The Empty Room by Sadia Abbas

The Empty Room by Pakistani writer Sadia Abbas

Whilst reading The Empty Room by Sadia Abbas, I found myself annotating and jotting down the many thoughts it provoked in my mind. This led me to create a blog which contained my ideas around what Abbas touches on through her novel, and to explore the significance of them. I believe that it is important to almost dissect a novel as we read it, to understand the deeper meaning behind what is written.

The blog is mainly aimed at young adults who are studying Pakistani Literature in English, or who are more specifically looking at Abbas’s novel. This is the reason why the posts will include secondary theory, which will be useful for academic students. However, those who seek to learn more about Pakistani literature, may find this blog equally as useful as it provides a detailed insight into Abbas’s novel, which I believe is a good addition to the world of Pakistani literature. The novel also touches on a variety of different topics, which are portrayed in many other Pakistani novels.

Sadia Abbas is a Pakistani writer, based in the USA, yet was born and raised in Pakistan and Singapore. Growing up, she faced a dominant patriarchy in her family whereby the men had ownership over the women and limited them. However, Abbas broke the rules of the patriarchy by being the first person in her family to marry a non-Pakistani, and also the first person to endure a divorce. Marrying outside of one’s culture, and divorce, are both issues which, till date, are looked down upon by many South Asian families.

Sadia Abbas

Abbas completed a PhD in English Literature from Brown University, and now teaches at Rutgers University, within the English department. She wrote At Freedom’s Limit: Islam and the Postcolonial Predicament, a monograph about the ‘new Islam’ following the Rushdie affair in 1988, to the attacks of 9/11. The Empty Room was her debut novel which was published in 2018, by Zubaan Books, an independent publishing house based in New Delhi, India.

In fact, as Zubaan states on their website:

‘‘Zubaan’ is a Hindustani word meaning tongue, voice or language. It is often used in a pejorative sense to refer to ‘women’s talk’, or ‘gossip’ – generally for women who talk too much! We are proud to reclaim the term on behalf of all those whose voices are silenced or marginalized by the mainstream, and will continue to be heard no matter others say’. 1

Thus, this publishing house focuses on fiction by South Asian women, like Abbas, written on the experiences of South Asian women. The Empty Room, is one such a novel which follows the life of the female protagonist Tahira, who undergoes an arranged marriage with Shehzad. The novel is set amongst the politics of Karachi in the 1970s, and touches many subjects around familial life in Pakistan, marriage, and a woman’s role. Tahira is a painter who is suppressed by her in-laws and husband. She is almost unable to escape her married life and faces many losses and grief. The novel was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2019, showing its literary merit in the world of contemporary Pakistani literature.

The overlapping themes are what I will be examining and focusing on through the different blog posts. Each post focuses on a different theme present in The Empty Room.

The posts are as follows:

  • How can you not know what I mean? We were raised to be married’. Arranged marriages and the domestic life of a married Pakistani woman.
  • How the Political affects the Personal.
  • Tahira: The Artist.
  • A Concluding Page.
  • Bibliography.

When discussing these themes of: Arranged marriages, political vs person freedom, and the presence of art, I will be conveying how the following characters are situated within each theme:

  • Tahira (Protagonist)
  • Shehzad (Husband)
  • Shireen (Mother in law)
  • Waseem (Brother) Safdar (his friend)

Indeed, themes in literary novels are important as they are the leading thoughts and dominant ideas within the plotline. Thus, my reason for structuring the blog around themes in the novel, is so that the reader is provided with a wide idea of the issues that are present in a Pakistani society, as explored by the author. Now you might be asking, why would I want to read this blog? Well by the end, I hope that you as a reader, will have enough knowledge of the novel, through the analysed quotes and explanations. I also aim to encourage you to indulge in your own thinking, about the ideas I have explored, and build on them. If you are someone who is not familiar with Pakistani literature, then this blog should provide you with a detailed insight into what it has to offer, before you leave to explore more novels.

[1] “About,” About Zubaan, Zubaan Books, accessed April 27, 2020, https://zubaanbooks.com/ .