Sascha A Akhtar: On Creating Narratives of Empathy & Emotions

September 28, 2022
Sascha A Akhtar: On Creating Narratives of Empathy & Emotions

Journalist, fiction writer, poet and translator, Sascha Aurora Akhtar chats with Lakshana Palat about her upcoming book The Belles-Lettres of Hijab Imtiaz , the South Asian struggle vis-à-vis literary publishing and more.


Sascha A. Akhtar is an ACE supported writer, translator and educator. Over a span of 20 years she has published six poetry collections and a collection of short fictions set in Pakistan entitled Of Necessity & Wanting (2020, The 87 Press). Akhtar has the distinction of being one of a handful of Pakistani women writing in English to be published in the experimental stream of U.K. poetries. A Poetry School London tutor, her work is widely anthologized and has been translated into Armenian, Portuguese, Galician, Russian, Dutch and Polish. Her translations of the work of writer Hijab Imtiaz(1908-1999), the first female pilot in the Subcontinent will be published by Oxford University Press, India in October/November 2022.

You brought the story of Hijab Imtiaz to the world. Do tell us about your research process, and the difficulties you faced in writing this essay.

My book is both a biographical essay and translations from a little known manuscript called Adab-e-Zareen of Hijab Imitaz from 1936. It will be called The Belles-Lettres of Hijab Imtiaz and should be in the world in October/November 2022 from Oxford University Press (OUP), India.

I must admit, I never intended to write a 20,000 word biography to accompany the translations. I wanted to delve into the liminal space of translation exclusively. It was requested of me by OUP and I decided that for the sake of Hijab Imtiaz, I would do it. It gave me a chance to share on a more vast spectrum the enchantments of this inspiring, life-affirming author. I have experience as a journalistic interviewer and have written this way about a number of Pakistani and Indian authors for various publications such as Libas and Herald. I was able to draw on that experience when formulating the plan. I am an advocate of extensive research. However, I wanted the biography to be vibrant, alive in order to engage the reader.

Sascha A Akhtar: On Creating Narratives of Empathy & Emotions

Too often academic writing fails to engage. I feel, with my experience as a journalist, fiction writer and poet, I was in a good place to create a fitting biography (the first of its kind in English at least) for Hijab Imtiaz. I applied for a research grant with Ace national (UK). It was a tremendous feeling to receive the support. I was able to embed myself in the environment that Hijab lived and worked in which I feel really enabled me to make her life and work come alive. I visited her library, Taj’s library and the very room she died in. The most valuable research tool was being able to conduct an interview with her daughter Yasmin and son-in-law Naeem. Speaking with them, ultimately made me realize that even though Hijab was a literary figure, bringing her work back to life (and her) would first and foremost need to honour her in the context of her family. There was so much love and history there. This then is the place I proceeded from.

A great deal of the material available was in literary Urdu, so I made the decision to translate the academic papers as well. I hope these can also be made available for researchers.

You have a work of translations as well—another challenging profession. How do you manage to retain the emotion, significance of the authenticity of the original intent?

Hijab’s writing in Adab-E-Zareen captured me so completely with the strength of the female voice. Every word, every stroke, every phrasing. Emotion is palpable in the work. This manuscript is all emotion and all my writing whether it is poetry or fiction comes from a place of emotion and empathy. Hijab provides the pathway to navigate her love, pain and desire-drenched heart maze with her language. I feel it was just a matter of tuning in.

How far do you think the representation of South Asian women on the publishing scene has progressed? What needs to change?

I assume you mean the Western publishing scene? Having been concerned with this for quite some time now, and having researched this, talked about it while participating in South Asian Heritage Month (UK) in both 2021 and 2022. I can tell you with great confidence that there is a massive amount of progress! Sure, if we zoom out and read only statistics it may seem there isn’t, but I talk from the trenches, i.e. the reality on the ground and I have been compiling a list of all the South Asian writers who were published just in 2020/2021 (and they are mostly women!).

What I discovered really gave me cause for joy. Both in the U.S. and U.K. (but more so in the U.K.) South Asian narratives are emerging in every form. Brown women are speaking. I feel this is very important in the context of carving a space for ourselves and not allowing white gatekeepers to lump us into the one space they have allotted for us i.e. here you go, get into the BAME corral… I believe (and many of my black comrades do too) that the Black struggle is the Black struggle with its own history, its own challenges and seeing where the Black struggle has gotten is inspirational and of course good for all of us. However, why does the South Asian struggle need to be swallowed into this? It is not the Black struggle that wants to do this. It is Whitey. The South Asian struggle is also unique. We have a very special colonial relationship, don’t we? Our rise is hugely necessary to even begin to heal from all that we have experienced. Seeing how many South Asians are being published is a move towards this and I say with confidence: The South Asians Are Coming….

When it comes to literary representation on the global scene, it’s said that only a handful of South Asian works are selected to highlight cultural stereotypes and tropes. Do you think that’s true? 

I think I answered this above. I think this was truer especially when I was trying to find a publisher for Of Necessity & Wanting in the West for many, many years. I made a conscious choice not to speak of religion or politics in my stories. In fact, I wanted to undo the damage that Western cultural imperialism has done to the image of Pakistan.

My stories are based on the economics of ‘want’, the politics of ‘need,’ the manner in which language in a post-colonial society can behave and a longing to explore Karachi in all her facets. I also had a strong desire to address toxic beauty standards. But Western publishers were not interested in that for a very long time. Things are on the mend… a little…. but this can also be a self-fulfilling issue…. What if South Asians are writing themselves into a place of race, politics & religion (and I am not saying these are not necessary or valid) in order to be published in the West? I feel that there is a great deal of healing needed still to enable us to stop wanting to please master.

What message do you have for aspiring writers?

So many. There are videos online of me giving advice on panels and talks to writers and young translators who may want to translate Urdu, to South Asian writers and I encourage people to seek these out.

The South Asian blogging community welcomed me and my book Of Necessity And Wanting throughout 2020- 2021 and I was asked this a great deal and it was so heartening to see how many aspiring writers there were out there, and how the blogging community of mostly brown women is providing a centrifugal force for this, such as Dr. Sofia and The Reading Nook. Past interviews of me can be found here & on Google and my insta page @saschaakhtar

I always just keep writing and have always done so. Even through difficult circumstances such as pain and illness, single parenthood and isolation. I share all this because I want to impart that if you want to write, you have to just do it and keep doing it. Don’t stop. Don’t listen to anyone. Most of all people who are your ‘loved ones,’ because sadly, sometimes they can be the most toxic of all, and your writing may just be the key to your healing.

Related Links

Interview with Dr. Sofia for Liberty Books

Interview with Sana Waqar of The Reading Nook

Reclaiming The Mother Tongue: An Exploration of The Loss and Journey Back to Our Native Languages

In Conversation with Mohini Gupta


An aspiring author, journalist and history graduate, Lakshana Palat has written stories for three anthologies ‘When They Spoke’, ‘Mocktales’ and ‘Readomania’s Book Of Romance’. In 2018, she published her first book, ‘The Final Word’. 

Have You Read This Book? Share Your Views

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *