Ethics, loyalty and longing take centre stage in Huma Qureshi’s Playing Games
“When I was little, I used to play pretend that I had a sister,” says British author Huma Qureshi, who grew up watching her brothers together and would imagine scenarios with a make-believe sister, in her head.
Now, years later, she has conceptualised a very specific scenario – one that would stretch sisters to the limits of their relationship – and has written her first novel about it.
Releasing on November 9 with Sceptre, Playing Games explores the lives of fictional sisters Hana and Mira.
Hana is a control freak with a successful career and marriage, while Mira is an aspiring playwright earning money by working in a café, much to the disapproval of her elder sister.
“Loving” is not the first word that comes to mind when describing the sibling dynamic that Huma creates between these two main characters.
Hana would prefer Mira didn’t sleep over, and when she does, wants her out of the house first thing. She also doesn’t think of inviting her to a party she’s hosting, even though she does the catering through Mira’s café.
Suffice to say, the two are at very different life stages, and Huma Qureshi alternates chapters between their perspectives.
While Mira is thoughtful and introverted, Hana, a lawyer by profession, comes across as haughty and more hard-hearted.
"I’ve never experienced anything that Hana has experienced, but the longing and the pain and the emotional journey that she goes on was something that I felt I just had to explore for her. Feelings of motherhood are getting written about a lot more now, and I think that's only a good thing, to give space to the whole spectrum of emotions that you can have”
But Huma peels back the layers of her character when she introduces a pivotal conflict: Hana longs to have a child, but her husband Samir, has cold feet, even though they were once on the same page about having children, “some day”.
For Hana, that day has arrived, but Samir isn’t sure if he’s ready – or if he ever will be.
One night, Mira overhears an argument between Hana and Samir and uses it as inspiration for a play she is writing. But things ultimately get out of hand, leading Mira down a path where she might have to choose between her big break as a playwright or her relationship with her sister.
Through Hana’s balancing of despair with anger, Huma Qureshi deeply explores concepts like fertility, loss and yearning for a child.
“I really wanted to show her vulnerable side,” says the author. “I’ve never experienced anything that Hana has experienced, but the longing and the pain and the emotional journey that she goes on was something that I felt I just had to explore for her. Feelings of motherhood are getting written about a lot more now, and I think that's only a good thing, to give space to the whole spectrum of emotions that you can have.”
Having a Pakistani background similar to Huma's, I ask whether she was motivated at all to use Hana’s struggles to lift the lid on fertility-related topics that aren’t often spoken about in South Asian communities.
“I wasn’t thinking of it in that respect,” she says, explaining that her mother worked in a maternity ward, and was very openly communicative with her about such issues.
“What interests me more is not how they identify, but how they feel. My focus has always been feelings, and complex, messy relationships – that’s what I’m interested in exploring”
The main characters in Playing Games may share an implicit South Asian background, but culture is not a focus of Huma’s story.
Only once, does Mira mention that growing up, she and Hana never had to deal with the stereotypical “clash of cultures,” and laments the fact that she is often expected to write about her heritage in her scripts.
It’s a sentiment Huma Qureshi also shares, to a degree. Born and brought up in Britain, she says her Pakistani background is something that will always be a part of her, and may subconsciously influence the characters she creates – but that she doesn’t see a necessity to specify “where they’re from”.
“It’s literary fiction, and it deserves to be taken as literary fiction. In my own way, that felt like the most quietly radical thing I could do – just write a story, and it almost doesn't matter where they're from,” says Huma.
“What interests me more is not how they identify, but how they feel. My focus has always been feelings, and complex, messy relationships – that’s what I’m interested in exploring.”
Through dialogue and introspective ruminations, Huma Qureshi gives depth and nuance to these complex relationships – of both marriage and sisterhood.
Mira’s decision to use Hana’s real-life relationship as a plotline for her play inevitably has ramifications. She admits that Hana is “a gift of a character study”, but fails to consider her sister’s feelings when using a private conversation with her husband, for public consumption.
Having my own thoughts on this matter as a writer, I can’t help but ask Huma if she thinks what Mira does, is ethical. “I think she could have handled it better, given the sensitivity of the subject and her closeness to her sister – but I don’t think that what she did was necessarily the worst thing in the world,” she tells me.
Writers often borrow from reality, and Huma says that she wanted to explore this common occurrence in a way that was “complicated” and “not straightforward.”
Mira plans to use the material for a play she is writing, and this theatre element adds an additional dimension to the story, bringing it to a stage with potential actors and dialogues all based on Mira’s – well, Hana’s – story.
In fact, Huma’s own tone of writing in Playing Games, sometimes feels like a screenplay too, like when she writes statements such as, “and then the moment is gone” after rare moments of tenderness.
Playing Games was released just two years after Huma Qureshi’s memoir, How We Met, and the short story collection, Things We Do Not Tell the People We Love, were published.
A year prior, her short story, The Jam Maker, won the Harper’s Bazaar short story competition – and it’s this medium of storytelling that remains her favourite.
“Short stories have always had a place in my heart,” she replies. “Life is just moments and short stories capture those moments – I find that really beautiful and compelling, and that craft really pushes me to focus on every single word and meaning.”
She adds that as a former journalist, she appreciates the structure and precision of short stories, so transitioning to writing a novel was challenging: “You have to let it be messy in order to then refine it, and that took a lot of unlearning for me.”
The writing process for Playing Games took about two years. “The more I began to get to know my characters, the more I wanted to spend time in their world. I loved being able to spend that much time with them – you don’t get to do that with short stories,” she says.
As a reader, I immensely enjoyed spending time with Hana and Mira, understanding their personalities, insecurities and aspirations, as well as their relationship with one another.
I couldn’t help seeing myself in Hana’s older-sister mentality, hyper-organised demeanour and desperation to maintain control. I equally saw myself in Mira – a writer looking for inspiration and determined to use it once she finally finds it.
Hafsa Lodi is an American-Muslim journalist who has been covering fashion and culture in the Middle East for more than a decade. Her work has appeared in The Independent, Refinery29, Business Insider, Teen Vogue, Vogue Arabia, The National, Luxury, Mojeh, Grazia Middle East, GQ Middle East, gal-dem and more. Hafsa’s debut non-fiction book Modesty: A Fashion Paradox, was launched at the 2020 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature
Follow her on Twitter: @HafsaLodi