A Passion for the Pages
By Khalidha Naushad Ceylon Today Features
Can you believe a short narrative brought a mother and a daughter back together after a long period of estrangement? Yes, books can do miracles. Reading books can change lives and improve the reader’s empathy. Zeneefa Zaneer's short story Journal impacted the life of a South African family. Although inconceivable, this is not something which has been made-up. Journal also bagged first place at the annual awards held by the Islamic Writers Alliance USA. Being brought up in a beautiful village in Kandy, Zeneefa Zaneer is a bilingual writer and her pen plays a major role in inspiring youth. By providing assistance for writers, coaching and counselling services, she has been working for years with youth who are passionate about writing. Her experience in writing fiction for over 15 years has given her a broad base from which to approach many topics. Talking to Ceylon Today, she shares more about her beautiful yet challenging journey.
Zeneefa talks on herself
Jodi Picoult and Khalid Hussaini being authors who have most influenced her work, Zeneefa Zaneer is a self-taught writer. “If I know something about writing then it’s through reading and searching,” she says. She thinks in a way it is good because she has learnt it the hard way. “I might not know the academic terms for certain aspects in the field of writing. But I’ve experience in searching for them and learning what I want, especially when I want.” As mentioned earlier, reading books can do magic but writing one benefits you comparatively more. When asked about the surprising thing she discovered while writing books, she states, “I learnt to improve the ability to have balanced perspectives, breathe a little life into characters, emotions, and inspire a couple of people around me who read what I write.”
“We all wanted to be a Jack or Jane of all trades,” she says of her childhood ambitions. “I’m not exceptional.” She aspired to be a pilot, doctor, detective, police officer, psychologist who hypnotises and the list goes on. To put simply, she wanted to read people. Zeneefa was really small when she started writing but realised she would make a great author only when she was 15. “I was really small when I began to write. However, I was around 15 when I wrote my first novel and wanted to continue as a writer.” She then finally settled with becoming a writer and a lawyer, she says. This amazing author describes herself as dedicated, caring, and honest. She believes she is an optimistic adult, someone who can bring change into lives through her writing, “My short story Journal united a South African mother and daughter who weren’t on good terms for a long period,” she enlightens us.
Zeneefa enjoys reading books from different genres and goes on to share about her favourite from each. “I choose Carl Eric and Mercy Mayor for children’s picture book genre. I love their detailed illustrations and the themes they choose.” She is a potter head like most of us and is fond of J. K. Rowling’s adult fiction. “Everyone knows Rowling...A writer is someone who lets her readers ride in her imagination,” she continues to comment on the author of the Harry Potter series. “This one is beyond that. She has created an entire world which looks so real now.” Books of Sinhalese writers include Virajini Thennakoon, Mahinda Prasad Masimbula, W. A. Silva, and Karunasena Jayalath” whom Zeneefa loves to read.
Her successful journey as a writer
“To feel successful, you have to feel satisfied,” she says. “Success is not winning over your competitor. Success is embracing your weaknesses and trying your best to overcome them.” She is glad and satisfied about her reach on Sri Lankan platforms. “My books are reaching people from other faiths. I always believe that stories of ours are similar; yours, mine, theirs.” Zeneefa continues to talk on her attempts to let readers see through lives of every community. “Muslims and their culture look new for our brethren because our stories were kept within four walls. I try to reach readers of all kinds representing myself as a fellow citizen of this country. My stories are creating doors for others to have a look inside our lives.
“Through my books I’ve been able to create a bridge among communities. Although our faiths, beliefs and dress codes are different, our lives are similar. Each of us are tested in a different manner, but are tested. We have a common goal, struggle to survive and win our own life journey.” On the international platform, she has been able to reach out people from around the world representing herself as a Sri Lankan. “My book Nothing But Love got good reviews from people living in different parts of the world.” Zeneefa published her first novel, Poodinna Idadenna, at the age of 24. “Soon after getting married, my husband insisted on publishing the book. If not for him it would have been discarded just like the other books I previously wrote.” The author continues to tell us about the positive feedback received for her other book Surang Serata. “Sri Lankan writers like Professor Somarathna Balasooriya and Chulabhaya Shantha Kumara, Politician Feriyal Ashraff and readers from around the country sent me positive feedback about my book, Sulang Serata.” She, on the other hand, also mentions about how she grew a thick skin for criticism. “I take even a negative feedback as a positive one because it helps me see from angles I’m new to. It helps me grow as a writer.” Zeneefa, as a teenager, completed seven novels, which she refers to as her “first attempts as a writer,” which are left unpublished. In addition, she has six published fiction and non-fiction books, both in Sinhala and English, two published picture books, seven unpublished books and two half written books. “Out of all these my favourite is Sulang Serata. Its characters are like real people to me now.”
Talking to writers in society
“Having no time is the excuse many who want to be writers give.” Having a daily writing habit is good she says. Zeneefa advises having 10 minutes a day solely to write. “I recently gave my students a task to set their timer for 10 minutes and furiously write. At the start, they could write less than 200 words. But as they continued with the habit they were able to write more than 500 words. Ten minutes is just a small time. If we cannot have at least 10 minutes to write then we aren’t ready to become writers.
“Set small and achievable goals is the other advice I can give. For example, writing a chapter a week. So at the end of month you’d have four completed chapters.” Have a simple plot or storyline, she recommends, “The more it’s complicated the more time it takes to write. Sometimes it is exhausting when we go for a complex plots.”
Zeneefa Zaneer continues to share about her present and future projects. “I just completed a Sinhala novel Namak Nethi Kathawak. The book is set in war times in Sri Lanka. And also, I’m working on my Gratiaen Award shortlisted book They Failed to Kill Her but have a lot to work at before it comes under the light of publishing.”