Shazaf Fatima Haider’s latest novel A Firefly in the Dark is a coming-of-age story set in an eerie ancestral bungalow. Sharmeen, the novel’s 12-year-old protagonist, finds the path to teenage-hood more slippery than smooth as she faces loss, horrors, and haunting decisions.
Shazaf Fatima Haider merges the seen and the unseen in this thrilling novel that has one hooked until the end. She creates a rather unconventional world that has some strong messages for its female readers. A Firefly In The Dark is a chatpati Nani-ki-kahani except it also encourages young women to rise above oppression and pressures.
We spoke with Shazaf about the inspiration behind her bold female characters and a culturally rich story.
Q. What inspired you to write a YA novel about supernatural elements — Jinns and Morpirs — from the Eastern culture rather than the wizards or werewolves we so often get to read about in YA fantasy novels?
Shazaf Fatima Haider (SFH): Precisely because I found that my students at the time were more acquainted with witches and werewolves than with Jinn and Churails and Sheesh Naagins. We have a rich culture of storytelling, yet very few of the creatures from the subcontinental imagination make it to mainstream English fiction. This is a terrible poverty and absolute shame — because the Nani and Dadi Amma ki kahaaniyaan that enriched our childhoods are usually sidelined as trivial and unimportant. But they aren’t: these are rich, creepy and fun stories which contain all the deep, dark fears and disturbing enemies children must face if they are to face the world with courage and creativity. Adults want the same rita-pita stuff: politics, identity, tragedy — but children demand to be entranced and convinced that the fantastical world they are reading is absolutely and vividly real. All this was a challenge and I took it up.
Q. Sharmeen is a 12-year-old who takes on frightening challenges and adult responsibilities. How did you come up with this young and brave female character?
SFH: Children and teenagers are the most courageous people you will ever find. They have dark secrets and deep imagination. Also, Sharmeen is a young girl about to become a woman and has to understand what that means in order to save her father.
You know, we live in a country where young girls face all kinds of sexual abuse. The most brutal ones are reported; others, not.
‘Firefly’ is a story about growing up and Sharmeen has to face threats to her body in order to transition into wisdom. There are many Sharmeens around me: women who were molested and abused at a young age and who have sought refuge from the demons of their pasts with courage and with imagination and come out wiser but scarred. I wanted to write about them, but in my story, I wanted to save them. And that’s why I created this twelve year old who is a warrior but at the same time, terribly scared and vulnerable.
Q. You’ve mentioned you wanted to write about women. In our folk tales, we rarely hear stories of women fighting against the supernatural. They are either portrayed as victims or they seek the help of men. I found A Firefly in the Dark to be a narrative challenging gender stereotypes by introducing us to strong female characters like Nani and Sharmeen. Please tell us more about your vision for these characters. And how do you think fantasy novels with female protagonists can contribute towards overcoming oppressive gender roles?
SFH: Well, Grandmothers are central narrators in our local tales of Jinn, aren’t they? Many a story starts with a bunch of children pestering their Nani or Dadi until she relents and tells them a story to get rid of them. But a narrator is a powerful being — she can create, manipulate and take a story wherever she wants — her own agenda. Stories like podna podni are about rebellion and so it made me wonder why so many women talk about rebellion in these bed-time tales.
There is something mysterious and awe-inspiring about the strength of a woman who still has some fight left in her. Where does someone who has been beaten down, marginalised, sexualised and dismissed get her power from? She is a force to be reckoned with and the demons she dreams up are but guises of her own powers. Women are the perfect narrators for fantasies because they are both the demons and the warriors who slay them.
“This is a novel about growing up — and I want to say it isn’t easy and often, it is lonely… I suppose the message is — hang in there — you’ll find your way, just as Sharmeen is, no doubt, doing right now.” — Shazaf Fatima Haider
Q. In the novel, a character expresses the idea that one should not be quick to judge and that no person is entirely good or evil. This seems to be a commentary on the world we live in, where otherisation and anti-immigrant sentiments are dominant. Please tell us something about why you felt this was an important message for your readers?
SFH: You know, I hadn’t thought of the immigrant angle at all! But Aziz is this, isn’t he? A servant kept for his usefulness but reviled and exiled the minute he tries to be a genuine part of the family. Nani as Donald Trump? They’re both a bit kooky — so it’s a plausible reading. The fact is, I wasn’t thinking about big politics at all while writing this book — although your reading is an interesting and valid one.
I have a lot of guilt because I have grown up with ‘servants’ or house help who have all been treated like Aziz — dismissed, disregarded, always the ‘other’. My own version of Aziz left us when I was 30 years old — I was a part of his family, but he was never a part of mine. When he left, I was beginning to write ‘Firefly’ and some of my guilt and the complexity of my relationship with him seeped in. We treat everyone who isn’t of our own class as the ‘other’ and yet their background and poverty is no doing of their own. But this difference also seeps into the way we are manipulated by them. It is unequal and unjust and it corrupts and corrodes everyone in the dynamic — just like Nani and Aziz are both corrupted by their loathing of one another.
Q. The novel’s antagonist is a despicable Jinn who possesses bodies and feeds on their suffering. It seems like a metaphor for anything from colonisation to sexual harassment. How would you respond to that?
SFH: You know, I’m really liking how you’re turning this bed-time tale into a post-colonial text. But the sexual colonisation of little girls is something I definitely wanted to talk about, but in a metaphoric way. Look, I grew up in the fear of being raped — my mother, like most mothers, used my body as a weapon to prevent me from straying too far from home by myself. A girl’s body is the ultimate tool of psychological and societal control. We are shamed for being too thin or too fat, for menstruating, and even for being violated. There is no outrage when 7 year old girls are gang-raped, mutilated or murdered — when brothers, fathers and uncles molest and sexually exploit those whom they should be protecting. Sargosh is all those men and women who are guilty of this, or who defend rapists. Sargosh is part of a society where men conspire to videotape little girls and boys while torturing them sexually. This happens in India, it happens in Pakistan and it happens in the rest of the world. But here, in the subcontinent, these offenders will find sympathisers, defenders and even enablers. Sargosh isn’t a fantasy — he’s real and he’s among us. And that’s what makes him so scary.
Q. Making sacrifices is a recurring theme in the novel. Since fantasy novels often allow us to imagine possibilities for the real world, how important is sacrifice as a value in the world you would like your readers to imagine and why?
SFH: Nothing can be saved if one is not ready to suffer for it. I am fascinated with strong women, but also afraid of them. If they are on your side, that’s fabulous. But what if they are against you? It’s important for me to not value strength for itself — it has to be tied up with being on the right side. Both the Janeeree and Nani battle Sargosh because there is no one strong enough to face him, they fight for the weak. Aliya, Sharmeen’s mother, refuses to rise up to the possibility of any sacrifice and this makes her pathetic. ‘Sacrifice’ is usually a word associated in most minds with a woman giving up her dreams and ambitions and sitting by a stove and stirring a pot of some goulash while wiping away the tears of her unfulfilled life. That is far from the truth. Nani and Janeeree are forces to be reckoned with and they are used to getting their way. They stand down to no one and they have done and said cruel things — because their own life force is supreme. But, when the time comes to protect, they surrender all. Sacrifice is not painstaking and never ending. It is heroic and dramatic and bloody. And this kind of sacrifice is the only kind that effects change in the world.
Q. Your first novel How It Happened also featured a strong grandmother. Is this something you’ve drawn inspiration from your own life?
SFH: I never met my grandmothers. They both died before I was nine, and the little I know about them is not particularly inspiring. I suppose I keep creating grandmothers in order to imagine what it would be like for me to have one. It would be tumultuous as I have a problem with authority — but Nani and Sharmeen have a closeness and understanding I imagine and hope I would have with my grandmother, had I ever met her.
Q. What message would you like to give to other Sharmeens reading your novel?
SFH: We all suffer and in that suffering we are alone, miserable and scared. But that fear and the conquering of it is what makes us worthy. This is a novel about growing up — and I want to say it isn’t easy and often, it is lonely. There are many adults in the world, but dreadfully few grown-ups. I suppose the message is — hang in there — you’ll find your way, just as Sharmeen is, no doubt, doing right now.
Note: The interview has been edited to avoid some spoilers.