Home and Loss: Kaye Miller in Conversation with Kanza Javed

Kanza Javed

Kanza Javed, whose story “Worry Doll” appears in The Malahat Review's winter issue #217, talks with Malahat Review work study student Kaye Miller about relationships, letting characters roam freely, and how as a writer you never retire.

Read an excerpt of “Worry Doll” here.


Kanza Javed is the author of the best-selling novel Ashes, Wine and Dust. Her work has appeared in American Literary Review, The Punch Magazine, Salamander Magazine and The Greensboro Review. Her short story, "Rani," won the 2020 Reynolds Price Prize for Short Fiction (Center for Women's Writing, Salem College). Her work was also selected as a finalist for The 51st New Millennium Award for Fiction and The Robert Watson Literary Prize 2021 (Greensboro Review Literary Awards).

“Worry Doll” follows Zara as she adjusts to a new life in America, where her husband is starting his PhD. She is unable to work or pursue a degree as she is on a dependent-spouse visa. She seems to experience a great amount of grief in leaving Pakistan, and mourns her old life, traditions, and friends in Karachi. How does the theme of loss interplay with the notion of home in this story?

It is a strange kind of unsaid, unspoken loss Zara encounters in this story. It is a grief and loss which “ought” to be suppressed inside you because it does not make sense if it is spoken out loud. Leaving home did make sense to Zara and Babar, her husband, because tradition commands Zara build a home where Babar is. Life was “supposedly” going to be better in a first-world country. In an ideal setting, her home should be where the love of her life is. People become homes. But it is the nothingness, the stillness in a new place with Babar that causes Zara to unravel, arrive at an unannounced epiphany, and open Pandora’s Box of questions. Questions of marriage, reasons for marrying, leaving home, building a new one, finding friends, and so on. So, I guess the theme of loss and home are interconnected ideas. The story asks and tries to answer questions such as what is a home? Is it a good relationship if it thrives in one country and dwindles in another? How do we weigh relationships? What is a compromise? How do we make friends when we are adults? Why do people leave home in the first place? Is it really loss what Zara is encountering? How much should we try in new places and new relationships? When do we resign?

Zara and her friend Nitu share the experience of being a “Dependent-Visa Wife” to their working husbands, and much of their new lives are spent chasing agency. What kind of role did you want their relationship to play?

I did not want anything when I began writing. There was a mystery there for me, as a writer. I wanted to create these two characters, a little bit antithetical to one another, and allow them to unspool on paper. Roam freely and surprise me. I took a gardener’s approach. I planted a seed and waited. I did not know what Nitu would do, but I knew what she would not do, and that was to become Zara. It only made sense. Zara had to feel lost and small, and snowed-in by feelings which she could not register or relay. And that is what happens in real life and relationships. Sometimes, you look for companions in friends living a shared experience but are unable to match frequency, and remain lonely.

Central to this story is the resonant, titular image of the worry doll. At what stage did you come up with this metaphor—did you build the story up around it, or did it come later?

I definitely built my story around it. It was a very conscious thing. I was encountering a strange kind of physical and mental displacement during my third year in the M.F.A. program in Morgantown, West Virginia. I had developed a difficult relationship with sleep. I either slept a lot or barely, and spent many nights writing or walking endlessly. Mindlessly.

One of my friends, Michael, took me to an opening of a fair-trade store downtown. We were looking for things from Pakistan at the little shop (there were none), and came across a basket full of Guatemalan worry dolls. It was a fascinating find. It was a metaphor for so many things. Ironically, all the worry dolls in the basket were women and girls. In grad school parties and soirées, I would meet wives of foreign PhD candidates who had followed their husband to the states on a spouse visa and often spoke of missing home or finding ways to pass time. Attaining a visa and checking requirements and limitations, and getting into the whole “Is this legal? Is that legal for me? Can I not work as a waitress over the summer?” was a conversation I have had with myself multiple times.

Somehow, the worry doll metaphor, these women I met, the conversations we had and the alienation I encountered during lonely Christmas and Thanksgiving break gelled into one and metaphorized into a story.

I did not purchase the doll but Mike gifted me one, a week later, and I did the whole ritual of telling her my worries and placing her underneath my pillow. I slept better. I won’t lie.

You are both a novelist and an awarded short story writer—“Worry Doll” was a finalist for the 51st New Millennium Writing Award! Where do you find inspiration for your stories?

Fortunately, I do not have to actively find ideas or inspirations. I am surrounded by them. As a writer, your mind absorbs a lot. You listen a lot. You ask a lot of questions—from people and yourself. I can get an idea from a careless sentence a friend callously tosses over a dinner table, by having talks with a street vendor about the rising prices of fruit in Pakistan, or I can read a good book and think of a common theme that I, too, wish to explore in a different way. Your mind is always working as a writer. You never retire.

I carry a diary with me at all times to preserve ideas. The pages are full of random things. Names which are symbolic and could be used for future characters, what I witnessed while driving back from work, something a student said in class, kinds of trees, types of birds perched on a tree, etc.

What other themes do you like exploring in your writing? Are there any you haven’t yet explored, but would like to?

“Worry Doll” is part of my second book. The book narrates the lives of Pakistani women and men settled in Pakistan and the US. The stories offer vignettes into the lives of characters who burn and resurrect from fires (metaphorical and literal). The characters unspool lives laced with societal oppression, suffocating inherited traditions, and perplexing new worlds and biases, all the while asking questions of identity, agency, belonging and loss. These are the themes I am currently exploring.


Kaye Miller

Kaye Miller

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