Arifa Akbar and Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi: Bringing Unwritten Ideas into the Light

With the UK edition of our book A Secret Sisterhood now sent off to the printers, we’re glad to be able to give more attention to this blog once more.

Today we have an interview with two modern-day female writers. Some of you will remember Arifa Akbar’s fascinating talk at last year’s Something Rhymed literary salons. You can read it here if you weren’t able to come along that evening. She joins us now with her friend Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi to tell us about their literary friendship.

How did the two of you meet, and can you tell us about your first impressions of each other? 

Arifa: I was invited into a circle of British South Asian writers in 2013 and Ayesha was there. We’d meet once a month to talk about our work. For about a year, I only saw Ayesha at these gatherings so I got to know her through her critical opinions first. The friendship grew through it.

At the time, she was planning on doing a PhD on trauma in literature and I was a journalist at The Independent so we came from different worlds but I loved the way she approached books, how she had the ability to really listen. She was someone who seemed passionate and unafraid in her opinions. I thought that she was a gentle person but filled with a spirit of quiet rebellion.

Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi  (left) and Arifa Akbar (right)

Ayesha: At one monthly group meeting, nobody turned up but she, I, and another writer friend, Kavita Bhanot. In that intimate setting, the conversation turned to personal matters and I brought up an issue I had been grappling with. With the same analytical insight and strong feminist sensibility that she applies to her literary criticism, Arifa listened, really listened, to my dilemma. A spark was lit. Soon, we became close, and began to bring unwritten ideas into the light, glimmers of novels, plays, and essays that we then encouraged each other to embark upon.

You have both worked as reviewers. What kind of problems with gender parity have you come across in the literary and media worlds?  And what are your predictions / hopes for writing by women in 2017 and beyond?

Arifa: What grates for me most is that fiction by women is sometimes treated as if it were a special category within literature. And so often, I notice how many books by men which might otherwise have been labelled as domestic literature or romance are being reviewed as ‘literary fiction’ or even as ‘state of the nation’ novels. Who ascribes these labels?

More generally, I see a disparity in how many books by men and women get review space, the amount of male bylines on reviewing pages compared to female. Its source is rooted in the rest of society so I don’t think you can solve it without addressing gender inequality as a whole, but to be conscious of it is some sort of start and I have begun to see the pattern shift.

Ayesha: I moved to the UK from Pakistan at eighteen. Writing here, in an industry dominated by whiteness, has unique complications: there is the danger of being co-opted or misused, as well as an internal often unconscious impulse to surrender to the dominant narrative, to give in to the demand for ‘easy’, clichéd, or exoticised stories. To find an avenue to the truth in this minefield is not simple, and would perhaps be impossible without my torch-bearers.

In literature, my torch-bearers include Fanon, Baldwin, Dickinson. And in life, they are my two writer friends. As a woman also, it is easy to feel one must not reach too high, for fear of falling or neglecting loved ones. Arifa helps me in this struggle through words and example. Sometimes, she channels her own torch-bearers in doing so: like quoting Virginia Woolf when I was telling her of a difficult moment, exhorting me to ‘To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face’.

Which particular qualities do you admire in each other’s writing?

Arifa: I am often surprised by Ayesha’s plays and short stories. They speak in a voice that is hers but that also reveals a part of her I don’t know, and that had remained hidden for me. The short stories that I’ve read have an air of mysteriousness and unanswered questions. They remind me that so much of life, and relationships, happens beneath whatever is being said or done on the surface. And I like her humour too. I noticed it first when I saw a read-through of a play she’d written for Kali Theatre. I was taken aback by how funny it was and, again, this is something that seemed hidden until then.

 Ayesha: Arifa has a sharp wryness that she manages to transfer on to the page, even in her book reviews. Her fiction, which must be shared one day, is of measured pace and remarkable passion: a difficult combination. I think Arifa has learned through her journalistic career how to transfer her essence into words without pretence or showmanship. It is beautiful to read.

Can you tell us how you ‘workshop’ each other’s writing?

Arifa: Ayesha’s a talented editor. She seems to read on an intuitive level, approaching drafts with an extraordinary degree of sensitivity, curiosity and meticulousness. There have been so many times when I’ve got knotted up and sent her a draft just before a deadline and she has been able to unknot it in no time – suggest where I might be going wrong, see faults in the arrangement of a piece, put me back on track with ideas that I could develop, interrogate the claims I’m making or the story I’m imagining, and more.

It has been the case for both the writing for newspapers and the unpublished fiction. I feel confident knowing that if I send her a piece of writing in progress, it will end up better, always. I don’t think I had ever understood how transformative editing could be to a piece of work before I met Ayesha and it reflects her generosity of spirit that she gives so much to someone else’s work.

Ayesha: Arifa and I edit each other’s work with a brutal honesty that is always embedded in kindness. The editing comes from a place of deep empathy, the kind that not only improves the proofread piece, but also enables real growth.

Does writing form the central aspect of your relationship? Are there other shared interests that bring you together as friends?

 Arifa: Writing and critical thinking was the glue to our friendship at the beginning and maybe it has remained so. Gradually, after the writing circle, we formed a three-way friendship and then it became two, and I feel I have got to know different parts of Ayesha through these stages. We’ve only known each other for four years but the friendship feels deeper and longer than that.

Ayesha: Our relationship started off on the basis of writing, but, as it grew into friendship, other matters of the soul rose to the surface. There have in fact been moments of deep crisis and grief that have brought the friendship itself into question. But we’ve faced them with slow perseverance and brutal honesty.

The presence of a firm literary friendship is a gift, one that is sometimes joyously celebrated and at other times patiently nurtured. But always, it is a gift. And to be able to examine the fabric that makes up life in the presence of a loving, understanding other is all that I wish for; Arifa, with her formidable intelligence, empathy, and insight, allows me this.

Arifa Akbar is a journalist, reviewer and is currently working on her first novel.

In addition to her work as a reviewer, Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi is a writer of short stories, essays and plays.