He laughs as he admits it now but before Awais Khan arrived at Western, years passed without him reading a single book – apart from Harry Potter.
“Somewhere along the line I lost interest in reading; I was so busy (preparing for university) that there didn’t seem to be any time for reading. It was at Western where I learned one has to make time,” said the author and director of The Writing Institute, Pakistan’s largest creative-writing institution.
At Western, Khan, BA’08, enrolled in Economics, not Creative Writing. He was surprised to find a course textbook – In Defense of Globalization by Jagdish Bhagwati – made him fall in love with the written word.
“I majored in Economics and Psychology and we were asked to read a lot. I had always been an avid reader but this made me realize reading is quite important. It had been a while since I had read anything at all. I still remember that book; it is etched in my mind,” said Khan, who came to London from Lahore, Pakistan.
“Western was my first dip into international territory and it was there I realized the importance of bookstores and writing. There were bookstores everywhere in London; Western had talks all the time about literary things. My overall experience at Western was instrumental in preparing me to become a writer.”
“After years of struggle and perseverance,” Khan’s debut novel, In the Company of Strangers, will be published by The Book Guild in the United Kingdom in July and by Simon and Schuster India in the Indian subcontinent in 2020.
Today, in retrospect, Khan wishes he had enrolled in an English degree. Family pressures and expectations in Pakistan kept him on a more professionally minded track, he noted, and they continued after his graduation, when he returned home with a newfound passion for reading and writing.
“There were a lot of expectations from other people and I dove right into the family business. It was mostly construction and did it for a few years. I kind of enjoyed it, but really my heart wasn’t in it that much,” Khan said,
The prospect of a master’s degree came up and again he didn’t opt for writing. Instead, Khan chose to pursue business management at Durham University. And as soon as he arrived at the U.K. institution, he had a revelation.
“There, I made the decision to do that something I had been putting away for a really long time; I really wanted to write.”
Khan took online courses, creative-writing courses and a novel writing class. He wrote In the Company of Strangers in six months and then embarked on the long and arduous editing process.
The book is centred on the lives of the Pakistani elite class.
“I have a bit of experience there,” Khan said, half-jokingly. “With characters, it’s mostly observation. To be a writer you have to be an observer first. Parties, gatherings, observing people and how they interact painted characters for me.”
It has taken years for him to look in the mirror and acknowledge a writer was staring back at him, he explained. Part of that is the pressure and expectation to do something more business-oriented and part of it is just old-fashioned self-doubt.
“After I found a literary agent, I started considering myself a writer. Writers suffer from very low self-esteem. Anything you do write, you wonder, ‘Oh, what will people say? This is not good enough.’ I’ve been published by a few literary magazines, but there was still that niggling feeling that I’m not up to par.”
His personal struggles with writing and settling into a career in the field sparked an idea, eventually leading to the birth of The Writing Institute, through which Khan has taught more than 5,000 students since January 2017. Based in Lahore, the institute offers courses in Karachi and Islamabad in creative writing, essay writing, English language and other preparatory courses. There are plans to expand both locally and internationally.
Khan started out with writing workshops and was shocked how many people were interested – both adults and children. The workshops expanded into an institute and he is now looking at partnerships with an international writing school to offer online courses with subsidized rates to Pakistani students. The response to this initiative has been “phenomenal” so far and he sees himself travelling to offer more.
“People want to register from cities I can’t reach,” he said.
Khan recently completed a manuscript for his second novel, a young adult dystopian fiction set in – of all places – London, Ont.
“I wanted to write about something other than Pakistan and these will be Canadian characters, 200 years into the future, in London. Western taught me a lot about life and how to live alone. It was a big learning experience for me.”
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