Alizah Hashmi’s When We Fell in Love

Where I come from, writing is not a celebrated art. This is not to say that Pakistan doesn’t recognize or incentivize writers. This is to implicate the reality of an upper middle class high school going female, which is not one that is usually conducive to writing. In school, writing is never a credential comparable to more conspicuous activities like debating and drama. In most homes writing is acceptable as a hobby, not a possible career choice.

Most families, like most societies, are change-averse. Tradition and decorum leave a very narrow, inefficacious space for dissent. Reactions to criticism and calls for reform are knee-jerk and often disproportionate. This is where fiction became important to me, became my conduit of expression.

I wrote my first complete short story when I was in eighth grade. Towards the end of that year, I was first exposed to online literary magazines. Most of the stories I wrote remained parked somewhere in the recesses of my laptop’s hard drive – gentle critiques of society that no one read. But around this time I began looking up things like ‘places that publish teens’ and dispatched my work via email and Submittable to these places, pleasantly surprised that it was this easy to get readership but also more or less certain that it would not be accepted, and that the only people reading it would be the editors.

The first story that I ever had accepted (published by the Young Adult Review Network) – Clockwork – will always be special to me. The acceptance, like all acceptances, rested atop a pile of rejections, but it gave me the validation to continue writing. It involved a year of back-and-forth emails and a lot of editing, helping me acclimatize to the world of online publishing. When it appeared on their website, I was overwhelmed by how many people said they resonated with the pre-adolescent protagonist of the story.

Since then, I’ve published some work online and last year I was published in print in a fledgling but meticulously curated Pakistani literary publication, The Aleph Review. As a writer and a reader, I gravitate towards fiction, because it is more intimate. Unlike non-fiction or journalistic writing, fiction challenges norms more implicitly. I have always found audiences to be more receptive to, and empathetic towards, fiction. I appreciate fiction that is raw and brave, that sensitizes people towards truths they otherwise refuse to confront. I draw most of my inspiration from small things I see around me – things that may not look story-worthy. If I look at my stories now, most of them are descriptions of things as they are – but I hope they also compel their readers to think of what they ought to be.

I am a fan of brevity, which is why the only form of fiction I’ve written so far is the short story. I have always found the effect of a short story, with its concentration of plot and emotions and no room for digressions, more profound than of a novel. In middle school, I read a lot of Alice Munro. Lately I have also developed an interest in translations – in my free time I gorge on the iconoclastic and astonishingly prescient short stories of twentieth century Urdu writers Saadat Hassan Manto and Ismat Chughtai. Most of these deal with the partition of the subcontinent.

I am in my first year of study to become a medical doctor, and most of my academic career through school has also been very STEM-oriented. I think for people like me writing becomes all the more essential. Vocational science is full of human interaction, stories that should be narrated and documented in the most creative and authentic ways possible. Writing is my reprieve – it is more fluid than science, has more space for experimentation, and does not really have a rulebook. It is difficult to write and still do well in a very rigorous academic program – but I think, for me, without writing it would be impossible.

I once sent a compilation of six short stories to Mongrel Books, a nascent publishing house, which is the brainchild of author Shandana Minhas. It was rejected, but she wrote back a note at the end of the email even when the email itself excused them for not being able to comment individually on each entry. This is crude paraphrasing – I believe her exact words were ‘life experience’ –but in short, she told me that in order to write, it is important to live. I always keep that in my thoughts when I try to tell stories.