Author-PicWhile this is not really a design related post, it is definitely related to Saudi, is about the creative process, and of course, is quite dear to my heart! For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been out of kingdom and in Karachi, Pakistan, preparing for the launch of my sister’s debut novel, “Magic Within,” published by HarperCollins Publishers India!

Yes – it is verrrryyyy exciting!! This is also why I’ve been a little slow to post in general :)…

So many of you may not be aware of this, but my sister, Manal Shakir, is actually a Saudi-born “Brat” and has attended some of the very same schools that the kids go to today in Dhahran! She grew up in the Dhahran community and was heavily influenced by the culture, teachers, and the families that she grew up with here. Her husband, Asad Kausar, was also born in Saudi and grew up in the Abqaiq community. Manal and Asad never met as middle schoolers in Saudi, but were introduced while attending separate boarding schools in the States. Crazy cool, huh?Magic Within

Manal had recently been married and relocated to Chicago when she first started this book. When she sent me the first draft, I admit, I was totally confused… It’s a fictional story that revolves around 2 young couples in Pakistan, and how they cope with the struggles of their married lives by dreaming of a mysterious and dark circus. Since I was in full bridezilla mode – as I was getting married at the time – I found that I couldn’t really relate. It’s probably not something a bride-to-be would have wanted to read either… I also thought that as someone who hates circuses and had never spent any significant time in Pakistan, that I just wouldn’t get it…

Almost 4 years later, I read it again, and boy did I get it this time. I cried about 10 times while reading the final draft, and was completely shocked by Manal’s ability to describe some of the things that married couples and individuals in marriages experience at some point in their lives. I also finally understood the role of this bizarre, mysterious, and dark circus that brought various characters together. I could finally relate… I didn’t have to live in Pakistan, be in a loveless marriage, or even like a circus to understand the struggles and pain of troubled relationships.

Magic Within…

Adnan cannot sleep. His nights are haunted by unsettling dreams of a mysterious circus and of Shara, a beautiful young woman placed in jeopardizing circumstances within his dreams. The more he sees of her, the more he looks forward to the next dream, which becomes a refuge from a loveless marriage.

In time, Shara shares the dreams and the pair almost meets in real life, missing each other by a few tantalizing seconds.

What is the hidden meaning of their dream lives and who are the magical creatures driven by the mysterious and cruel circus master? What unknown force pushes them toward new lives and the possibility of meeting in the real world?

A story of troubled relationships and blurred realities, this is an enchanting narrative about mending fractures found in modern life and of discovering the magic hidden within all of us.

– Description from

Naturally, I had to sit down with Manal to find out where all this creativity was coming from! Her life in Saudi seems to have played a pretty big role…

What has influenced your writing?

Well, growing up in Saudi and our lives there definitely influenced me. I remember my mom taking us to the community library at least once or twice a week to get books as a kid. I also think growing up in a multicultural society was quite influential. You actually don’t even realize the kind of advantage you have over other people living in a place with so many different types of cultures and traditions. It’s almost like you’re suddenly able to pick up on the uniqueness of different societies, anywhere.

I also had some really amazing teachers from 6th until 9th grade, in Dhahran, who really helped me. I already loved reading, but in terms of writing and understanding books, I really think my teachers played an enormous role in helping me develop some of those skills. I had a teacher in 6th grade, Mr. Antonioli, who used to make us write a story in class every week – fictional stories, they could be about anything. That really helped me with my creativity. He was an amazing teacher – everything was fun, even learning was fun. He instilled in me at an early age that writing is a fun way of expressing yourself.

In 7th grade, Mr. Norseth was again the type of person who made you think you weren’t learning. He was into poetry, and showed me how to read a story and look for certain components. Mr. Winters in 8th grade helped in terms of the technicalities of writing. Grammar was so important to him, and he made books and plots easy to understand – the way a book and a story were supposed to be structured.

Mr. Jackson, my 9th grade teacher, was my absolute favorite teacher. The books we were reading were the ones that everyone had to read (To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Romeo & Juliet), but he just had such an amazing way of teaching that it was fun to read them. Clearly, he loved his job, and if he saw you develop that love for books, it was like his job was done. He helped me understand books to the point where I actually started to read differently.

Why pick Pakistan as the context for your story? You’re not really from there, and spent just a few years there, so why Karachi?

When I eventually left for boarding school, I realized that people wanted to identify me as one specific thing… They’d ask “Where are you from?” and when I said “Saudi,” they’d assume I was Saudi. But then I had to explain that my parents are ethnically from Pakistan, but I had never lived there so calling myself Pakistani also felt strange. It’s hard for people abroad to understand this…

I wrote about Pakistan because it was the only place I could ethnically identify with, and that I understood on a deeper level culturally because of my parents and the Pakistani community in Dhahran. The community in Saudi really influenced me, and I picked up a lot through observation and experiences there, and then eventually in Pakistan.

Why write about marriages and relationships?

I was interested in relationships between husbands and wives in Pakistani culture, but it got more interesting when I got married. A lot of my writing came from my own experiences, but then a lot of it came from analyzing other people’s relationships or what people had told me or I had heard.

It was easy for me to write about young relationships because I was in one. Before this book, I had been writing about politics. I had been a part of the news and media sector since 2006, but surprisingly, for me to write about something somewhat personal was quite easy. It felt so new to write about personal things. Relationships are not all about facts and figures, there’s no right and wrong, but it’s all just about perspectives. It was really interesting to explore those perspectives on a more personal level.

In the process of writing the book, I eventually realized that it didn’t matter where you were. The context doesn’t really matter. Good and bad relationships are pretty much the same wherever you are, and I think you can see that through this story.

Advice for aspiring writers?

I used to keep a little journal. Not in the conventional sense, but I would literally write down 2-3 sentences in it every few days, sometimes not even writing in it for months. When I would go back and re-read it, some of the things, out of context, made for a really cool moment that could be in a story. I would suggest that for any writer, keep writing. It doesn’t have to be every day, but write your thoughts down, write about your experiences, something that you heard or saw. Anything, really. Just write and eventually go back to it and look at what you’ve written.

Take from your own experiences as well. It gives your character and stories credibility. It makes it genuine. It’s very easy to make up a story, but it’s hard to make it believable.

Also, read a lot. Everyone says that. The only way you can write better is to read. Read a variety of different authors as well. My favorites are Amin Maalouf, Naguib Mahfouz, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Zadie Smith – authors from all over the world. Get whatever you can get your hands on.

Read it for the story, but also see what it is about their writing that intrigues you. Is it a good plot, does it flow well, are the characters believable? Pick out things you like and make a conscious effort to try it in your writing. Writing is a lot of trial and error.

And remember, your book is written in your rewrites, not the first draft…

“Magic Within” was launched at Liberty Book stores in Karachi on February 28, 2015, and will be officially released in India on March 11th, 2015. You can pre-order the book at Liberty Book stores in Pakistan, and will be available for purchase from Amazon India, Flipkart, and Uread (worldwide shipping available) starting March 11th…

Visit Manal’s website to learn more about the author, her book, and upcoming events!

Magic Within Book Launch at Liberty Books in Karachi, Pakistan


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