Breaking Cultural Barriers, One Word at a Time

If I could describe Nazhah Khawaja, I would say that if you are a woman, she is standing up for YOU. I was just speaking to my cousin the other day about how we need a South Asian author who publishes a book about cultural barriers, that we felt it needed to be broken. When it comes to Islam, there are so many spiritual/religious rights for women, but a culture with a patriarchal society puts a barrier up against those rights. Nazhah found her own way of breaking that barrier in both her personal life and in the publishing industry. For her bravery, I applaud her as she wrote about something I have been struggling to write about for years…speaking openly about these cultural barriers or patriarchal society in the South Asian culture. Nazhah is a Pakistani-American, a single mother and an author of a fictitious story based on realistic and relatable issues entitled, “The Other Side of Life.” Here is her inspiring story:

R. Tell us about how you were inspired to write “The Other Side of Life?”

N. I lived in Lahore, Pakistan for a few years after my first marriage. You hear about the mistreatment of women, you read about the corruption, and social injustices but actually having to live, be witness to, experience, and work in a society that denies its’ citizens basic human rights was extremely devastating, not to mention debilitating. Although there is so much I respect about the culture, and its people, there were so many dark, inhumane truths to the patriarchal society that did not sit well with my soul. The book is inspired by the social, political, and religious atmosphere of a very historic city, Lahore Pakistan.

R. How much of YOU is in “The Other Side of Life?”

N. The main character, Farishteh, has elements of my personality. She is a thinker, she is a human rights advocate, she is bold, she has this drive to want to do more for herself, her family, and her society because of the responsibility she feels towards God. Because this novel was written over a span of a couple of years, years of personal struggles, having my second child, going through a separation and then, a divorce, there are other characters that I have worked into the novel who were not part of the original outline. These characters also share my ideologies. In short, there is a lot of ME in the novel.

R. Tell us about how this journey began. Tell us about your upbringing (if you feel comfortable about sharing) and how it impacted who you are today.

N. My father, Shaukat Khawaja, was our family’s laureate. He was a classical singer, harmonium player, poet and writer. My attempt at creativity is a tiny crumb compared to my father’s creative makeup. He was a true artist. Although he passed away when I was young, I recall his regard for Maya Angelou, and B.B. King. my dad is from the same town in Faisalabad as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. That was a time when people left their doors open, a time of respect, and trust with neighbors. My father informally trained in classical singing with Ustad Nusrat. He loved soul and people, things, and ideas that enhanced the soul. He would talk to us about poetry, introduce us to different styles of music, and educate us about literature. I remember how careful he was about his choice of words, his tone was always calm, he spoke to people with respect, and a hint of subtle humor. He addressed us with patience, and love. He also helped me develop my writing skills by providing insight, and edits with short essay assignments. He was a central figure in my life.

Nazhah’s father (left) Ustad Nusrat (center) and her Uncle Ifti (right) 

Another person, very central to my womanhood, was my father’s friend’s wife, Aunty Gloria (may her soul be at eternal peace). She was and will be the strongest female figure I will ever know. She taught me about self-respect before I even registered that phrase in my mental dictionary. She was brave, hard-working, and had so much love for those that were dear to her. A true mama bear ready to fight, not literally, although all 4’10 of her could take anyone down, for the protection and well-being of her loved ones. She spoke her mind and was fiercely independent.

Also, I have always had respect for my mom, (Farhat Khawaja), and fear of her chittar (shoe beatings), the admiration for my mother came at a later time, after my father’s death. She worked full-time, went to college full-time, while simultaneously  taking care of, providing for, and raising her 4 children. Watching her do what she did from sunrise through the dark hours of the night broke my heart. As young as I was, 12 years old, I wanted to help her, take the load off her, ease her burden. My older sister and I tried to do that. We started working part-time after school and over the summer to help my mom financially. We worked all kinds of jobs as young teens i.e. theater, concession, waitressing, tutoring, babysitting, etc. She taught me about how important it is to live your life by upholding your values, being grateful, and turning to God in all times- happy or sad.

The journey with the novel began as a short story in my head many years ago after living out in the homeland (Lahore, Pakistan). I jotted some thoughts down, started typing and expanding those thoughts into the opening scene and further the first chapter of the novel, and then one day it was all deleted, one of those classic situations- laptop crashes, no backup, no USB. It was obviously quite devastating, I felt I had failed myself. Although I didn’t pay much attention to it, the story continued to grow in my head. It wasn’t until about a year later when I attempted to type it out again, this time continuing to save to USB each day.

R. Who is your target audience? What message do you want to send with your book?

N. My target audience includes women and men with a conscience. Also POC and minority groups because we know first hand what it is like to have complex generational issues, but also we know what it’s like to be ‘othered,’ and with this ‘othering’ sometimes one is compelled to dig deep within oneself, within the roots to find solace, and comfort with one’s identity. My message is ‘you are not forgotten.’ This book is for the lost, murdered, raped, voiceless individuals. You matter, you are not forgotten! My message to the living with voices that are heard, use it for good and to spread awareness, speak up at the dinner tables, and in your social circles against sexism, misogyny, racism, classism, etc.

R.What books/authors do you like to read and recommend?

N. Toni Morrison! The power in her narrative, the pain she digs out of your insides, the metaphorical genius that cuts through the literal mind and forces you to search for her meaning, the unmatched concision of her speech—with not one misplaced thought or misdirected angle, not a single sentence overrun or a phrase understated.

Khaled Hosseini- The tender way he handles each character and their complexities, showing respect to the blueprints of their minds. His ability to speak to the female as well as to the male is incredible. I admire his ability to smoothly transition from one narrative to the next and back again. He is carefully brilliant. 

Other authors I enjoy are Amy Tan, David Sedaris, and Ta-Nehisi Coates 

R.Where can we get this book?

N. My novel is available on Kindle and Amazon at the following link
The Other Side of Life

R.How can we follow your journey (links, blog)?

N. You may follow me on IG @nazhah_k

Rumki Chowdhury
Rumki Chowdhury

ONLINE ASSISTANT EDITOR FOR HAYATI MAGAZINE, PUBLISHED AUTHOR, POET AND JOURNALIST WITH AN MA IN ENGLISH LITERATURE. BORN IN BANGLADESH, RAISED IN USA, LIVED AND STUDIED IN UK AND NOW, AN ENGLISH TEACHER IN SWEDEN. ALSO, MARRIED AND MOTHER OF THREE DAUGHTERS.

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