by writers who had left Pakistan but who sought to capture the authentic way of life of village communities. It was necessary, she argued, to adopt the perspective of the outsider and to represent through fiction aspects of Islamic life which would be most informative to a global readership while appealing to their romantic sensibilities. It was undoubtedly this, represented in a trilogy of interrelated novels, which had aroused the interest of readers in such diverse countries as Turkey, Indonesia, India and Australia. At the same time, the dissemination of her work had resulted in pirate translations and progressive loss of control over the editorial rights of her best known book The Holy Woman. Celebrity did not imply financial security and, furthermore, it detracted from the act of writing itself. For her, writing and promotion had become dangerously apposite ways of life, to the obvious satisfaction of publishers eager for authors to engage personally with their readership.

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It was clear that Qaisra viewed fiction as a vital medium for communicating awareness of cultural difference, especially with reference to Muslims living in Europe. The status of the writer as missionary was an aspect of her work to which she attached the greatest importance. Her writing was informed by the belief that commitment to a humanistic creed of mutual understanding and respect was capable of countering, if not overcoming geopolitical interests, the barbaric motives underlying terrorism and even the deep schisms which were currently dividing the Islamic nations of the Middle East. In an age where an appeal to the emotions which lies at the heart of much media reportage stands in stark contrast to the economic and historical analysis of cultural conflict, the role of celebrity was an essential factor in strengthening the potential impact of literature, especially in the context of public education. The animated and insightful responses of the audiences at Qaisra Shahraz’s presentations demonstrated the relevance of studying closely the relationship between creative writers, publishers, readers and cultural change which characterises the focus of the ‘Authors and the World’ project.

You can find Qaisra’s official website HERE.

robert_crawshawRobert Crawshaw is a member of the hub’s steering group and senior lecturer in the Department of European Languages and Cultures at Lancaster University

 

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