Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.
Recently, we interviewed Maheen Mazhar, about her writing and recently released book, Through Her Eyes, a deeply introspective, elegantly rendered book that offers a nuanced mediation on family, culture, faith, identity, resilience, hope, and belonging (Read the review here.).
Maheen Mazhar was born in Lahore, Pakistan and moved to New York with her parents at the age of three. Growing up as Pakistani-American there was always a clash between both of her identities. She graduated from New York University in 2019 and currently calls New York home.
What in particular attracted you to the genre of memoir, rather than writing this story as fiction?
My ability to relate to the story. I find it a lot easier to recreate things that have happened in reality, rather than making up scenes. I wanted to stay true to not just the story but also to the protagonist and her real-life experiences and thoughts. Being able to pull from real life situations and scenarios that I had firsthand experience with allowed me to portray the same scene and scenarios in the book with honesty. I truly believe that the more involved and honest you are with what you are writing, the more involved and connected your reader will also be while reading, and for me to provide my readers with a candid story, pulling from real life scenes, scenario and setting allowed me to better be able to paint a picture for the reader of what a particular scene must have been like. And create a scene where I am not just writing a story to describe what happened, I am writing the story to stay true to my protagonist’s emotions in each scenario and how she evolves throughout her life to reach the stage of self-discovery and self-awareness that she finds by the end of the book.
Also, I believe that any pain/trauma/challenge/struggle in our life is never for nothing. There is always a reason why struggles are present and why we go through what we go through. Overcoming challenges is what shapes our thinking and the way we are for the rest of our lives. Similarly, the struggles in the protagonist’s early life in Through Her Eyes was never for nothing; those struggles are what shape her thinking in life as she grows older, and she becomes wiser and more observant of the world around her. In many aspects of life, such as love, relationships, high school/college dating culture, school educational standards, and cultural norms, the protagonist has very strong viewpoints about everything she sees and experiences around her. She observes everything but never quite fits in because her mind thinks way beyond her years. I wanted to stay true to that and express it exactly the way the protagonist feels it and that’s another huge reason why this book had to be written as a memoir.
For example, in one of the scenes in the second half of the book, the protagonist is sitting at a table with her college friends where everyone is talking about hook-ups and how many sexual partners one’s had at once. The protagonist is quiet, she doesn’t agree with what’s happening around her, but she doesn’t openly say anything because everyone else is talking about having several sexual partners and this girl believes in true love. Her silence is often misunderstood by others as a lack of experience or seen as uncool because she’s not engaging in that causal relationship culture. But to her there is nothing “cool” about being with casual relationships. She doesn’t agree with it, rather she wants to be with one man and one man only for the rest of her life. She has a different meaning in her head of love, which is deeper and purer than being in a relationship for just physical reasons, which is the norm in the college culture around her. In fact, she doesn’t believe in casual physical intimacy. That for others around her is normal, but to her it’s something sacred, something you only do with the man you love. Just expressing this as a scene leaves you wondering why the protagonist was silent or why does she not engage in things that everyone else does engage in. But writing the same scene as a memoir allowed me to not only write the scene but then use that scene to go off on a monologue describing why the narrator was quiet or what her thoughts on love were and why she thinks that the people around her wouldn’t understand. You have to dig deeper into the protagonist’s mind in Through Her Eyes in order to understand her perspective on life. Staying on the surface and just judging the protagonist’s actions to come to conclusions about her thinking takes away from the candid moments of self-awareness this character has while existing in a greater world full of norms and expectations. I think the most beautiful aspect of the protagonist’s self-awareness and thoughts is that she always strives to stay true to herself in any given situation, instead of giving in to the noise of the world. And that’s the message I wanted to give.
After the writing’s finished, how do you judge the quality of your work?
After I am done writing something, I like to either have a peer read it and give me feedback or I am the one to go back and judge the quality of my own work. I like taking a break and pulling away for a week or two and then looking at it with a fresh perspective. I believe having both a peer review and a self-review are important.
During my college years I took several writing classes at NYU, where peer reviewing each student’s writing was a huge deal and made me realize how important it is to actually get another set of eyes on your work. Oftentimes, as a writer I would be too focused on one aspect of the writing. But the other person, who’s just reading the piece as an outsider, can give me an unbiased perspective on whether what I want to convey in my writing is coming across or not. This is extremely important because you are not your final audience—the reader is. And having someone else read your work and tell you what’s working or not working gives you insight about how your audience will eventually perceive your writing.
I also like to self-review, especially while editing. There are so many little things like grammar, name spellings that one finds each time you look at the piece with fresh eyes. This is why distancing yourself is important because going through it once you might find some major issues but other smaller ones your brain might ignore because it’s focusing on one specific aspect of the piece. I remember when I was editing Through Her Eyes, there was a time after the initial editing stage where I completely stepped back from the manuscript for a month, just so I could detach myself from the story and come back to it as if I was just another reader, reading the story. Gaining perspective on your own writing takes time and sometimes that can make us impatient because we want to be perfect in that moment. Whatever we write, we want it to be perfect the first time around. But writing is a whole process, and any process requires time to bring out the best version possible.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
It gave me perspective. When I started my writing journey back in 2017, I was a sophomore in college. I used to write short stories and narrative essays. Back then I had no idea about the craft of writing; I was just journaling my way through, writing about how I felt about certain situations in life. For example, the scene described in question one, about sitting together at a table with fellow classmates talking about their love lives comes from real life experience. I personally had a different point of view on the matter so the next day I wrote about how I felt during that conversation for a college assignment. My professor loved my thought process, but he was curious to know what event had led me to write that paper. He encouraged me to write out and recreate the entire conversation that had taken place. That’s when I realized that you need to create an experience for your reader. You can’t just jump into your philosophies or rant about a certain topic. Writing becomes much more interesting when you take the reader on the journey. That piece of advice changed my writing forever and I realized that if I want people to be interested in the thinking process and philosophical mindset of the main character in Through Her Eyes, I need to take the reader through her journey from the beginning, so the reader can understand what things or scenarios in life contributed to why the main characters thinks the way she does.
Secondly, I learned a lot about editing during the process of writing Through Her Eyes. Once I had my final draft ready for editing, I realized that editing is a whole different ball game than writing. While you are writing, you are in a different flow, using a different part of your brain just trying to get all your thoughts down on the page. And you are so involved in certain ideas or concepts that you don’t even realize you keep repeating some of your ideas in your writing in various areas or chapters. Sometimes that can be intentional, but more often it’s a natural occurrence that happens while writing because maybe that idea is something you strongly believe in or is stuck in your head. While going through the editing process for Through Her Eyes, I realized I had repeated the idea “physical intimacy is not love” a billion times throughout the manuscript. Sometimes even seventeen times in the same chapter! Crazy, I know! At times it was important to repeat the idea of what love meant to the main character but seventeen times in the same chapter was definitely going to annoy anyone reading it.
Writing is a whole process, and it definitely takes it time. You can’t expect a perfect manuscript the first time or even the tenth time around you sit down to write. It happens with time. In general, I feel like I have become a better editor and critic of my own work after this whole process of writing a book. I am much more able to identify what needs to be taken out from my writing and what needs to be emphasized a little more. And all of this is part of the process.
What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
I like reading things that inspire me. It can be poetry that talks about the depth of life or a full-on inspirational story. I think Rupi Kaur’s poetry is really inspiring and a lot of her poetry relates to what it means to be a woman in today’s society and how you should live life according to yourself rather than fitting into the standards that society creates around what it is to be a woman. I also enjoy Reyna Beddy’s poetry, anything that gives me a deeper meaning of life I will connect to. I find Paul Coelho’s writing to be super inspiring; The Alchemist is a must-read and I admire Coelho’s ability to add in his philosophies about life as part of the story. I read somewhere that Coelho wrote The Alchemist in two weeks because he always felt that the story was in his soul all along. That’s exactly how I felt about Through Her Eyes, though it took me way more than two weeks to write it, but I can relate to Coelho in the sense that I too felt that this story was in me all along and was burning to be told. I definitely took inspiration from The Alchemist for Through Her Eyes, as I wanted the story and the protagonist’s philosophies and way of thinking about life to run side-by-side with the bigger narrative. Two other favorite books of mine are Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak, the way these book talk about love through an angle of Sufism is very similar to how I felt about love and what I was trying to convey in Through Her Eyes. I am a very philosophical person, so anything that teaches me something about life, struggles, love, god, believing, faith, I read with a smile.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer?
Since Through Her Eyes was my debut writing project there were two things I found super difficult when I started. Number one was setting the story. During my school years I never enjoyed creative writing, I always thought everything was super structured and systematic. Even in school, when told to write an essay, I felt like there was no importance given to what you were trying to convey. It was all about how well you could follow directions and write a five-paragraph essay, with an introduction, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. So I had no plans of becoming a writer or publishing a book. I was so tired of the standard systematic grading system at school, I began journaling and writing a dairy for myself just jotting down things I felt strongly about at school or in the world. Things I agreed with around me and disagreed with. I always felt like my way of thinking didn’t match with others around my age and I could never figure out why. At that point it was something extremely personal and I never thought about sharing it with the world.
When I got to college, I used one of my personal diary journals and turned it into a narrative essay for my Intro to Writing class. I literally just did that to fulfill an assignment requirement for college, little did I know I was setting the foundation for writing a book. My professor really enjoyed reading my thoughts on how structured the education system is and how we really don’t get the chance to actually take courses that we like because we are so stuck fulfilling requirements bestowed upon us by others. The professor asked me what had inspired my thinking and I said, “the high school curriculum.” He said, “I love your thinking, but I would love to also be able to see the experience that led to your thinking.” That struck a chord in my brain, and I realized that for true story telling, I can’t just straight up tell you what happened, I have to make you experience what happened through describing a scene and then explaining a character’s thought. I can’t just be like “When I was five, I hated hospitals.” I have to show the reader why I hated hospitals. So this initiated my journey of scene writing, which was extremely difficult for me in the beginning. Then my classes at NYU came in and help me tons. If the reader can imagine being present in the scene, only then you have succeeded as a writer and the best way to do that is create the scene using the five senses. What was the place like? what did it smell like? What conversations were taking place? You want to make the reader feel like they were there experiencing the scene, instead of just telling them what happened. This is what took me the most amount of time. Writing the character’s thoughts was simple because those thoughts were my own but showing you what she had to go through to get to those conclusions or philosophies was the most interesting but also the most challenging part of writing this story. Finding the balance between moving the story along while also be able to express the protagonist’s thought process and philosophies in life was a hard balance to strike.
Through Her Eyes is a strongly female-oriented story. Was that a goal of yours coming into the writing?
To be honest, NO. Initially, I had no set goal of making this a female-oriented story. Though the protagonist is female that specific thought wasn’t my main focus. When I started writing Through Her Eyes, my biggest goal was to get my raw and honest perspective out there in the world. I strongly believed I had something to say, and I wanted the world to hear it. Like I mentioned earlier I started writing in high school and college because I always felt like I didn’t fit in. Beginning in middle school, I saw kids engaging in relationships, but those relationships would end three months later. I was never a part of this culture, yet I was the observer, taking in everything around me and trying to make sense of it.
When I got to high school, the casual dating/hook-up scene just got worse and I still remember my first day of high school when I walked around the school in the morning, watching couples making out in every corner. That was something I never understood. Maybe it was because of My Pakistani roots and culture but I could never make out with a random guy at school and break up with him months later. I believed in a love that fed my soul instead of just touching my body. Physical intimacy is easy to have, you can have it with anyone, but I craved a love that sparked my soul. One that was based in emotions and spirituality. But in high school, I only saw people giving importance to physical stuff. I got so scared of it that I said no to my first homecoming proposal because I was scared that boy would also want something else from me at the end of the night and I wasn’t okay with that. That led me to write.
I was part of a culture where several flings were something to applaud and wanting to find a real connection with someone was looked down upon. There was another incident that I describe in the book where I am sitting at school and people are making fun of these two YouTubers who talk about how their boyfriends have been with them for several years and are okay with waiting to get physical because the girls are religious and do not want to have sex before marriage. A bunch of guys at my school started making fun of these couples saying things like “What do you do with your partner for five years then, just stare at their face?” That made me so mad, and I turned to writing my thoughts down on paper again. I in fact would have so much respect for a man that is with a girl for so long without wanting physical intimacy from her. That means he’s invested in something beyond the physicality of the relationship. That is something that is not to be made fun of. Rather I would have an infinite amount of respect for such a man because nowadays that is rare to find. Anyone can want you physically but if your relationship is only based on physical needs, it’s not going to last forever. You need to have a deeper connection with someone, and love is not sex and sex is not love, these are two very different things that I felt my generation confused.
This is why I felt like such a misfit, and I began writing about these experiences. I wanted to be honest about everything and the way I felt in certain situations at school, and I wanted to explain my point of view that to me love wasn’t just physical, rather a soul deep connection.
When I got to college, I thought things might change because we were all a little order, but sadly nothing changed. Guys still wanted only one thing from girls and once they got that it was over and if they didn’t get it then they bitched about her. Still there was no one who believed in old school love the way I did. So, I continued writing. Writing became my way of true self-expression. Anything that bothered me about the world around me I started writing down and I think Through Her Eyes incorporates it all, the way I think about the world, standards, norms, education system, love, everything. This book literally has my soul in it because everything that I felt like I couldn’t explain to the world, I spilled out in Through Her Eyes.
That was the real reason I wrote Through Her Eyes, but I am also glad that it comes up as I highly female empowered story and the credit for that doesn’t go to me, it actually goes to my parents. When I was younger, like any other kid, I used to think that everyone’s family is like my family. That everyone has supporting parents who allow them to do everything you want in life. It wasn’t until I got to high school that I realized that my parents are not like the typical South Asian parents. My parents never restricted me on what I should or shouldn’t wear, what I should or shouldn’t do. Whether I should go live in a completely different city for college or not. These were all my life decisions, and I was always free to take them. It wasn’t till later that I realized what an amazing blessing my parents are. I realized that there are girls in the South Asian society who don’t have the freedom to choose for themselves, what they want to wear, where they want to live, some of them aren’t even allowed to go away from home to live alone for college. Some South Asian girls don’t even get to choose who they get married to, rather their parents choose for them. This was a side of my culture I never noticed growing up because of the endless amount of love I was showered with by my family and that love is what became the foundation of the confidence I have today. It’s because my parents never differentiated between me and my brother. My parents gave me the full right and freedom to make my life decisions and I think that’s what makes me the person I am and why this story is super female oriented.
Which scene or chapter in the book is your favorite? Why?
Chapter 21 is definitely my favorite. It’s where the protagonist finally achieves her lifelong dream of coming to New York City and also the scene at the beginning of the chapter where she visits some of her extended family greatly sums up how the protagonist feels when the western culture expects something out of her while the Eastern culture expects something completely opposite. The protagonist has been dreaming about New York City and making all her dreams come true since a very young age. She’s always known what she wants in life and doesn’t stop running after it until she attains it. The funny part is that when the main character’s parents move to New York from Pakistan when she was three years old, she has no attachment to it all. But it’s interesting how life comes around full circle and fifteen years later she’s dreaming to be in NYC. She gets rejected by her dream school but even that doesn’t push her down. Instead, failure inspires her to achieve exactly what the world thinks she can’t achieve. Every time she hears a rejection, she’s not let down, rather the fire in her to achieve whatever it is that she wants ignites even more every time she goes through failure. The more you tell her she can’t have something, the more determined she gets to achieve it. Finally in this chapter we see the protagonist achieving everything that she’s ever wanted and that’s why I think this is one of the strongest chapters in the book.
Another reason I like this chapter is because of the starting scene when the protagonist goes to her relative’s house and an aunty there starts giving her advice on marriage and how she should choose a career that will not interfere with her life after marriage because her husband and home will be her top priority. The protagonist is only eighteen at this point and she’s shocked by the idea that she has to plan her career to convenience a boy she doesn’t even know yet, and here desi aunties are already preaching to her about compromise and sacrifice in a marriage. One of my favorite lines comes in this chapter after this scene where the protagonist says “The Americans wanted me to sleep with every guy I went to class with and the Pakistanis wanted to marry me off to a guy I had never met. Is this what being a woman in this century amounted to?” I think this line very accurately sums up everything that the protagonist has been feeling all her life. She never found herself in the sex first, everything else later dating culture and she obviously isn’t going to marry off to someone random. Why couldn’t things meet her in the middle, like she had always been somewhere in the middle of the two cultures, belonging to both but at times to none.
Which scene was most difficult to write? Why?
I found it really difficult to write the first five chapters of Through Her Eyes. This is a very personal story, in fact this is my story and my life experiences, so the parts I remember clearly were super easy to write since I had a memory of them. I was able to recreate my own experiences into scenes easily because I remembered how things looked or what the setting was for a particular scene and I was able to describes my emotions because it was something I had personally gone through. But from age one to five, I have no memories of what happened in my life, so those scenes were recreated using stories that my family members had told me from various stages of my life. Thinking about what the setting must have been, what people must have been talking about or wearing obviously took longer because it wasn’t something I had firsthand experience with. Like I said, I am a very emotional person, I need to feel connected to what I am writing. I am super emotionally connected to the rest of the book but being able to relate to the first five chapters was extremely difficult because I don’t have a recollection of those events. That’s why I chose to tell that part of the story from my grandpa’s perspective so that the reader knows what happens in the protagonist’s life but it’s still a distant perspective compared to when the book jumps into the main character’s perspective, where she’s literally emotionally evolved in every single thing that happens.
What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
This has to be my favorite questions. There is so much I want people to take away from this book. Firstly, I want to say struggles and challenges in life whether they be medical, financial or of any kind, they are not to be scared of or worried about. Everyone goes through their shares of struggles, and they are essential to life. Struggles are a blessing in disguise because once you come out of those struggles, you are a completely different person. You come out so much stronger than you were before. I think struggles, scars, trauma, pain—everything is beautiful because it makes you the person you are. There is a reason why God puts those struggles in your life because he wants you to discover your full potential and became that person who comes out of those struggles much stronger and wiser. Pain in life is never for no reason, it always serves a purpose. In my case, my traumas in life turned into wisdom and led towards me developing a strong belief in God. When you have gone through a lot at a young age it leads to you maturing a lot earlier in life and sort of sets the tone for how you view the world for the rest of your life. My pain in life taught me that for me to include anything in life, it had to have a meaning or a purpose, and anything that did not mean anything or added no value in my life I saw as a waste of time. Maybe that’s also the reason why growing up in America, I never wanted to be part of this random hook-up/dating culture around me because if I were to get into a relationship or do anything in my life for that matter, it had to have meaning or a purpose. It couldn’t be just random or because everyone else was doing it. I could never jump on the bandwagon. I think that’s the most beautiful part about growing through trauma at a young age. It gives you a perspective to look at the world. It encourages you to find a meaning and purpose in every aspect of life. And the smaller things that have no bigger meaning or purpose in life don’t phase you anymore.
Also, so many people in my generation engage in this random hook-up culture that it often feels like old school love is dead. Let me tell you something, it’s not. Old souls like me still exist, who believe in loving and wanting to be with one man only for the rest of their lives. I don’t know if I will find that in this generation but if you can jump around from one person to another so easily, that to me is not love. When you truly love someone, it’s hard to get over them. When you truly love someone it’s not even about physical intimacy anymore. It’s all about that one person and you always want the best for them. Love is just so much deeper than what I saw happening in my generation while growing up. I still believe in a kind of love that fuels your fire, one that encourages you to become a better version of yourself. A love that nurtures your soul instead of looking at your body. To me, physical intimacy can only happen with the love of your life and without love, it makes no sense to me at all. I still believe in loving and staying loyal to one person and I won’t let this generation take that away from me. Nor will I settle for anything less than a soul deep connection.
My parents had a love marriage, they have been happily married for 25+ years. When my dad said yes to my mom, he was only 21, he hadn’t even fully enjoyed his twenties yet, but he knew my mom was the one. That to me is commitment, something that is so rare to find in my generation because everyone is so obsessed with the temporary stuff like hooking up, and if sex is the first thing, then there’s nothing much left because you never wanted to actually get to know each other. You got what you wanted and end of story. That’s what scares me the most because my generation thinks sex and love are the same when in fact, they are very different. People can have sex with whoever they want to, but you only fall in love with the one your heart choses to fall in love with. And love is such a pure emotion, one that is embedded in respect, that by attaching sex to it, we end up killing it. Love with mutual respect will last forever, if your relationship is only based on physical needs, it’s not going far at all.
Another thing I want people to take away from this story is believing in and staying true to your own voice. A lot of times in this world and especially in the South Asian society, we get lost in trying to meet the expectations that are already set in place for us. Get married by a certain age, get a job, have kids at a certain age. On the other hand, in the western culture if you haven’t dated ten different men by the age of twenty-five, as a woman there is definitely something wrong with you. No matter what culture we are a part of, there always will be expectations from the world that we are expected to meet. But rather than trying to fit into someone’s expectations or standards, try to find your own voice, try to find what you believe in and use that as the moral basis to live your life. Don’t give in to the noise of the world, it will always tell you what you should or shouldn’t be doing but at the end of the day, this is your life, and you might as well live it by staying true to you, instead of pleasing the world. Don’t drink or have ten hook ups because that’s what everyone else around you is doing, if everyone around you decides to jump into the sea and give up their life, will you do it too because it’s a trend? Obviously not. So, own your beliefs and decisions in life and know that it’s cool to not fit in with the crowd all the time. Dare to be yourself. Dare to be different. What are you even going to do by just being like everyone else? Find your soul’s calling and stay true to it. Forget the noise of the world. And this isn’t my message to just the girls out there, it’s to everyone, we are so conditioned to fit into the pre-existing standards of this world, we forgot to even listen to ourselves, to our own hearts.
Last but not least, I want people to learn how important faith is by reading this book. Believe in your dreams and in God and his timing, I am not the most religious person in the world but one thing I have realized through my experiences in life is that you cannot navigate the life of this world without being connected with the higher power. Whether that is through believing, praying, or whatever, that connection with the higher power is super important in life. Because not every situation in life is in your hands. And the more you pray to God and leave things in his hands the more you see him helping and guiding you through life. I have literally seen my prayers become reality. Yes, nothing happens without hard work, but hard work backed up by faith is the ultimate key to success in life.
Just believe in your dreams, never give up, and remember there is not only one way to get somewhere in life. Even when you are on the road travelling, you can always take a detour and reach the same destination through a different road. Sure, the time it takes you to get there may change but maybe the scenery you experience along the way was worth the ride. Similarly, in life there is more than one way to get somewhere and it’s okay if your way is unconventional. When you do reach your destination, the insight you will have by going through the experiences you went through will be worth every bit of it.
What’s next for you?
Currently I am working in New York City as a publicist in the Fashion PR Industry. But I find it extremely hard to stay inside a box and I am always up to something. I want to inspire people; I want to be able to change the world for the better. I don’t want fame or glamour just for the sake of having fame and glamour, rather I want to make a difference and Through Her Eyes was one such effort. It’s the kind of book that forces you to think about how you live life and whether you want to fit inside the boxes that the world creates for us or live like there is no box.
I will keep writing because a nine-to-five is not something I want to do for the rest of my life. I have already written another book, which is about life during Covid, much shorter than Through Her Eyes of course, about a family that gets stuck at home during lockdown and how in the beginning it was great but then so many anxieties kick in and the world around us completely changes, it incorporates everything we all felt during that time. Will work on getting that published super soon.
Another thing I really aspire to do one day soon is educate girls in Pakistan so they too can follow their dreams like I am able to. A lot of families in Pakistan cannot afford to educate their girls or even if they can, they will choose to educate their boys instead, because what is a girl going to do with education when she’s going to get married and take care of the house one day anyway. That’s not the norm in the entire country, but sadly in certain areas it still is. I want to change that. I want to go live in Pakistan for a while and educate girls who live in the slums or work at people’s houses to earn their bread and butter so that those girls can get better opportunities in life and become independent. I was privileged to be born into a family that gave me all that without me asking for it but not every Pakistani girl gets the opportunity that I had, and I want to be able to give them that opportunity to change their lives. Every girl deserves to be respected, educated and independent and then she can choose whether to marry or not. But marriage alone is not the end goal of every girl’s life and I want girls to be empowered with that idea.
Categories: BookView Review Interview