Saba Karim Khan is an author, award-winning filmmaker and Instructor of Social Science at NYU Abu Dhabi. Her research primarily involves an ethnographic study of social movements in South Asian diasporas. Khan has recently completed her debut fiction novel, Skyfall, which is slated for publication in January 2021.
The Gazelle reached out to Khan to gain some insight into her upcoming novel, and how it connects to her other work.
“Skyfall literally means the last attempt to make against a group of people when you are outnumbered…and a similar spirit crystallizes my book,” she shared.
Skyfall is based on a girl named Rania, born in Heera Mandi, Lahore’s famous red-light district. It follows her journey as a troublemaker, upending gendered social norms that restrain her from realizing her dreams. In Skyfall, Khan pushes back against what she calls a “mountain fetish for purity.” She sees the novel as an “ode to impurity” and an inspiration for us to embrace messiness, complexity and being a troublemaker.
“Skyfall is a song that attempts to put you back in control,” Khan explained. “The protagonist [of Skyfall] has grown up constantly being told that these dreams are ‘not for you’ and [to] ‘downsize your dreams so that they fit your reality’.”
“What I have done with Skyfall is outstrip your reality or amplify your reality so that it fits your dreams. Women get so much flak for deviating from what we would like to believe as the norm and Skyfall is saying: be a troublemaker and own it.”
When asked about the genesis of the idea for the novel, Khan shared, “[A guest speaker in a class in early 2018] said most men and women lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them. He said, ‘take five minutes and think about your song…’ I think the seeds of Skyfall were sown that morning.”
Khan was very conscious of writing the novel in a language that is authentic to South Asia and to its people. “My rule of thumb is [that] if I am writing something and my mother can’t understand it, then I need to revisit it,” said Khan.
She emphasized that a lot of research and pedagogy in academia about South Asia is Western centric and that there needs to be more voices that come from people who have lived experience. “For my country Pakistan, I definitely think that the canvas is largely painted by the non local actors. I know the landscape is changing, I am not sure if we are quite there yet,” she said.
Khan has also written extensively on gender inequality. She is contributing a chapter for the book [Mother's Mothering and Covid-19: Dispatches from a Pandemic] (https://demeterpress.org/books/mothers-mothering-and-covid-19-dispatches-from-the-pandemic/), highlighting the skewed gender impact of the pandemic on South Asian women. It is based on interviews with working mothers of South Asian origin. She said, “[Pandemic] has worked as a social autopsy…it has peeled back these layers of [gender] inequality that existed in the society but it almost is bought on the floor. The gendered impact of the pandemic was very strong. What started out as reproducing gender roles, that inequality is now on steroids.”
She also made a documentary – The Troublemakers – depicting the impact of the MeToo movement in South Asia, trying to explore the question of where social movements take root. “I have spoken to survivors of sexual harassment and sexual violence [who are students at NYU]... A lot of these women said to me, it has taken us courage even to come and speak to you because we have not had these conversations even with our mother. To me, that is a movement. That’s definitely the start of a movement.”
Disruption lies at the core of what Khan grapples with. Many social movements and silent revolutions come out of disruption, when people start challenging the status quo. She said,“[I focus on] disruption not for the sake of disruption, but can disruption be generative and can it move the needle forward.”
Vimal Minsariya is Deputy News Editor. Email him at email@example.com.