17 Aug 2016

Nadia Hashimi: Afghan stories

From Nine To Noon, 10:10 am on 17 August 2016
Nadia Hashimi

Nadia Hashimi Photo: Chris Carter Photography

Kathryn Ryan speaks to the bestselling author Nadia Hashimi, the US born and raised daughter of Afghani migrants who left their home country in the 1970s.

Growing up she watched a steady stream of extended family trickle out of what has become an increasingly conflicted and dangerous part of the world.

Nadia has woven her family's stories into novels in a way that isn't biographical - but is representative of their experiences, and those of other refugees.

Read an edited excerpt of the interview below:

What were the migration story of your parents? Because they did not leave during a time of conflict, what was the reason they sought to come to the United States?

My parents had a relatively straight forward migration into the United States. They left for economic reasons and so they came to the United States with the intention of working for a few years. My mother came via Europe where she had been studying and obtained her Master’s degree in engineering and then came to the United States and met up with my father.

They really did have the intention of returning to the homeland after working for a few years here and gathered a little nest egg for themselves, but history took a turn for the worse in Afghanistan and they weren’t able to go back. They were waiting to see when it would be safe to go back and next thing you know, it’s 30 years later.

The rest of my family has had a very different experience and over the years, after my parents there has been a trickle of uncles and aunts and cousins and up until the last year when people have continued to leave the country for various reasons and by various routes, but essentially most people left during the time of war and they left either as refugees and made their way to a whole lot of other countries, including Australia and more into your area.

How closely were your family’s stories weaved into the events of the novels? Because your other option was to come at this from a biographical or non-fiction angle. Why the preference to pursue fiction and how much is drawn from some of those experiences?

A lot of it is drawn from experiences. I had an interview with one of my uncles, and we had talked about things before, but I sat down with him virtually and recorded his story of how he travelled on foot, from Afghanistan into Iran and how he made that voyage under the cover of night and carried another family’s young child in his arms to make that passage. I used his experience in the story I crafted in The Moon is Low. That voyage hasn’t really changed much, it may have been in a different year, but that kind of passage and those feelings and the risks that people are encountering in the night are the same.

I have other family members who made their way across Europe through routes that are fairly similar to the character that I portray in The Moon is Low in the later parts of the story. I do take some licence with it and I do fictionalise things so that it is not really the story of my family.

I don’t want it to be the story of my family and that is the reason why I didn’t do this as a work of non-fiction. I think fiction is amazing because we kind of conceal a lot of information, a lot of reality under the guise of a story, and almost under the guise of entertainment, but I think it can give us a lot of compassion, it can give us a depth of understanding for what’s happening in other parts of the world that we might not otherwise want to pick up in non-fiction because then it feels a bit heavier.

In your writing you seek to flesh out and humanise and enrich the culture surrounding individuals who found themselves in a certain time and place. For example, Rahima’s story in The Pearl That Broke its Shell and the practice of Bacha Posh… can you explain a little bit about that?

The Bacha Posh tradition is an interesting one. It is one in which some Afghan families who only have daughters may choose to dress one of their young daughters as a boy and reintroduce her into society as a son. The reason for this is that Afghanistan truly is a patriarchal society, in which sons have a higher value than daughters.

There is a superstitious belief that if you dress one of your daughters as a son and masquerade her as this Bacha Posh then the next child born into the family will be a true son. There’s that much of a strong desire to have a son in a family, there is that much pride from having a son.

We feel this, I think, across all cultures, it’s just maybe to a greater extent in Afghanistan and we’ve found Afghanistan has created this creative and interesting way to get around that lack of honour and to find a way to restore their honour by having one of their daughters masquerade around as a boy.

Ironically it also allows a liberation that may not have otherwise been possible.

Exactly. So it gives these girls to experience life on the other side of the world, the other gender. In a country like Afghanistan and a society like that one in which girls and boys have such different roles and such different entitlements in the society, that is a big deal. It’s a taste of a different kind of life.

The circumstances depend on how the family treats them. Some girls might not feel that much of a difference between the daughter and the son role and in other families it’ll be a far greater difference and it’ll depend on how the community treats those children.

Some people in the society outside will know that this is a Bacha Posh and they will go along with it, other people may be fooled by the charade as well. But it is something that is widely accepted, as long as it is done in the pre-pubescent stage, so before the child hits puberty.