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In and Out of Focus: An Interview with Hananah Zaheer, Guest Editor Issue 75

Interview by Shasta Grant November 16, 2021

Congratulations on your chapbook, Lovebirds, which recently came out with Bull City Press! What can you tell us about the stories in this collection?

Thank you! Besides being ideas and forms I really wanted to experiment with, this collection tracks the changes in my relationship with writing. I was born in Pakistan and immigrated to the US at seventeen—which  meant a lot of stories I wrote for a very long time were trying out protagonists with different genders, races, spaces, points of view. Basically, I was trying to figure out the rules, what stories exactly I could tell, and in some cases, was allowed to tell. This collection is personal in that each story signifies a moment when I decided to “break a rule.” The story I wrote last was “Willow Tree Fever,” which is the closest to where my current interests are—writing out of mythologies that are home to me.

In addition to being a writer, you’re also a photographer. I’d love to know more about how writing and photography intersect for you.

When I was around five, my father first let me look through the lens of his 1976 Canon AE-1. I remember that moment vividly, seeing things go in and out of focus, how the world around me somehow became even more defined in seeing it through the lens. He taught me about composition, about framing my subjects, how to let more or less light in. I was already a very observant child with what my friends call a “dangerous” memory, but I like to think that the exercise taught me to look for the bigger story in detail. Even now, I write with a visual in mind, which is to say, I walk through the story as if with a camera in hand, looking at corners of doors, loose threads on shoes, a missing button on a shirt. The connection between that and narrative prose seems very deep and immediate to me. In photography, I feel I look for the story of a  moment with the suggestion that there is a before and after– the same sort of skill I use for a short story or a piece of flash.

You’re a senior editor for SAAG: A Dissident Literary Anthology. Can you tell us more about this project?

This is a very exciting project that was born out of conversations between a group of South Asian writers, editors, academics, organizers, translators, playwrights, journalists, visual artists and designers who were all experiencing similar thoughts about unequal representation, the nature of radical art from marginalized communities and how to counter this gatekeeping and marginalization of avant-garde traditions for some groups of writers. We wanted to create a space where art could experiment in form, function, craft, without needing to conform, and where South Asian thought and work would be celebrated and valued

As an editor, what will you be looking for when you read our submission queue? Are there certain themes or topics you’re drawn to as a reader and editor?

I’m a sucker for a confident, commanding voice that hooks me at the start of the story and takes me all the way to the end without letting go. I appreciate it especially when a writer is playing with or bending reality in wild ways, but is still mindful of the narrative physics of the story. Bust mostly, what I want is to not stop reading and appreciate stories that have been picked clean of all excess description and dialogue. I must also admit that I have a spot for a well-executed second-person point of view.

About the Interviewer

Shasta Grant  is the author of the chapbook Gather Us Up and Bring Us Home (Split Lip Press, 2017). She won the 2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest and the 2016 SmokeLong Quarterly Kathy Fish Fellowship. She has received residencies from Hedgebrook and The Kerouac Project and was selected as a 2020 Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow. Her work has appeared in cream city review, Epiphany, Hobart, wigleaf, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and divides her time between Singapore and Indianapolis.

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Important

The SmokeLong Quarterly Comedy Prize 2021!

This competition is no longer accepting entries. The long- and shortlists have been published on the blog. The four winners of the competition will be featured in Issue 74 of SmokeLong Quarterly coming out near the end of December.