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Interview: May 2009

May 2009

Sheba Karim's debut novel, SKUNK GIRL, follows a 16-year-old Pakistani Muslim girl and her struggles to live a "normal" teenage life while attempting to reconcile two very different cultures.
In this interview with's Alexis Burling, Karim sheds light on some of these differences, and challenges Pakistani women face in both their home countries and in the U.S. She also compares writing novels with short stories, explains why she chose to give up her law career to become an author, and shares details about the book she's currently working on. Many of your readers won’t know a lot about Pakistani culture (either here or in America) when they pick up SKUNK GIRL. How did you decide what details to include so that they’d get an accurate picture of how similar --- and how different --- the experience is from being a white teenager in America?
Sheba Karim: I don’t think I ever sat down and thought, “These are the details I want to include in writing about Pakistani culture.” Most of the cultural details emerged naturally as I wrote the story. For example, food is a very important aspect of Pakistani culture, and it’s natural that Nina would pay attention to it. The same with clothes. And, of course, details regarding the cultural mores are often at the forefront of Nina’s mind because they limit her participation in the high school social scene.
TRC: Nina clearly lives in the shadow of her Harvard-attending older sister, Sonia, and, unfortunately, this is partly her parents’ fault. Instead of seeing her for who she is, they only see how she doesn’t live up to Sonia’s achievements. Why did you choose to write this detail into the plot? 
SK: In our culture, the older siblings receive a great deal of respect from their younger brethren. Younger siblings are supposed to do what they say, and address them by special titles, while older siblings are supposed to serve as a model for all those who come after. So, the respect older siblings receive also comes with a lot of responsibility. But it’s always hard, no matter what the culture, to be continually compared against a model older sibling. I’ve seen this happen a lot in immigrant families, where the older sibling follows the path the parents want him or her to take and the younger sibling resists it, and is always admonished, “Why aren’t you like so-and-so?”, and I wanted to include this dynamic in my book.
TRC: Nina’s mother presses her lips together when she’s agitated. She also clasps her fist around the nearest object and shakes it in the air. I love this detail. Did you model this after your own mother? If not, who?  
SK: No, not my mother at all! I just imagined what Nina’s mother might do when she’s angry, and that was what immediately came to mind.
TRC: I noticed that a lot of the girls in SKUNK GIRL do the asking out. When I was in high school, it was mostly the boys who did the asking. Is this supposed role reversal how things go these days?
SK: When I was young, the annual Sadie Hawkins dance was a big thing --- it was exciting for girls to get a carte blanche to ask whomever they wanted out, something they might not normally have done. I think girls are definitely more open to asking boys out these days. And with all the new forms of communication --- e-mail, texting, etc. --- it’s gotten easier to ask people out, as you can do it in real time without even seeing or talking to the person.
TRC: Then again, there’s definitely a double standard when it comes to how men are treated and what women are allowed to do. You especially highlight this in Nina’s family/relatives. Why do you think this double standard exists? And is it different between cultures?
SK: I think the double standard exists because our culture is still very much based on a patriarchal, male-dominated form of society. Traditionally, in our culture, women were married young and their only acceptable role was to be a subservient wife and a devoted mother, hopefully one who bore many sons. Of course, things have been changing steadily in the past few generations, but recently you’ve also been seeing an increasing number of people propagating a strict interpretation of Islam. In Pakistan today, you see many more women wearing burkas than you did 10 years ago. 
In terms of the double standard being different between cultures, the general theme of women as being defined solely as wife and mother is very common across many cultures, Eastern, Western, etc. But in terms of financial freedom, freedom of movement and access to public spaces, access to education, and rights relating to marriage and divorce, women in the West do have greater parity with men, at least when compared to South Asia. But achieving equality for women is easier in countries that are secular and prosperous. Though there are many educated and successful women in Pakistan, women’s rights there still have a long way to go. The majority of women in Pakistan can’t read or write. Part of empowering women is empowering their minds. In Pakistan, the battle for women’s rights is a battle on so many fronts --- the battle for public education, the battle against poverty, the battle against religious zealots. 
Pakistani girls who grow up in the States, like Nina, here have their own particular battles. They don’t have to worry so much about access to education or dire poverty. Their struggle might be to marry someone of their choice, or not to marry at all, or to go away for college. Same roots, but different branches.
TRC: Nina doesn’t seem to face much overt discrimination at school. Yes, there are a few cracks here and there, and she feels alone and “different” most of the time. But for the most part, the kids at her school seem fairly accepting. Do you think kids are more or less tolerant than they used to be? Or about the same?
SK: I think kids are more aware these days of different cultures. The Internet has helped make the world much smaller. When I was young, most Americans didn’t know anything about Pakistan. Now, you hear about Pakistan every day on the news. Whether children are more tolerant or not --- I know after 9/11 a lot of Muslim children had a hard time of it. I think things have gotten better since then (which maybe isn’t saying much), particularly now that we have a president who is a member of a minority and has a “funny name.”
TRC: While there’s a lot of flirting going on in SKUNK GIRL, the sex talk errs on the responsible, condom-wearing side. What prompted you to address the issue of sex this way?
SK: Only one of Nina’s trio is having sex in the book, and she’s pretty responsible, as are her two friends. When she tells them of her prom night plans, they feel it’s their duty to remind her to use protection.
TRC: Bridget and Helena are almost too good to be true. Did you model these two after your own friends, or are they figments of your imagination?
SK: I did have two friends in middle school who were, in many ways, very similar to Bridget and Helena. 
TRC: If you had to rate yourself using the “Pakistani prestige point system,” what would you give yourself?
SK: Ha! Good question. I’d have to say somewhere between 2 and -2.
TRC: When Nina’s father tries to have a heart-to-heart with Nina, she puts on Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan instead and they share a mini-moment, thanks to the music. So, are you a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan fan? (I am!)
SK: I love him. He possessed such a gift. The world lost a musical genius the day he passed away.
TRC: Nina’s family makes so many delicious-sounding dishes, from masala turkey to Afghani biryani, to kheer pudding with sliced almonds. What’s your favorite dish to make? To eat?
SK: My favorite Pakistani meal is dal and keema. Simple but delicious. If only I could make it as well as my mother!
TRC: Hmmm. How about that ending? Did you ever think about having it end differently?
SK: Nina likes Asher, but she’s a pragmatic person. She realizes how hard it would be to date him, on several different levels. Now, of course, in the age of e-mails and cell phones and Twitter, you can practically virtually date someone. But I’ve had some people ask, “Well, what about when she comes back to school in the spring? Don’t you think when she sees him again her resolve might go out the window?” It’s possible that could happen, but that’s not the point where the story ends.
TRC: Toward the end, Sonia says to Nina: “Sometimes it’s our demons that save us, in the end.” Do you agree with this sentiment?
SK: Human character is very much shaped by the struggles we’ve had to go through. Yes, your demons can kill you, but they can also make you stronger. 
TRC: Before becoming a writer, you worked as a lawyer representing victims of domestic violence. What prompted you to quit to pursue your passion for writing?
SK: When I started working as an attorney, although I enjoyed many aspects of the work I did, I knew pretty quickly that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to write, but up until then I had never pursued it seriously. So I began taking writing workshops in the evening. It’s funny --- there are so many lawyers who want to write fiction. Every writing workshop I took in New York City would have at least two to three other attorneys in it!
TRC: A lot of great writers like Raymond Carver, Nam Lee, Flannery O’Conner, A.M. Holmes, etc., have an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which you graduated from. What was your experience like there? Anything you loved? Didn’t like? Would you recommend the program to other aspiring authors?
SK: Iowa is a wonderful program that allows you two years to focus solely on writing. They give everyone funding, and Iowa City is a great place to write with a nice community of writers. I’d definitely recommend the program to others. The hardest part about a MFA is graduating and having to return to the real world.   
TRC: I heard one of your short stories was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Congrats! What is it about?
SK: Thank you. It’s about a young woman trying to come to terms with the death of her estranged father. 
TRC: Do you prefer writing short stories or novels?
SK: I like them both, and they’re both very different. Short stories have to be so carefully crafted, with such attention paid to every word. In that way they’re harder to write than novels. But short stories are finite, compressed narratives while novels can become sprawling and endless and take multiples lives of their own. Tackling a novel can be quite intimidating. I’ve been focusing on a novel for a while now, so, for the time being at least, you could say I’m enjoying the novel form more.
TRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?
SK: I’m working on a historical fiction novel about a queen --- it’s set in 13th century India, so it requires a good deal of research. As to when you’ll see it, only time will tell…