Review: Lahore Love!

Lahore With Love: Growing Up with Girlfriends Pakistani Style
by Fawzia Afzal-Khal
Syracuse Unviversity Press, 2010


Although this is quite a bold statement to make, I will go ahead and make it: Fawzia Afzal-Khan is one of the most overlooked creative non-fiction writers of our time. She has a linguistic gift that gives her prose a weighty depth that appears effortless yet is painstaking in its profundity. Lahore With Love: Growing Up With Girlfriends Pakistani Style is the story of Afzal-Khan’s life through the lens of her female friendships. It is also an emotional narrative of the growth of a fraught nation, and the intimate impact it has had on relationships teeming with both love and tragedy.

I was introduced to Afzal-Khan’s work in early 2003 when she sent me an essay that is now a chapter in this book entitled “Hajira.” At the time, I was the founding editor of a small, social justice magazine that was seeking creative submissions for its premiere issue. We were seeking groundbreaking work, and Afzal-Khan’s fit the bill. Her beautifully crafted story of a woman who chose to forgo her own success in order to support the career of her stifling husband blew me away in the same way Hajira’s self-inflicted bullet snuffed out a brief yet impactful existence. With stinging eyes, I accepted the submission immediately and kept a lookout for more of her meaningful work.

Until now, Afzal-Khan’s writing has only been found in small doses — a response to Salman Rushdie’s erasure of Muslim feminist voices here, a meditation on the Swat valley there—with the exception of her scholarly work, which appears in numerous academic journals. (Afzal-Khan is a university professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey.) She even gave a glimpse of what was to come in her contribution, “Bloody Monday,” to 2008’s And Then the World Changed. But the scattershot pieces were not enough to satiate my appetite for the loveliness of her words or the personal way in which she writes of the people (and country) she holds dear. That said, Lahore With Love has made up for lost time with inspired provision in excess.

Slip into a comfortable chair along with this memoir, and request to remain undisturbed. The 145 pages will glide by all too quickly and beg to be returned to again and again.

Review: And the World Changed

And the World Changed
Edited by Muneeza Shamsie
The Feminist Press: New York, 2008


I read fiction to be reminded that my experience of the world both is and is not singularly mine. I read it to experience the pain and joy of others, to be moved by their stories, and to try to see their truth in my own. I read fiction because it is full of the humanity that is sorely lacking from our daily lives—because I cannot be petty when I experience life through a lens of comparison. And sometimes I even believe that reading fiction makes me a better person.

And the World Changed is the first-ever collection of short stories by Pakistani women written in English. Spanning generations and continents, editor Muneeza Shamsie has compiled an amazing work of 25 writers and nearly 400 pages. Situated chronologically, the stories seamlessly flow from one to the next and the reader is hard pressed to find a flaw. Because flaws have a tendency to provide character, I will share the only one I was able to locate: Prior to each story, Shamsie provides a brief biography of the writer along with a pithy analysis of the meaning contained in their contribution to the book. I wish this had come after the reading instead of before, as Shamsie’s synopsis interrupts the story’s natural unfolding. This, however, is a minor complaint, which is easily rectified by reading the chapter’s sections in reverse.

The stories jump temporally and geographically—from Lahore to Oaxaca to Berkeley to Japan to London to Karachi. The voices that emerge are as diverse as the population itself, and represent the internal and external struggles caused by differing ideas about issues such as religion, modernization, violence, and gender roles. These issues cause liberation and enslavement, a double yoke that is so difficult, at times impossible, to transcend.

A young bride-to-be is devastated when she bumps into her future in-laws wearing jeans after a day of hiking. An older woman considers how her life has been shaped by the world’s bloody conflicts (Partition, Vietnam, Civil Rights, Zapatistas, Sandinistas). Childhood friends are reunited far from home and re-open wounds that refuse to heal. A new immigrant searches for a mosque in New York City in the days following 9/11, only to be turned away because she is a woman. A community of poor women scheme to utilize cultural norms in order to protect an innocent who cannot protect herself. There are numerous stories of love’s joy and devastation.

Much meaning is gently folded into words as they are lined up to create these fictions, and sometimes the weight is so heavy that it literally pulls you down. Other times the descriptions are so wonderfully precise that you can almost taste the sweetness of paan or chai rolling around on your tongue, feel the acrid pollution burning your nose, or hear the honking of cars and squawking of crows blaring in your ears. Time and place becomes intertwined as you move between the spaces of past, present, and future. And all is lost and found in the exquisite placement of words on each page.