Political Ideology and Dreams: Kyra Kristmanson in Conversation with Sehrish Ranjha

Sehrish Ranjha

Sehrish Ranjha, whose story "Zubaida" appears in The Malahat Review's winter 2019 Issue #209, discusses identity, defiance, and trying to define our dreams in her Q&A with Malahat Review editorial assistant Kyra Kristmanson. Read an excerpt from "Zubaida."


Sehrish Ranjha divides her time between Los Angeles and Lahore, Pakistan. She has a Bachelor’s in Liberal Arts from Sarah Lawrence College. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in West Branch, New Moons: Contemporary Writing by North American Muslims Anthology, and elsewhere.

Your bio states that you divide your time between Los Angeles, U.S. and Lahore, Pakistan—both of which are huge, densely populated cultural centres with progressive politics. They are also, respectively, home to Hollywood and Lollywood. What are a few things about these big cities that make them home for you? How might they inform your writing?

They have in common urban sprawl, old cinemas, complaints and grievances about traffic. The other constant is that neither city is monolithic—in composition of the populace, economic situations, or ideas. The people are realigning themselves, crossing borders, and forming new “identities” and these new alignments challenge the old sense of a stable national and cultural inheritance. There’s also a feeling now of permeability between cities divided by thousands of miles because of the devastating environmental effects of capitalism—fire in Los Angeles, extreme air pollution in Lahore. I’m not sure if I’m at home with these factors, but the commonalities help me orient myself within the larger world.

There’s still a sense of “us” and “them” when we discuss the East and the West; a style of thought Edward Said traced to the Greeks. In my writing, I find myself at the margins and trying to understand the center from that position. I’m often drawn to characters struggling to define themselves against complex, modern cities. Either you’re inside or looking in from the outside. What you know is tied to where you live—the specific knowledge that comes from steeping in a setting, the air, and politics. My work echoes the things I’ve seen, heard, and felt in these spaces.

Diving into the piece, there is a distinction between dreams—the realm of public and private, of male and female, of rich and poor—and the character of Gul mentions that rich men create their own dream worldwhile poor men carry [dreams] on their backs.However, there also seems to be an interconnectedness between them. Women marry men, and keep their dreams at home; rich mens dreams can be endangered by the masses. Am I sensing a significance here that weaves into the story throughout?

You’re right! How Gul envisions and explains reality and dreams becomes the reason for Zubaida’s transformation. Gul’s ideas play a part in how the rest of the story unfolds. There’s a distinction—as you noted—in the dreams of various groups. Yet everyone feels they are at risk. No one is safe. There’s also a difference between Gul’s conception of dreams and the daydreaming for which Zubaida is censored by employers. Who is vulnerable and to what forces? Zubaida opens herself to new possibilities and ways of being. She makes choices that are opposed to the smooth running of the beauty parlor. Her body and freedom are threatened as a result. Political ideology and dreams go hand in hand. “I have a dream,” Martin Luther King said in perhaps the most famous speech of the last century. And while we try to define our dreams to others, to ourselves, and what they might mean for our children, someone is taking advantage of the longing they elicit—companies are selling them back to us as slogans.

There’s also the moment when Zubaida notices a gaping hole in the explanation put forth by Gul. What happens when you don’t have a home? There are certain people whom the categorization skips entirely, who don’t even fit the label “poor.”

Zubaida is a haunting presence for Hadi because she doesnt conform to the role expected of her, nor does she leave when shes no longer wanted. From Hadis perspective, Zubaida seems to be purposefully stubborn, but does Zubaida stay out of a sense of desperation as well as defiance?

I think so. Zubaida finds herself in a tough spot. She has nowhere else to go. But she might never have taken such a risk, to stay and get in trouble, if she hadn’t met Gul. There’s also the camaraderie and friendship she finds in the space Gul occupies. There’s generally a communal feeling to the beauty parlor. The other women tolerate Zubaida even when Hadi wants her out. It’s not the worst option for her I believe, which shows that she is desperate and alone.

Throughout the narrative, there is a juxtaposition between a sense of hopelessness and a rejection, or rebellion, against the status quo. Zubaidas mother is labelled good for nothing,ending the story on a note of defeat that circles back to the opening notion of shame. Is this perhaps meant to be symbolic of a systemic cycle, where the shame sometimes overcomes quiet rebellion?

Her mother’s abandonment led to a life where she had to struggle more than other people, and is a source of shame, as if tragedy were a kind of affliction. She hasn’t really escaped that at the end, but I believe there’s a difference shown in the choices made by her mother—to leave her for example—and the ones Zubaida makes for herself. Does that break the cycle? I’m not sure. It’s true shame can snuff out rebellion, especially for people operating under heavy burdens of tradition and gendered expectations, but being an orphan means that Zubaida is freer in some terrible way than others. At the same time, I hope I’m not putting forth a one-dimensional portrait here of these characters. I believe the story is complicated by the perspective through which it is told, by someone who has specific ideas about who Zubaida is and knows her history in detail and makes value judgements about her every action and the abandonment by her mother.

The writing is beautifully poetic, weaving together a sense of place and character with vivid detail that leaves the reader wanting more. Can you speak to your writing process and how this story came to be?

Thank you! I work more from instinct than a plan. I often don’t get to whatever was compelling me to write, but it’s clear to me at least why I’m pursuing it. Once I’ve started, I’m set on a course and it’s interesting to work within that parameter. There are times that I come back to the story and see something new and change directions, but I like the sense of constraint that the beginning places on the entire work. I’ve noticed a shift recently where I’m writing more during the editing process and "Zubaida," in its current iteration, came about as I was looking over work from years back. I don’t like to get rid of anything. There’s often something in a piece; a potentiality, a promise—an image or a sentence—for which I go over the rest willingly.

You mentioned that your work has been previously published in West Branch, and upcoming in New Moons: Contemporary Writing by North American Muslims Anthology—which sounds like a book I need to read! Are there some more projects youre working on or are forthcoming that we should keep an eye out for?

I’m working on a short story collection and a novel.


Kyra Kristmanson

Kyra Kristmanson

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