Stay Home, Stay Reading: With Fatima Bhutto and Sanam Maher

There are countless instances where Pakistani writer Fatima Bhutto has occupied my consciousness with her signature elegance and grace. Most frequently, when I’m teasing my mother by asking her if she thinks I, with hair tied like Vicky Pollard and blemish cream dotted around my face, exude more class than Bhutto. 

But more recently, I enjoyed her appearance on Riz Ahmed’s live virtual panel ‘Making a Home in No Man’s Land’, where Bhutto was a guest alongside poet Rupi Kaur and writer Nikesh Shukla. 

On the panel, Bhutto lamented that she and fellow Karachi writer Sanam Maher, felt ‘stranded’ after a lot of their upcoming projects had been cancelled. This led to the creation of an Instagram series entitled #StayHomeStayReading

Bhutto explained the motivation behind the series, saying: “We were thinking [that] if this has happened to us, what is happening to a lot of younger writers who maybe are coming out with debut books or, you know, worked on projects for years and now they find themselves drowned under this CNN news wave?

“So we reached out to a whole bunch of writers who we love and who we read and who we’re curious about, including Rupi and Nikesh, and asked them to read to us. To just make small videos where they read to us for 3 minutes, either from their own books or from books they love”. 

The pair announced the series on March 27 in an Instagram video and since then Bhutto has uploaded 42 videos of writers, authors, and poets reading inspiring pieces that are sure to keep you distracted and inspired in each of your individual quarantines. 

View this post on Instagram

Hi everyone, Over the past few weeks, Sanam Maher (@topbastard) and I have been hearing from fellow writers whose work/ability to support themselves financially has been affected by shutdowns and the need for social distancing – those with new books out are unable to promote them, bookshops can only accommodate online orders, litfests and events have been cancelled, and reviews seem to barely make a splash when there's so much else on the news competing for our attention. With all the bad news coming our way, we wanted to find something, however small, that we could do to help out. 'Stay Home, Stay Reading' is a project that we hope will support writers and readers alike during this strange time: we have writers from all over the world sending us videos reading from their work and works that bring them comfort or joy at this time. If you're looking for new reads to keep you busy, please support these writers, publishers and booksellers by buying the books (even as gifts!), and if you're not able to do so right now, follow them on social media to keep up with their work now and in the future. We hope the videos give you small breaks in a feed full of noise and the news right now – there's something comforting about being read to, don't you think? Please share the videos widely using #stayhomestayreading as that helps the writers get their work out too. Stay tuned for our wonderful authors – we’ll be sharing the videos on our IG accounts + with #stayhomestayreading Stay safe, and stay home, stay reading. We'd like to thank Shehzil Malik (@shehzilm) for generously creating artwork for this project. With love Fatima & Sanam

A post shared by Fatima Bhutto (@fbhutto) on

You can keep up with the latest instalments of the series by following the hashtag #stayhomestayreading or following either writer on Instagram, but in the meantime, if you’re frantically scrolling bookshop websites for your next read, here are some of the highlights so far:

Chilean novelist Isabel Allende read a heartfelt extract from her latest novel A Long Petal of the Sea, which is the story of ‘2200 Spanish refugees that came to Chile in 1939 after the civil war in Spain’. The beautiful writing comes to life with the tones of Allende’s soothing accent. 

Australian writer Omar bin Musa read from his debut novel Here Come the Dogs, which addresses ‘combustible race relations, masculinity, violence, hip hop culture, graffiti, crime, and bushfires’. 

British writer and columnist Damian Barr also reads an extract from his debut novel entitled You Will Be Safe Here. The novel is set ‘entirely in South Africa and it ranges from 1900, during the world war, up until now’ and observes people’s varying experiences of concentration camps.

Afghan writer Jamil Jan Kochai, who was born into a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, draws on the themes of his own heritage in his debut novel 99 Nights in Logar. Jan Kochai summarises the work as ‘a book about four boys’ adventure as they go off in search of this lost guard dog in Logur, Afghanistan… in the process of this search they begin to learn more about the history of their country’. 

Palestinian-American novelist and activist Susan Abulhawa, shares a section of her upcoming novel Against the Loveless World. Abulhawa describes the novel as being ‘about a Palestinian woman, who was born in Kuwait, and she starts her life with ordinary ambitions of marriage and children and possibly owning her salon but life… intervenes and takes her in a totally different direction. She ends up becoming a sex worker’. The novel will be released in August but if her extract makes one thing clear, it’s that it is simply worth the wait. 

These are a modest handful of the talents in this series; Bhutto and Maher have curated an eclectic team of wordsmiths in which no two voices are alike. There is something especially intimate about writers reading their own work, with the emphases, pauses, and intonation that they intended the words to be read with. I am thankful that this uncertain time has allowed me to discover some unique and truly international voices that have, regrettably, evaded me until now. 

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