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Author Interview

In Conversation with Sanam Maher: Author of The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch

Sanam Maher gets candid about what prompted her to write, the difficulties she faced and what it’s like being a writer.

I read Sanam Maher’s debut novel, The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch, back in May, and devoured the book within 2 days. The author’s crisp, and intelligent writing coupled with unsettling yet relevant account of the murder of the social media star, Qandeel Baloch not only made a huge impact on me but it also prompted me to delve further into the writer’s psych and have a few questions that were lingering in my mind, answered. Sanam is one of the nicest person to talk to and if you’re not following her hilarious IG stories, what are you even doing with your time?

To know more about the book, click here: The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch by Sanam Meher: A fierce and bold account in non-fiction.
Interview:

  • Qandeel had already created ripples through her online media presence, and had always been on the radar. What did you think of her back then?

Before I started freelancing and then working on this book full time, I worked as in a newsroom at a daily paper in Karachi. The first time I heard about Qandeel was in that newsroom, when a couple of guys who worked at the desk with me were talking about her viral “How I’m looking?” video. I looked her up and the little that I did see led me to want to do a story – I thought the piece would look at how young women are using platforms like Facebook and Instagram to push the envelope on how they can dress, speak or present themselves in Pakistan. I’ve long maintained a fascination with what we as Pakistanis do on social media and I thought Qandeel would be a great person to focus on for a piece exploring this. I would see Qandeel’s videos or photos whenever someone I knew would share them on Facebook, and then when it became popular to imitate her in DubSmash videos, but my piece was never written, lost somewhere between deadlines and switching jobs. The idea stayed with me, and I told myself I’d have time to do it later, to meet Qandeel later and to find others like her.

  • How did writing a book on Qandeel come to you?

In July 2016, I remember staring at the television the day news of Qandeel’s murder broke, and feeling stunned. I didn’t want to let go of her story once again. The idea of this woman who had managed to fool all of us – her audience and the media – and who had created this persona that we had bought into wholesale took root. I admired her gumption and the courage it must have taken to create the persona that she did.

Then, in the hours and days after, it was terrible to see the reactions online from many Pakistanis who were very happy that she had been “punished” for behaving the way that she did. I saw acquaintances in my own social media feeds having arguments about whether what had happened was right or wrong, whether Qandeel “deserved” what had been done to her. “Offline”, many of the men and women I knew were condemning Qandeel’s death but then, in the next breath, following their statements with “… but if you think about it…”

It was a moment when I was seeing friends and family members draw a line and very firmly position themselves on either side, and I think the last time I’d seen something like that happen – a moment that calls for definition or clarity on the question of how we see ourselves as Pakistanis and what we hope for or believe we deserve – was when Salmaan Taseer was shot and killed in 2011. The reactions to Qandeel’s murder have revealed two very different answers to the question of what it means to be Pakistani, and more crucially, what it means to be a woman living in Pakistan today. I wanted to tell a story not just about Qandeel, but about that moment and that definition. I knew that this book wasn’t just about Qandeel, but about the kind of place that enabled her to become who she did, and the place that ultimately found that it could not tolerate her.

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  • What was the most difficult aspect of writing this book?

One of the very first hurdles I faced was that I felt handicapped by never having met Qandeel. It was the first time I’d had to report on someone I had never spoken with, with whom I could not verify a single detail of anything I was learning about them. Try and think of your own life – imagine a reporter trying to find out everything they can about you. Who do you trust to tell your story? We show different facets of our personality to different people, and Qandeel was a chameleon. I had this trove of photographs and videos and interviews of this person, but at the end of the day, every appearance, video, interview, tweet or Facebook post was her in character.

With every new piece of information I received about her, I would feel, “Yes, this is it, I understand her now”, only to learn something else and be utterly confounded again. Everything I was learning about Qandeel in the interviews I did was secondhand information, and then there was the added problem of this information having been repeated so many times – particularly when it came to the principal “characters” in her life, such as her manager Mec or her parents – as they had been interviewed so many times, and continued to be, for news stories or documentaries on Qandeel. Qandeel passed away in July, and I started meeting these people two months later. By then, they almost seemed to follow a script each time for what they wanted to say. Their information was now coloured by feelings of grief or guilt or wanting to come across a certain way in media coverage, or understanding that certain things they said would help them stay in the limelight and keep the media interested in the story.

With all the news reports, gossip, TV shows and documentaries, I think many of us feel we already know Qandeel’s story – it was difficult to figure out a way to tell a story that people feel they already know, but ultimately, I realised just how little I myself actually knew, even after poring over every piece of information I could find out about her before I travelled to Punjab and started my own research and interviews. What we know so far has been coloured by the media frenzy around Qandeel’s murder.

  • You mentioned being stuck after your first week in Multan as the information about Qandeel was more or less scripted. How did you filter facts from gossip and hearsay?

Before I went to Multan, I had read and seen anything that had been put out on Qandeel and her murder. I believed I knew what had happened and I went to Multan with a plan to report on what I thought was a neatly aligned story. I was so completely confounded because most of the stuff I was encountering or hearing wasn’t being covered in whatever I’d seen and read so far. And yet, everyone I met was convinced that they knew ‘the Qandeel story’. I don’t want to be a part of that, and ultimately, I decided that I would use all the inconsistencies and lingering questions, the gossip and hearsay, to force readers to question their understanding of Qandeel and whatever she did. Its very easy to judge her and feel like you have her pinned down, but what if all you know about her was challenged? Throughout the book, I’ve included the little fibs that Qandeel told about herself, stories that sources told me that I knew were filtered memories and probably largely untrue or designed to make themselves look a certain way. This was my attempt to make the readers feel doubtful, and just when the reader feels as if they have finally “gotten” Qandeel, I wanted them to receive new information that made it all feel questionable. That was certainly my experience of researching this story.

  • ‘Not everyone seeks fame. Sometimes fame–the kind some people spend their entire lives courting, finds you.’ Do you think Arshad Khan, to whom fame arrived on a silver platter albeit unwanted was largely exploited by it?

When looking at Qandeel’s fame as a viral star, I began to think about how my generation of Pakistanis has been connected to the world like never before – what are we doing in the public spaces we are finding online? What does it mean to go viral in Pakistan? How are we building communities online in order to speak in ways that we may not be able to “offline”? What happens when we behave in a way online that seems to break the rules of how we are supposed to behave, particularly as women, “in the real world”? Something important that Qandeel’s story shows us about the ways in which we engage with social media is the constant trickle of information from online spaces into the greater public sphere – conversations and movements online are discussed on talk shows and in the news and so even if you aren’t on social media, you’re probably still going to receive information being spread there. What effect does that have?

In exploring these ideas, I met with Arshad Khan aka the Chaiwallah, as well as the men and women who are trying to patrol our activities online and monitor and censor us, and others who are determined to keep us safer and more vocal online – particularly in the case of women and marginalized or minority communities. Qandeel’s social media activity also gave me a way to talk about how we might be connected to a global space of ideas and possibilities online, but we’re still very much grounded in the society and culture we live in here in Pakistan, and through her story and some of the other stories in the book, you see the terrible ramifications that a clash between the two can have. I think with someone like Arshad, or even with Qandeel, when you’re dealing with an audience that is difficult to keep entertained, an audience that has an attention deficit and has so many competing avenues of entertainment, you have to figure out ways to keep upping the ante and giving the audience the next new thing, the next scandal, the next piece of gossip. Once someone like Arshad is thrust into a completely new world and that world loses interest in him, what happens to him? He may no longer belong to his old life, and he may no longer be interesting to people from his new life once the novelty of “the Chaiwallah” wears off – so what happens to someone who is caught in the grey space in the middle? That’s what I was keen to look at with viral stars like Arshad.

  • During research, did you approach the book as a journalist or a writer?

I still find it hard to think of myself as “a writer” or “an author”! This was definitely a work of journalism, albeit much longer and more complex than any other story I’d worked on – I’d never worked on a crime story, never had to deal with so many stories and figure out a way to pull it all together so it was cohesive. I think I approached it more as a reader, constantly asking myself what I would want to read and know about with this story, what could it tell me or reveal to me. I’d read and re-read bits of writing over and over again out loud in order to hear if it was too dense, if it wasn’t fast paced enough. I needed something that any reader here would find easy to get into and wouldn’t want to put down and get back onto Instagram again.

  • Do you read reviews of your books? How do you deal with them?

This is my first book, and initially I told myself I wouldn’t read reviews because I was so nervous about what they would say. Obviously I didn’t stick to that rule. I’ve had such a great time getting mini-reviews and feedback from people who follow me on social media, especially Instagram, that that helped me feel a lot less nervous and able to hear any criticism or critical points that I might see elsewhere. So far though the reviews have been very good.

  • What has been one of your most rewarding experience as an author?

Hearing from people who are buying the book not just for themselves but for their mothers or friends or siblings. Getting messages from strangers about how they really loved it, they understood what I was trying to do and they raced through the book because they couldn’t put it down. There’s nothing more gratifying than to hear that a reader lost themselves in your work, especially because I know how easy it is to ditch a book in favor of going online or scrolling through your social media feed.

  • What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

I get asked this question a lot, especially from aspiring writers and journalists on Instagram. For me the most crucial thing, and its so basic, is to read. Read anything and everything you can get your hands on. Definitely read one newspaper a day – its free if you go online, you don’t even have to pay for the physical thing – and read every section, including the pages you don’t care about (one of my favourite stories that I worked on came from a small news item in the sports pages). Don’t worry too much if you haven’t read “the canon” or “the greats”. There have been many times when I’ve said this to people who message me and I get replies about “but I get bored” or “but I don’t like reading the news” or “the news is boring” and most memorably one time, “This seems like a lot of work.” There really isn’t a shortcut unless you’re a literary genius. When you don’t feel like reading, watch things that are beautifully made, listen to a podcast or an audio book, but constantly train your brain to think a certain way, to hear well crafted sentences, to hear how conversations can be written. Its like a muscle that you have to just keep strengthening.

  • Lastly, if your novel was being made into a movie, whom would you pick to play the lead roles?

You might actually hear some news about this very soon from me! So I won’t spoil it or jinx it.

*Image Credit: Shehrezad Maher

By Shumaila Taher

I am Shumaila Taher, editor and writer.
I exist in between the pages of a book.

One reply on “In Conversation with Sanam Maher: Author of The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch”

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