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Five Degrees Of Farhana Shaikh

Five Degrees Of Farhana Shaikh

November 03, 2012

A Q&A with The Asian Writer founder. 

Founded in 2007, The Asian Writer is one of the essential hubs for British Asian writers. An online lit-zine for those with something to say but few places to say it, the site run by Leicester-based Farhana Shaikh has recently started to move off the web and into actual bookshops, with two short story anthologies published to neatly collect the standout submissions. The first, 2010’s Happy Birthday to Me, boasted short stories alongside interviews with Mohsin ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ Hamid, Roopa Farooki and Rana Dasgupta. The latest, Five Degrees, compiles 14 shorts from entries for The Asian Writer Short Story Prize, a competition launched earlier this year. The NRI caught up with Farhana ahead of the book’s launch at this year’s South Asian Literature Festival to find out why she can’t pin its stories down and whether Asian writers need more of a funny bone. What made you start The Asian Writer? The Asian Writer started because I had an intensely selfish need to find something or someone I wanted to connect with – mainly other writers and more particularly, successful ones. I wanted to better understand the writer’s experiences. Not only the process of writing but their experiences of the publishing industry. Before The Asian Writer officially launched as an online platform I used to send out an email to writer friends about competitions and share my experiences about writing,– and at times about wanting to give up. I guess, I came to a point and realised that I could be reaching a lot more people by setting up a website with the information on it. Did you find any common threads in the entries you received for this year’s competition? I was surprised not to have a found a more common thread. In the past entries have been guided to write to a set theme, our first collection had a theme of celebration, for example. But this year there was no set theme, only a word: five – which had to be included in the story. This was used to trigger the imagination, and to stir up something in the artist’s mind – to share a story that might not otherwise have been told. I think it worked in that way that sometimes a theme can hinder the creative process – or you get a lot of stories that are similar. Here, with a wide open field, imaginations had the ability to run free. When judging submissions, do you ever have a hope for what sort of writing you would like to see? I’ve learned not to have expectation as I’m not often too impressed by all that I read. And I say that after judging many competitions. Judging a competition isn’t easy – and for me it’s often a process of trying to understand what works in a particular story and what doesn’t. Admittedly a lot of this rides on gut decision and is based on intuition – an original voice, saying something in a new way, and having great characters. It’s more than just the sum of its parts though. If I can imagine the characters in my house, if I can escape into their world then for me, it’s a good story and one I’d hoped to find. Is there an area you would like to see writers focusing on more? Humour is so often lacking from life that I feel that if a writer has the ability to inject humour into their work they should do so. But of course so often it’s a tricky thing to do, and hence the reason I think so many find it easier to attempt about death, suicide or cancer. More often than not, this isn’t done well either, unfortunately. So my advice to all would be to read more funny stuff. By reading we can get better. There’s been some debate about what British Asian fiction is in 2012 and whether it can’t help but ghettoise its writers. Is there a problem that many writers only seem to see two options - the perceived cage of Asian writing and more culturally neutral ground that could come from anyone? I don’t think this is a writer issue, but an industry-wide issue escalated by the fact that publishing is a middle class, white ghetto and people and books have to be marketed and packaged. But certainly I think British Asian fiction – whatever that term relates to – suffers as a result of what publishing professionals believe Asian fiction ought to be. It often feels as though British-Asian writers are embarrassed about covering ‘the Asian Experience’ or marking themselves out as being ‘too Asian’. Do you think there is still life and power in the old themes? That isn’t something I’ve come across before, either in my work as editor for The Asian Writer or personally, speaking to authors I know. For me, I don’t think there is anything to be embarrassed about – we have stories deep in us which urge themselves forward, often despite the sort of novel we wish to write. You might for example set out to write an epic war novel but find a domestic situation within that era a more satisfying story to tell. Of course, there is life in the over-tired subjects of arranged marriages, overbearing parents, identity issues and terrorism – with a fresh perspective, through a character’s eyes, and with an original voice, even these subjects can be thought provoking and certainly refreshing to readers. My own concern is when these fictions are held as belief to define all our actual life experiences and not just the stories they are. If we have deeper, diverse representation on all subjects, across genres, this wouldn’t be the case, but sadly that just isn’t happening enough. Is there an issue of writers viewing their work through the eyes of white readers and editors who may have different expectations to an Asian readership? To add to my previous point, I think writers should write what they want, regardless of what an editor at a publishing house might make of it. If you write for yourself and not what the industry likes, you will always have an urge to finish the story you set out to write. If an Asian writer writes with a viewpoint of reaching out to all readers, than surely that can only be a good thing. Five Degrees will be launched on November 3rd at The South Asian Literature Festival. The festival runs until November 11th. Dear NRI readers why not connect with us on the following social media platforms. Click here to join our Facebook Fan Page Click here to join our LinkedIn Group

1 Comment

  • Shai
    07.11.12 09:50 PM
    Thought-provoking Q&A. Passion needs to be in writing a novel for sure, and for that writers should always write what they want, but to be published, surely you should always be thinking what the market wants and what publishers are looking for, right? Does writing for a specific Asian audience narrow this, or as a niche does it stand out more?

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