Sadia Abbas, an Associate Professor in RU-N’s English department, grew up in Singapore and Karachi, Pakistan, with brief stints in Lahore and Peshawar, Pakistan. She specializes in postcolonial literature and theory, the culture and politics of Islam in modernity, early modern English literature—especially the literature of religious strife—and the history of 20th-century criticism.
She also publishes both scholarly monographs and creative work. Her first book, At Freedom’s Limit: Islam and the Postcolonial Predicament (2014), won an MLA First Book Prize. Her second and most recent book, The Empty Room (2017), due out in May, is her first novel. Set in 1970s Karachi in the decade leading up to and overlapping with the Zia dictatorship, it tells the story of a talented female artist struggling to find agency in a stifling arranged marriage as loved ones are caught up in the country’s cynically repressive regime. The novel has been hailed as “an important addition to contemporary Pakistani literature, a moving portrait of life in Karachi at a pivotal moment in the nation's history, and a powerful meditation on art and on the dilemmas faced by all women who must find their own creative path in hostile conditions.”
Abbas is currently working on a book on Hellenism and Postcolonialism, tentatively titled Space in Another Time, along with a second novel. She is also a dedicated teacher who has won both a RU-N Students’ Choice Award and a Professor of the Year Award from the Muslim Students Association, each in in 2016.
We sat down with Abbas recently to discuss her expansive interests and new novel.
Your work spans a lot of territory, including post-colonial literature and theory, history, politics, religion and theology, gender, the arts and pop culture, and even Hellenic studies. For lay folks, briefly define post-colonialism and the field of post-colonial studies.
I guess very loosely, it is the study of society and culture after European colonialism comes to dominate most of the world. You could date that to 1492, but different scholars work on different places and periods from different disciplinary angles, with an attention to questions of colonization, imperial domination, race, linguistic subjugation, and how decolonized nations in the global South and East negotiate independence within a context of Euro-American economic and military power and destructive colonial legacies that still have to be overcome.
Your novel, The Empty Room, will be published in May by Zubaan Books, an off-shoot of Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house started by the legendary Urvashi Butalia. (The novel is being distributed by University of Chicago Press outside India.) What does it mean to you to be working with Butalia?
Well, when Urvashi expressed an interest in the novel I was over the moon, precisely because of her work with Kali and what it represented to me when I was an undergraduate. Urvashi's own writing, her work as a feminist and an activist, just who she is, were such a tremendous inspiration that to be respected by her was extraordinarily meaningful and heartening. As an editor, I have found her a generous, respectful and thoughtful reader.
I was intrigued by how women of my mother's generation—educated, talented, formed in a period of social transition—navigated marriages that still came with no exit signs.
The main character in The Empty Room, Tahira, uses painting to deal with her own marital predicament, and with tragedy that strikes her activist brother and friends. What informed and inspired this story?
I was intrigued by how women of my mother's generation—educated, talented, formed in a period of social transition—navigated marriages that still came with no exit signs, as divorce was not really acceptable, and how that was internalized by so many. I was also interested that Pakistan has produced extraordinary women painters, including Zubeida Agha, who brought abstract painting to Pakistan; Nahid Raza; Naiza Khan; and Shahzia Sikander, who launched the neo-miniature movement. I wanted to think about how to write about people for whom Urdu is the primary language and Urdu literature is everywhere. And I was interested in what it means to navigate a new domestic space, which is also a place where all social structures are at play, but the question is really how do you get to the kitchen from the bedroom the morning after, especially in a very formal and proper society and in a house full of strangers. Most marriage-plot novels end with the marriage; I wanted to write about what happens after.
Is it difficult to write academic monographs and fiction?
I actually love writing, and whatever I'm writing sort of takes over. I love the way language takes shape and sometimes extends thinking even as one has to respect its limits. I guess I think of academic work and fiction writing as two different ways of thinking about consciousness in the world. In my academic work, I deal with history, knowledge, politics, beauty in a more abstract way, and in my fiction I have to think about how people live (and create) those realities. But I don't feel tension between the two.
You started two lecture series at RU-N, Beyond Islamophobia and Postcolonial Questions and Performances. Tell us about those briefly, and what inspired you to launch them?
Beyond Islamophobia was sort of a subsidiary of Postcolonial Questions and Performances. After the UNC shootings, I realized my students were fearful—especially my veiled ones, but not only them—and I wanted to create a supportive environment for them to think through issues of Islam. Back then there was nothing like that on campus. The Postcolonial Questions series started when I hosted two Pakistani and Pakistan-American painters, Unver Shafi and Shahzia Sikander, on campus. It was a good event, and Anonda Bell, our great colleague, suggested I turn it into a series. So here we are, and I blame her!
Thank you for taking the time to sit down with us.
It was my pleasure.