Renowned equal rights lawyer and author Hina Belitz combines Pakistan heritage and Western upbringing in second novel To Lahore, With Love
A Bishop's Stortford author has drawn on her own experiences of living with a foot in two different cultures as inspiration for her soon-to-be-published second novel.
To Lahore, With Love, by Hina Belitz, is the story of one woman's journey to self-acceptance as she revisits her family's roots in order to reconcile the two sides of her upbringing.
A feel-good and uplifting read, the book is a delicious melting pot of family stories, faith and food, with each chapter featuring a much-loved recipe from Hina's own childhood. Due to be published on March 19, it has already featured in Cosmopolitan's list of 2020 must-reads by black and POC (person of colour) authors.
Born in Pakistan to an Indian father and a mother of Iranian, Afghan and Indian descent, Hina's family moved to the UK when she was an infant, settling in Andover in leafy Hampshire. "We were the only family that were different," she said. "My mum was a freckled redhead from Pakistan, so that confused people even more."
But rather than feel at a disadvantage, Hina says she has grown up reaping the advantages of both her Pakistani heritage and Western upbringing. "I'm not mixed race, but I feel it because all my life I've straddled two different cultures. But I feel privileged to be part of more than one; it's given me access in a non-bias way to things and experiences that other people might turn away from."
This coming together of two ways of life has enriched Hina's own life. Highly educated, she is a renowned equal rights lawyer with degrees in law and creative writing from Brunel and Cambridge universities respectively. At home, she is a loving mother to her two sons, Zak and Haris, who she shares with Kamran, her husband of more than 15 years who she married in an Islamic nikah ceremony over the telephone.
Their marriage was arranged after a soul-searching trip Hina made to Lahore after the breakdown of her first marriage. Having given up on love following the discovery that her first husband had been cheating, she decided to take a leap of faith on a man she was introduced to during her trip and in whose company she had spent time only briefly.
The subject of arranged marriages was the focus of Hina's critically-acclaimed debut novel, Set Me Free, which led to her and Kam's own unconventional love story featuring in the Morgan Freeman documentary series, The Story of Us, which saw the Hollywood acting legend interview the couple at their home in Havers Lane.
Having lived a life less ordinary, Hina says she hopes that by sharing some of her own experiences through her fiction, she can help overcome cultural barriers and challenge racial prejudices.
"The book is entirely fictional, but it does follow a thread of my own life and what can happen when cultures combine rather than clash," she said. "I've had some really big experiences in my life and I've always felt if I shared them it could be truly beneficial.
"The key in my mind is that our emotional truths are such powerful things. The object of fiction is pure pleasure, the inadvertent side effect being the expansion of your own horizons by learning and understanding other people's truths."
What makes To Lahore, With Love even more personal is that it is largely inspired by the two great matriarchs of Hina's family, her late mother Kaniza and her grandmother Zaitoon, to whom the book is dedicated.
Dedicating one of their own recipes to each chapter of the book was a way to feel connected to them both as well as leaving a lasting legacy to their love. The publication date for Hina's novel falls on the fourth anniversary of her mother's death.
"These are the tastes of my childhood, and as I was writing, I remembered the extraordinary passion for cookery that they had. It bordered on complete obsession," she said. "It's only now that I look back that I appreciate what a mastery it was.
"Their food would be mind-blowing, it could change your mood and how you felt. I expanded on that in the book and Addy, the main character, genuinely believes she can influence people with the meals she cooks. My mother expressed her love for us through food and it's very much about the power of food and the emotions it evokes in us."
She also drew on recorded interviews with her grandmother, meaning she was able to weave in some of the Asian fairy tales and superstitions she used to love to tell.
"For me, it's about the power of connection and the emotional impact a story can have on you," she said. "It sounds trite to say that this sort of fiction could well move us towards reducing racial tensions and discriminations, but I genuinely do believe that because it's happened to me in my own reading.
"There isn't always the opportunity in real life to meet with, and have an experience of, someone who is different from you, but you do get these opportunities when you read.
"And it's when you feel empathy that true change happens. You can read any amount of academic books on a subject and no part of your heart shifts. But read something to which you connect and that shift can happen in a way no lesson ever could.
"I hope that in some small way [this novel] can create more understanding in the world."
* To Lahore, With Love is published by Headline and is available in paperback, as a Kindle edition and as an audio book on Amazon.