October 01, 2015

From The Archive of Interviews: The Pakistani Book Blogger

Wasio Ali Khan runs the online website Digital Saeen, where he blogs about books, literary events and all things literature related. 

When did you officially start Digital Saeen?
I began the project at the beginning of this year, sometime around late January/early February. 

So are there other people working with you on this blog or do you handle all the social media on your own?
I’m managing all of it alone. I wanted to keep it in a certain direction; if there were others involved, it would need to be converted into a commercial venture, and I’m just not interested in that right now. The purpose is to promote local fiction and so far I’m managing it myself so I can keep it focused.

Do you ever get any funding?
No, it’s completely self-funded, but Liberty Books has sent books for me for a fair review in return. That was how I got around to reviewing Omar Shahid Hamid’s The Spinner’s Tale. This can be pretty helpful in writing about the latest releases. I am also working on a review for Anis Shivani’s Karachi Raj.
The thing is, I doubt this will continue, because in the next few weeks I’ll be leaving for UK for a MA writing program. I plan to continue to read and review and work on my blog from there, but let’s see what happens with the funding.

What’s the best part of owning your own book blog?
The biggest advantage is the complete freedom, of course. I can write however I like, there is no diction on the nature of reviews. I basically have no compulsion to be polite or caring to any author, I can write a fair review that I feel the author deserves. For example there was this fiction novel The Breath of Death which received quite a lot of negative reviews because of its ending. When I reviewed it, I focused on the ending but also on the fact that it’s well written. I can actually do that without being biased, and I can maintain my own persona while writing. Also, my blog focuses on writings from Pakistan and Pakistani authors, particularly the ones who are writing in English. This is a niche market in Pakistan and needs a lot of support for growth. 

Why choose this name? What’s the reason behind calling it Digital Saeen?
The word came naturally. I belong to a landowning family and my background is of rural Sindh. Saeen (Sir, sahab, lord etc) is used commonly for respect in those areas. Since I mostly use social media, my online persona is of a ‘Digital Wadeira’, so the term Digital Saeen seemed most appropriate. Also, I wanted to reclaim the word Saeen into the literate world because most urbanites in Pakistan do not associate the word with a positive image.

On your website you have set up a rating system for books as well. How did you devise it?
I use a few indicators for the rating. These include characters, dialogues, story, setting and various other factors such as genre and uniqueness of the voice. Non-fiction books are rated using a separate criterion.https://ssl.gstatic.com/ui/v1/icons/mail/images/cleardot.gif

What do you think of the current scene of book writing in Pakistan?
Book writing in Pakistan has, I think, entered into a decay period. The writing in Urdu has dwindled considerably whereas the writing in English seems to be picking up. Sadly enough, the writings in other languages haven't had any meaningful impact. Book writing holds promise for those writing in English as they are exposed to readers both in Pakistan and abroad, so it’s more financially viable. The same can’t be said for Urdu and even though there is dedicated readership for Urdu, many have switched to Urdu books for purely religious reasons and fiction books are not much appreciated.

What about that of book publishing?
Unfortunately most Pakistani books written in English are published in India rather than in Pakistan. India has a larger readership base, they have curiosity about Pakistan (other than the oft-repeated terrorism) and they are enthralled by the connection they have culturally with our people. Fiction book publishing is nearly non-existent in Pakistan and there are no publishing agents dedicated to finding talent and promoting it. Any writer who wishes to publish his English book in Pakistan can ONLY self-publish, pay out of his/her pocket and then market it all on their own. It's not only frustrating but also a financial burden few are willing to take upon themselves.
Urdu publishing is still there but even that is skewed towards religious books, though some poetry is still published.

What is your opinion about the kind of readers we have in Pakistan?
Pakistani readers are, unfortunately, few in numbers. They are completely cut off from the reading industry and have only heard the names of the authors in most cases. A Pakistani reader can be categorized in two major groups: One group is the English reader and the other is a non-English reader (Some are hybrid but that's another case). English readers are heavily exposed to foreign literature and are often unwilling to read local authors simply because of the fear that they may not match the level of fiction-competency foreign authors possess. Non-English ones usually prefer a certain genre that unfortunately always veers off towards religion, in one form or the other. That skewed perception, created over several decades, has resulted in decline in authorship and the kind of writing-innovation Urdu language was famous for in the previous century.

How many book launches have you attended? What were they like?
I’ve attended several, I can’t really count. Most were small gatherings which were pretty well organized, usually held at a cultural spot (Liberty Books, BBQ Tonight basement, T2F, Literature Festivals). Most work the usual way, a moderator introduces the author, his/her works and then the book itself. There are a few questions about the book and the experience of writing it, some segments of the book the author wants to highlight. Sometimes the author reads a passage of two and then there’s a Q&A session with the audience. The format remains largely remained unchanged.

Do you know of any active reading groups in Pakistan?  
I am part of two reading groups. One is known as the Desi Writers Lounge (DWL) and the other is The Readers' Avenue (TRA). DWL is quite professional and includes those who have published books before. TRA is a more casual group, like old friends meeting to discuss a book. Both groups have their own charms.

There’s been a recent revival of the trend of literature festivals in the country. Tell me a little about the literature festivals you’ve attended. Do you think they contribute to reader growth?
I have attended four so far, all of them in Karachi. The best one was KLF 2013, where they took it to a whole new level as foreign journalists, local and foreign authors and even dignitaries took part. The event was never this lively before and I feel it has so far failed to match that level again.
And yes, literature festivals definitely contribute to the growth of readership. You come to know about so many new works of local and foreign authors that might otherwise elude you. Also, finding yourself among so many readers also contributes to the need to do some reading yourself.

What would you say needs to happen in Pakistan in order to increase readership?
Two steps:
1) Create a reason to read
2) Create the content that would entice the reader
Most cases fail to address both. Many people write stories that local people are not interested in reading or aren't bothered about reading at all. Some topics are not addressed properly and taken at face value (this book is about ISI and this about Jihad, so it must be good/bad etc). Like a movie has a trailer, a book must have the right excerpt and similarly a dedication to promotion. Without the right promotion, no one would be willing to take out time to not only buy but also read the story.

What is the worst part of being a Pakistani who is passionate about reading?
You are unable to associate with most of the people around you, and this also includes family. A lot of passionate readers are such that they are the only ones at their homes who love reading and there are always financial considerations/household commitments that prevent them from being a passionate reader. Many end up being considered an outcast and even a time-waster, someone who is wasting time by reading useless books and not doing something practical that will help in life.

What is the best part?
You get to experiment and not get stuck with a certain genre. The readership is small but quite diverse, and no two readers have the same tastes.