Horla Interview (December 2019)

INTERVIEW: HABIB MOHANA

‘Village life has influenced me more than anything else… My stories gyrate around social and cultural issues and mostly the issues relating to women who are struggling to stand on an equal footing with men.’

HORLA: Please tell us a little of your early life and something from that time that you believe has influenced you as a writer.

HABIB MOHANA: I was born in 1969 in Daraban Kalan, a town in the district of Dera Imsail Khan, Pakistan. I am an assistant professor of English at government degree college No 3, D. I. Khan. I write fiction in English, Urdu and Saraiki, my mother tongue. I have four books under my belt, one in Urdu and three in Saraiki. My short stories in English have appeared in literary journals of America, India, the UK, Canada, China and South Africa. In 2010 and 2014 my Saraiki books won the Khawaja Ghulam Farid Award from the Pakistan Academy of Letters. My book of short stories in Urdu, titled ADHORI NEEND, won the Abaseen award from the Government of KPK. I am currently seeking a publisher for my novel The Village Café.

Mohana book cover

Village life has influenced me more than anything else. I was born and bred in the village-like town or town-like village which had all the colours, fragrances, characters and beauties a writer needs to get inspiration and erect his/her dream world. My home village was a cluster of low adobe houses with white minarets sticking up here and there, it had a gurgling stream that fed the date palm orchards, with blue mountains for the background and a village whose streets from afternoon up untill the call to evening prayer lay under the brutal occupation of noisy packs of children.

Was there any tradition of writing in your family?

No, there was no tradition of writing in my family. I and my sibling are the first generation educated people in our family, my parents were proud but illiterate folks.

When and how did you get into writing creatively?

I got into writing creatively in 2004 when I started working on the novel in Saraiki. My first short story in English appeared in 2017 in Canada, although even before that I had written two novels in English which are still crying to see the light of the day and for whom I am seeking a publisher. I got into writing firstly because I had been blessed with literary germs, secondly I earned my Master degree in English literature which whetted my appetite for literature and gave me a chance to hone my writing skills which still are in the processing of developing.

How would you describe your writing in terms of genre?

My stories can be categorized as literary /upmarket commercial. I am not in a hurry to rush my stories to the conclusion. Most times they depict the rural life of Pakistan especially of Saraiki Belt from where I hail. My stories gyrate around social and cultural issues and mostly the issues relating to women who are struggling to stand on an equal footing with men. Though on the surface my stories seem to have a message, personally I am a staunch follower of art for art’s sake.

We have come to know you at Horla particularly for short stories. In your experience, is there something distinct about the way of writing a short story that separates it from other kinds of writing?

Definitely, a short story is a totally separate thing from other kinds of writings, for example a short story must have a story, the story must be short, it must have conflict, and it must be in a narrative form. Story is not a necessary component for writing criticism, while the travelogue has story but conflict is absent, while drama has story and conflict but lacks narrative form, a novel has first three requisites but it is deficient in shortness. Short story is one of the most powerful engines of expression in the literature. I enjoy writing short stories, but it is not without challenges. In the literary fair a short story writer gets a small amount time and a tiny patch of land to display his/her tricks before a nit-picking, restless audience. Remaining inside these bounds he/she has to impress the readers and draw their attention to his/her wares otherwise they will move ahead to the next stalls whose spacious spaces are stacked with a variety of goods.

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The stories of yours that we have published at Horla have engaged with themes of the supernatural, folklore and so on, seemingly deriving from traditions and cultural life that you have knowledge of in Pakistan. Is there a quality in literature (particularly with reference to the supernatural and horror) that engages us universally, no matter where we live? If so, what is that quality? Or is a reader in some other geographic part of the world drawn to a story set in Pakistan because the reader is hoping for something that is going to be different? Is the answer perhaps some combination of the two?

Mohana book cover

There is a quality in literature that engages us universally in terms of horror and the supernatural. These two things—horror and the supernatural—are hardwired in our minds, we are born with them thus we have an innate ability to enjoy them, probably a boon from the age when fearfully we took to the caves just after the sunset. We love to be scared imaginatively but hate to face horror physically or in real life scenarios. We love horror and supernatural things happening to our heroes and heroines on the screen and in the book but we ourselves would not like to be hurled into those scary situations. That said, the role of tradition and training can’t be ignored as far as horror and supernatural stuff is concerned. For example the Muslim world can easily grasp and enjoy the stories of genies better than the stories of ghosts which is a western thing. However due to globalization and superfast communication things are getting pretty mixed up: the western world is relishing hot spicy foods and the eastern world is loving pizzas and burgers.

 Please briefly describe your writing process – where / how. What is the most difficult part and how do you deal with that?

In my view a story is born accidentally, you need a lucky moment of inspiration and in the beginning a story is a point, a bud, a one-liner sentence. It may lie dormant in the writer’s mind for a minute, a day, a month, a year or years before blossoming into a full-fledged novel or short story. As all the flowers on an apple tree don’t turn into sweet, aromatic, red fruits in the same way all ideas don’t grow into full stories, some are blown away by a strong wind, some are destroyed by bugs, some apples die in childhood, some little apples are burnt by frost, some are plagued by a blight, some apples’ life is cut short by a fruit fly’s egg, it is only some lucky apples that attain maturity, sweetness, sheen, redness and aroma.

The most difficult part while writing in English is the editing process and assuring the correctness of the language. Licking a raw story into an attractive and acceptable piece is a hell of job. I, not being a native speaker of English, confront numerous challenges in this department.

Is there an active ‘scene’ in terms of a community of writers and publications in Pakistan engaged with writing in the supernatural / horror genre? How popular is this kind of writing among readers in Pakistan?

The horror or supernatural genre is common in Urdu, which is the national language of Pakistan but I don’t think there are any specific journals for it in English language. People in our part of the world love stuff depicting horror and supernatural, the educated class enjoy reading horror stories/novels in English as they have access to it but not the common folks. If there are any Pakistani writers of English keen on this genre they send their stories to the English- speaking world for publishing.

 Who are the writers that have most influenced you and why? Please name some contemporary writers who’ve caught your eye and tell us why they have.

Among classical writers I love and am influenced by Shakespeare, Cervantes and Dostoevsky. Among modern writer I love the writings of Arundhati Roy (left), Muhammad Hanif and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I love their works for their boldness and realistic approach to life and brining up social issue for discussion and then finding a solution to them.

 What can we expect in the near and longer-term future from Habib Mohana?

In the near future I am going to publish a book of short stories in English. I am also working on a novel in English. I know no other business than writing stories. I don’t know about their quality, the readers will have to tell me that.

FIND THREE SHORT STORIES BY HABIB MOHANA HERE AT HORLA