Write Start: Rafia Zakaria on Writing as Conquest and Rebellion

Editor's Note: Rafia Zakaria is an author, attorney, and human rights activist. She is a columnist for Al Jazeera America, Ms., Dissent, and DAWN, Pakistan’s largest English-language newspaper. She is the author of the memoir The Upstairs WifeFor Signature's Write Start seriesin which authors share advice on how to start writing, Rafia reminds us how the act of writing is in itself an act of power. 

In his memoir Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist Victor Frankl recalls that in his deepest moments of despair at the Auschwitz concentration camp, he began to write on scraps of paper the bits and pieces of the manuscript that had been taken from him when he arrived. He would never recover that manuscript, but the act of writing would give his struggle for survival a center, give him a reason to hope, and hence live. Frankl’s experience, and the lucidity and grace with which he expresses it, holds within it a treasure of wisdom for writers that are beyond time and age.

Growing up in an Islamized Pakistan just barely recovering from martial law, I was surrounded by stories of women’s suffering, of abuse, of repression, of the denial of selfhood and the abnegation of will. It seemed that women’s lives could be erased so easily from so many places; the law books where they were being demoted to half witnesses, to polygamous households where they would be half, or a third or a quarter wives, to mosques which they could not enter. Witness to this imposed invisibility; as a young girl I felt helpless and unarmed before an onslaught of silence from which there seemed no reprieve. Like Frankl, it was writing that rescued me.

It is to that place of helplessness that I return every time I confront the blank page. Writing, even when fragmented and only for one’s self in scrawled bits or ordered sentences, is a record and in being so it represents an act of reclamation and rebellion, of recovering meaning in a chaotic world where injustice often seems like the victor and order is ever elusive. We all face these moments; but for writers they can be a treasure that galvanizes their acts of creation, of storytelling, of thumbing one’s nose toward the helplessness of silence and erasure. When writing The Upstairs Wife I sat day after day before the blank page, every writer’s first interlocutor, and in the rhythm of filling those pages I became witness to and recorder of the courage of Pakistan’s women who had borne suffering with dignity and injustice with grace.

As a weekly columnist for Dawn, Pakistan’s largest English newspaper, I have learned that the reckoning with the blank page also has a very practical value. It permits a sifting of the crucial from the pointless, of what’s honest from what is patronizing. The space that writers fill with their words is precious and must be used with care. I have learned that the truer and more authentic the writer’s confrontation with the page is, the more poignant and pressing is its engagement with the reader. This is true every time and every week. Frankl was grateful to those scraps of paper, to the act of reconstructing his manuscript, because it gave his life in Auschwitz meaning. For him and for the rest of us, the act of writing is an act of power, a medium of deliverance in a world whose silence is a call to action, whose emptiness can be conquered with words.

Check out more in Signature's Write Start series.