Saadia Faruqi at BookPeople

Houston author and interfaith activist shares her stories

Growing up in Pakistan and immigrating to the United States gave Houston writer and interfaith activist Saadia Faruqi a unique opportunity: Use fiction as a conduit for cultural awareness. Or at least, tell some good stories and narrow the perspective gap.

Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage From Pakistan, a collection of seven short stories dedicated to Faruqi’s late father, is a quick read, full of heart. Sensitive without shying away from the harsh daily truths that Faruqi herself witnessed as a child, each story has some sort of physical emblem, and most of the main characters are female. The portrayals answer trivial but persistent curiosities: What are the citizens like? How do they balance work and children and home and dreams? Where/how do they eat/sleep/ride the bus? But Brick Walls also tackles hot-button issues of suicide bombers, systemic injustice, and generational poverty so often associated with Pakistan by Westerners over the last decade. Faruqi breaks it down: Sure, tragedy strikes, devastation occurs, and humans make terrible decisions, but there are also lovely portraits of compassion and strength, fascinating examples of art in everyday life, and regular people doing regular things.

We caught up with Faruqi via email to find out her inspiration behind Asma, Farzana, and Nida … and why Pakistani stories matter in America, too. Faruqui will read and sign at BookPeople on Saturday, Feb. 13, 4pm.

Austin Chronicle: What’s your background in writing fiction?

Saadia Faruqui: I used to write stories as a child in Pakistan. Sometimes they were original stories, at other times I used to translate the books my grandmother had on her bedside table. But fiction was never a career option for me, not when I was growing up in Pakistan or after my move to the U.S. I've mostly written nonfiction for the last decade. Before Brick Walls, I wrote several short stories that were published in American literary magazines.

AC: Are these stories based on real life characters? Tell me about your inspiration for some of the characters.

SF: All my stories in Brick Walls are fiction based in reality. None of the characters are real but the situations they face are very real. The poverty, the corruption, the discrimination – those things happen all the time in a country like Pakistan. I came up with the situations first, awful things I had seen around me that I wanted to share with others. I knew I wanted to write about certain issues, certain "brick walls." The characters were developed later, and some of them have bits and pieces of Pakistanis I have met.

AC: Why do these short stories provide such an interesting snapshot of real life in Pakistan?

SF: Each short story describes a brick wall, a challenge faced by the main character. So each story is a snapshot of real life, with its harsh, raw reality. What's interesting is not the challenge but how the characters deal with it. That's what I hope my readers will take away from the book: that even though life itself is different in Pakistan, the emotions and struggles human beings go through, and the hopes and fears they have, are the same no matter where they live. It's also a complete snapshot because it offers a glimpse of everyday life in a very different place … The foods and the sights and sounds, even the clothes.

AC: It seems like stories such as these have the potential to build cultural bridges. In your words, why this is so essential in the United States right now?

SF: Building bridges and improving understanding is the reason why I wrote Brick Walls. I train a lot of audiences on cultural sensitivity, and I was finding so many of the same stereotypes, was being asked so many of the same questions. People wanted to know about my life in Pakistan, They had questions about current events they heard about in the media but didn't know who to ask. I realized that storytelling has a unique power to highlight experiences and to improve understanding of different cultures. Using stories, I could show so many different sides to the same issue, so many sides of a character. In the current political environment where Muslims and Muslim cultures are demonized, it is very important to tell the stories that paint a different picture. Just recently, I have started hearing from high school and college professors who want to use Brick Walls as required reading for their students.

Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage From Pakistan

by Saadia Faruqui

FB Publishing, 194 pp., $17.95

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