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Taking time out with Nadia Hashimi, author of A House Without Windows.

Sarah Biggerstaff

Last month I had the chance to sit down with a woman who is not only an incredibly talented writer, but an extremely charming and inspirational individual.

Nadia Hashimi’s new book, A House Without Windows is her third adult novel, following The Pearl That Broke It’s Shell and When The Moon Is Low, and her young adult book One Half From the East.

It follows the story of Zeba, a woman imprisoned for the murder of her husband, and her experiences in an Afghan women’s prison. The novel deals with the myriad injustices faced by women within the Afghan Justice system, as well as the close relationships Zeba’s forms as she gets to know the wider community of women within the prison, and struggles with her familial relationships, both past and present.

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Sitting with Nadia Hasimi in Canberra’s QT hotel, I had the chance to discuss with her what fuels her passion for writing, and how she engages with a broad spectrum of issues within her work to create gorgeously touching and masterfully crafted tapestries of narrative in her fictional writing.

Sarah: How did writing become a part of your life?

Nadia: Reading was a part of my life, always. When I was in second grade, I think, I filled an entire school notebook with a story. But after that I didn’t really write [fiction]. But because I loved reading, at some point my husband kind of gave me that little nudge. He said, ‘If you really love it that much, I’m sure you can do it too’. And, at first I kind of laughed at the idea a little bit, but it grew and grew, and then I just had to try it. So, that’s how I came upon it; I don’t think I’d have made that leap without his encouragement.

I had this idea that I did want to be a writer, and the biggest thing for me was overcoming the mental block that ‘writers are other people’. That was a huge mental block, but once I decided that it was ok, that it was not the most insane thing to do in the world, I could try to sit down and try to write…My biggest writing course has been reading, and reading a lot.

Do you find it hard to find time for writing now, with a career [as a Pediatrician], and a family?

I have to make time for it. I’m lucky, I work part time as a paediatrician…because the writing has taken on such a big part in my life. It’s about balancing and setting aside time, no matter what you are doing.

What do you love most about writing?

I love the freedom that it gives me and the platform that it gives me. My goals in writing are firstly to talk about issues that I find personally really important, like for instance, women being imprisoned for crimes of morality, which makes me outraged, and I’m like ‘what can I do about it?’.

The only way I can get my anger about it is by writing about it in the form of a story.

Your work is quite political and culturally sensitive in terms of the themes you engage with; is that something that you are conscious of as you are writing, or it is that the stories you want to tell already have those themes in them?

It’s not because I want to tell the world to turn its castigating eyes onto Afghanistan, or accuse Afghanistan of being the world’s leader in human rights abuses – it’s more because I want to show the good and the bad that’s happening in the country…there are a lot of positives that exist in the culture.

Through the story [in A House Without Windows], you see that the women are the heroes of the story, they find solutions to their problems, they stand up for themselves, they really campaign [for] their own cause, and when we see that, it can turn a story from a tragic story into one about how Afghanistan’s women are saving themselves all around the country.

I really enjoy writing about it [women’s rights], it feels good to write about it. Sometimes you wonder what you can do. For me this is one way I can communicate with readers what is going on in the world, how women are demonstrating their strength and resilience, and their ingenuity. When I think about my daughters, these are the things that I want them to know…I couldn’t do anything else, I have to write about the things that are important to me.

Reading A House Without Windows, I felt that identity – cultural, gendered, and individual – was a really strong theme in the novel. Why do you think literature is such a strong platform on which to discuss issues of identity?

As reader you go through, and you get to know the different characters in the story, and you start to figure out what links you to that character, how you identify with them [or] what makes you different from that character, what you would do in that character’s position.

I think when you do that, when you walk for a while in another’s shoes, you start to understand more clearly what you own shoes are. As much as you are thrown into someone else’s life, it allows you, forces you, really, to do a bit of introspection.

It’s very much a story of Zeba’s self discovery, isn’t it?

She is a hero. She’s a hero who was not born a hero; she was born an ordinary person. She does have these demons, which add to her struggle to see herself as a hero. How she handles the situation she finds herself in really shapes who she is going to be.

Relationships between women feature really strongly in the novel, particularly in the prison; why do you think this is an important aspect of Zeba’s story?

I think it’s an important aspect of everybody’s stories – we all have communities, or networks that we fit into, whether it’s our family, or a college – we all fit into the world around us in some way, and we always have interpersonal relationships.

I think the [idea of] sisterhood is an important one, it shows that relationships between women are not always the stereotypical ones of cattiness and jealousy. There are a lot of other dynamics that factor in. I like to write about those, because those sorts of relationships really help define us [as women].

The end of the novel is so strong and positive; what, for you, is the message of the ending?

Everybody does what they think they can do, and they hope…But something happens, something good. I struggle with writing endings, you can’t create an ending that makes everyone happy. As a writer, I have to make an ending that I can be satisfied with.

Do you already have projects lined up for the future?

At the moment I am working on my second middle-grade [children’s] book, I’m finishing that up. I’m also playing around with what will be my next adult’s book, but it’s a little too early to describe where it’s going to be going.

It will be about a woman who tries to bury a dark part of her past. But of course, as in any good story, the past refuses to remain buried.

What’s it like when you see people reading your books?

Oh, it’s incredible! When my friends are reading it, it makes me nervous, when family reads it, it fills me with pride, it tickles me in a way I couldn’t have imagined. When I see strangers reading it, it’s just incredibly cool for me. It’s so amazing for me to think that I wrote that book sitting my living room in Maryland, and here I am [in Australia], and readers here have connected with my characters.

It’s just amazing that I connect with people from completely different parts of the world to me, at different times of their lives…I enjoyed writing it a lot.

It’s nice that when you’ve spent so much time writing a book to then have people reading it and reacting to it.

~

Nadia’s latest novel is a masterpiece; it exhibits both culturally and politically strong writing, and focuses on the importance of recognising the humanity within all of us. Exploring crises of identity and justice, and issues of morality, it is a fantastically moving novel that will touch every reader, moving them to tears with its complexly constructed characters and multi-layered narrative.

A House Without Windows is published by William Morrow, a division of Harper-Collins, and is on sale now.

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Sarah Biggerstaff

Sarah Biggerstaff is a literary enthusiast, from Canberra, with a Masters degree in English Literature from the University of York in the United Kingdom. She is currently in her first year of an English PhD, the focus of which is British women’s fiction from the inter-war period, with a particular interest in feminist readings of these novels. Sarah hopes to one day write books, as well as review them, and in the meantime, is happy sharing her passion for books with others. More about the Author

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