A Conversation with Aliya Ali-Afzal

 

Q. Have you ever told a lie that’s gotten you into trouble before?

 

A. I hate to say this because I don’t want to advocate lying, but in fact, lies have usually gotten me out of trouble rather than into it! At least in the short term. I’m not talking heavy-duty, law-breaking lies, but rather the everyday variety, which for me, tend to be to people I care about and usually to avoid upset to both them and to me. I might tell my elderly mother that my arm is better after an accident when it isn’t, so that she doesn’t worry, and I may tell my husband that I have sent an email to the insurance company as I had promised to, but I forgot. I will do it now, so why go through a whole conversation about it again? Can you see how I justify my lies? The problem is that even with these small lies, I feel guilty. I hate lying to the people I love. I also know that it is wrong, even if in that particular moment or situation, it may seem the right thing to do, to avoid upset or arguments. So, although my lies may be a quick fix, they turn into a long-haul burden of unease and guilt, and because of that, I try to avoid these lies if I can and prefer to face the discomfort of the truth!

 

Q. Do you think financial infidelity is as bad as sexual infidelity?

 

A. This is such a tricky one. Both are forms of deception and involve lying to the person closest to you, and both have the potential to hurt your partner, emotionally and also by impacting them adversely in a practical sense. Both can also destroy trust and lead to a breakdown in a relationship. The emotions we experience when someone is unfaithful to us are the same in both situations—shock, disbelief, anger, disappointment, fear, and a total lack of trust. In theory, both types of infidelity are equally devastating. However, in my opinion, the presence of a third party in a couple’s relationship with sexual infidelity makes this a worse form of betrayal. When someone has deceived a partner about finances, at least it is still an issue just between the two of them. Whatever the problem and however they try to sort it out, it is still the couple against the world, even if it is also the two of them against each other. Once you add a third party to the mix though, the relationship becomes more fragile. It adds another level of stress and distress, which I think is harder to resolve and overcome.

 

Q. What was your inspiration for Faiza?

 

A. I always knew that my lead protagonist had to be a real and complex personality. When I thought about Faiza, I saw many layers and aspects to her, and above all, I imagined a good person, but one with flaws and weaknesses. I love the contradictions and complexities in people’s personalities, and this is what draws me to write about people and relationships. I am fascinated by what makes people tick.

 

I am sometimes disappointed to come across fictional female leads where the heroine is an almost saintly figure, who has often been wronged by someone in her life and may be presented as a victim. I was more interested in having a strong, wonderful, weak, interesting lead, as I think most of us have some aspects of all these elements and it is rare to find people who are either “good” or “bad.”

It was very important to me, too, that Faiza is not a victim of other people’s actions but of her own. Faiza’s troubles are of her own making and she takes ownership of that in the book too. She knows that her own poor decisions have led her to this point, and she is ready to do what she can to put things right.

 

Faiza has many contradictions that make her who she is. She is British Pakistani, but is married to Tom, who is white British. She used to have a high-powered career in finance before having children but now spends her time blow-drying her hair for cliquey school charity committees. She loves wearing her South Asian clothes but is just as comfortable in her little “flippy” dresses and ankle boots. She speaks Urdu but also Russian; she is confident and strong but also insecure about getting older. You can’t put Faiza in a box.

 

My quest to write a “real” character was also linked to shattering some of the stereotypes I often saw in fiction and on TV—about midlife women and South Asian ones too. Faiza and Tom have a healthy sex life, even though she is forty-four, and she doesn’t have all the answers about life just because she is a certain age. She is still on a journey. I also wanted to show what it was like for an older woman to get back to work, even after a long break, as Faiza does, and show her being successful at work too. As a career coach I have helped many women to do this, and I have also had this experience myself, of being a “returner.” Yet, generally, we don’t see older women making big changes in their work life after forty.

 

I was keen to write about the sort of British South Asian women I saw among my family and friends but who I never saw in literature or in the media. My sisters are a doctor and an architect, and I have female family members and friends who are lawyers, surgeons, journalists, artists, entrepreneurs, and academics. These women are strong and funny and have great relationships with their families. Yet often, the South Asian women I saw depicted were one-dimensional, subservient, at odds with their parents and extended family, with cultural clashes about these women wanting to break away from traditional norms. In Faiza, I wanted to show another side of the story,  and someone like myself and the majority of my friends, who comfortably and happily navigates two cultures, and in fact thrives from having this rich mixed culture. There is often only one narrative around South Asian women, and I wanted to show a wider spectrum, which is my experience and a reality that we don’t often see.

 

Q. How do you think Tom would’ve reacted if Faiza had come clean about the money right away?

 

A. Tom would have been furious but would have focused first on trying to sort things out and deciding what needed to be done next to manage their precarious financial situation.

 

He would have looked at all the practical matters as a priority—perhaps remortgaging the house or selling it, or taking out a bank loan. He would have been very angry with Faiza, not just because of the mess she had landed them in but also because she had been lying to him and for so long, while all the time pretending to stick to the economy drive, and he would’ve questioned their relationship as a whole and his belief that Faiza was someone he could trust completely. Tom wouldn’t have left Faiza at this point though, if she had confessed everything at the start, right when he had lost his job. However, he would have been devastated that she had been deceiving him and I think it could have fractured their relationship. Tom has been a loyal and devoted husband, and this would shake his confidence in their marriage and in Faiza. I am not sure if their marriage could have recovered from this. When Tom does eventually find out the truth in the novel, he also sees how hard Faiza has been trying to fix things and how much she has endured to try to make up for her terrible mistake. At that point, both of them have been through so much and have realized that, in the end, all that matters is their marriage.

 

If she had told him the truth at the beginning, they would perhaps not have had this perspective, and he would have been less willing to forgive, and Faiza would have been less willing to talk about what had led to her lying in the first place.

 

How are gender roles explored in the book? What do you think about Tom and Faiza’s role reversal?

 

The setting of the novel is an upscale, leafy suburb of London, called Wimbledon Village, which is also where the world-famous tennis Championships take place. The large houses, exclusive boutiques, and sleek coffee shops are full of affluent families with tennis clubs, horse riding on Wimbledon Common, and an aspirational lifestyle. On the whole, the gender roles are split along traditional lines, with the “masters of the universe” and the “perfect housewives.” There are some women who still work and some who would like to but have either lost confidence or feel that their high-profile jobs are set up for male employees and not child-friendly.

 

Whether among the school-run set or in the City, the women are often defined and judged according to their appearances, and, consequently, appearances are also a focus for the women. Right from the first scene, we see the mothers at a Botox party that does not seem anything out of the ordinary for them, and when Faiza has her job interview, she is told that at least she doesn’t “look like a mother.”

 

Tom and Faiza have had pretty traditional roles as male breadwinner and female stay-at-home parent throughout their marriage. Although they both started out working in similar roles in the City, after they had their daughter, Sofia, Faiza decided that she wanted to step away from her career. This has worked well for them up to now, as Tom and she have both seen their marriage as a partnership and each has valued the other’s contribution.

 

When their roles are reversed, initially Tom is supportive of Faiza. He encourages her to apply for the jobs and helps her prepare for her interviews and asks his headhunter to help her. Plus, he also reassures her when she gets nervous going back to work—at first, at least—and helps her prepare for her pitches. Later on, though, Tom starts to become less cooperative. In their case, this had less to do with gender roles, although that does play a part. Tom is supportive of Faiza until Harry comes into the picture and Tom becomes jealous of the time that Faiza is spending with Harry. Tom’s reaction is complex. He adores Faiza and wants to support her, but his jealousy colors his responses.

 

As well as that, his job has been his identity all his life, and now, suddenly and with no prospect on the horizon of getting back to work, Tom sinks into a state of low-level depression. All the men we meet in the book are defined by their jobs and their success, not only among their professional and social circles, but also by their families sometimes. For example, James and his parents. In that sense, the pressure on the men to earn and succeed is as intense as it is on the women to stay looking young.

 

Q. The women in the book are all in their mid-forties. How do you think life changes in this age group for women?

 

A. Forty is the new thirty they say! Despite being a positive message in some ways, it can often bring more pressures and expectations than perhaps the liberation it had intended by shattering the traditional constraints put on women after forty.

If forty is the new thirty, then you are also expected to look a decade younger than you are. Forty is such a tricky stage in life. The big four-O, the beginning of the end, the point at which you hit middle age and look back at your life, wondering if you did everything you set out to twenty years ago. Although both men and women experience midlife crises, the forties are particularly hard on women and especially those who are mothers. For those women, the fact that their children are older and more self-sufficient means that the roles and activities that may have defined them for a decade or more are no longer there. In a culture that values youth, they panic as they see the first signs of aging, and hormonal changes of perimenopause not only affect them physically, further emphasizing their physical deterioration, but also affect their mood. Faiza says that sometimes she feels as if she is decomposing.

 

As Faiza reminds herself when she is waiting to get her Botox, the highest divorce rates are for couples in their forties. The women are aware that their husbands, who are often reaching the peak of their career at work and whose bodies have not started rebelling against them, may be tempted by a new model, a trophy wife to go with their upgraded career status. The discussions about staying young and keeping husbands sexually fulfilled stem from the insecurity of knowing that your entire life and lifestyle could be taken over by a replacement younger model.

 

My experience of my forties was in fact a positive one. I started my new career and retrained as a career coach just before I turned forty and returned to full-time work, which was a complete change from my life in my thirties. For me, this gave me more confidence in myself than when I had been younger, as I enjoyed my work. In my mid-forties, after helping my clients to pursue their dream lives and careers, I decided to take some of my own advice and start writing the novel that I had always dreamed of writing since I was a young girl. Although physically I could see signs of aging, I found that with my children being older, I had more time for exercise and in fact became fitter and slimmer than I had been in my thirties. I do think though that this confidence came because I made a change in my life as I hit forty so that I was not as aware of the change in the dynamics at home as I would have been if I had still been a stay-at-home mother. I saw friends who seemed to lose their bearing somewhat when the children didn’t need them so much, but I escaped that by plunging into something new and different.

 

Q. What was your experience writing about a modern-day woman? Are there any parallels to your own life?

 

A. I loved writing about a modern-day woman and enjoyed the opportunity it gave me to reflect on and explore this reality a little more deeply, especially from the distance of an author’s perspective rather than from the middle of living that experience.

Faiza’s story is not my story, thankfully! However, there were certain experiences from my own life that I used to inform aspects of her story too. Mostly, these were the details I knew about working in the financial district in the city, studying Russian at university, and returning to work after a ten-year career break. The pressures I have experienced to “have it all” and “be everything” are also woven into the story. So, for example, a mother these days must not look like a mother, and an older woman must look young. The quest for perfection extends to Instagram-worthy homes and vacations, children whose achievements are carried around like statement designer bags, and marriages that are romantic, sexed-up, and always rock-solid.  The expectations are high, at least in what we must project, whatever the reality!

 

I try to show some of these pressures in the novel and how, in a way, despite the enormous opportunities and freedoms that come with being a modern woman, there are also constraints, in that to be truly successful, you need to look successful too.

 

For me, it was also interesting to write about Faiza from the distance of being a few years older. Although I may have felt some of these pressures when I was Faiza’s age, I let a lot of these worries drop away once I reached my late forties and then turned fifty. I decided that I didn’t need to fit in or try to adhere to other people’s expectations about what I should be doing, buying, or how I should be looking. I started to listen to what I wanted and what made me happy. This was also when I started to pursue my lifelong dream of becoming an author. I didn’t care what anyone thought about my decision, and although many offered their opinions anyway, I chose not to pay any attention to them! A few years older than Faiza, I also learned to accept my crow’s-feet and that I was no longer as slim as I had been. Once the initial shock of the aging process wore off, I started to embrace it and not be afraid of it. I still want to look good but not as if I am thirty-five! I also stopped meeting people who weren’t close friends or who I didn’t feel comfortable with. It was okay to not be part of every group, and I felt much better being with people who energized and inspired me.

 

Since my mid-forties, I have stopped worrying about what other people say and started to do what makes me happy. This is the joy and the positive side of being a modern woman. I worked on exciting international coaching assignments, traveled a lot more for fun, sometimes by myself, returned to university to do an MFA in creative writing, and became a published author. I hope I can hold on to this in the years ahead, when I become an “old” modern woman too!