Born in Pakistan and raised in England and Saudi Arabia, she came to the U.S. for her undergraduate degree and earned a B.A. in Philosophy with Honors from St. John’s College Annapolis, MD. Soniah’s undergraduate thesis, an analysis of individual against society as seen in love and arranged marriages, was the recipient of the Susan B Irene Award. Soniah will be starting her MFA from Georgia State University in August 2013 and has been awarded the Paul Bowles Fellowship in Fiction.
Soniah is co-Vice President of Programming for the Atlanta Writers Club, a 100 year-old organization with 800 + members. She is also literary correspondent for ArtsATL, Atlanta’s premiere online destination for the arts, and is also published in many other literary journals.
Soniah provides valuable insight into the life of a writer, an editor, and an MFA candidate. Suprose thanks Soniah Kamal for taking the time to answer questions for our Tête-à-Tête despite her busy schedule.
Why did you choose to become a writer?
|Photo Credit: Soniah Kamal|
The Polite Answer: I think writing chose me in so far that, as far back as I can remember, I was always telling stories to myself and others. Novels, essays, reporting, op-ed: growing up we all read (or at least schools force us to) and so writing is all powerful in shaping who we become.
The Answer Under the Polite Answer: I wanted to act; my parents didn’t think acting was a respectable profession and so forbade me. Since I’d always been writing, I continued. For a while though I had a very contentious relationship with writing: traditionally women have been ‘allowed’ to write because they could do so from behind ‘purdah’ as well as publish under a male pseudonym. In effect they would have a voice and yet be voiceless. I was disappointed that I had, despite living in the late 20th century, allowed myself to be relegated to a purdah of sorts. Thankfully I got over that.
Who/what did you read growing up?
For a long time I attended an International School in Saudi Arabia where the library was chockfull of both British as well as American classics and contemporary works. Along with Blyton, Blume, S.E. Hinton, Shirley Jackson, L.M. Montgomery, Edith Nesbit and Dorothy Parker, I also borrowed from friends stories of Baba Yagah and Arabian Nights and comics like Amar Chitra Katha and myths from Nigeria, Norway, Japan, Greece, as well as Anne Frank, The Silver Sword and A Town Called Alice. Once I returned to Pakistan it was all Austen, Hardy, Shakespeare, Donne, Keats etc with as many Urdu stories translated into English as I could find back then: in fact my most favorite was a collection of 13 short stories by assorted writers such as Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Ghulam Abbas. Those 13 stories changed my world! I read Tolstoy, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Langston Hughes and also Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susan, Barbara Cartland, Georgette Heyer, a lot of Philosophy Books which I didn’t understand– In Lahore the bookstores were treasure troves of used books and I’d fill my arms and bring them all home! There was no such thing as ‘highbrow-lowbrow’ in my vocabulary and that remains true to this day.
You recently edited the South Asian themed issue of the literary e-zine Sugar Mule. What did you find most challenging?
My guest edited issue ‘No Place Like Home: Borders, Boundaries and Identity in South Asia and Diaspora’ was an interesting challenge on many levels but by far having to read each of the 47 contributions (including my own) 12 to 15 times was tough. I have since a new found respect for editors of novels and other 300 plus page tomes: to read a book multiple times with fresh eyes definitely requires a certain stamina!
What were some of your parameters in choosing works by South Asian writers?
Often journals/editors putting together special issues concentrate on one region i.e. for instance recently Granta had a Pakistan Issue and World Literature Today had a Bangladesh Issue. I wanted to include India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in the same space on the same page. Also when most South Asians hear ‘partition’, they tend to automatically think of 1947 and the division of a land into India and Pakistan. I wanted to stretch ‘partitions’ to include other divisions and so there are pieces on the 1971 war between then East and West Pakistan, as well as the split between an Indian Bengal and Bangladesh, and an Indian Punjab and Pakistani Punjab. But I also very much wanted to explore the borders and boundaries we experience internally be it from conflicts arising from estrangements, deaths, loves, friendships, betrayals, sexuality, immigration—conflicts as well as reconciliations— so I accepted submissions that would showcase these experiences. All the pieces had to ultimately speak to me and with the memoir instead of adhering to a strict ‘follow the story’ trajectory I opted to let the contributors ‘follow the memory’, literally have the pieces serve as memory-keepers.
What stood out for you in all the submissions you received?
The great variety of topics and also how forthcoming and brave the contributors are in sharing their stories, memoirs and poetry about living in refugee camps, racism and sexism, coming of age sexually and/or religiously, ethnic tensions, and dealing with deaths of loved ones, of nationalisms, of ideals. The settings were also so varied from small villages to urban sprawls in U.S., England, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Being a writer means embracing the courage to dig deep within yourself and then share with others what you found within and all the contributions have done exactly that.
You are a writer and an editor. How does one compliment the other?
Sometimes it doesn’t. It is symbiotic however in so far that as a writer I am aware of what I may think is missing in someone else’s piece and then the editor hat kicks in because I can voice exactly what I think is missing and make suggestions although ultimately I always tell the writers I edit that they have to go with what feels right to them even if it’s not the ‘popular’ or ‘conventional’ choice. For instance recently I was editing the first fifty pages of a client’s novel. He had a prologue and wanted to keep it because he likes reading prologues. The editor in me told him that he could do without it, or if he kept it, it had to be really relevant to the whole. However the writer in me told him that he had to be true to himself, that it didn’t matter whether he’d read that ‘prologues are out’ or that editors and agents are not fond of them: nothing is written in stone and if you are a good writer you can make even the out-of-vogue work.
Why did you choose to go to school for an MFA, many get published without this degree?
I know there is always controversy between doing or not doing an MFA, between whether writers turn into robots writing a certain MFA style story, whether it’s all a scam. I’ve been writing for years by my lonesome and I think had I joined an MFA program back then I would have perhaps learned aspects of craft it took me years to learn through trial and error— cooks go to cooking school, actors go to acting school, musicians go the music school— I don’t see what the big deal is if writers go to learn to write. Talent is good but training, discipline and commitment is also very good and I feel an MFA with its deadlines and workshops and critiques supplies the latter as well as a community i.e. you are not alone in believing that storytelling is an important and relevant act.
As for getting published I can attest that it’s absolutely not a requirement since without an MFA I’ve published short stories and memoirs pieces in many anthologies and journals.
What advice would you give to aspiring MFA candidates?
Advice I’d give all writers: take all the odd jobs you can—the more you live, the more you will have to write about. Know that early success, if success comes at all, comes to very few. Define what success means to you. Write a story you are proud of. Not every book is going to be turned into a film. And if it is then not every film is going to win the Oscar. Remind yourself that you write because something about the process keeps you riveted. You write because you don’t like the way the world is and so you turn it into a fair and just world on the page. You write because you believe that reading feeds the hungry soul and so you are a chef of words. Know that there is so much rejection in this field that you may as well take a sandpaper to your fingertips and then sandpaper your bloody fingers again and then go on typing. Rejections hurts but rejection is not the end of the world. It is not. It is just one agent/editor/judge’s opinion. That said have the humility to recognize good craft advice when given. Learn to walk the line between hubris and humility: I’m a decent writer/There is always something to learn. Do not let petty people get you down. If someone takes the trouble to inform you that ‘you are never going to amount to anything’ smile and thank them for their opinion. If someone take the trouble to inform you that ‘you are the best writer ever’ smile and thank them for their opinion. Do not get dejected. The internet has opened myriad opportunities to be heard so do not be dejected. Unless it is your choice do not let the beast called social media devour you. It might be true that those who market themselves best win the race, or it might not—but there is no way you can even really enter unless you spend time writing your novel, memoir, short story collection, poetry chapbook- not just one but the next one and then the next one. Blogging is not a waste of time just don’t let it take up all of your time. Spend time twittering, facebooking, linking-in and google-plusing and every other ‘Look At Me!!!! I’m Here Too!!!’ that’s out there but do look at yourself from time to time and ask: is the writing getting done? Remember your only competition is yourself—not your friend who writes, not your enemy who writes, not your fellow countryperson on yet another awards list, not the books already on the shelves—but only yourself—can you outdo the last thing you wrote?
Write for publication because it makes you happy to share the voices in your soul otherwise just keep a journal.
How would you recommend they prepare for the application process?
Send in your best writing samples. Of course. Write a personal statement that says why you want to write and why you think writing is important. For recommendations, ask those who can attest to your being a hard worker and a good team player. If they are not familiar with your writing, send them your samples so that can also say how much they like your writing!
What are your dreams and goals on the writing front?
To find time to write all the novels and stories that live within me. To be able to impart the thrilling adventure that is reading to everyone I come across.
Who are some of your favorite writers, contemporary and classic? Why?
I don’t necessarily have favorite writers rather favorite books which have stayed me for various reasons—tone, style, a masterful structure or storytelling. In classics- The Return of the Native by Hardy, Emma by Austen, The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, Reena and Other Stories by Paule Marshall, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Flannery O’ Conner’s short stories—Good Country People is a favorite, Bernice Gets a bob by Fitzgerald and The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin- also great favorites. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. Myriad short stories by Urdu writers but in particular Mahalakshmi Ka Pul by Krishan Chander and Anandi by Ghulam Abbas.
As for contemporary—too many but certainly Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Sadie Jone’s The Outcast, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, M.G, Vassanji’s The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, Julian Fellowe’s Snobs, I love the following short stories: A Spoiled Man and In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin, A Piece of Cake by Talat Abbasi, Broken Transformers by Bi Shumin, Fairy Tale by Robert Olen Butler and Nipple Jesus by Nick Hornby.
What are some books that you read recently that you would highly recommend? Any new authors, any unusual books, ones that you found inspiring, both South Asian and otherwise.
I do have a perennial favorite by Cheryl Benard called ‘Murder in Peshawar’ (formerly published as Moghul Buffet). Originally published in 1998 when there was barely anything South Asian let alone Pakistani on the shelves, it’s a smart and funny murder mystery.
I’ve recently finished are Unterzakhan my Leela Corman and Habibi by Craig Thomson. I’m so in awe of graphic novelists (especially once I read Michael Chabon’s ridiculously inspiring novel ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavelier and Clay)—and I can’t help but think of the original story tellers drawing their bisons and spears on caves. How I wish I could draw!
I also love Moni Mohsin’s laugh out loud, wry but yet so true satire ‘Diary of a Social Butterfly’ and its sequel ‘Tender Hooks.’ I have to say I loved Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers, Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows.
What would I find on your to-read pile right now?
Too much because I want to read everything I set my eyes on but at the moment ‘A Woman of Substance: the memoirs of Begum Khurshid Mirza edited and compiled by Lubna Kazim’. ‘While We Were Watching Downton Abbey by Wendy Wax’. ‘Green Darkness by Anya Seton’. “Nisei Daughter by Monica Sone.’ ‘The Newly Weds by Nell Freudenberger’. ‘Native Land by Nadja Tesich’. ‘The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire by Alan Palmer’. ‘The Arrogant Years by Lucette Lagnado’. Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes & Black Women in America by Melissa V. Harris-Perry.