I hide in my stories.
I wear my characters like a disguise, blend into my made-up fantasy worlds, and weave incidents from my own life into extravagant plots. There are a few threads of reality in the tapestry of lies that is my fiction, but the casual reader would be hard-pressed to pick to those out.
And I like it that way. Sending my writing out into the world is hard enough. Putting out anything that delves deeply and openly into my own life and experiences feels like stripping down to to my skivvies and dancing on my car, yelling, “Hey, look at me!”
If you know me in real life, you’d know that I’d rather expire than do that.
Second Sight, though, is the fictional equivalent of dancing on my car in a state of undress.
When you read it, you can tell that I’ve obviously mined my own childhood for the story. I never saw fairies in my yard in Karachi, but they might have flitted among the rose and jasmine bushes. I glimpsed no spooky beings in our mango trees, though it was easy to believe they dwelt there in the dark of the night. I didn’t live next-door to royalty-in-hiding, but I did live next door to the Unpainted House.
Even the supernatural creatures populating Second Sight have their roots in my childhood imagination. I invented Kaloo Baba (the Dark Man) as a bugaboo for my younger brother and cousins (and scared us all silly in the process). The Skeleton Man jumped out at me one evening when I was out walking–one of those peripherally-seen shapes that you think is something scary ready to pounce on you, but turns out to be rather commonplace. (You jump and possibly give a little screech, but then you realize it was just your imagination and you look around, embarrassed, and hope that no one saw you.)
And then there’s Daria, wavering on the cusp of young womanhood, caught between being a child and a teenager. I get Daria, because she is so like my younger self. I get her struggle between wanting to be her own person and wanting to belong. I get her longing to be known and accepted for her whole self, strange gift and all. I understand her awkwardness and her uncertainty, her mixture of strength and fragility. I am proud and sad when I see how confident she is in her gift, but not about her gift.
Of all my fiction, Second Sight is the most autobiographical. And that’s not because of where it’s set, but who it’s about.
Here’s a beginning excerpt:
The fairies were fighting again.
Daria saw them out of the corner of her eye—wing-flutter, iridescent-flash—among the rose and jasmine bushes. Normally, she would’ve stopped to play peacemaker, but she was too excited and too nervous. Her thoughts skittered out of the garden, through the gate, and to one car out of the thousands in the mad rush of the city. She pictured it nosing through clogged streets, trundling over ruts and potholes, and fuming at stoplights as it brought Amir ever closer.
Daria ran a nervous hand down the front of her kameez, new and of a flattering dark green color, with blue embroidery at neck, hem and sleeves. Short sleeves, she thought, slightly scandalized and disbelieving. The wind caressed her bare, recently-waxed arms, raising goose bumps, and she resisted the urge to pull her dupatta over them.
“Well, well, what have we here? All dolled up and no mistake, Miss! Done something new with your hair, eh? Looks like it’s been tortured.”
Daria looked up at the Skeleton Man leaning over the wall. It wouldn’t do to ignore the Skeleton Man; he could carry a grudge longer than most people could remember what they had to be angry about.
“Mummy put it in a French braid.” She reached back and ran her fingers over it. Then, anxiously, “Do you really think it looks tortured?” A small part of her shook its head at her desperation. To be asking fashion advice from the Skeleton Man!
The Skeleton Man creaked as he peered down from the ten-foot-high boundary wall. “I suppose it’s all right.” His rusty voice softened. “In my day, the maidens wore their hair long and flowing down to their ankles, and the hem of their skirts filled entire rooms. Like flowers come alive they were, rustling over the grass as they strolled in the evening cool.” He looked doubtfully at her outfit. “But then, you’re too young to be collecting lovers.”
Embarrassment flooded Daria. “I’m not trying to impress anyone!” Her voice was higher than she’d intended. The gardener, coming around from the backyard, gave her an odd look, which she returned with a haughty tilt of her chin. The Skeleton Man cackled.
“Oh, very good! Just the look my Raheela would have given. That’ll teach the servants to speculate if their betters are mad.
Daria waited until the gardener had disappeared into the servants’ quarters before speaking. “They just don’t bother to see.”
“Haven’t you ever wondered if you really are mad?” pursued the Skeleton Man, slyly.
“No, just weird.” That’s what her former best friend had said. Then she’d told everyone else in their class about Daria’s stories and now they thought she was weird, too. She was glad that it was summer.
“Ow!” A tennis ball slammed against her left shin. Daria peered at the grimy circle imprinted upon her shalvar.
“It’s His Highness,” hissed the Skeleton Man.
The next-door boy swung over the boundary wall, climbed down the neem tree and came over to her with a careless, jaunty stride. Daria tensed. If the gardener should see! He’d be chased away with a rake, prince or not.
The prince sauntered past Daria, bent elegantly, and plucked the ball from where it had come to rest in a flowerbed. His brown, slender-fingered hand was covered with small cuts, old and new, and dirt lay under his fingernails. His clothes were faded with many washings and none too clean.
But he bent gold eyes on her, thick-lashed and clear, light and startling in his bronzed face. He looked her up and down, flashed her a white smile, and turned.
“Oi!” The gardener galloped out of the servants’ quarters and stopped, panting, next to Daria. “Young Miss, did you see the boy from next door?”
Daria sneaked a look to her left. As expected, the prince had vanished, swift and silent as a shadow. She thought she glimpsed the gold lining of his tattered tunic against the bark of a tree, but he was like water, fluid and slippery and hard to catch—or hold. He’d be gone over the rooftops.
“I didn’t see anyone.” Behind her, the Skeleton Man murmured, “Liar!”
“Those ruffians next door! Always trampling my plants, running around on my grass. They’re all heathens, turning on their infidel music late at night, singing and dancing from isha until fajr.”
Daria did not say that princes and the sons of princes were beyond the customs of common people. She looked at the Unpainted House where the prince lived. It was of drab and grey concrete, and the one big window upstairs was a gaping hole. But beyond the house lay the faint glimmering of minarets and domes, the lazy silken drift of flags of red and purple and gold, the blue haze of incense spiraling towards the sky… How to explain to the gardener that the prince straddled two worlds?
“There was no one here,” she repeated. Then, grandly, “Go back to your duties.” Grumbling about rapscallion boys, the gardener went.
A rustle in the tree top made her look up. The prince laid his lean hand briefly against his breast, above his heart. Daria sketched a slight curtsey, then half-waved, half-shooed. The prince melted back into bark and leaf and shadow.
How about you? How do you hide–or not hide–in your fiction?