What makes women ‘troublemakers’ — is it their aspirations or their desire to break free from societal norms? Pakistani writer Saba Karim Khan’s debut novel Skyfall poignantly weaves in these questions as it sets out to tell the story of Rania, who is born in Lahore’s Heera Mandi district. It’s not until an Indian filmmaker enters her life that she heeds to her calling — music. In an interview, Khan, instructor of social research and public policy at New York University Abu Dhabi, talks about the themes at the centre of the novel.
How did the idea for Skyfall take root?
I crave storytelling, even old-fashioned musings around a campfire; it forges an interface with humans. Too often, our jobs make us feel as if we’re cogs in a wheel, driven by the “check-at-the-end-of-the-month”. But one winter, a guest speaker at NYU, the Headmaster from a school in England, quoted something jaw-dropping: “Most men and women lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them. What’s your song?”
The Headmaster’s words shifted something within me and marked Skyfall’s inception.
Was it a conscious decision to explore the internal lives of women?
I didn’t set out holding a placard to “champion” feminism, nor did I want Skyfall offering window-dressing diversity. The exploration of women’s lives can be loud, but also quietly fierce.
I find my storytelling intimately bound by the daily battles I was wrangled in, growing up. I also struggle with reliance on western representations to tell our story, yet we mostly complain without taking charge. Skyfall is an attempt to reclaim our voices, in a vocabulary which doesn’t feel like “tokenism” or cookie-cutter feminism, helicoptered from the West.
I was conscious of not creating binary female categories — either oppressed or vile. Skyfall’s female characters are untidy and complex — vulnerable and fearless, conformists and deviants — they embrace the chaos, yet their voices remain ascendant. The danger of being reductive consumed me, so, I ripped open the pigeonholes we’ve stuffed our women in, allowing readers to witness the miracles possible when Pakistani women are unchained.
What was the process of writing like? How has staying in Abu Dhabi renewed or reshaped that perspective?
It felt like the unearthing of my “song” — a soulful, nerve-wracking adventure, interspersed by the “imposter syndrome”! To go from the Headmaster’s words, to speaking at Emirates Lit Fest, it’s been a journey.
The writing process was immersive, though I can’t sugarcoat it — it’s a patriarchal pandemic, the burden on working mothers is on steroids. I have two tiny daughters and we’re oscillating between homeschooling, Skyfall, NYUAD. Yet, there’s an optimistic foil — during lockdown, crawling into the world of Skyfall — this visceral impression of the streets and alleys of Lahore, Delhi, New York — offered solace. Skyfall blurs fact and fantasy, but it became an emergency exit, during a harrowing year.
Living in Abu Dhabi feels experimental. It illustrates how beautiful co-existence can be. Abu Dhabi lies at the crossroads of so many nationalities, languages, food, travel, arts and culture. Abu Dhabi’s diversity and quiet confidence made its way into Skyfall, although a Gulf-based story deserves its own novel!
How imperative is it for contemporary writers writing in English in Pakistan to tackle stereotypes associated with them in literature?
There’s how we get represented by others and how we present ourselves, both of which box Pakistan into a formula. When you think Pakistan, you think all things combustible: bearded terrorists, ragged children threading through the streets and nothing more.
With Skyfall, I overturned that caricature to say, yes Pakistan is chaotic, but that’s how most real places are. Telling a complex, “coming-of-age” story of a Pakistani girl, required opening a window into the glittering West — for a reclamation of her own broken, yet beautiful homeland, Lahore.
Since Pakistan is rarely presented as an “equal” in literature, setting Skyfall against this backdrop (Lahore and New York), elides with rejecting geographical tropes. Unlike stereotypical impressions of Pakistan as exploding, in Skyfall, hopes and dreams are front-and-centre; you arrive there, once the layers of gender violence, class conflict, the immigration apocalypse, are unearthed.
Tell us about the male character in the Indian novel — that of the Indian filmmaker who changes the course of Rania’s life.
Asher, the Indian filmmaker, is the less visible but indispensable gravity that catalyses Rania’s story. He cleanses her of the residuals of bitterness. At one point, Asher tells Rania, “The sea, the wind, the birds, they’re freewheeling spirits. Nothing man-made binds them. And souls are the same everywhere. Delhi. Lahore. Guantanamo Bay.”
That yearning for a better way of living, where co-existence and humanity are the currency — crystallises Asher’s spirit and the book.
Music is an important theme in the novel. What makes it central to the novel?
Skyfall takes place in a dystopian world, moving apart and tearing at the seams, as quickly as it’s coming closer — the universal language of music allows Rania and Asher to imagine a world which has transcended the chains of class, colour, religion, which we’ve forged around us — a post-apocalyptic world.
Despite its dark spaces, the primary source of Skyfall remains the movement from darkness to light. Music spurs that movement, illustrating the title of the book: Skyfall means the last attempt you make when outnumbered. Music enables Skyfall’s characters to put up a last fight, even when the odds are stacked insanely against them.