Women Who Named the Unnamed: Hannah Macready Interviews Fauzia Rafique

Fauzia Rafique is a novelist, poet, editor, and blogger. She has published two novels, The Adventures of SahebaN: Biography of a Relentless Warrior (Libros Libertad, 2016), and Skeena (Sangam Publishers, India 2018, Libros Libertad, Canada 2011, Sanjh Publications, Pakistan 2007), where the Punjabi edition became Pakistan’s most sold Punjabi novel. Her collection of poems, Holier than Life, was published as an ebook in 2013. Her anthology, Aurat Durbar: The Court of Women, a collection of writing by women of South Asian origin, was published in Toronto in 1994. She was a co-founder and the editor of Diva: A Quarterly Journal of Women of South Asian Origin (Toronto, 1988-1994). Earlier, Fauzia worked as a journalist (Monthly Dhanak, Lahore), screenwriter (drama serials Appay Ranjha Hoi and Dastak Na Do, LTV), and activist (Women Front Pakistan). She is a co-founder and the coordinator of Surrey Muse Arts Society (SMAS). Rafique is happy to have received WIN Canada’s Distinguished Novelist & Poet award in 2012, and to have declined Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2013.

Hannah Macready: Hi Fauzia! I’m honoured to speak with you today about the work that the Surrey Muse Arts Society is doing to honour Pakistan’s Women Heroes. Your upcoming event, Women Who Named the Unnamed, is being held on September 28th at Surrey City Hall. Can you tell us a bit about what this event entails?

Fauzia Rafique: Thanks to you, Hannah, and Shashi Bhat, for this conversation. The evening’s program is a three-hour stage show recognizing 15 distinguished women from Pakistan, Surrey, and Vancouver, who have made substantial contributions to the development of our communities through literature, art, scholarship, and activism. This includes lawyers and leading activists Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani, feminist poets Fahmida Riaz and Kishwar Naheed, theatre professionals Madeeha Gauhar and Huma Safdar, Queer feminist Sarah Suhail and gang-rape survivor Mukhtar Mai, in the first two sequences that are geared by short videos. In the third sequence, our distinguished guests will be scholar/educator Sunera Thobani, author/activist Harsha Walia, Punjabi poet Surjeet Kalsey, theatre actor Darshan Maan, and Indigenous scholar/historian Deanne Reder. In addition, the gathering at the start will recognize poet/survivor Katheren Szabo, a Surrey Woman of Courage. The program will be guided by five bright and talented women as hosts.

HM: It really sounds like an incredible night of honour and remembrance. Your website states, “We have not had the chance to mourn their deaths or to celebrate their lives…” Can you explain why that is?

FR: This program is created and produced by Pakistani and South Asian women in the diaspora for the diaspora, where women from Pakistan are afforded little space because of colour, ethnicity, religious affiliations, and of course, the concurrent misogyny of the prevalent value systems. Though in each of us, our homelands and our adopted lands enjoy simultaneous existence and dedication, we are socialized to only adhere to one or the other. This is unsettling to the extent that it becomes a cause of perpetual sadness. We, as migrants and as women, experience this disconnection every day. This program is one of the ways to bring the two together, to see the relevance and the commonalities between women across borders, ethnicities, and religions, and to be able to celebrate and to mourn, to share sadness and joy. 

HM: Women Who Named the Unnamed is a multimedia, cross-disciplinary event. You yourself work in many different mediums, from screenwriting, to poetry, to journalism.  How does this kind of multifaceted work impact your ideas and creations?

FR: Different mediums are used by an artist to mainly say the same thing/s, or at least, that is the case with me. Using fiction, poetry, screenwriting, stage scripts and creative prose allows me to take my ideas and thoughts to a wider, more diverse audience as it helps me to improve my craft and art of writing. Content, theme, idea dictates the form of expression; the chosen form does not seem to play any major role in determining or developing my content or ideas unless they pertain to the form itself.  

HM: Your own work is deeply rooted in protest, feminism, and diaspora. What role do you think art plays in impacting change?

FR: A change in societal values occurs when many different factors are brought together, such as political ideologies, strategies, activism, material resources, and art. But for artists, art plays the central single most important role in impacting change within and without as it helps us to understand, formulate, communicate, share, and instigate ideas to bring desired change.   

HM: Finally, as an accomplished writer, activist, organizer, and journalist, you’ve likely had a lot of time to navigate the world of a professional artist. I know as a woman, and of course more so as a woman of colour, it can be daunting to throw yourself into a world that doesn’t always accept you. Do you have any resources to share with emerging, female-identifying, BIPOC writers?

FR: Women of colour writers of all descriptions find ourselves in a writing and publishing industry that is ruled and controlled by privileged white men, and coming down the ladder, we may find that the emerging female-identifying BIPOC writers are at the bottom, while Pakistani Punjabi women writers may not have made the ladder. In this reality, a few factors may determine a writer’s breakthrough point, such as the kind of art and literature an individual is creating and the level of privilege they may have in their lives. If someone’s art is mild in its criticisms of the systems that need to be changed, and they enjoy a level of privilege to afford writing courses, workshops, and retreats, then their path may have some comparative ease; if someone’s art is more upfront and they don’t enjoy enough privilege, it’ll be harder. 

I have tried self-publishing, publishing with small publishers, building a community of writers and artists, supporting local writers and groups, blogging, direct sales of booksbut I can’t say that I have made a breakthrough yet (smiley), though the work that I produce is utterly satisfying to me. 

Hannah Macready lives in Vancouver, BC.