Muhammad Ali Samejo, author of Damaged, is a self-proclaimed pop culture aficionado, pun-meister extraordinaire. He is also a qualified English Language Instructor and Corporate Skills Trainer, through which he shares his love for all things sacred to the English-speaking world and, of course, the language itself. He speaks to Karvan in this exclusive interview. 

1. Tell us about yourself
Where do I begin? At heart, I’m an entertainment enthusiast which I got from my father. He was a television producer with PTV, and telling stories on the silver screen was his life with inspiration coming from books and movies of his time. And it made me who I am as we would always be intrigued by his career. Storytelling became our way of life as he would read books and watch movies with me, becoming my school of storytelling. I’ve also experienced working in television as an actor, editor, and director, ultimately ending up in my present role as a writer of fiction and non-fiction.

2. What is your usual writing process? How do you conceive ideas?
Most of my ideas are inspired by the things I see happening around me. There is so much to write about living in Pakistan, particularly a city as dynamic as Karachi. The news is full of stories highlighting the ills plaguing society and people, so it isn’t hard to have enough food for inspiration. However, rather than documenting the incidents or providing a commentary on them, my take on these incidents plays out differently. The tracks they take are largely inconceivable by conventional standards, but only because we accept things as they are. But what if! That is where I come in. You can tell any story simply by asking “what if?” i.e. what if people fight back, what if people stand up for themselves, what if people take matters to a logical conclusion no matter how far-fetched it is.

As for the writing process itself, I tend to make notes of all the ideas and themes that come to me beforehand and then build up a solid outline from A to Z. More often than not, I plot out my A and Z first and then fill it up whenever and wherever I can. If I know my A and Z, I could be struck with an idea for the D before the B, and so on. That’s the beauty of imagining fiction, you do not have to be linear when you are plotting it out and working it around. That can come later when you give your work a more tangible final form. It is what I aim to do with all my work, and what was the central theme behind my first published work of fiction, ‘Damaged.’

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3. How did you plan the story of your novel, Damaged?
Damaged is not a single story. Rather, these are 15 short stories told from a Pakistani perspective, about Pakistani people in very, very traumatizing situations. And it was while I was writing these stories that I decided to add a distinctive feature to all the stories I would chart out in the future, i.e. writing them in the form of conversations with just two characters in each story. That’s it, two! Oh sure, there’d be a supporting cast that would only be talked about but neither seen nor heard, because the two characters only would take center-stage. Reading the dialogue and the situations in the form they are presented provide not just an atmospheric setting of the story, but the opportunity to feel every word spoken by the characters as if you were there witnessing these conversations unfold before you.

4. Without giving any spoilers, tell us the novel’s story?
As I mentioned earlier, ‘Damaged’ is a collection of 15 short stories which showcase events and tragedies that have taken place in an urban Pakistani landscape. Stories looking into the minds and motives of ordinary people being pushed through despair and devastation in their worlds, no matter what the scale. Themes such as child abandonment, harassment, rape, bullying, unemployment, domestic violence, social stigmas, and several other disturbing aspects of present society are central to all the stories. And there are other fictional themes such as the mundane to the bizarre, from the supernatural to the sci-fi, and tons and tons and tons of emotional turmoil leading to release.

5. Having served as a language instructor at Berlitz, what suggestions you want to give to those aspiring to become speakers?
All suggestions boil down to one: Immerse yourself in the culture, not just the language. If you notice children these days speaking English well, look at how they do it. More often than not, they are watching cartoons and children’s Youtube channels featuring native speakers and are engrossed in their lives. They pick up the language as well as the cultural dynamics of those societies. As adults, we only get a limited amount of time to practice speaking the language, not to mention the right kind of people who would be willing to speak with us in English. Therefore we need to think in the language after listening to native speakers on TV, movies, or Youtube channels. Listen to their delivery and rate of speech, and don’t be afraid to imitate them. Repeat notable phrases over and over again, no matter where you are. People keep repeating Salman Khan’s dialogues over and over again, so it isn’t hard to pick some incredible quotes you hear off of TED Talks. And of course, make reading a habit. There are tons of fiction and non-fiction books out there that speak to us and provide solutions to things we may be facing, and reading books out loud, i.e. actually reading them at full volume, helps you to overcome your hesitation. And of course, hire me 😛

6. What is more challenging: writing or editing?
Editing! Not that writing isn’t a challenge in itself, but the thrill of creating a story makes writing a lot less cumbersome and daunting. Most people will tell you that writing is a chore but they may not be editing their work themselves. Someone in my position who also self-edits has to look over everything with a fine-tooth comb to find any errors that could lead to embarrassment and cringe-worthy moments. It has also become quite apparent that we have a long way to go in improving the standards of proofreading and editing locally. While it isn’t a surprise to find a cringe-worthy error here and there in major publications, it does hurt to see tons of independently published work suffering at the hands of poor editing.

7. What next?
My second book titled “Legends of Karachi is slated to be released soon in 2021. It’s about – you guessed it – Karachi. I wanted this to feature an ensemble cast if you will and had a ton of inspiration leading up to it. But the central character would be Karachi, the city that made me and the one I could never do without. It’s the city that houses all sorts of people and characters with a story at every turn, every street, every traffic light, and every paan khokhaa. So I ended up writing an anthology of interconnected stories taking place in the present time in Karachi over a few days. It features a metropolitan and urbane aspect and several diverse characters who take center stage as they go through different challenges that the city throws at them, with each of their events impacting the other in one way or another. It’s my piece de resistance with a sequel in the works.
I’m also writing a crime series titled “The Special” and an on-and-off side project titled “The Darkly Tales.”

8. Your advice for aspiring writers of Pakistan?
While it’s important to have the passion and enthusiasm for putting your words to paper, do remember that you are constantly learning. If you aim to be a published author someday, see how the others did it. Read, read, and read more to learn all about all the nuances of publishing as well as writing complete manuscripts. Make your work rich in vocabulary and depth as much as possible, but never be afraid to stick to the simplest of words to tell your story.

Muhammad Ali Samejo is a self-proclaimed pop culture aficionado, pun-meister extraordinaire, and sort-of grammar nazi. Before he completed his Masters in English Literature, Ali grew up alongside a TV set and about a century’s worth of entertainment including movies, music, literature, and audio broadcasts of comedy, drama, adventure, and mystery. He is also a qualified English Language Instructor and Corporate Skills Trainer, through which he shares his love for all things sacred to the English-speaking world and, of course, the language itself.
‘Legends of Karachi’ is his first completed work of fiction, and during its writing, he also initiated other tandem projects titled ‘The Darkly Tales,’ ‘Damaged,’ and other random observations. He has also been a frequent contributor to Pakistan’s Artists, Bloggers, Writers, Readers, and Poets (PABWRP) group on Facebook since 2018. ‘Damaged’ is his first book to be published and he frequently blogs about it at:

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