No part of life in the last couple of years has remained unmarked by the various global disasters surrounding us: a pandemic, economic crisis, wars. My Pen is the Wing of a Bird, an anthology of short fiction by marginalized Afghan women (the first collection of short fiction by Afghan women in English translation, it says), had to survive the pandemic and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in mid-2021. Yet, despite every obstacle, the writers finished their stories.
The project by Untold Narratives, a program for marginalised writers especially in areas of conflict, had started in 2019, with the aim to give a voice to marginalized Afghan women, especially in fiction. They had finally shortlisted 18 writers when the pandemic broke out, and, in the summer of 2021, Kabul fell to the Taliban. As Lucy Hannah, the director of Untold Narratives, says in the Afterword: “At the time, someone asked me: ‘Why would people carry on writing at a time like this?’ And the answer is that, if you are a writer, that is what you do. Stories help us make sense of our world, particularly in the face of uncertainty and fear. As one of the writers said: 'All we can do is give each other moral support. Sharing our writing is one way of doing that. War won't take our creativity away.'”
It is not just the creativity of the women that this book celebrates but their description of their everyday life and of the violence they have witnessed for decades. Love, longing, hunger, poverty, friendship, and the struggle to hold on to positivity in the backdrop of tremendous violence and political instability form the themes of these stories. There are 20 stories in the book, all originally written in the languages of Dari and Pashto and then translated. It would be wrong to say, or indeed to expect, that each of these stories would be equally well-written or insightful and moving. Some stories move you to tears; some leave you troubled; others are a struggle to finish because of their rambling nature or uninspired characters. Yet, each has an important message and tells us how these women see themselves and their surroundings.
In “Haska’s Decision” (by Rana Zurmaty, translated by Shekiba Habib), we see the resilience of a widow who starts a business to provide for her children, in “Silver Ring” (by Freshta Ghani, translated by Shekiba Habib), a widow who has no option but to sell her only precious possession for 2 kilos of rice. There is an exploration of sexuality in “I Don’t Have the Flying Wings” (by Batool Haidari, translated by Parwana Fayyaz) while in “The Red Boots” (Naeema Ghani, translated by Shekiba Habib and Zarghuna Kargar) and “Blossom” (Zainab Akhlaqi, translated by Dr. Negeen Kargar), children fight for what they want (red boots in one case, education in the other).
There are stories of regular life being disrupted due to explosions, and of soldiers returning home after being believed to be martyred for years. In “Ajah” (Fatema Khavari, translated by Dr. Zubair Popalzai), there is a woman whose clear-thinking and foresight saves her village from flooding; there are also many women who don't have the privilege of standing up for their dignity and their lives. Through these stories, moments of despair and sorrow are balanced by gestures of kindness, fortitude, and support from unexpected quarters.
This is an important book because it throws light on the lives of women in an area that is not merely politically unstable but also one that is extremely patriarchal. We are in awe of Haska (‘Haska’s Decision’), who refuses to remarry even in the face of unimaginable pressure, and instead manages to find a way to be independent. In ‘Khurshid Khanum, Rise and Shine’ (by Batool Haidari, translated by Parwana Fayyaz and Dr. Zubair Popalzai), we feel for Suleiman coming home after years, only to see the world has moved on in his absence.
“What Are Friends For?” by Sharifa Pasun (Translated from the Pashto by Dr. Negeen Kargar) shows how commonplace violence has become. In a moment of anger, the protagonist throws a stone at the wall. “In the next room, the teachers panicked. Halima also came out. I turned away. Someone said a bomb had exploded, and someone else said it was the sound of a rocket.” Every noise is associated with danger, and of the unknown. It's ingrained in their system.
“Blossom” was written as a tribute to Afghan schoolgirls, “in particular the students of Sayed ul-Shuhada high school in Dasht-e-Barchi, Kabul”, which saw a terrorist attack on 8 May 2021. The story is a moving account of how education and the education system is affected by wars and politics and how students are collateral damage in the process. It also talks of young girls' ambitions—their dreams and aspirations. Shaherbano wants to grow up and be the Minister for Education; she will ensure that girls can attend school without family pressure or having to take days off when prospective suitors come to see the young bride. It is one of the most moving stories of the book.
Most of these stories have one moment of intense and personal relatability. It is not the setting or the lives of these characters that we can identify with but their passions, desires, and vulnerabilities. The writers and translators have done a brilliant job at communicating those.
It is noteworthy that not much is known or shared about the authors of these stories. However, we know that not all of them are professional writers. They responded to the call for stories by Untold Narratives. We don't know their age or where they're from, or for how long they've been writing; in some cases, we don't even know their real names. Does it matter? Not really, since most of the stories are powerful and intense in themselves. We might not know these women's names or their biographies, but we do know the kind of fears they have and their dreams, too.
For readers, this book is a powerful reminder of something we all experience, but something that is easy to forget—that everyone has a story and every story matters. It is important and heartening that these women took the chance to share theirs.
Shreemayee Das writes on entertainment, education, and relationships. She is based in Mumbai, and posts as @weepli on Instagram and Twitter