Tapestry of Difference: An Interview with Siya Turabi

By Christina Petrie

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The idea of an in-between species inspired me to think of how Pakistan is somewhat of an “in-between” country both geographically and culturally—a kind of tapestry of difference.
 

Introduction

Siya Turabi
Siya Turabi.
Photo courtesy HarperCollins Publishers.
British writer Siya Turabi, who was born in Karachi, Pakistan, began her debut novel, The Last Beekeeper, at the age of 40. Before that, she studied biochemical engineering and Sanskrit, wrote poetry, worked as an art therapist, and journeyed to different countries to spend time in the natural world. I first met her in a cafe in Brick Lane, East London, with a fat A4 copy of her manuscript on the table between us. I’d arrived in a shower of heavy rain and was trying not to drip water on the pages. We spoke passionately about the future of the natural world and the future of her book. It is a poet’s novel, written in clear, simple language, but with subtlety, insight, and magic.

The novel opens with a death. In rural Pakistan, a deer is struck by a train. Traveling workers at the scene anticipate the reaction of the Mir, the state governor, who has passed a law to protect the deer and the forest they live in. Hassan, a local teenage boy, hovers at the edge of the scene. Then a man emerges from the forest—Hassan’s father, who has broken the law by entering the forest to search for the honey of the region’s rare black bees. The honey is a precious commodity, but also a remedy that might cure his wife’s failing eyesight. It’s the beginning of a story of poetry and politics, of human and animal lives, and of huge changes playing out across a whole nation and in the life of one child.

The poetry and stories of my heritage have been a vital part of my confidence.

Interview

Christina Petrie: At the heart of The Last Beekeeper is the relationship between Hassan and the black bees who live in the forest. His first thought is to collect honey to heal his mother’s eyes—she’s losing her sight and the honey is medicinal. But then his awareness of the bees comes to life. I wonder what it was like to write about this connection between the human and bee worlds. Did you feel a sense of “flow” as you were writing?

Siya Turabi: There was a flow when writing, and the feelings that arose when writing about the bees mirror my own feelings towards nature. I do feel there is a natural joy that emanates from nature and provides the basis of this flow that is such a wonderful thing to tap into. I wanted to portray a world where this natural joy provides a refuge for the bees and thus explore the possibilities of how we as humans, with our tendencies for analysis and overthinking, can share this refuge.

The Last Beekeeper, by Siya TurabiChristina Petrie: What drew you to bees as a subject?

Siya Turabi: There’s a species of bees called Apis dorsata, which is a black honeybee and now almost extinct in Pakistan. It’s a fierce and independent species of bee and I wanted to explore the potential relationship between humans and such creatures. Their honey is widely sought for its medicinal properties and due to their fierceness, they also demand sensitivity and respect from a honey hunter. So they’re in control of how much honey can be taken and by whom. This turns the common power dynamic between humans and other species upside-down and made me want to know more about the bees’ perspective.

As I was writing, I was curious to try to experience the world of the bees through the eyes of a boy who has in some way managed to gain entry into their world. In the story, the lines between Hassan’s perspective and that of the bees becomes blurred. That whole idea of blurring boundaries between the points of view of species is something I’ve been interested in for a long time. I studied neuroscience after my degree and have also meditated for a while. The idea of a common consciousness for all of life fascinates me and I realized that understanding this a little more can only really be achieved through direct experience of being present here and now, rather than only reading or intellectualizing about it.

The idea of the bees’ collective intelligence—where individual bees or groups of bees had often interchangeable roles—was interesting in that our own species has much to learn from this.

Christina Petrie: In terms of learning from other species, do you have animal companions in your life, now or in the past? I know you love to spend time in the natural world.

Siya Turabi: I don’t have animal companions as in pets! I’m a bit of a nomad and have not really been able to commit to having pets. Nature means everything to me. I love walking every day and walk for at least one or two hours and feel I “reset” when I do this. I am always surprised at how the rhythmic act of walking allows ideas to flow. Suddenly questions that I’ve been working on within the story become clearer. Sometimes whole scenes and dialogues between characters have played out in my mind when I’ve stopped trying. Perhaps this happens when my body and mind attune to the natural rhythm of nature. My awareness relaxes and I suddenly find myself present enough to allow myself to “just be.” When this happens, I stop constantly trying to analyze or judge or categorize my experience. I suppose that anxious, controlling part of me steps aside and a more playful presence has more space.

I always lived in cities until a few months ago. I was born in Karachi and came to the United Kingdom with my parents when I was two years old. I was brought up in Manchester and moved to London to study at university. And yet, there’s always been a deep longing for nature in me since I can remember. That’s what made me travel so much. I wanted to explore and walk through the different landscapes in the world. But it was only three months ago that I actually moved out to the countryside. I’m now able to see the stars and watch the seasons and hear the birds and other flying creatures. There seem to have been an abundance of dragonflies and butterflies this year. I feel grateful to be able to experience the cycles of nature. I’m learning so much and never feel alone when I’m walking through the trees and watching the birds. I love the gentleness of all the creatures and yet their strength is an example to me. Their ability to be free in the moment, to live a life of complete uncertainty reminds me of the impermanence of everything.

Apis dorsata on flower
Apis dorsata on touch-me-not flower.
Photo by Jee & Rani Nature Photography, courtesy Wikipedia (License: CC BY-SA 4.0).

Christina Petrie: It sounds like a wonderful new phase in your life, and one that’s supporting your writing practice. I know that poetry and storytelling run in your family. What are your early experiences with storytelling?

Siya Turabi: For me, growing up in England meant I had the privilege of two cultures around me. The poetry and stories of my heritage have been a vital part of my confidence. They have helped me to ground my reality in the new present and the new culture as I grew up. Just like nature helps to ground me in the present moment, so do the stories and poetry of my ancestors. It’s more than grounding, in fact—it’s joyful.

My grandfather left India in 1949 on a boat to Karachi from Mumbai. He was a poet, scholar, orator, and storyteller from Hyderabad. He took his family with him. In Karachi, my grandfather’s house soon became a refuge for the newly arrived poets. They would sit in a circle of chairs at night when the air was cooler and recite spontaneous verse or read the poems of the greats such as Hafiz and Rumi. It was their way of healing and bringing together the community. My grandfather would speak in front of gatherings of hundreds of people in Karachi. This soon became thousands and was an important process for the healing for different communities in Pakistan. It helped people come together.

Coming together in a circle for the specific purpose of poetry was a radical act of self-autonomy on the part of poets—in real life and in the novel—in India and Pakistan. It was a place for discussion, often in the form of metaphor, about life’s difficulties and beauties as well as a space to explore more metaphysical and spiritual concepts. Metaphor can act as a safe space to deposit the turbulence and confusion of one’s mind. It can allow a shift in one’s perspective towards life and thus facilitate hope. Poetry can awaken people to the wrongs they are suffering and make them active forces for change.

My grandfather died in 1974, when the story is set. His brother became a professor of English literature at Peshawar University and their love of poetry was transmitted to their children in turn. My father would regularly hold gatherings for the community from the North of England where we lived to come together and sing and read poetry.

One can be a dreamer and have a self-sustaining life and livelihood. This is not always easy to achieve, though, in a world that often values status above imagination.

Christina Petrie: That grounding place—the circle of chairs, the circle of poets—is present in your novel, too. Hassan’s father takes him to gatherings in which poets meet under the stars to speak words that come to them in the moment. It seemed to me that Hassan’s openness comes partly from his father—a poet and journalist, and a chaotic, inspired figure. He’s caught up in a great love story with Hassan’s mother, but is also in love with words and wandering—a bit of a clash at times!

Siya Turabi: For Hassan’s father, there’s a real movement in his life towards a sense of alignment with the creative force of nature. He lives for that. The bees are aligned with this creative force without the need to think about it. The rhythms of their life cycles, the geometry of the architecture of their homes, the ways they search for nectar and new homes seems to be governed by an intelligence in perfect harmony with nature. It is nature.

I suppose Hassan’s father is someone whose love of words and poetry is not always aligned with the practicalities of life. But that needn’t always be the case. One can be a dreamer and have a self-sustaining life and livelihood. This is not always easy to achieve, though, in a world that often values status above imagination. That can make it harder for a would-be poet or writer or artist from any culture to feel secure and to find the time to devote to honing their craft.

Christina Petrie: That’s a useful reminder, that dreaming is not a luxury. All the characters in your novel are in the midst of huge change and have different dreams of the future. They’re in a new country, Pakistan. As well as in the village and forest, the novel is set in Karachi, a city that was transformed by Partition in 1947, and the arrival of huge numbers of displaced people in a short space of time. It sounds as if your grandfather was deeply involved in finding ways to bring people together at a time of ongoing change and trauma. I felt that ideas of change and resilience are woven through the novel in different ways. Is this something you wanted to explore?

Karachi, Pakistan.
Karachi, Pakistan.
Photo by Rehan Rasheed, courtesy Shutterstock.

Siya Turabi: People in Pakistan have had to be resilient. In the story, Hassan needs to be pretty resilient to go against the wave of opposition to his dream to venture forward and obtain the black honey. 

The people of the Sindh have had to live with enormous amounts of change that has brought with it incredible challenges. From the time of Partition, there has been a flux of people moving in and out of the country. Many people left for India and many people came the other way into the new country. There was an immense amount of hardship for so many people in both countries. There was also a great sense of hope, too, for a new country.

There has to be hope. In the novel, Hassan has to hope that he will see the beekeeper again. He has to hope that somehow his actions will help his mother’s eyes.

It is interesting, too, that the bees of Pakistan around the 1970s were still very much a species that was neither the same as the bees farther west or farther east. This idea of an in-between species inspired me to think of how Pakistan is somewhat of an “in-between” country both geographically and culturally—a kind of tapestry of difference. The time the story is set in was an in-between time in terms of political change. In the early 1970s a new cycle of conservatism began. Also, private industries were nationalized around this time, which in theory is not a bad idea. However, these industries were often then neglected, and this resulted in more migration into cities such as Karachi.

I also wanted to explore questions of status. Can you break through the concrete ceilings of status and cultural background? Can you go against the norms and boundaries expected of you by society? Does that necessarily mean a life of instability if you do? I wanted to explore such questions by looking at relationships and shared human desires for friendship and the love of nature.

Apis dorsata honeycomb
A nest of Apis dorsata, consisting of a single honeycomb.
Photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim, courtesy Wikipedia.

Christina Petrie: Hassan is a character who has to grapple with these questions about what is possible. He finds himself caught up in the political struggle between the Mir, who is the hereditary ruler of the area where he lives, and the new central government. He wins a scholarship and finds himself living in the Mir’s house, not quite a part of the family but not a servant, a position that’s difficult at times.

Siya Turabi: Yes, he’s a village boy who suddenly finds himself with choices with respect to education and travel that someone of his status would not normally have. He befriends people at the opposite end of the spectrum with respect to status and thus from completely different worlds. I wanted to explore: what can allow for such relationships to form? In the novel, Hassan shares a love of words and a profound relationship with nature with his friends. I want to ask if poetry and nature bring about the ability to transcend the rules of status.

Christina Petrie: Thinking about that hope of transcending the rules, I wonder if there’s a place for poetry and storytelling in responding to the ecological crisis we’re living through? Can lyrical practice be a source of invention and insight in times of change—like a technology that’s been hiding in plain sight? Or perhaps a way of thinking in a less divided or categorical way? I’m thinking aloud here! 

The story of the bees and their struggle as a species to survive is symbolic of humans’ disregard for the vital role other species play in actively supporting the planet.

Siya Turabi: Poetry and stories evoke emotion. They touch us in ways facts often don’t. Perhaps the writing of poetry is connected to areas of our being that enable us to expand our perspective and begin to understand the perspectives of others. This is the prerequisite for compassion, which doesn’t mean going in to rescue the “other,” but means that another’s perspective is heard with an open mind and heart.

The story of the bees and their struggle as a species to survive is symbolic of humans’ disregard for the vital role other species play in actively supporting the planet. Positively seen, however, our overall awareness as a species is changing and I, for one, am becoming more aware of the urgency of changing our ways. 

In the novel, the urgency of Hassan’s need to obtain the honey is brought about by the unpredictability of the yearly rains and the ever-increasing likelihood of floods along the riverbanks. These have become more and more unpredictable along the Indus in Pakistan over the last 50 to 70 years. In 2010, there were devastating floods in the Sindh region largely due to deforestation. This touched me very much and inspired the story. I was very heartened to hear the recent plans for reforestation that Pakistan has put into place.

Christina Petrie: And what’s next for you as a storyteller? Are you working on a new book?

Siya Turabi: My next book is set in 15th-century Spain. It’s an interesting time for me in terms of questions around power and identity. In this novel, I want to explore the feeling of being an outsider or on the edge of a culture and ask questions about how and to what extent culture forms us. I want to know who we are behind our culture, which in many ways has been imposed upon us. 

I have been thinking about migration and how culture and identity inform our ways of handling power both on an individual and a societal level. As a British person with a South Asian heritage, I’ve been in a position to move between different cultures. I want to try and understand the fears and shame that inform people’s views of the “other.” In future novels, I’d like to keep asking such questions. I’d also love to be involved more in discussions around the role that literature plays in awakening our self-awareness. For example, how does our own culture play out in our interactions? What impact does this have on another person and other life forms, including nature?
 

Catch up with Siya Turabi on Twitter.

 
 

Christina PetrieChristina Petrie is a developmental editor of fiction and life writing. She was the series editor of Who Are You Now?, a collection of life stories cowritten with brain injury survivors. She moonlights as a poet and as a voice artist for the NTS radio program Time is Away. She lives in the UK and is working on her own first book, a life writing project.

Header photo by Dabarti CGI, courtesy Shutterstock.

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