Book Review - My Pen is the Wing of a Bird: New Fiction by Afghan Women

Untold is a development programme that works with marginalised writers, particularly those in areas with recent or ongoing conflict. Between 2019 and 2021, Untold’s Write Afghanistan project worked with 18 emerging female writers to develop and translate their creative writing. The result is this arresting collection of stories. 

Contributors came from Afghanistan’s major cities as well as rural parts of the country and the editorial process took place online. Untold founder Lucy Hannah tells how one story was “written by hand, photographed and sent via WhatsApp messages through a chain of people”. Sadly, the Taliban takeover in August 2021 interrupted Untold’s work. Since then, the writers’ safety has become paramount; some have had to destroy their work, and it was deemed too dangerous to include profiles of the contributors within the book.

The collection’s lyrical title is a quote from one of the writers, Batool Haidari, which is worth repeating in full: “My pen is the wing of a bird; it will tell you these thoughts we are not allowed to think, these dreams we are not allowed to dream.” The first of Haidari’s two memorable stories is about a young man who, conflicted by his sexual identity and frustrated by an unforgiving culture, yearns to dress in women’s clothing and wear make-up. The second, “Khurshid Khanum, Rise and Shine”, is about a father who, desperate to return to his family after having been kidnapped for six years, discovers that his wife, believing him dead, has remarried. 

Each of the works in this collection is written in simple, direct prose and offers vivid snapshots of a country beset by war and violence, where misogyny is rife but women continue to dream of a better future. The bombings are relentless and death is a constant companion through these pages but there’s an honesty in the choice of themes. Some fiction is inspired by real events: Elahe Hosseini describes the aftermath of a suicide bombing in a Kabul wedding hall, while Zainab Akhlaqi draws on the horrific bombing of a girls’ high school for her tale. As Lyse Doucet (the BBC’s chief international correspondent, and an experienced reporter on Afghanistan) writes in her introduction: this is “literature drawn from real life, real loss”. 

 Patriarchy and male violence are recurring themes. Wives who don’t do what they are told are bullied and burnt. Daughters as young as 12 are sold as wives to old men. Poverty haunts many families who cannot afford food, shoes or school. However, the women’s extraordinary resilience is also celebrated. In “The Late Shift”, Sharifa Pasun describes the routine of Sanga, a news presenter who doesn’t deviate from her script as bombs fall all around her. Fatema Khavari’s “Ajah”, set in the 1940s, is about one woman’s determination to save her village from flooding. 

Writing helped many contributors make sense of a harsh world. For one, sharing their work became an act of moral support and defiance: “War won’t take our creativity away.” As the current humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan grows, with millions at risk of starvation, it seems more important than ever to read the work of these courageous writers. Hannah says that many of them continue to write. Let’s hope they find a way to share their stories with us again. 

Originally published by the Financial Times