Ernest Dempsey — Shaila Abdullah is the author of the award-winning novel Saffron Dreams published by the Modern History Press. Born and raised in Pakistan, Shaila later moved to the US and has contributed notably to the fields of writing and designing. Following is a brief conversation with Shaila about her work.
Ernest: Hello Shaila and thanks for joining me for a chat here about your work! First, you mind telling a little about your education, writing experience, and transition from Pakistan to the United States?
Shaila: I was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan and started the pursuit of my two interests—writing and design in that part of the world. I received a diploma in design and a degree in English from Karachi. For several years, I wrote for magazines and newspapers in Pakistan until I got married. Then it was off to Los Angeles for 5 years. For the past 10 years, my family and I have been living in Austin, Texas––the music capital of America. During that time, I wrote two books–– a collection of short stories called Beyond the Cayenne Wall and a novel by the name of Saffron Dreams. Both books have threads of life in Pakistan and have won multiple awards.
Ernest: What inspired the creation of Saffron Dreams?
Shaila: Readers may conjure up thoughts of Pakistani cooking, spices, and brides in red by looking at the cover. No, Saffron Dreams is much more than that. It is the story of basic human desire to be accepted in society, no matter what your background, ethnicity, or race. Saffron Dreams evolved on the basic premise that the preservation of cultural and religious identity of any group is the cornerstone of a civil society. The protagonist of the novel, Arissa Illahi, is a veil-wearing Muslim artist and writer in New York. Pregnant and alone after the tragedy of 9/11, she discovers the unfinished manuscript of her husband and decides to finish it as a tribute to him. Her unborn son and her husband’s legacy provide a renewed sense of hope to Arissa as she struggles to put the pieces of her life back together.
Ernest: So what does “Saffron” in the title signify and how does it relate to the novel’s story?
Shaila: Saffron is a rare and exotic spice derived from the stigmas of the saffron flower and as we know, is used in popular Pakistani desserts for its color and distinct flavor. In the novel, it is used symbolically to represent the extraordinary encounters and experiences in life.
Ernest: The main trigger of events in your novel is 9/11, following which the protagonist’s challenges burst out before her in full force. Prior to it, in the novel, is Arissa’s life in the U.S. comfortable and free of challenges?
Shaila: There are always adjustments to be made when an individual or a family moves to another country. There are sacrifices and even some form of guilt involved in making such a decision. It is never easy to leave one’s roots and adopting and adapting to a new way of life. I always think of 9/11 as a period when America lost its innocence. Prior to that, Muslim immigrants were broadly embraced in U.S. and blended in with ease. Today, we stand out more and are scrutinized a bit more closely. So yes, there is a remarkable difference between what Arissa experienced as a veil-wearing woman, before 9/11 and shortly after.
Ernest: Arissa, as a character that represents a Pakistani woman in the west, is at the crossroads of cultural conflict. What are the main factors that keep her struggling in the U.S. instead of shying away and returning to her homeland?
Shaila: The character of Arissa is a complex one. In her struggle to accept her loss––both familial and faith-based––she makes a conscious choice to remain in United States due to her unique circumstances. Post 9/11, we find that most of Arissa’s decisions were based on the well being of her son. Being that U.S. is a country of opportunities and breakthroughs, Arissa considers it an ideal home for her son because of his rare disability. Even within the United States, she makes a choice of living in Houston, Texas, where she believes her child would get the best care and ultimately would have a better chance to live a high-functioning life.
Ernest: What are some of the supporting features and factors of the American society that help Arissa and her real life counterparts in keeping their spirits up against the duress?
Shaila: Family, friends, and access to quality service for her offspring are the forces that help Arissa stabilize after the crisis in her life, leading her to the path of acceptance. From her losses emerged loving relationships and a message of hope. In some manner, those relationships negated the formation of reverse stereotyping in Arissa’s mind, clarifying the vision of future for her.
Ernest: At one point in the novel, Arissa is shown feeling guilty when she sheds her veil in an attempt to try to assimilate into the American culture. We know that a large number of women don’t wear veils in public even in Pakistan, especially in the cities. Does the veil assume a special value in America, or the west?
Shaila: The tragedy of 9/11 was a great shock to the American psyche. Some of that anger was directed towards those who shared the race and religion of the terrorists, especially those who publicly exhibited symbols of their faith such as veils, beards, or even their own names. Veil, though, became an important issue in many debates on what should and should not be allowed in Western schools, courts, and public places.
Four decades ago, Wilfred Cantwell Smith said that the problem of our age “is for us all to learn to live together with our seriously different traditions not only in peace but in some sort of mutual trust and mutual loyalty. Arissa, a veil-wearing Muslim woman, felt deprived of that privilege post 9/11. Having a child with disability compounded her fear of being discriminated against and she took her veil off to shield her child from any form of backlash. In her own words, she transferred “her veil from her head to her heart.” It is important for readers to remember that in the novel, it is shown as Arissa’s personal decision and not one that all veil-wearing women must follow.
Gratefully, there has been a movement within the U.S. lately to earn back that mutual trust and loyalty. Some American Muslims now choose to talk about and practice their faith more openly in an attempt to discredit the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that justifies violence in the name of religion. Islamic scholars are coming forward to talk about a historic Islam, roots of which were based on tolerance and peace.
Wherever I have gone for book tours, I have been asked the same question: Have Americans healed? Have Muslims healed from the hijacking of their religion? The answer is “somewhat”. But what has touched me most is that nine years later, most Americans know what fundamentalists stand for and that it is not religion. They know not to lump the rest of us in one sack and pretend to understand Islam.
Ernest: What has been the response to Saffron Dreams in the U.S. and among the Pakistani readers/writers?
Shaila: For me being in the U.S., it is a bit difficult to gauge the reaction of Pakistani readers apart from the occasional fan mail I receive. I know that the book was very well received in the U.S. and is currently being taught at some major universities in the U.S. The publisher produced an academic version of the novel just this year in response to the demands of the educational institutions. I have found that there is an equal level of interest in both genders. It seems that there is a great thirst among all readers––men, women, young, and old––to learn more about Muslims and what drives them. The interesting thing is even the followers of mainstream Islam can’t tell you what drives terrorism.
Ernest: Shaila, you are also a seasoned designer. Do you like introducing cultural themes relating Pakistani women in your designing work?
Shaila: Ask any immigrant and they will tell you, we all carry a bit of our past in all that we do. For creative individuals, the exploration of roots show through in their work, whether it is in designing a piece of art or composing a haunting melody. Designing is still my daytime job and I love the versatility of that field. I convinced my publishers to allow me to design the covers of my books and I am grateful that they agreed. Most authors would tell you how little control they have on the final design of their book covers.
Ernest: Finally, what are some of your upcoming projects, both in writing and designing?
Shaila: Creative expression is limitless although I am taking a little break from writing before taking on new work. Visit my website for updates in future at http://www.shailaabdullah.com/.
Graphic design work is ongoing. There are many tasks on my plate right now, from developing websites for a few clients to designing some email campaigns, newsletters, and book covers. I just finished designing Bapsi Sidhwa’s new site that was launched earlier this month. Design work never ends.
Ernest: Thank you very much Shaila for your precious time!
Shaila: Thanks for the opportunity. I do appreciate it.