We asked contributor Anie Onaiza, whose story “Forgiving Abba” appears in our current issue, to discuss her creative process, and we hope her answer inspires you.
“Forgiving Abba” percolated in my mind for years, so it is hard for me to point to one specific inspiration behind the story. I am interested in artists who often insist on certain rights and privileges with their loved ones hoping it will excuse their eccentricity, entitlement, fickleness or plain bad behavior. Such gifted but unrealized writers can judge those with lesser skills but greater commercial success with crudity and suspicion. I wanted to take all of that and place in it in Pakistan, in a man who is an artist with eccentricity and entitlement and fickleness, but with limited commercial success, a man whose critique sells better than his prose, and whose poetry is nourished not by love but by regrets. I then placed him in a conventional marriage with a quiet, obedient woman who doesn’t understand his writing. I surrounded him with people with a fear-flatter-flee response to his presence. How is such a man to be understood, possibly even redeemed? And when?
I wondered whether to tell the story of this man from a colleague’s perspective, or from his wife’s, or from his own. It finally made more sense to have him clash against his own family, with a daughter of equal if not more talent and a higher degree of independence of mind than he could ever exercise. And that is how the narrator came to be Razia, Abba’s daughter, a talented poet and schoolteacher who is forced to live with her parents per social norms following her separation from her husband.
In one version of this story, the narrator was the protagonist. In most others, it was Abba. In the final version both Abba and the narrator have equal space, in my mind at least. Razia, as an equally, possibly more, talented daughter of Abba, is also bound by tradition and gender stereotypes, but has the courage to break free of an unsatisfying marriage. She defies tradition, in a subtle, tentative, one-foot-in, one-foot-out way, often failing, but never giving up. She has the temerity to “expect” of the people in her life, which lands her in a difficult spot with her father, who insists on his uncontested privilege as a father, a provider, an artist, and more broadly, a man in a patriarchal society.
It would have been easier if Abba had left a journal which would have helped Razia understand him after his death. But I wondered, how reliable would a journal entry from somebody with his personality and complexes be? How satisfying? I ended up having Razia read through Abba’s library, and then make sense of him through his scribblings in the margins of the books he read. My husband and I have a small collection of books, most of them bought secondhand. Every time I come across a book with an earlier reader’s notes in the margins, I feel pure delight. It is like having someone read with you, someone you can agree with, contradict, or write under. I wanted to capture that feeling in the story by having Abba write his thoughts as he read. He probably never shared his books with anyone, so I expected his scribbles to be honest and reliable.
If the story feels abandoned, it is probably because I felt it could never really be finished. I never imagined it with a neat, tidy ending. I wanted it to be as satisfying as anyone’s quest to understand a complex deceased parent can be. I’d love for Abba to write to Razia from heaven, with a point-by-point explanation for his words and deeds, but then how satisfying would that have been? And how in sync with his character?
ANIE ONAIZA’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Solstice Literary Magazine and Michigan Quarterly Review. “Forgiving Abba” is her first work accepted for publication. Onaiza is originally from Pakistan, now settled near Boston. She has just completed a short story collection, and is now working on her first novel.