October 18, 2015

From The Archive of Interviews: The Pakistani Book Club

KHIBookSwap is a Karachi-based book club which has monthly meet-ups which involve book discussions, eager recommendations and of course, book swapping. 

How did KHibookswap start? Why did you start it?

Farman Shams: I started KHIBookSwap back in 2014. 16th August, to be very precise. Why I started it is an interesting question. The basic idea of this book club is to gather all the people I know via social media websites like Facebook and Twitter and explore new genres together.

Ifrah Waqar: I think the thought process started long ago when I moved back to Pakistan. Since I’m a book worm, I went out in my city and looked for book clubs and couldn’t find a single sincere one. There were a lot of people from diverse walks of life in the clubs I found, but I only saw talks, and nothing about books. So ultimately, I knew that if I wanted a decent book club I’d have to do something on my own, but I never actually took a step until the wonderful day when Farman Shams entered into my life. I knew him via Twitter and he’s very much into setting meet-ups, bringing people together, and he invited me to a book meet-up. Unfortunately in the very first meet-up there were literally only three people, but on the way to the meeting I had this crazy idea, and when we finally met I asked him if he would be interested in establishing a book club, a serious one, and he said, “Why not?”  
I’ve always liked the idea of swapping books. Maybe there’s a book you’ve read and you really want others to read, or maybe there’s a book that you liked but you know you’re never going to read it again, so you can exchange it for a book you have been meaning to read. So I came up with the idea of a book-swapping book club and Voila! That’s how it became Karachi Book Swap

What is the best part of being in a book club?

Fizza Malik: Reading is like gaining experience. You get to see the world from a different perspective. What I absolutely love about part of being a book club is that in one meet-up you can get your hands on so many experiences. Plus it really motivates you to keep on reading.

Areeba Siddique: The best part for me would be PEOPLE. I like human interaction more than anything and talking to human beings about the thing I love doing most (reading) is totally a win-win for me! I've come across amazing people through this book club. We're like a family now, everyone knows each other, and we’re practically book-ish rishtedar.

Maham Zafar: I can discuss books with them of course! And also, the feeling of belonging. We can discuss our obsessive reading habits with each other without hesitation.

Zeeshan Ahmed: The feeling that you have an 'immediate' family, which you can contact with whenever you feel like talking about a book. It's just like knowing there is a family out there, which are bonded by their love for books, and where you can share all your book-related musings and discuss those. 

What kind of stuff have you read because of KHIbookswap?

Farman Shams: Usually Urdu books. I read my first Urdu book Zavia cause I swapped it with Fizza Malick, a member of this group. I read Shoba De's Speedpost which I swapped from Rejah, another member. So it was because of this book club that I encountered my first Urdu book as well as my first book by an Indian author.    

Areeba Siddique: Psychological thrillers. I love mystery and thrillers but I had never tried Psychological thriller before. I even started reading Gone Girl but put it down because Nick was too lame but then Ifrah, who is also the co-founder of the club, and Faiza Yousaf, who’s our loveliest member, told me pick it up and I LOVE this book now, I can't believe I even put it down before.

Noor Unnahar Siddique:  More of philosophy. I was into YA & crime fiction before I became a part of this club. All members loved Paulo Coelho and Khalid Hosseini so I gave this genre a shot and fell in love with it.

Natasha Khalid: Nonfiction and loved it!

Jadirah Sarmad: I have made several mental notes based on recommendations by the KHIBookSwap people and I can't wait for KIBF to shop my heart out. Recently, read Manuscript Found In Accra thanks to Noor for lending it and Farman and Ifrah for recommending it because I am not much of a Coelho fan otherwise, but I loved this one. 

Zeeshan Ahmed: While I have always had love for diverse genres, what KHIBookSwap did was to help me rediscover genres that I had known. Also, KHIBookSwap helped me realize that people apart from me are also into diverse genres. Which is honestly a cool thing! 

So how does this group work?

Farman Shams: We meet every month to discuss books according to the decided genre of the month. Every member shares their review of the book and in the end we swap books if any member wants to.

Ifrah Waqar: It’s a simple book club. We have a Facebook group, a Whatsapp group for our active members, we do genre cycles, we do activities, secret Santas. The idea, the objective, is to make people read and also to get to know what others are reading.

What is the best memory you have associated with this group?

Farman Shams: I am always happy to see a new member join our book club and I still can't forget when I met Fizza Malick for the first time at our first meet up. We were only 3 people at the meet up, me, Ifrah and Fizza and we were all so lost in our conversation that we forget to order food. 

Ifrah Waqar: Often during our book club meetings there comes a point when everyone is active, everyone is talking and cutting in to each other. It’s a very “Menay jo book parhi us k baray mein suno, forget about the world” type of environment, we start interrupting each other’s sentences because we want to talk about our books, or if the person in front of you is talking about a book you’ve read you’re eager to give your opinion about it. I think that’s the best part, where we can’t help but get overwhelmed.

What genre do you think readers in Pakistani are interested in?

Ifrah Waqar: Unfortunately in our country buying a book is not easy because you don’t have a lot of local vendors or indie book stores, so it’s hard to find the right kind of books, so I think people here only read titles that are famous already. That’s something I’ve noticed in my own club and when I was searching into other clubs as well. We only read books when a movie comes along or when a book is making headlines.

Areeba Siddique: Too much Adult Fiction! It makes me very sad that some people I know have only read one book which is either The Fault In Our Stars or Fifty Shades Of Grey out of curiosity. Other books such as famous Urdu novels that are usually from monthly digests (Khawateen digest or Shuwa ) also have strong fandoms.

Fatema Sadiq: I believe it is fiction and mostly romance because there are a large number of Urdu readers too and most of the famous monthly digests cater to Romance and now that the novels are being scripted, the writers of the same genre are becoming famous. These digests have readership even in remote areas where other forms of literature are hardly available.

Jadirah Sarmad: So far I have gathered that there is no limit to it, Pakistanis are for the most part quite open-minded, at least the reader lot, and I don't feel there's anything that we are specifically drawn towards.

Do you know of any other book clubs in Pakistani or Karachi? Are you a part of them?

Farman Shams: I know of TRA (The Readers Avenue) and DWL (Desi Writers Lounge). I am a part of both these clubs.  

Fatema Sadiq: No I am neither aware nor a part of any other book club in Karachi.

Maham Zafar: I know about The Book Club of Karachi and I'm a member. But it's an e-club. Restricted to Facebook and written posts. They've never had a meet up, none that I'm aware of. 

Jadirah Sarmad: I do, I actually knew about the Book Club of Karachi since the time it started as it was made by one of my friends and they had this Facebook group where we all interacted and they even had a couple meetings, but lately it hasn't been active.

What is the best part about being a reader in Pakistan?

Farman Shams: I guess best part for being a reader in Pakistan that we get cheap pirated books easily. 

Maham Zafar: You get to experience both English and Urdu literature. Books are easily available to those who seek them.

Zeeshan Ahmed: I think being a Pakistani reader should expose you to the vast literature we have inherited. Take Urdu fiction for example, and take it back centuries. Let it be poetry or prose. It is filled with such varied class. Ironically, this is exactly the thing an average Pakistani reader remains ignorant about.

What is the worst part?

Ifrah Waqar: I can’t find books. Either they’re expensive, or they’re not available. There are only a couple of sources you can buy books from. And even if sometimes a book comes along that you really want to read and are willing to spend a lot of money on, you generally can’t find it. A couple of local vendors say they’ll ship it for you but if I had to do that, I would just Amazon it.

Maham Zafar: It's considered an activity for the elite. Very few people read and the ones that don't hold very discouraging attitudes towards people who do read. 

Natasha Khalid: There are very few readers. People usually associate you with the words nerd or boring if you tell them you read as a hobby. 

Jadirah Sarmad: I can't think of any. I mean we have access to a vast variety of books from all around the globe and there's nothing I can complain about. 

Zeeshan Ahmed: The narrative, the one found in state textbooks, often hinders a reader to go beyond what is being 'suggested'. While this is slowly changing, its effects can still be seen. 

Do you think readers in Pakistan read Pakistani fiction?

Ifrah Waqar: I think that the landscape has dramatically changed over the last few years. People weren’t reading Pakistani fiction, but all of a sudden thanks to Twitter and Instagram they are turning towards it.

Areeba Siddique: I think many people do. Hashim Nadeem is a prominent fiction writer (who also happens to be my favorite) and all of my friends love his books. His book Abdullah, both part 1 & 2, is very famous.

Noor Unnahar Siddique: Yes. It's a popular genre. Many Pakistani dramas we watch on television (the one based on novels) come from the same category. They are appreciated by the women of the family and have a lot of young readers/watchers.

In what ways does this group encourage reading?

Fizza Malik: KHIBookSwap has amazing book angels, they gift books all the time, they give insights into new genres and not only that, we compare and contrast books and movies all the time so that’s an awesome way to encourage reading too!

Noor Unnahar Siddique: Book-swapping. Since everyone in the book club is book-friendly, there isn't any chance for your book to get damaged too. So when you can freely lend and borrow books, it encourages you to read more.

Fatema Sadiq: As a new member all I can say is that the selection of the genre of the month is a great way to make people read at least one book a month. The prospect of discussing the book with the fellows has the power to lure people into reading.

Natasha Khalid: When you sit amongst 15 people discussing a writer or book, you want to read each one of the books people are quoting from. Also at times people here gift books to others as a recommendation and that is always a motivation to read. When someone tells you reading a certain book changed their life, you really want to read it and find out what is it about. 

What would you say needs to happen in Pakistani in order to increase interest in reading?

Fizza Malik: A miracle, I guess.

Farman Shams: I think we need more book clubs here. I recently got to know that there are not many book clubs in Lahore, Peshawar and Islamabad. Only DWL do their monthly meet ups in Lahore & Islamabad. So there’s definitely a lack of them in this country.

Ifrah Waqar: A very simple answer: Increase book vendors, increase book stores. Start opening indie stores. Just make books more accessible to the reader. Yes, I agree that parents do need to inculcate reading in their children from a young age but when regular readers can’t find books themselves, talking about encouraging and supporting and growing readership becomes pointless.

Areeba Siddique: More good books by Pakistani authors because you can't really relate to a book unless it relates to you. I feel like Pakistani writers should be writing more of the books that people, especially young readers, relate with so that they will get start reading more and more. 

Noor Unnahar Siddique: More book exhibitions and city-level book conferences/meetings with authors. This way, people from every walk of life will be introduced to new writers and an interest of reading will spark, gradually.

Natasha Khalid: We need to work on a primary level. The reading habit, if developed early, helps you later. Schools should hold such meeting amongst their students. More book clubs in schools. Book stores with library. As for adults increasing the number of book clubs will only benefit the people.