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Fine Arts
Breaking Boundaries through Fiction and Art:
SEHBA SARWAR

BY NISHA GIRI, May 19, 2005
HOUSTON — Sehba Sarwar, a writer, poet, mother, teacher, activist and art director extraordinaire, is a Houston-based Pakistani and cofounder of Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB), a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting cross-cultural art.

A writer for over 20 years, Sarwar recently published her debut novel, Black Wings, which, according to her, is a metaphor for the myth around women who have freedom, who speak out and want to be free, but are labeled as witches. Based partly in Pakistan and partly in the United States, the novel weaves a magical story around Yasmeen, a Houston resident and divorcée with two children, her relationship with her mother and the mysterious circumstances of her twin brother’s premature death. The story, according to Sarwar, is based on a true incident that took place while her family was holidaying in the northern Pakistani hill-station, Nathiagali.

“Most writers use personal memories for first novels,” Sarwar said, “My novel definitely came out of that. When my family and I were at Nathiagali there was a legend in the neighborhood about witches, and the whole novel is centered on this myth. My protagonist’s twin brother dies up north. There is a lot of fear and mystery around his death. The death wasn’t real, but the story of the witches was. I first wrote a short story as a memory piece and this became the backdrop of the novel.”

Sarwar says the novel itself is not autobiographical, except for some moments that emerged out of experience. “The characters are not real, nor is the plot or the structure, but some vignettes are true. There is one chapter where the mother is telling a story about the 1971 war between India and Pakistan. My sister and I went to a circus at that time and there was the whole metaphor of what a circus in wartime can be. That was set on something real that happened in my memory. But my sister says it didn’t happen.
I was seven years old then. So something that the novel also explores is the truth of memory. How true is memory? We remember something that we are so sure is true and then everything shifts and you see something else,” she said.

Sarwar was born and brought up in Karachi. After a very ‘British’ education in Pakistan, she first came to the United States for her undergrad studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. It was then that her world was opened up to English writing by writers the world over. For her, it was a wake up call that would forever change her life and lead her to writing. After a stint in Karachi working for a newspaper, Sarwar returned to the US to obtain a graduate degree in public affairs from the University of Texas at Austin.

But although Sarwar has lived in the US ever since, she does not consider herself an immigrant or an American. “I have lived half my life here, and half my life in Pakistan. I don’t consider myself an American. In America I’m from Pakistan. I’m sort of always from that place in between. I don’t see myself living here forever. Eventually, we want to move back, but I don’t know when. In the meantime, we are here and we are just living. And I don’t think I’m alone in that. It’s a very difficult spot to be in. but it’s a space occupied by a number of people around the world.”

Sarwar is married to René Saldivar, a Mexican American educator who teaches ESL at a Houston area middle school, and is the proud mother of five month- old Minal.  Sarwar herself taught writing at a number of schools, colleges and other workshops before founding Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB), a non-profit multimedia arts organization, in 1999 along with a few friends. “VBB emerged out of a poem that I wrote about some things that were happening in Pakistan (‘Nothing Lovely’s Ever Going to Happen in My Life’). I was upset about it but had no place I could read it out.

So I called some friends and we had a reading. It became a series. Then I got some funding and it became another series, and soon it became a nonprofit organization. That’s how we began, and I never thought it would become what it is today,” Sarwar said.

VBB is now an organization whose mission is “to cross borders, sustain dialogue and incite change through living art.” They give voice to a number of artists from across the globe and showcase all forms of art including the written and spoken word, performing arts, visual arts and multi-media. Concerned, to a great extent, with the expression of artists from the immigrant community, VBB has sponsored artists from Mexico, India, Pakistan, Argentina and Brazil, among other countries. Artists who have been featured by VBB include Arundhati Roy, Anthony Arnove, Sarah Cortez, Mark Doty, Farnoosh Moshiri, Aradhana Seth, Sonia Shah, Donna Garret, Ruben Martinez, Soldier Blue, Mango Tribe and most recently, Tariq Ali and Laura Flanders.

Oskar Sonnen, a visual artist by profession, who, along with Sarwar, manages the VBB organization, said, “We are a very organic organization and are open to doing everything. A lot of people hear of us through word of mouth. We are not afraid to tackle political issues head-on and we tend to gather people around us who are a little politically liberal.” Every year VBB conducts a big event, ‘Words for Peace’, where the focus is on global and national change and world peace, and there are talks and performances by activists and  change artists from the world over. VBB also conducts intensive summer writing workshops for students, and, according to Sonnen, they publish the youngsters and organize performances for them, giving them equal billing as professional Artists.

“We also bring different people and things together,” Sarwar said, “People think, because  I’m out in the public, that this is a Pakistani or South Asian organization. But that’s not true. We have members from different countries on our board, and we have youth board members who have an equal say.”

Upcoming VBB events include a reading by Alicia Gaspar de Alba from her new mystery novel, Desert Blood: the Juaréz Murders in May, and a show about the Chiapas women of Mexico in June. For  more information about Sehba Sarwar, VBB or to make a donation, call 713-524-7821 or visit Voices Breaking Boundaries website.

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