“I am very interested in questions of identity, and that’s something that I learned after I wrote the book,” says Mira Sethi, a Pakistani actress and writer who is releasing her debut collection of short stories, “Are You Enjoying?”
Written in English, the stories are based in Pakistan, many with links to Sethi’s progressive views as an outspoken feminist. The stories are rooted in an exploration of power dynamics, whether it’s the dynamics between and a son and his mother, a young actress and her director, or a young male college student with traditional values who’s alarmed by a local protest for women’s rights.
“There was a really lovely and hilarious review of my book, which made me giggle because it was accurate. And it said, ‘In Mira Sethi’s debut collection, strong women face a myriad of challenges,’” says Sethi. “That’s one way of looking at the book, where strong women are struggling with notions of identity and trying to do away with the straight jacket imposed by society. So, I am very much interested in characters finding their voice and dealing with all the microaggressions that come from being in a traditional society.”
Sethi currently splits her time between Pakistan, where she’s a television actress, and San Francisco, where her husband is based. She recently returned Stateside after completing filming for her latest project, “Chupke Chupke,” which premiered its first episode last week. Now her focus is on promotion for her book, which is released in America on Tuesday and in England next month.
Sethi, who was raised in Lahore, attended college at Wellesley and worked as an assistant books editor at The Wall Street Journal before beginning her career as an actress and writer. Her parents, two progressive journalists working in Pakistan, cofounded the independent weekly publication The Friday Times; her father went on to start and edit the Daily Times of Pakistan and was awarded the Golden Pen of Freedom Award in 2009. Her mother is currently an elected member of the Provincial Assembly of the Punjab.
“I’m progressive, and a lot of the people I work with are conservative, and I live in a country that is called the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. So you have a state that is imposing religion onto its people and it’s the state narrative,” she continues. “I grew up in a house where [I was] very aware of our identity as progressives. That’s something that I carry with me and wanted to explore in this book. A lot of the characters in my book are struggling to find personal freedom in a traditional society.”
Sethi explores similar ideas in her life as a public-facing figure in the entertainment industry and outspoken feminist. Sethi hosted a web talk show in which she interviewed many of her colleagues in the Pakistani television industry and asked each person if they considered themselves a feminist.
“It became a meme in Pakistan; every time I interview someone, I say are you a feminist?” she says. “It was fascinating because a lot of my female colleagues — because Pakistan is a deeply conservative society — come on my show and feel comfortable enough to say yes, I am a feminist,” she continues. “And some of my male co-stars also said that I am. And some of my co-stars said that they weren’t, because they said that a lot of negative connotations have been attached to this word. And they made really funny statements like ‘I believe in equality,’ and then I’m sitting there being like — but that means you are a feminist.”
In one of her stories, a young man joins a fundamentalist group at his college and attends a women’s march in reaction to a local incident. The man is suspicious of the women’s NGO because he sees it as a group of secular women on the payroll of the West. Essentially, he’s having a crisis of masculinity.
“He gets mildly radicalized on campus, but where is that desire to prove himself coming from? It’s coming from a history. Everybody has some kind of complicated history,” says Sethi, adding that while the character’s perspective was challenging to write given her progressive views, she could understand the real-world context and motivation for the character. “I’ve known people like that character,” she adds. “And student politics on campuses at universities make the news all the time in Pakistan. So when they ban jeans, for example, that stuff is on my Twitter feed every day.”
Although the stories are in English, Sethi thinks there’s an audience for the work in Pakistan, too. Urdu words are integrated throughout the book, including items like Charpai and salwar Kameez, which Sethi doesn’t define for readers.
“I didn’t want to explain my context and my culture too much,” says Sethi. “I didn’t want to spoon-feed because I think that in fiction, too much clarity ruins the mood,” she adds. “The reason we write fiction is because there’s ambiguity, fun and mischievousness. And I think if you overexplain things, that element of mischief and play gets muddled.”
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