The Birth of Benazir Bhutto: A Q&A with Brooke Allen
Writer and literary critic Brooke Allen is a faculty member at Bennington College, and the author of four books, Twentieth Century Attitudes: Literary Powers in Uncertain Times (named a New York Times Notable Book); Artistic License: Three Centuries of Good Writing and Bad Behavior; Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers, a study of the religious beliefs (or lack thereof) of the American Founders; and a travel book, The Other Side of the Mirror: An American Travels in Syria. She also frequently contributes to The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, New Criterion, and other prestigious publications.
During the summer of 2015, Allen published her most recent book for Amazon’s ICON series, Benazir Bhutto: Favored Daughter, a biography about Pakistan’s late Prime Minister. Allen analyzes the structure of feudalism that bred this influential political figure and criticizes Benazir Bhutto for altering her political agendas to gain popularity amongst both the Western and Eastern public. In this interview, conducted over email, Allen shares her experience of what went into writing this controversial biography.
Literary Bennington: What inspired you write this biography? Was this a project you had been considering working on while Benazir was still alive?
Brooke Allen: No, it was pretty haphazard. I was contacted by an editor called James Atlas. (Another Bennington connection, by the way; his wife is the daughter of William Fels, president of the college 1957-64). He had edited a series of short biographies for Penguin, called Penguin Brief Lives, and had now been hired by Houghton Mifflin and Amazon, in partnership, to edit a similar series, to be called Icons, composed of biographies ranging from 100 to 150 pages. He already had ten titles underway and had been getting a certain amount of pressure, I think, to work with more women writers and subjects. He said he would like me to write a book for their series, on a subject of my choice, but that it should be a woman.
I was taking more and more of an interest in the subcontinent due to the classes I had been teaching at Bennington on Indian and Pakistani literature, and particularly in Pakistan as there are so many terrific Pakistani students at Bennington. I also thought it surprising that no major biography of Bhutto had been written, even several years after her death. She had one of the most dramatic lives of any human being of the last century; for sheer drama, the Bhuttos have rivaled even the Kennedys. Her father was also a fascinating and most important figure. So the subject interested me a great deal, and Jim Atlas also thought it was a good idea. But I certainly did not think of any of this before he contacted me. He also contacted Anne Heller, by the way, who sometimes comes to Bennington as a visitor in Literature. She wrote a book for Icons on Hannah Arendt.
LB: The book contains a very detailed history of the subcontinent and the Bhutto family from Seat 208 to Benazir’s rise to power. What difficulties, if any, did you face collecting material from the multitude of languages spoken in the Indian Subcontinent?
BA: I didn’t encounter any difficulties, since the book was so short and limited in scope—not to say cursory. There is plenty of material in English, not to mention the many English-language newspaper and magazine articles in American, British, Pakistani and Indian publications. If it had been a full-length biography the research would have had to be much more extensive and I might indeed have run into some difficulties.
LB: In the book you analyze how Benazir’s autobiography Daughter of Destiny was a political agenda to gain the support of the West. As a Western reader, when you begin to think of a subject, how do you adapt with the sense of outsiderhood?
BA: I didn’t really feel “outsiderhood.” Benazir Bhutto was a player on the international political stage, and I treated her as a figure of international stature and importance, whose career had worldwide implications. She was also, to a certain extent, a product of the West, or at least of a Western education: she spent four years at Harvard and four at Oxford. Her autobiography was extremely dishonest and it was very easy to find omissions, lies, and exaggerations by cross-checking it with other material.
LB: As you mentioned in your book, Benazir was the first female Muslim leader. Thousands of girls still look up to her. Young Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai called her an inspiration. What are your thoughts on how she has empowered the younger female generation in the Muslim world?
BA: There is no question that her example has been tremendously empowering for women in Muslim countries. There are of course reasons why she was able to rise to the top while others probably could not. For one thing, there is a tradition in all of South Asia for women to pick up the political torch from male family members who have died. This has happened in India, Bangladesh, and previously in Pakistan, when Fatima Jinnah continued in politics after the death of her brother, the nation’s founding father. Benazir Bhutto was rich, westernized, highly educated, and the daughter of a popular prime minister who was the victim of a judicial murder by a military dictator. Still, her example was certainly galvanizing and inspiring. and her charisma remarkable. And it cannot be said too often that she was incredibly courageous, undergoing years in prison and risking her life again and again. Her eventual assassination was probably inevitable.
LB: The book contains interviews with key figures who knew Bhutto and had never spoken about her on record before. How did they respond to your request to interview them?
BA: The friends of Benazir’s who spoke to me were friendly and forthcoming. Some of them I already knew! Benazir was of my own generation and had attended university in the US and England, so predictably we had some friends in common. They were all aware that Benazir was very far from being a perfect politician but they had all retained great affection for her and felt, I think, protective of her posthumous reputation.
LB: Did you make any research trips to Pakistan? How was your experience?
BA: Alas, I did not go to Pakistan! I had planned to go there at the invitation of one of my former Bennington students, Ali Fateh Khwaja, over that FWT but my husband had to have surgery so that was a wash.
LB: When did you first start feeling comfortable calling yourself a writer?
BA: I’ve never had any particular discomfort calling myself a writer.
LB: There was a study done once about the different ways people read that showed that for some people, the words fall away and the scene plays out like a movie; for others, all they see is the words. Which are you?
BA: That depends what it is!!! If if is a work of literary theory, let’s say, I see just words on the page and fairly impenetrable ones at that. If it is a good novel or even a work of history, the scene plays out like a movie. That is an interesting distinction….I’d never thought of it that way before.
LB: How do you organize your books?
BA: Every book is different. My first two were collections of literary essays I’d already published elsewhere, so I simply pulled them together. In Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers, I came up with a structure that the publisher and I were perfectly pleased with, but just as the book was going to press a friend of mine suggested switching the first and last chapters! He turned out to be right….Who knew? Every book is different, I think.
LB: Are there any biographies you are reading now? Other political figures that you’re thinking of now and might want to write about in the future?
BA: Yes! I just finished with The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War. An amazing secret history of the Cold War; every American should read it! Also I’m reading a biography of the empress Theodora—great. No political figures I plan to write about in the future, at least not yet!