If you weren’t already familiar with writer Rafia Zakaria’s prolific output (two weekly columns, one for The Baffler and one for Dawn, Pakistan’s largest English-language newspaper; pieces for The Guardian, The Nation, New York Times, and The New Republic and CNN), you may know her, instead for surfacing on your Twitter newsfeed with her takedown of the Pulitzers early this May or for denouncing the elitism of the New York literary scene a week later. She’s also the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan, published in 2015.
Zakaria previously worked as an immigration lawyer, and although she no longer practices law, she is still very much an activist: she’s a former Amnesty International USA board member and served as a human rights monitor at the Ferguson protests in 2014. As she is immune-compromised, she can’t go out to protest in Indianapolis today. “I wish I could be out there,” she said.
In the preamble to our interview, we talked about protesters — her Baffler column on them had come out hours earlier. She’s also been working on her third book, Against White Feminism (due next year), which was called “a devastating indictment of the failures of mainstream Western feminism” by its UK publisher, Hamish Hamilton. She had just wrapped up a chapter on women and war, and how American women — even journalists — have given into the US government’s agenda on military intervention. She cited the coverage of ISIS and Yazidi women and the New York Times’ reporting on Nigeria as examples of how Whiteness victimizes Brown and Black subjects.
Interview by Brian Ng over Skype, email, and Twitter DM. This is a selection from those conversations, edited for clarity.
Study Hall: Do you think of yourself more as an activist, or as a writer?
Rafia Zakaria: My activism was always central; writing was a way to put my views across and a perspective that doesn’t get presented very often. So, of course, I’m interested in the craft part of writing, and the process of writing, but I definitely look at a writing as a means to present those perspectives. My writing has always had an activist and feminist bent to it.
When I started to write [The Upstairs Wife], I had to evaluate or think of myself primarily as a writer who is writing a book which has an activist approach to it, as opposed to an activist who is writing a book.
I never thought I would write for a living. I don’t think I quit my day job until the book came out, and even then, I was still working part-time.
SH: You were working as an immigration lawyer then, right?
RZ: Yes. I wasn’t particularly attracted to the inherent precariousness of the writing life, so I went to law school, and in a roundabout way, it taught me how to be a writer, or a very disciplined writer. Then I was in a JD PhD program, and that’s when I started writing on the side.
SH: How’d that start?
RZ: I started by writing for a magazine in south India called Frontline on the recommendation of a friend, when I was at law school — she didn’t have time to do it, so asked me to write a piece about feminism in Pakistan. When I was in grad school, someone involved with the Pakistani government asked me why I was writing for an Indian publication when I’m Pakistani, so I started writing for a Pakistani paper — The Daily Times.
SH: Then you went over to Dawn?
RZ: I was doing a column for The Daily Times, and then there was an opening [at Dawn]. Writing for Dawn was great because I had a context for it: I grew up in Pakistan, in Karachi. I grew up reading that newspaper, so being able to write for it was amazing. It was something that came really naturally.
SH: You’ve been doing your weekly column at Dawn for ten years now, and you’re now also doing one at The Baffler. How do you get your ideas for them?
RZ: I am a passionate person. I try to write about things I have feelings for...that’s a lot of things.
SH: And then how do you make yourself put the words down?
RZ: The discipline of having to write every week, and having the same deadline at the same time at every week, forced me to write. I learned [to set] a deadline for myself, and knowing how long it would take to write the column, because [the publication] set space in the layout of the paper. It used to take me two to three weeks to write an article, before I was a columnist; but in opinion writing, you need discipline to write fast and clearly.
The other way you learn [how to write] is to see how you can translate your own feelings about issues into an actual, debatable form that can be turned into a tool for other people to decide their own position.
SH: Columns may be the stalwart of your writing, but how did you accumulate other bylines?
RZ: After my book deal in 2012 [for The Upstairs Wife], I started to write for other places. I’ve never been shy of the cold pitch; if I feel that I like a publication and I have something for them, I am relentless.
SH: Moving backwards, how did you get your book deal?
RZ: I wrote a literary essay about the legal work I was doing at the time for Guernica, who were just starting out at the time and really wanted a piece after reading some of my Dawn work.
I asked an author friend — who’d written several books — if I could talk to his agent. All I had was that Guernica essay, and I met the agent in New York — I was going in every few weeks for the Amnesty International board meetings. I wouldn’t recommend this route. I wasn’t really ready to write a proposal yet; I was still pretty young, and I didn’t have a good idea of what an agent does. But it gave me the confidence to know I was a writer.
SH: At what point did you decide to focus solely on writing?
RZ: I continued working part-time [as an immigration lawyer], working with Muslim and South Asian women who were victims of domestic abuse. I worked at a shelter too; I enjoyed my work. Even when I did pull back, I consulted on asylum cases. I didn’t really completely stop and focus exclusively on writing until 2015, and the big bylines came after I’d winnowed out the other parts of my life.
SH: In your piece on the Pulitzer Prize in The Baffler, you decried the system behind how it awards prizes, citing how current winner Ben Taub basically ripped off Mohamedou Ould Salahi’s book. It makes me wonder, do you think you’ll ever have a shot at the Pulitzers now, or do you care if you do?
RZ: I care about them, but I care more about racial justice and transparency. If you’re going around pretending to be a white ally and then rigging prizes for white men, well…you deserve to be called out as part of the architecture of systemic racism.
SH: With your Guardian piece on the New York literary scene, you say “the niche most available to me is one in which I gouge up the details of my suffering, framed in the requisite arc of having escaped my own culture, my arranged marriage, etc.” What would you want to cover, as a writer, outside of your current niches?
RZ: I would like to sometimes be asked to do things like take a trip to Vancouver and write about what I ate or stay at the most expensive hotel in the world and write about that. Of course, I never will because I would find some angle to weave in a commentary about social justice 🤷🏻♀️
SH: I think, seeing as we’re both immigrants, we both see the idiosyncrasies of the countries we’re living in in a different way. You’ve lived in the US — living in both New York and Indianapolis — for over two decades now; do you regard it as home?
RZ: To me, America is America. I’m just now getting more adept at really getting a handle on how geographical divisions exist in American society and how they affect me. But for an immigrant, it’s home and not home, so every place that isn’t Karachi is not home.
As I’m a columnist, and go back and forth to Pakistan more often to most people, I’m perhaps more attuned than an immigrant who isn’t a columnist. I do have to be more careful, though, depending on which government is in power in Pakistan [such as during the War on Terror], especially those who don’t like columnists like me. [This country dichotomy] gives me a different sense of geographical “uprootedness.”
Being on the margins and being the perpetual outsider has its benefits; perhaps being a writer is one of them.