WWhen Lucy Hannah decided to put together an anthology of short stories by Afghan women in 2019, it already seemed like a hugely ambitious project. Most of the authors involved had never had the opportunity to work with an editor. A contributor shared her story by taking photos of handwritten pages and sending them via WhatsApp. Another had previously published her work online, but not in print. “I’ve never come across a local publisher who was willing to put out a book without asking the author for money,” she said. “And it’s impossible to find a foreign publisher willing to read books about anything other than the war.”
Then Covid-19 hit in 2020, followed by the return of the Taliban to power in 2021. “It was hard work,” admits Hannah, a former BBC employee who helped set up the BBC Writersroom. The anthology, My Pen Is the Wing of a Bird, was published this week by MacLehose Press, but many of the team involved have never met. With the 18 writers in Afghanistan (10 of whom have since left), an editor in Sri Lanka and translators in the UK, all communication had to be done remotely. The fact that the book has now been published is the result of a team effort that “relied on everyone trusting each other,” Hannah says.
The project was led by the organization Hannah had created to help strengthen the work of marginalized writers, Untold Narratives. While working with screenwriters in Afghanistan four years ago, Hannah spoke to some female writers who were hired to work on a radio soap, but found it difficult to get their prose published. Wanting to help, Hannah came back to the UK to raise money and the Write Afghanistan project was born.
After two open calls for submissions across Afghanistan, with the second call targeting isolated areas of the country, Untold Narratives read about 300 submissions before selecting the 18 writers who would contribute to My Pen Is the Wing of a Bird.
Several stories are based on the writers’ experience of living in the midst of violence. Zainab Akhlaqi’s Blossom, for example, is based on the real-life bombing of the Sayed ul-Shuhada high school in Kabul. The story ends on a note of defiant hope: the young narrator, Nekbakht, decides she wants to “show some ghost in the light of our struggles”, and goes back to school.
Akhlaqi found a similar sense of hope, knowing that her work would reach a global audience. “In the worst days of my country’s history, [working with Untold] gave me the hope and the spirit to write,” she says.
“These writers don’t have the support they get in the UK when they start out,” Hannah says. “So this is about encouraging the global gatekeepers to welcome voices, in translation, who don’t necessarily have a local creative infrastructure to support them.”
Marie Bamyani, whose story The Black Crow of Winter is about a mother struggling to provide for her family, is passionate about making Afghan women’s voices heard. “My Pen Is the Wing of a Bird is the starting point for bringing Afghan writers together and sharing their voices and stories with the world,” she says. “The world must not let this light go out.”