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Tanaz Bhathena on death as a muse

Tanaz Bhathena

Tanaz Bhathena is the author A Girl Like That, a novel set in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia that centers around the intersecting lives of four protagonists. We caught up with the debut author to find out more about the inspirations behind her work. 

First of all, congratulations on writing such a beautiful and haunting novel. When did you realize for yourself that you were a writer? And how did the story for A Girl Like That take shape for you?

Thank you so much for your kind words! I began writing stories when I was eight and knew I wanted to be a writer when I was thirteen. A Girl Like That began as a short story which I wrote in my final year at university. At the time, it was a simple story about a girl and a boy having to cross over a bridge into heaven or hell after death. It would take another decade and a lot of work before it became the book that you can read today.

Why did you choose to tell the story from a teenage perspective? Did you begin visualizing these characters when you were in your teens? 

I was a couple of years out of my teens when I began visualizing Zarin’s character. At the time, I had set a short story collection around a fictitious school in Saudi Arabia, and it felt natural to write about the students who went there from their own perspectives.

Many of us (in South Asia at least!) are familiar with stereotypical images of eccentric Parsis from Bollywood but also with more nuanced writings by Parsi authors such as Rohinton Mistry and Bapsi Sidwa, as a Parsi yourself, what were you trying to represent with your Parsi characters? 

I wanted to write about Parsi characters, but from the perspective of teenage expats who were also Gulfie [lived in the Arabian Gulf]. This wasn’t something I’d seen done before—most Parsi authors had written books about adults that were set in India and Pakistan. Of course, like the Maruti-driving, “dikra”-spewing bawa from a Hindi movie, my book doesn’t represent all Parsis and I’m hoping people will realize that as well.   

Your book starts with the death of the two main protagonists. This sets the tone for much of the narrative, why did you make this unconventional choice?

I wanted to write a dark comedy where the main character was dead and looking down on the scene of her accident. I was writing another book at the time—about a character who was stuck in purgatory—and had set it in India. When that didn’t work as well as I wanted it to, I changed the setting to Saudi Arabia and added a twist: a girl had run away from home because of her aunt. By then I already knew the comedy idea wouldn’t work, but Zarin’s voice came forth almost immediately, and she brought Porus along for the ride.

Porus and his mother and even to some extent Zarin's Masa and Masi emanate from the working class circumstances, and while not working class Mishal and Abdullah being half-Indian were not seen as fully Saudi, how big a role was class divide in your book?

That is a great question. There is definitely a class divide in Saudi Arabia which can be traced back to nationality and religion and also how much power you have depending on who you know in the government. I don’t delve into class divisions in a lot of detail in the book but I did want to make sure it was accurately reflected through the characters I portrayed.

The book really has this underlying sense of suffocation against the clear hypocrisies and double standards for men and women in Saudi Arabia, was Zarin's rebellion a way to blur or at least question those clear lines for you? 

When I first began the book, I wasn’t thinking about the themes or issues that I’d be addressing. I was simply telling a story and Zarin’s rebellion was initially a way to act out against how she was treated by her aunt at home. That she lived in Saudi Arabia with all these social restrictions made things even more challenging for her. As I wrote, the issues began cropping up by themselves. To me, the main questions were: Has our world really changed? Why is gender divide still such a big issue?

A Girl Like That touches on a lot of issues: gender bias, mental health, physical abuse, bullying and rape - is this just a reflection of our times and universal issues that teens everywhere have to grapple with growing up?

I started writing this book inspired by my experiences of living in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s. I honestly thought—maybe hoped in a naïve sense—that some of the issues I explored would no longer be relevant by the time the book came out. But then the Delhi gang rape happened in 2011. Teens all over the world still struggle with bullying and mental health issues. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements show that issues of gender bias and sexual assault are very much universal and alive.

That said, Saudi Arabia itself is changing, little by little. Women will be able to drive in June 2018. I like to believe that progress does happen, but it takes time.

Most books written about Saudi Arabia have this feel of exotic oversimplification and feed into the western narrative of an oppressive society. Did you have concerns about your book being viewed from that perspective?

I absolutely had this concern—and I still have this concern. There’s often a thin line between portraying something honestly and feeding into a stereotype and while I was definitely concerned about the latter, I also didn’t want to censor myself the way I would have while living in Saudi Arabia. It’s my hope that in reading the book, people will be able to set aside whatever preconceived notions they had about Saudi Arabia and come out of the experience with a fresh perspective.

Were there any books by Saudi authors that you read as research or inspiration for your characters?

Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea is a classic. I also read A History of Saudi Arabia by Madawi Alrasheed and articles by Eman Alnafjan, Ahmed Alomran, Raif Badawi, Manal Alsharif and various other writers and activists for research.

What other works are you currently penning and what can you tell us about it?

I’m writing another young adult novel called The Beauty of the Moment, which will be published by FSG and Penguin Canada in 2019. The book, which starts a year after A Girl Like That, traces the journey of a Qala Academy girl from Saudi Arabia to Canada, where she faces new challenges and discovers new love.

Also read Surishtha Sehgal on the Festival of Colors

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