Employment lawyer Hina Belitz’s debut novel Set Me Free (Headline, £7.99) follows a teenage girl’s journey as her family is forced to flee Lahore and start a new life in London. But Mani’s life is turned upside down when her mother is murdered and she is forced to accept an arranged marriage with a violent suitor. In the depths of her despair, Mani decides to reach out to the world through a series of love letters and finally discovers hope in the midst of darkness.
Set Me Free addresses arranged marriage, religious tradition and folklore, asylum, marital rape and honour-based violence. What inspired you to take an interest in these topics?
Set Me Free started in an organic way without a clear sense of exactly where I was going, although these were themes that had captivated and perplexed me for some years. The topics were also inspired by the main characters, who came to me from the outset. Sister and brother Mani and Nu were immediately real. I knew how they would react to the situations they would face. I knew their fears, their weaknesses and I also felt their wonderful gentle relationship. There were three underlying elements I knew would feature in Mani and Nu’s life. Firstly, I was fascinated by the surprising and unexpected behaviour of a woman in an abusive relationship choosing to stay, even though there doesn’t seem to be anything stopping her from leaving. I wondered why women do that. And why often the worst acts of violence take place between those supposedly in a loving relationship, like honour-based violence. It seems akin to an addiction – knowing something is harming you but not being able to let it go. If someone were to launch an attack of that sort against such a woman on the street, I have no doubt she would run. Secondly, I was intrigued by the hidden aspects of people – that an apparently good person may be concealing a darker side only ever witnessed by one or two other people. And thirdly, I knew I wanted to explore the power to recreate our lives by the stories we tell ourselves. It was interesting to ponder the popular modern philosophy that imagining you have what you desire can make it come about in reality.
You open Set Me Free with a quote from Malala Yousafzai. To what extent did Malala’s story influence the narrative of the book?
I was very impressed with Malala Yousafzai as a symbol of a strong, young lady and a survivor. Mani, the protagonist, like Malala is also a young adult, being aged 17. Although Malala was not a direct influence, she did represent a visible example of the sort of oppression that Set Me Free addresses. Mani, for me, however speaks more for all those invisible women suffering alone and unsupported, and I very much hope Set Me Free shines a light on their plight. I was very moved by Malala’s speech to the United Nations in July 2013. It was raw and ruthlessly honest. The quote “We realise the importance of light when we see darkness. We realise the importance of our voice when we are silenced” also ties in so well to the story of Mani and Nu, who, through the trials they face, have a visceral understanding of the importance of seeing the light during their darkest times. And Nu is silenced when a devastating experience leaves him a mute.
The protagonist, Mani, is endlessly optimistic, romantic and resilient despite her difficult start in life. What can readers learn from Mani’s story?
I think the key message is the power of the human spirit to rise out of adversity and not only survive but flourish – that we don’t need to be damaged by the difficult experiences in our life if we put them into context. Telling the right story to ourselves about the things we suffer can transform such adversity into valuable life-enhancing lessons that make us who we are. I was captivated by a talk I saw on post-traumatic growth and I do believe in it. I’m very much in favour of advocating this over the alternative of falling onto your sword. The first letter in Set Me Free includes the following, which I believe sums up the key message of the book quite well: “People hate bad things happening to them but they really shouldn’t. I don’t. We mustn’t judge the forces that make us. And when I tell you all, you will know how I became the person that I am and why I love you so.”
Who did you write Set Me Free for?
I wrote Set Me Free firstly for myself. I really believe that every good story, even entirely fictional ones, holds emotional truths and unshakeable realities. If you are true to those in your writing, it resonates with readers. For that reason, I always resist the temptation to write something I believe the market will want to read instead of what I am being drawn to personally. (As an employment and discrimination lawyer, writing for a market would probably have meant writing a legal thriller – which is definitely on the cards!) Deep inside, I also had my mother in mind and I was devastated to have lost her just before Set Me Free was to be released. She has always been my biggest supporter and a huge inspiration to me, but she never got to see Set Me Free in print. My mother was a fiercely intelligent, strong and determined matriarch with a big heart, who never allowed me or my siblings to develop a victim mentality. I think the ability to remain grateful for the gift of being alive in this world despite the challenges life throws at us is a truly inspirational state to achieve.
To what extent have your experiences as a lawyer shaped your debut novel and its characters?
The skill of precision in writing is valuable and something that my career in law has taught me. As an employment lawyer, I am lucky to have exposure to so many interesting people and circumstances. I believe examination of the injustices that play out in the real world is valuable as a novelist. It gives you space to ponder the world in a way that a different career may not. Discrimination, prejudice and alienation are themes in Set Me Free and I definitely drew from my legal experience in the exposition of those feelings.
You were born in Lahore before moving to the UK as a child. In what ways did your own background influence the setting of the novel?
I was a baby when we moved to the UK from Lahore but we did visit Lahore a couple of times as I was growing up. Those visits were mind-blowing. I have vivid memories at age six of being lifted from a train window and swung around by aunts and relative as garlands of jasmine were placed on our wrists and neck. It was such a lively, colourful and beautiful place and many of the scenes of Mani and Nu in Lahore were variations of those memories.
Do you have plans for a second book? And will you continue to address the same topics in future literary endeavours?
I have already started my second novel, which has a similar flavour to Set Me Free but is based on very different, though equally shocking themes. It explores the tendency in many countries to prefer a baby boy over a baby girl and the extent people will go to for this, including the murder and abandonment of a baby because it is a girl.