Qaisra Shahraz is distancing herself from separatists.
Qaisra Shahraz is distancing herself from separatists.

"I want to tell people about normal law-abiding Muslims like me who have integrated well into Western society but at the same time have a faith they love. I want people to identify with others like me. Not those who seem to have hijacked my religion."

So says bestselling Pakistani-born British novelist and educator Qaisra Shahraz, who returns to Perth next week for a series of readings, talks and discussions on such topics as equality, religious tolerance, immigration, cultural plurality and women's issues.

Having lived in Manchester from the age of nine and received a Western education, with masters degrees in both European literature and scriptwriting, Shahraz is particularly interested in those issues facing contemporary Muslim women living in Western societies. Yet her three novels in particular — The Holy Woman, Typhoon and, most recently, Revolt — explore universal themes common to all, appropriating romance and chick-lit tropes to serve as accessible vehicles for the exploration of serious subjects. So successful has she been that her work is studied as literature in German schools and elsewhere, and has been the subject of a series of critical essays.

"My books explore women's issues but they are meant for everyone," Shahraz says. "Human beings are all the same: they experience love, jealousy, betrayal and hurt. My stories might be set in another part of the world or in a different culture but it's the universality of my work that has made it so successful."

In The Holy Woman, a beautiful woman must chose between the love of her life and a chaste "marriage" to the Koran. In its sequel Typhoon, a fictional Pakistani village becomes the backdrop to a tragic tale of illicit love. And in Revolt, Englishwoman Daniela must negotiate the chasms opened by a clash of cultures when she discovers her Pakistani husband is betrothed to another woman in his home country.

Throughout, the writing is breezy and addictive and the characters — from the humblest servant to the grandest landlord — are warmly and generously realised.

"When I go to Pakistan, I can relate to everyone from the cleaner to the prime minister's wife," Shahraz says. "Equality is very important, as is my empathy with and sympathy for these minor characters. I really love them, because as a human being I share their need for equality."

Although her novels are supremely entertaining as well as informative — indeed, for Western readers with scant knowledge of Muslim culture, they will be nothing short of revelatory — Shahraz understands they may not reach everyone. Which is why she also writes for television.

"My novels are both entertainment and serious literature," she says. "But in developing countries fewer people read or can afford novels. Television drama is much more successful at reaching the masses."

Shahraz also is interested in the migrant experience and multiple identities. "Our values are shaped by the community in which we live," she says. "And this is normal. But as migrants, we all go through the same process. If someone asked me who I am now, I would say I am more British than ever before. Having said that, my three identities mean a lot to me. I am British. But I love being a Muslim. And I still have a strong connection with Pakistan."

The West Australian

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