A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a book signing where author Nadia Hashimi spoke about her newest novel, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell. Pearl tells the story of a young Afghan girl (Rahima) and her great-great-grandmother (Shekiba) who both dress as boys to overcome incredible gender inequities. I read the novel a few weeks prior and absolutely fell in love with the story and its cast of strong female characters.
Nadia proudly supports women’s and girls’ empowerment and was excited to share more about her book and her life with Girls’ Globe. You can find the entire the interview below.
How did your background and/or personal life influence the story of The Pearl That Broke Its Shell?
My parents came over to the United States from Afghanistan in the early 1970s. They initially had the intention of returning to their homeland after a few years, but then the Soviet invasion happened and Afghanistan went into a downward spiral and it wasn’t safe for them to return. It was because of these events that I was born in the United States. From a distance, I’ve watched my counterparts (my female cousins) have a very different experience growing up in war-torn Afghanistan. This made it really important for me to be grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had.
Most of the characters in The Pearl That Broke Its Shell are strong women and girls, particularly Shekiba and Rahima. What character did you most enjoy writing? Who do you relate to the most? Why?
Thanks for calling them out as strong female characters. I’d have to say I enjoyed writing Khala Shaima, the disfigured and defiant aunt, most of all. Because she’s got a deformity, she is somewhat liberated from the traditional rules and restrictions of society. She’s an old maid and goes around telling people (even men) exactly what she thinks. She’s the voice that eggs Rahima on, urging her not to give up and to question what people think girls should or shouldn’t do. She makes education and literacy a priority. Since I was blessed with a family that supported me all the way and never set boundaries on my potential, it’s hard for me to put myself in the shoes of most of my characters. Thank goodness for that.
What inspires you to write books about empowered women and girls?
I write about empowered women because that’s what interests me and because I hope some younger readers will be inspired by the characters. I think all girls need to learn to assert themselves. While much better than the world depicted in Pearl, even western society doesn’t always afford girls the same potential as boys.
Without giving away spoilers, what was your favorite scene to write in The Pearl That Broke Its Shell? Why?
Toughest question. I’ll say, without giving much away, that it felt really good when my characters were able to turn a positive corner. Their experiences are pretty grueling and I was very invested in them as people. At the same time, some of the hardest scenes to write are actually really important to me because they depict the brutal way some girls are treated. Child “marriage” (such a euphemism) is really tough to think about when you get into the gritty details but that shock factor is what draws empathy and awareness.
The bacha posh tradition is a major aspect of your novel. Can you explain more about it? Is it still present in Afghanistan?
In Afghanistan, boys are valued over girls for all the same patriarchal reasons that exist worldwide. Boys carry on the family name and are supposed to care for their parents as they age (not really true in today’s world). Some families without sons feel that they are lacking and often are pitied by others in the community. By transforming a daughter into a bacha posh, a boy dressed as a girl, they are able to restore honor to their family. They might also believe a bacha posh will bring good luck to the family and that they’ll have a true son in their next child. It’s not something every family does, but happens commonly enough that nearly any Afghan living in Afghanistan knows of one. It does still occur but my belief and hope is that it die out as the societal value of daughters rises.
The Pearl That Broke Its Shell discusses many important issues in Afghanistan: political corruption, child brides, violence against women, and gender inequality. In your opinion, is Afghanistan becoming a safer place today than it was during Shekiba’s time? How do you think these issues will impact Afghanistan’s future and the future of Afghan girls?
These issues are crises in Afghanistan. A corrupt government cannot effectively provide for or protect its daughters. When school funding disappears into the pockets of politicians, young students suffer. When girls are married young, they are more likely to experience health problems or even die during childbirth/pregnancy. They are unlikely to go to school and more likely to be abused. Add to this the knowledge that it is really hard to break out of a cycle of poverty or violence in a family, and it’s easy to believe some Afghan girls simply don’t stand a chance. The landscape is changing, though. It is a much safer world than it was a decade ago and many Afghan women are thankful to the western nations who helped free them from the oppressive Taliban control. Women are now part of government again. They are becoming working professionals and contributing members of their families. Young girls can look up to assertive, accomplished women in their communities and be inspired to do great things.
What are your plans for the future? Will you be writing more books about women and girls? About Afghanistan?
I have a second novel that will be released July 2015 called, When The Moon Is Low. It’s the story of an Afghan family beset by tragedy by the brutal Taliban regime. A mother is forced to make some really harrowing decisions and, with her family, flees Kabul. As they make their way across Europe, Saleem, the barely adolescent son, is separated from the rest of the family. As he struggles to reunite with his mother and siblings, he floats into the dark world of human trafficking. It is a coming of age story for a young boy, a marriage and a family as a whole.
I’m currently working on a middle grade version of The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, in which Rahima makes a guest appearance. I’ve also got two other stories in the early works. One is another Afghan story but the second is not. As an author, it’s incredible to be able to write about anything under the sun. The possibilities are endless, as long as you can create compelling characters and an intriguing plot.
Can you recommend books and/or organizations for those interested in learning more about the women and girls of Afghanistan?
I’d recommend Fariba Nawa’s Opium Nation. Fariba is a brave journalist who provides an eye opening glimpse into the opium trade in Afghanistan and how it impacts individuals, particularly children. Also, However Tall the Mountain, by Awista Ayub, is a great true life story of what athletics can do for Afghan girls. For organizations, check out Women for Afghan Women. Their interventions are making a profound difference in the lives of Afghan girls and women.
Thank you Nadia for your amazing insight on girls in Afghanistan. We can’t wait to read your upcoming novels!