even women. Seven choices. Seven lives.
In Beyond the Cayenne Wall, first-time author Shaila Abdullah drops us into the lives of seven Pakistani women, each at a crossroads. But Abdullah isn’t just interested in pulling us into the individual lives of her characters—she also wants to explore what it means to be a Pakistani woman today. “For Pakistani women, the expectations to conform to a certain way of life, the lack of opportunities and mobility for women, and the laws that shape their destiny are real problems.”
Take, for example, Tannu in the collection’s first story, “Amulet for the Caged Dove.” Newly married and infertile, Tannu is forced by her saas (mother-in-law) to pledge her first-born child to the creepy shrine of Shah Daullah—where healthy infants grow up to be mentally disabled chuwas (mice). Or Dhool, from “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust,” who tries to keep her estranged and greedy husband from marrying off their 11-year-old daughter to a doddering old man.
All of the stories evoke a culture that is foreign to the average Western reader—right down to the names.
Abdullah, who lives in Austin, Texas, doesn’t just focus on the stories of village women, compelling though they may be. She’s equally fascinated by the stories of all women from all strata of society—we also encounter educated women and those women who have made lives for themselves abroad.
But no matter the experience, all of the stories evoke a culture that is foreign to the average Western reader—right down to the names. Abdullah laughs as she recalls getting a voice message from a friend, who having finished “Amulet for the Caged Dove,” wanted to know what happened next to “Tuna.”
Born and bred in Karachi, Pakistan, Abdullah began writing stories as a young girl, encouraged by her family—especially her father. But Abdullah had other passions as well, and she found herself attracted to art and design. In 1995, she married and moved to sunny California, where she concentrated on her Web design work. More significantly, she went on a writing hiatus which turned into a near decade-long writing drought of sorts. “Since my writing is so ethnic,” she says, “I used to think it would be difficult to find an audience for it in the United States.”
But pregnant with her daughter, Abdullah was drawn away from Web design and back to the web of words, writing “Amulet for the Caged Dove.” Encouraged by her husband, her family and her friends, she soon penned the other stories in the collection.
She was pleasantly surprised to discover that there was indeed an audience for her writing. In fact, her debut collection has done remarkably well, snagging several prizes and receiving sustained attention. Her worries about the collection being too exotic have also been dispelled. Khotan Shahbazi-Harmon, who co-hosts an Austin radio show that focuses on writing, explains why Abdullah’s work has received so much attention: “Shaila’s book has pulled back the ‘exotic’ cultural curtain aside for a brief moment and directed the Western gaze on the unexamined life of South Asian women. What makes her writing so relevant today is her fearless and honest acknowledgement of the existence of such taboo topics as incest, rape, forced marriage, affairs, divorce and transvestites in the South Asian experience.”
Abdullah’s debut collection has done remarkably well, snagging several prizes and receiving sustained attention.
Some of the honesty of her stories comes from her friends’ real-life experiences. In “Moment of Reckoning,” Shiwali realizes that she can choose how to deal with her forced marriage. Abdullah explains, “[The story] was based on the life of a dear friend who had a forced arranged marriage. I made contact with her and was pleased to find that, like Shiwali in my story, she had made something beautiful out of her marriage and has a little daughter now who is her pride and joy.”
A fan of writers such as Bapsi Sidhwa, Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Abdullah was also inspired by her father, who has always encouraged her writing talents. Another source is her husband. “He’s been very supportive in terms of making time for me to write,” she explains.
But whether she writes about women here or abroad, Abdullah’s message is clear: “My message to women in that part of the world is to find their voices and reaffirm the strong role assigned to them by their religion. Their liberation lies within them. They shouldn’t live like caged doves, the key to freedom is inside them. It’s just a matter of finding it.”