After the texts fizzled out with the fifth guy in six weeks, Naz finally gave up and changed her app settings to full-on gay. Self-cannibalism would’ve been less painful than having a conversation with these one-neuron fools and she…
There’s an underlying assumption that stories about queer brown people in Muslim countries will feature loss and melancholy, but I wasn’t interested in writing that story. I wanted to write about queer women who are waggish and flippant and make foolish decisions. I didn’t plan “Stick Shift,” or outline my way through the plot or the central characters. The story began as a routine journal entry that quickly slipped out of my control and into a series of fabrications and conversations narrated to me by a chorus of familiar, well-loved voices from my life in Karachi. Instead of returning to the journal entry, I told myself to follow the chatter. I did that for a couple of scenes and didn’t pause to think about plot points or narrative strategies. I didn’t feel compelled to stop and edit after every couple of paragraphs, which is unusual because editing is always my first impulse and I always succumb to it.
After I’d cranked out a few messy scenes, I realized the narrator of the story kept bending toward the main character, Naz. Was that allowed? Would it frustrate a reader not to be able to differentiate Naz’s thoughts from a narrator who was somewhat fused with her? The internal editor shook herself awake and peered at me sternly over her glasses—I needed permission before I could continue in this mode. So I stopped writing and did a bunch of research. I stumbled onto something called free indirect speech and it was a revelation. Naturally, instead of returning to the story with permission slip in hand, I fell down a procrastinatory vortex and emerged many days later equipped with invaluable tips on narrative strategies from two books: How Fiction Works by James Wood, and The Art of Perspective by Christopher Castellani. I recommend both for all things craft related.
When I’m finally confident about voice, the structure of the story often comes together without too much trouble. In this case, slim pickings lead to decisions that culminate in a hugely appalling realization for Naz. I also wanted there to be an object in the story that symbolized the toxic masculinity at play throughout the interactions between Naz and her date. I drive stick and have been at the receiving end of many predictable but amusing comments about it, so the blowup at the end presented itself in a flash of inevitability and giggles. The effort of writing is always painful for me, but I felt an easy fondness for “Stick Shift” all the way through—probably because the narrative voice of the story, in its cheerful refusal to be taken too seriously, represents one of my favorite things about home.
JAWZIYA ZAMAN is a writer and editor in Karachi, Pakistan. Her work has appeared in Inklette Magazine, The Aleph Review, Flash Fiction Online, Himal Southasian, Dissent, Psychopomp Magazine, and others. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @jawziyazaman.