Mahnoor Naseer is a Citizen Historian at The 1947 Partition Archive. An electrical engineer by academic qualification but with literature filled in her heart, she talks to MOIWrites in this exclusive interview about her life and career, passion and plans.
1. Tell us about yourself?
So, as you know already, my name is Mahnoor, it is from a Persian-Arabic origin which means Moonlight. As beautiful as it sounds to many, my name is not unique at all, but I personally believe that it is not the name that makes a person unique but the characteristics they possess. Therefore, I find myself inimitable in my compassion of doing every single thing in life as if it matters the most.
I come from a middle-class family and was brought up in the shelter of unconditional love of my hardworking parents, for whom self-respect was more important than money. My parents are a real-life example of the ideology that what you cannot achieve for yourself, provide it to others. They have given me more than anything that I ever asked for. All that they lacked in their lives, they have given it to me.
Professionally, I am an Electrical Engineer and serving as a research intern in Military College of Signals, Rawalpindi. Besides that, I am also the Editor-in-Chief, Daastan and a Citizen Historian with “The 1947 Partition Archive”. I very recently started working on a collaborated project of UNDP and SIL as a research writer and transcriptionist.
Apart from these boring details that build me up, I am an avid reader and an aspiring writer. At times, I even play with colors and try my hand at painting. I enjoy sketching. I also collect stamps, coins, and naturally, bookmarks. I would also define myself as a foodie who loves testing out new cuisines. So far, nothing has won me over like Chinese food.
I am rather a “pick-and-choose” kind of a person when it comes to making acquaintances or befriending people. One of my strongest policies is being straightforward to the point that sometimes, I feel I will end up hurting someone but I try to be as careful as possible.
2. You are the Co-Founder of The Ancient Souls. What are The Ancient Souls about?
In August 2016, along with a group of friends from abroad, I decided to do something different, something that would be outside the limits of the mainstream. To set up the platform that not only promotes written works but literature as a whole.
Presently, many people have restricted the definition of literature to possessing good writing skills and having read the well-known books. The concept we wanted to nurture through our platform was rather broad: “Anything that involves words, art, and the true colors of humanity is to be known as literature” — not talking of the genres or the major forms here but sticking to the basic definition of it.
Therefore, we had three sub-goals; to protect the said definition of literature, to promote peace through literature by dissolving all the human barriers, and to innovate. The three sub-goals combined to serve one major goal that was to create a platform to empower aspiring writers, photographers, and artists across the globe.
Currently, we are operating as a community of around 15,000+ members across the world. We also published our first annual anthology in 2017, which secured the honor to be Daastan’s very first international publication.
3. As the Editor-in-Chief at Daastan, what are your prime responsibilities?
Besides editing, I have to review all submissions in the light of Daastan’s set policies. I have to coordinate with my sub-editors in assigning them tasks, reviewing those tasks once completed, have the final drafts ready and pass them on to our website management team.
Overall, I have to ensure that the team stays as hospitable and encouraging towards the authors as possible; because it is the budding talent that we mostly deal with, and that they do not overstep any of the company’s predefined policies.
4. Which authors from Pakistan and abroad are your favorite?
Talking of the international authors J.K. Rowling will always be at the top of my list for obvious reasons. I really enjoy reading Sylvia Plath, Khaled Hosseini, Stephen King, Elif Shafek, Sydney Sheldon, Sarah J Mass, Sabah Tahir, Nicholas Sparks, and the list goes on.
The Pakistani authors that I really like are Abdullah Hussain, Hashim Nadeem, Omar Shahid Hamid, and Nimrah Ahmed. I know people have different views about Nimrah’s writing style but I love her scenic portrayals and the choice of words. Here, I have mentioned the authors from modern literature only because those from previous generations, as far as I have read them, were all maestros in my view, like Manto, Patras Bukhari, Bano Qudsia, Ashfaq Ahmed and many others, and I am yet to discover that era of literature in a broader way.
5. Which are your favorite novels?
Okay, I will not mention Harry Potter here because that is like blood to my body. I love “The Kite Runner”, not just for the sake of the book, but also because of all the book-based movies that I have watched,” The Kite Runner” seemed to be the best one of them. Even Harry Potter movies did not approach me on that level of perfection.
So, reading a book and loving it, and then watching a movie based on it and loving it the same way, has an impact on the way my imaginations works after I finish reading it. You know, I just wish we opened a book and all characters danced in front of us. It is a childish thought, but I am a firm believer in miracles! My other favorites include; “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath, “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank, “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi, “Rose Madder” by Stephen King, “The Throne of Glass Series” by Sarah J. Mass, “Forty Rules of Love” by Elif Shafek, and “Amar Bail” by Nemrah Ahmed.
6. You have been responsible for editing manuscript entries in Daastan’s Stories Untold competition. How has the experience been for you?
Season 2 of the Stories Untold was the point where I officially stepped into this literary world as an Editor. Roller Coaster is the best word to describe my journey during those days. My main role was that of a project manager. However, later I became an Editor, a job I had never thought of being capable to do. On a minor level, I was already doing it at TAS, but this was different as at Daastan, here I had to mentor the aspiring authors.
In my life, my biggest advantage has always been my perseverance. When I decide to do something, I do it. There is no turning back or quitting, I never quit unless something is hurting my self-respect.
So, when Daastan offered me to be an Editor, I said okay, I can try it but expect errors because I am new to this, and the errors did occur, I have learned a lot from them and still am learning. To my surprise, everything worked out well. Three of the four people that I mentored during that season made it to the top six, and the fourth one is an exceptional author, Muhammad Omar Iftikhar, who keeps on exploring various genres, he is also the winner of NaNoWriMo 2017. I am lucky to have been associated with such remarkable talent as Bhaskar Paul, Neeraj Brahmankar, and Abhirun Das.
Here, I would like to thank Aimen Siddiqui, Director Content, Daastan, I have learned a lot from her. I would like to thank Sidra Amin, Co-founder, Daastan, for my professional training. Syed Ommer Amer, Founder, Daastan, is also a great mentor and I am blessed to have these people in my life.
7. When editing manuscripts, what key problems did you realize the aspiring writers were facing?
Talking of the writers from Pakistan, here I will start counting the issues from the root to stem level i.e. from what is wrong within to what is wrong on the outside.
The first and foremost problem is writing for the sake of becoming famous or earning money. I personally believe that one should write because they love it not because they want to earn through it. That “Greater the reward, the best the input” philosophy does not apply here. It is a different world with unpredictable possibilities. Therefore, restricting yourself to a monetary reward is not a good idea.
Second, is overconfidence. It prevents them to absorb criticism down their skin. Therefore, talking of my experience here, I did come across some new writers who were not able to accept any kind of criticism on their manuscripts just because some XYZ friend said they have written a masterpiece. I would like to tell those friends that you are not doing justice with your comrade; you are rather becoming a core reason for their downfall when they step into the real world.
Thirdly, coming to the stem level now. There are good writers who open-heatedly accept criticism but lack professional guidance. Most of the publishing companies have proficient degree holders in literature from foreign universities who lack the sense of commitment to educating. In that case, where should a writer with a brilliant story idea but weak language and grammar skills go? Because, you know, the parameter set here to judge a story is not the story idea, it is rather the language skills.
In a society where to be able to speak English is considered as a massive feat, people who go abroad for studies return to Pakistan and look down upon the locals who have yet to develop their English communication skills. Why cannot they return to Pakistan and educate those who aspire to become better?
It is my request to everyone, especially the literary squad, that instead of demotivating the local talent by pointing their language mistakes, try to figure out how this issue can be resolved. In addition, in the quest to do so, even if a manuscript with a great storyline but with a few errors goes in the market from your hand, never hesitate. This is the same ideology that we are working with at Daastan and The Ancient Souls. A lot of criticism does come our way, but that is okay when the authors are satisfied. We are trying to educate them as best as we can and will continue to do so.
8. As an editor and a mentor, what message will you give to aspiring writers enabling them to become better writers?
Read books, lots of them. Reading is the fuel to a writer’s mind; it will keep your imaginations in constant motion and will let you create brilliant stories. In addition, it will help you improve your language, familiarize you with new words, help understand the tenses and narrative styles in a better way.
Also, make it your habit to learn one new word from the dictionary per day with its meaning in your native language. Install Merriam Webster Dictionary on your smartphone and learn new words on the go.
Make yourself comfortable at rough writing. Do not get into the formalities of editing right at the time when you start writing. First, write what you want and do not let the thought of making mistakes hinder your flow. Once you are done writing, read the whole thing at least 10 times — trust me the new aspects that you will come across are limitless, and after finalizing it from your end, ask at least three people to proofread it for you. For the most productive reviews, look for people outside of your friend circle.
Last and most importantly, open your doors to criticism, be it good or bad, no matter what people throw at you make yourself habitual of grasping something fruitful out of it.
9. Your message to the youth of Pakistan?
Ignite the passion to educate the masses in your hearts, never look down upon anyone, never allow anyone to crush your self-respect, make empathy your greatest tool to deal with any challenge that life puts ahead, don’t promise someone something you cannot do for them, grab the opportunity when it knocks your door — don’t ever think of any job as little no matter how higher a qualification you have achieved. Never stop thinking, creating and trying.
Never quit, remember if you did, 20 years from now, when you will see a friend who despite of failing a hundred times didn’t give up and achieved something big out of sheer hard work, you will hate yourself the most. Quitting in my view is shameful. So, never do anything this shameful in life that in your future it makes you hate yourself, see you are not aware of the day you wake up and all this guilt from the wrong things you have done in your previous life will clasp your throat to suffocate you in all the unwanted ways.
Do what you love, don’t compromise your ambitions, and if you are not able to achieve one thing set a new goal for yourself. Explore, the universe has a lot to offer, you never know which string is bound to be your way towards success.