Sidra Sheikh’s debut, a zany space adventure called The Light Blue Jumper, follows the exploits of an unwitting extraterrestrial hero and a motley band of rebels trying to bring down an interplanetary empire. DWL caught up with the author for a conversation that turned out to be as fresh and unassuming as her novel.
Scenario: Zaaro Nian has just finished reading a book on his adventures, written by a native of a planet called Earth. How would he describe the story to someone who hasn’t read the book?
“I cannot believe someone from the outer rims has written a text of sorts. I hadn’t realised that they’ve developed a coherent form of the written word. It’s quite intriguing to see that it’s supposed to be a record of my travels. They have gotten it completely wrong of course, but we must encourage intellectual growth in these regions. Please do read it as a study in how inferior species perceive the universe around them. I already have experience in this area because of occasional conversations with my wife.”
You are a lawyer, a mom and a Lahori. Which of these, if any, help you to see the funny side of life?
All three. I don’t think anyone can survive motherhood without being able to laugh. A lot. At times hysterically, when your baby does gymnastics at 3 am and your 4 year old tells you very seriously, in your ear (thankfully), that if she hears “one more word out of you, you’ll get a smack”.
As a lawyer, you have to laugh, otherwise you’ll cry. You battle the system constantly and you win occasionally. The rest of the time you try and distract yourself by focusing on the peon’s shoes lying in pride of place next to the law books in the court room shelf, one of which says ‘Baking Laws’ because banking is already taken. The pleadings from opposing counsel that say someone’s arguments “fell in a huddled thud” and a law report that talks about a dog and a “dogess”.
Through all this you try and forget that after you argued for someone’s rights in jail the judge nodded and asked, “But are you a lawyer?”
Whenever I think of my Lahori identity, I think of Bhangra Man from Goodness Gracious Me: the superhero who rescues people, but first he does some bhangra move (at times he only does bhangra moves). Lahore is all heart, and it makes me laugh, but mostly it makes me smile.
Speaking of which, how exactly did you manage to write a book while juggling motherhood, work and the patriarchy? Were there times you thought you might fall in a huddled thud yourself?
Ha! There were moments when that very thing happened to me. My husband would come rushing in to ask what that thud was and find me huddled on the floor.
On a serious note, having a supportive husband was key. He took over the school run, which gave me a nice block of time to myself in the morning and I’d catch up on legal work in the evening when my first-born was asleep. I cut back on court appearances and focused mainly on contracts and legal advice, everything that I could do in my own time. Once I started writing, I enjoyed it so much that I willingly gave up a lot of things, like sleep (which I missed occasionally) and socialising (which saved so much energy).
Ah, yes. The supportive spouse. As a woman, did you find that same level of support in your networks (familial, professional and social) when news got out that you were writing a novel?
I have a confession to make: I didn’t breathe a word to anyone while I was writing, except for siblings and my husband, who had to be my guinea pig by default (Was that funny? Did it work? Then why didn’t you laugh?). I was quite furtive about the whole thing. I wanted that ta-da! moment. Luckily, my novel found a home with Mongrel very soon after I finished it, otherwise it would all have turned out to be a bit of a damp squib.
Funnily enough though, I’ve had some “woohoo, well done you” reactions along with a lot of people who said they were “this close” to writing their own novels, if only they had the time. There was also a general expectation that I would be distributing free copies of the book to everyone, considering that I must have thousands lying around. I’ve also had random people write to me and ask me to “get” Shandana to publish their books. I just tell them, you obviously don’t know Shandana – no one “gets’ her to do stuff.
There is another strange thing: the condescension. I’ve worked for years in the most male-dominated environment you can imagine, so I know every shade of the word. It’s almost as if “for a woman” is attached to most compliments you receive. “Great book” (for a woman), “fun read” because I obviously started writing for fun (scrap that because I do have fun with it). One other thing is the reaction to a woman writing science fiction: most people pause, some ask why (in the world) and some blank out and move swiftly on to saner topics like kids’ homework.
But listen, you have done something pretty pathbreaking for the Pakistani Writing in English ouvre. Do you think The Light Blue Jumper makes other women out there feel like they can do this too? Generally, which readers did the book resonate with the most?
I hope that it does! I really believe that anyone can write anything as long as they are true to their characters and they have a cracking good story. It doesn’t matter whether your characters are in a spaceship or a castle… wait, it does, because spaceships are cool.
Sci-fi doesn’t have to be the fiefdom of the middle-aged white male. Women – that too, desi ones – can do it just as well, if not better. Someone wrote to me and told me how she hadn’t felt this way about a book in ages and she actually hid from her kids to finish reading it. A teenage reader sent me the sweetest hand-written note thanking me for introducing him to the world of Zaaro. So to answer your question, I think it has resonated with anyone who has an imagination and enjoys a good laugh.
That is phenomenal. Given the book is such a fun read, it’s easy to imagine an international audience for it. Could we be looking at publication and distribution outside of Pakistan any time soon?
We’re working on it. Fingers crossed!
The Light Blue Jumper is available at major bookstores across Pakistan and can be ordered online here.