“The story is driven by a female protagonist who is starkly different to her predecessors in English-language South Asian fiction, because she occupies space in society, has a voice that is not silenced by men, and, most importantly, possesses agency. My story explores the tenuous bonds between the female body, gender, and society. It describes the absurd bodily experience of being a brown woman by exploring the sexual lives of young South Asian people, the relationships young women nurture and destroy with parents and partners, and the mythical battle between modesty and objectification.”
“An instruction manual: How to find your vagina” by Maham Javaid (Pakistan)
Self-help books typically instruct readers how to improve their lives. This short story turns that concept on its head as it attempts to walk readers through a life that is unravelling.
Allow yourself to feel overwhelmed. You could release yourself from the stirrups, thank everyone in the room, grab your sweatshirt from the thermometer-shaped hook behind the door and go to school. If you left now, you’d be just in time for media law. You could also go to the apartment you share with your Colombian classmate, borrow the mirror she uses to pop zits, place it between your legs and search for the truth.
Maham Javaid’s short story, “An instruction manual: How to find your vagina”, has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. She chats to Cliffordene Norton about being nominated and tells more about her short story.
Congratulations, Maham! What was the inspiration for “An instruction manual: How to find your vagina”?
Thank you! My story explores the tenuous bonds between the female body, gender, and society. It describes the absurd bodily experience of being a brown woman by exploring the sexual lives of young South Asian people, the relationships young women nurture and destroy with parents and partners, and the mythical battle between modesty and objectification.
The story is driven by a female protagonist who is starkly different to her predecessors in English-language South Asian fiction, because she occupies space in society, has a voice that is not silenced by men, and, most importantly, possesses agency.
“I’ve been a journalist since 2011, and I think I learnt the very tangible power language has with my very first story.”
The title is very provocative. How did you come up with it? And what came first – the title or the story?
The story was always meant to be written as an instruction manual, so I always knew “How to” would be part of the title, but it was only after the story was complete that I knew the exact title. I was not trying to be provocative with the title; I suppose it is meant to be a warning, so the reader knows a little bit about what to expect as the story proceeds.
What are the challenges you’ve experienced while writing this story?
Building characters is always the most challenging for me. The plot, while tricky, is far simpler than having to build characters that are complex and real. Writing dialogue for the main characters is also exhausting; you have to keep guessing what you think they will say and how they will react, until you finally get it right. And the only way to guess is by writing out different versions of the story until one finally feels real.
What was your reaction when you heard that your story was shortlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize?
When you submit to a magazine or competition, you are one of thousands; the chances of someone liking your work are so low that you don’t think much about it. But the moment you are shortlisted, everything changes.
Now, there’s a chance you will win; but also, now, if you lose, it will matter more, which makes the process nerve-wracking – in a good way. But, all in all, I feel excited and honoured. Also, I am really enjoying reading the other shortlisted stories.
What did you edit out of this story?
There are small parts of the protagonists’ introspection that were edited out for length.
Have you read anything that has made you think differently about fiction?
All good fiction forces you to think differently about fiction and especially about the writing process. But, if I had to pick a few specific short story collections, I would say that Bandi’s The accusation made me realise how seamlessly politics can be written into fiction. Also, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her body and other parties was a wonderful reminder of how the best fiction is universal.
What was the first book that made you want to be a writer?
I don’t think I ever consciously thought about becoming a writer; it was accidental and circumstantial. But, in terms of writers whose styles I tried to imitate when I was younger, I would say Lorrie Moore and Italo Calvino.
What was an early experience where you learned that language has power?
I’ve been a journalist since 2011, and I think I learnt the very tangible power language has with my very first story. It was about a group of housewives who, frustrated with local government incompetence, decided to fill up potholes in their neighbourhood themselves. The day the story was published, a television reporter did a package on the women, and local politicians took action to improve the roads.
I mean, this was a very small example of language having power, but it was my first. Since then, I think language feels most powerful when those in power attempt to censor a story. The irony of governments censoring news stories is that it immediately makes you realise you’ve struck gold and uncovered something very important.
What does literary success look like to you?
I suppose literary success would include having encouraging editors to guide me, the freedom to write fiction without having to worry about finances, and, most importantly, knowing that your stories connect with strangers.
"I gravitate towards fiction steeped in cultural and social nuances"
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Press release: 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize Shortlist announced