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An Interview with Author Aysha Baqir

baqir

I grew up in Pakistan. My time at Mount Holyoke College, USA, sparked a passion for development and I chose to return to Pakistan to work. I quickly learnt that girls and women in villages needed access to economic resources before they could voice their demands for social justice. I founded the Kaarvan Foundation (www.kaarvan.com), a pioneering economic development not-for-profit organization. During the time I spent in rural villages, my life interfaced closely with girls and women and my admiration and respect for their determination, strength, and humor in times of despair grew immensely—with so little they managed to achieve so much.

My debut novel Beyond the Fields was published in January 2019 by Marshall Cavendish (Singapore) and in 2022 by Lightstone Publishers (Pakistan). I was invited to launch Beyond the Fields at the Singapore, Lahore, and Karachi Literary Festivals (2019/2020), and Women in Literature Festival, 2021. Beyond the Fields was shortlisted for best-Debut English Novel at the 9th UBL Literary Awards and won the Literature Award of the Ladies Fund in Karachi in 2022.

My short stories have been selected for best-selling published anthologies: A View of the Stars published by Marshall Cavendish (Singapore), Mona Lisa No Longer Smiles by Om Books International (India), and The Gendered Body in South Asia: Negotiation, Resistance, Struggle by Routledge, Taylor, and Francis Group. My interviews, book reviews, articles and short stories have appeared in Countercurrents, Borderless, Ex-pat Living, The Herald, Ananke, Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly, The Kitaab, The Tempest, and the Singapore Writer’s Group Forum. I am an Ashoka Fellow and a recipient of Vice Chancellor’s Alumni Achievement Award from LUMS.


You can buy Beyond the Fields here.


Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

There was no one moment when I decided to become a writer, rather it was series of events over a year—monthly meetings of Singapore Writers Group, author talks, and Singapore Writers Festival sessions—during which I realized I had stories that I wanted to share with the world.

I joined the Singapore Writers Group in 2013 but I didn’t start writing Beyond the Fields until 2014. Being a member of the SWG played a significant role in my writing career. First it gave me, a novice in this field, a confidence to write and share my writing with strangers, second, the trainings hosted by authors helped to learn how to write, and to share my voice with the world. It was an enabling environment.

The momentum or the spark in the writing process came from the time I had spent in the villages and the voices of the village women. During the time I spent in the villages, my life interfaced closely with girls and women and my admiration and respect for their determination, strength and humor in times of despair grew immensely—with so little they managed to achieve so much. The characters are fictional but the voices are real. The characters in Beyond the Fields challenge the roles that have been defined for them, determined instead to persevere and achieve their dreams.

What inspired you to start writing this book?

Beyond the Fields is a story about a young village girl called Zara. Zara has dreams, she want to study, and wants to become someone important. She loves kairis (raw mangoes) so she disobeys her mother and steals into the orchard. And then on one ordinary day, Zara’s twin sister, Tara, the one she is closest to in the whole world, is kidnapped while they are playing a game of hide and seek and raped.

Each day thousands of girls and women across continents and cultures from Pakistan to Peru are assaulted and the abuse continues without any substantial family, community, or legal support in place. According to World Health Organization (WHO), estimate nearly one in every three women worldwide has been physically or sexually abused by their partners or experienced non-partner sexual violence. Rape is a silent epidemic. And we need to talk about it.

I deliberately set the story under Zia-ul-Haq’s regime in Pakistan. I was twelve years old when my mother dragged me to a march called by WAF or Women’s Action Forum. Being an introverted American School teenager, I didn’t want to go. But my mother insisted saying it was important for me to see what was happening in our country.

The protest was for Safia bibi—a young blind girl a few years older than me—who had been raped by her employer and his son. She didn’t report the crime. Because she showed clear signs of pregnancy and was unmarried, it was assumed she had premarital sex. Her failure to prove that she was raped prompted the judge to sentence her (under the Hudood ordinance) to three years of imprisonment and 15 lashes. The ruling cast her as the perpetrator instead of the victim. Her rapists were never prosecuted and did not spend any time in jail.

That day at the protest, I stood with my mother along with hundreds of other women- and the memory of us standing for hours with other women protestors jammed across the Mall road demanding justice for Safia Bibi under the hot summer sun haunts me to date. And to date, I shudder thinking that the only thing that separated me from Safia Bibi was an accident of birth.

Beyond the Fields is narrated through Zara’s voice because I wanted the readers to experience her emotions. Fear, disbelief, horror, anger as she sees family, her community, and the legal system failing her. Beyond the Fields is also about fighting back and saying NO to social injustice. Towards the end of the story, there is a twist. What is honor and shame? What is wrong and right? And when the most horrific wrong becomes right…

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

The title of the book Beyond the Fields was inspired by the young village girls I met during my work in development because they dreamt of a future beyond the fields.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

“I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

I grew up in Lahore, Pakistan. Graduating as the valedictorian of my class I won a scholarship to Mount Holyoke College. In the first week of school, I took a class in International Relations and it sparked a passion for economic development. Why were some nations poor yet others not? Why were the economic and social indicators of some nations improving while others worsening? Until then I had been cocooned in my school life—the academics, sports, and activities. My classes in Economic Development and International Relations opened my eyes to the poverty around the world and in my home country, Pakistan. And in that one class, I realized that I knew nothing about it. Upon my return to Pakistan, I saw that the poor didn’t need my sympathy – they needed access to economic resources and networks before they could voice their demands for social justice. In 1998, armed with an MBA from LUMS, I founded a pioneering not-for-profit economic development organization, Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, focused on poverty alleviation through the provision of business development and market-focused trainings for girls and women.


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