If there's one author perfectly suited to a Sharjah International Book Fair panel discussion on the importance of place and culture in novels, it's Fatima Bhutto. Her 2013 debut novel, The Shadow Of The Crescent Moon, is still gaining plaudits around the world – it was published in the United States just a few months ago – for its impressive portrayal of three Pakistani brothers and the women they love in the tribal region of Waziristan, bordering Afghanistan.
“Actually, I think it’s very hard for writers from this part of the world to separate a sense of place from what they’re writing about,” she says of Pakistan. “That book was about young people trying to conduct ordinary lives in an extraordinary country enduring real turbulence and difficulty. How we live in Pakistan, how our inner lives work and where we are is all so woven together.”
Of course, the importance of place and culture to Bhutto's writing isn't limited to fiction. The niece of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister assassinated in 2007, and the daughter of Murtaza Bhutto, himself murdered in 1996, delved into the intricacies of power and religion in Pakistan in her memoir Songs Of Blood And Sword.
She collected accounts from people affected by the 2005 Kashmir earthquake in 8:50am October 8, 2005, and she continues to write for international newspapers and magazines about her unique relationship with Pakistan, a country she can write about with affection and searing anger. The Shadow Of The Crescent Moon casts Pakistan as intense, traumatic and sometimes beautiful. But she worries that it's becoming an even more dangerous and sadder country than it was when she wrote her debut.
“I wrote that book because the situation in Pakistan was really disturbing me,” she remembers. “[Teenage activist] Malala Yousafzai had been attacked, but this was before the Peshawar school massacre and the many other incidents involving innocent children or minorities which have really shaken this country to its core. It’s got more confusing as well, because now everyone is a target.”
The Peshawar massacre ended Pakistan's moratorium on the death penalty, another issue on which Bhutto has been outspoken. She wrote in the Indian newspaper The Hindu this May that it is flawed to think that killing death row convicts will somehow make Pakistan safer. "Since then, we have only had more blood," she noted.
"Executing 287 people in under a year is terrible," says Bhutto. "It can't possibly allow space for justice, fair defence or appeals. The Shadow Of The Crescent Moon was all about how that atmosphere of injustice affects young people, and you just have to look at the news coming out of Pakistan to see they're the ones in the eye of the storm."
The worries that Bhutto had back in 2012 and 2013 have merely amplified. And while authors often – rightly – talk about the power of the novel to affect change, can one book really have that effect?
“Actually I often find the kind of rousing writing that wants to have an influence a bit painful to read. It’s a bit like propaganda, really, if you’re going to write with an ulterior motive. For me, writing is about truthfully observing the world around you on a micro and macro scale.
“That still makes the novel important because it can capture a time and a place. Even if that’s understanding the thoughts of one woman in a small village, that’s a big enough – and important enough – task.”
• Fatima Bhutto is part of the Voices From Around The World seminar at The Literature Forum on Friday, November 6 at 8.30pm