For me, nothing truly captures what it is like to be a writer and a mother than an incident that took place almost a decade ago, when my first novel, Without Dreams (Harper Collins 2007), was published. The book, which was written in the year before my daughter was born, had just arrived fresh from the publishers and I had opened it with the giddy excitement of a first-time writer, my six precious authors’ copies lined up neatly in the box that had traveled all the way from distant New Delhi to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Totally absorbed in marveling at the copy in my hand, I noted the beauty of its print quality, the emerald-green cover with the image that told my story so well, and – at last – there it was, after all of these years of dreaming and hoping: my name, my very own name, in print. Even before I had had a few seconds to think about what this moment meant to me, I heard the by now familiar sound of busy crayon scribbling. Sure enough, there she was, my two-year-old, a green crayon in her fist, her unruly penmanship across the title page of Without Dreams. Over the years, I go back to that first copy and chuckle at my own expense, thankful that as a mother, I’ve never had the luxury of an inflated ego!
Children have been central to my career, both as a writer and publisher. Even before I started writing for myself, I was busy tinkering with other people’s words and stories. I began my career at the Education Division at Oxford University Press, Pakistan, as an intern, and was fortunate to have had a wonderful mentor who taught me the fundamentals of proofreading and editing and even gave me the opportunity to write short pieces for some of the textbooks we worked on. In 1998, while still at OUP, I was one of several poets included in An Anthology, a collection of poetry by new voices in Pakistani writing. At OUP, I was surrounded by inspiration for children’s stories and loved the process of creating a book out of disparate elements, liaising with illustrators, designers, and authors to create engaging textbooks for the elementary level.
In 2003, I moved to the United States and had the opportunity of writing Without Dreams in that one, long uninterrupted year before I had children. Because it wasn’t published till almost four years later, I often had people ask the obvious question: how did you write this book while taking care of two small kids? I was soon to find out. While the first book was complete within a year, my second book, Those Children (Harper Collins, 2017), was birthed over a seemingly never-ending seven years, my ‘creative process’ the unglamorous result of snatched moments away from diapering, potty training, and acting as chauffeur to my two little girls. There were, of course, times when I felt incredibly frustrated. I think what was most difficult was the lack of continuity, which in narrative fiction is so important, and the extended stretches when I couldn’t keep to a schedule. I knew I had it in me to write a better book if only I had the time to devote to it. And then, just when the girls were finally in elementary school and I could have entire half-days to myself, the long-awaited third came along and our family – but not my book – was complete.
Of course, like all mothers, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Children have been an inspiration in my adult fiction. The central characters in both my novels are young people. In fact, the second book is told entirely from a child’s perspective, describing ten-year-old American-born Ferzana Mahmud’s return to Pakistan after the death of her mother from cancer and her and her siblings’ adjustment to life among their extended family. In the last two years, as a natural extension to this, I’ve also begun writing for children. A project close to my heart is The Adventures of Munna Man and Baby Lady (Oxford University Press, 2017), a series of chapter books for ages 6 to 10 that chronicles the escapades of two Pakistani-American girls who travel to Pakistan every summer and have adventures as the superheroes Munna Man and Baby Lady. The inspiration for these stories was a game that my two older daughters played when they were younger. In addition to being the inspiration, my daughters and husband have also been avid reviewers, reading through the stories and providing criticism and input. This series has truly been a labor of love, a family endeavor.
This May, I had the opportunity of traveling from Upstate New York to London, England, to participate in the Karachi Literature Festival at the South Bank Center. It was strange and, at the same time, liberating, to travel on my own, as a writer, as a woman, instead of the harried mom of three kids journeying helter-skelter across continents. The passage across the Atlantic, the airplane ride in the clouds, the tube train burrowing deep beneath London’s busiest streets, the walks through the center of the city all -- all weightless and unencumbered. I enjoyed leisurely breakfasts and teas, watching people quietly, my thoughts my own after so many years of the competing, at times adorable, at times frustrating, demands of the children in my life. Even within that swirling cosmopolitan city, in the noisiest parts of London, there was a silence. The irony, of course, was that I was at the Festival to help promote the books that were inspired by my daughters. As I sat there, in front of an audience of under-tens, reading to them from the new series, I realized that while I may not have had the freedom to devote my entire life to my writing, the struggles and the joys of parenthood have certainly shaped the writer I have become.