“People are writing about drone strikes, for instance. They really want to write about drone strikes because apparently that is very important. They are writing about terrorism because that is very important. They internalize the stuff that they see on television as ‘important’, and they think that this is what we need to be writing about. In both the cases, what you really want them to think about is what is important to them as people, things they actually avoid confronting in themselves and through that a larger reality.”
Writing Pakistan is the sort of book I would never have read a few years ago. That’s because the person I was a few years ago didn’t really give a damn about Pakistani literature, beyond complaining about how little of it there was, and how uninteresting it all felt. Like a greater number of the English-taught, private school kids that Pakistan breeds, I grew up on Sweet Valley and Hardy Books, on Famous Five and Secret Seven, books which featured no Muslims, Pakistanis, or people of my skin tone, and certainly did not contain any similarities to the reality that I inhabited.
But during my undergrad I decided to make an active effort to read Pakistani literature, because I knew nothing about it and I figured I should. And of course, in retrospect the lessons are obvious: there is a lot more literature being produced by my country than I had originally thought, and a lot of it is much more interesting than I had imagined.
There still isn’t a Sweet Valley equivalent, and in my defense this particular ‘boom’ in the production of literature from Pakistan is still a fledgling thing, but there’s a lot more of it than I had expected. Which means that books like this (which aren't the literature itself but talk about it at great length) are great for encouraging a much-needed debate around the whole endeavor.
“Fiction from Pakistan is not supposed to have artistic engagements–it’s required to provide information, not an experience.”
Contained in this book are interviews with some of Pakistan’s bigger names, authors who have achieved a degree of fame both locally as well as abroad. Conducted by Mushtaq Bilal, all interviews were condensed to 20 pages or less of text, and followed a pretty flexible set of questions, sometimes meandering onto details the authors wished to spend their time lingering over except for when Bilal steered it back to the topic. A few questions he repeated to almost all the authors: that of using English as a medium of expression, the post-colonial label attached to Pakistani literature, and whether the authors believed they represented Pakistan. And almost all the authors responded in pretty much the same way: I use English because that’s what I’m comfortable with, I don’t care about the post-colonial label, and I don’t believe I can represent a whole country.
Of course, this wasn’t the only thing they talked about. Some obvious references to topics that I had been expecting came up: 9/11 and our relationship with USA, the concept of pandering to a select audience, how politics affects writing, and how religion affects writing are all things the authors made references to in their answers. And while some statements were pretty redundant or repetitive, there was some really interesting material in there which made the whole reading experience worth it.
“I do know that Pakistanis are very sensitive to their identities as Muslims because they are taught from a young age that Pakistan was founded for them as Muslims. So religious identity matters more to them than it might to a citizen of a country that has always had an organic Islamic identity.”
And while the answers to the questions mentioned above are the reason I wanted to read this book, it was also fascinating to have an in-depth, one-on-one look at the authors I’ve spent the last few years reading. From Kamila Shamsie to Mohammad Hanif, or Bina Shah to Bilal Tanweer, almost all authors revealed something personal about the writing experience, something which was a comment on the greater publishing landscape while still being an intimate account of their own journey. Bapsi Sidhwa’s discussions about the publication of her novel The Crow Eaters could be a comment on how acceptance of Pakistani literature from abroad leads to acceptance from within the country as well.
“The Crow Eaters was self-published in Lahore because nobody abroad wanted to publish it. But after it was self-published, Jonathan Cape in England published it and it got nice reviews and won the David Higham prize, and then it got wonderful press in Lahore too.”
Similarly, Musharruf Ali Farooqi spoke in detail about the Urdu publishing industry, a topic that doesn’t usually get much traction in debates about Pakistani literature, given the oft-quoted and highly controversial decline in the popularity of said language. Farooqi talked about how in Urdu literature tradition you would only be considered a proper writer if you were not just a poet but also a letter writer, an essayist, a storyteller, all at the same time.
“I wanted to become a professional writer and although books written in Urdu sell in Pakistan and also in India, there is not an established Urdu publishing industry in either of the countries. There are no royalties (for books published in Urdu). You have to self-publish your books and then self-distribute them too.”
A few particular authors I was looking forward to reading, such as Kamila Shamsie, one of my favourite Pakistani authors who spoke true to form, smart and insightful in her commentary about both the country as well as the writing process. What I particularly like about Shamsie’s work, reflected in her three-dimensional female characters as well as in her thought process during interviews, is how smartly she speaks about issues pertaining to women and specifically to Pakistani women.
“Some of the strongest and most independent women in Pakistan are not upper class and some of the most oppressed women, in terms of their ideas of the world, are upper class.”
In some cases, a lone author would take a stance separate from the rest, such as in the issue of representation, because while almost every author believed that they couldn't carry the burden of representing the whole country, Mohsin Hamid spoke to the contrary. Almost all authors very firmly stated that they had not attempted to, and did not wish to be representatives of anything or anyone, but Hamid took a different route.
“After 9/11, I felt myself more of an intermediary. Not because I wanted to assert some kind of a ‘Hello world, allow me to explain, I am some privileged Pakistani…’ it was because I thought the misconception about Pakistan is so enormous and so dangerous that I have to, for my own sake, try to address and correct this.”
What was even more interesting was when the authors would talk about their very personal experiences of writing the book. In Pakistan each author has their very own publishing experience since we don’t have a proper industry, so it’s fascinating to see the paths each one has taken to achieving literary recognition. In some cases, such as with Uzma Aslam Khan, even the process of writing the book was worth discussing.
“Strangely, upon completion of each book, I have also found myself getting extremely sick. After The Geometry of God, I developed a problem with my ankle; after Thinner than Skin, with my knee. I still have these problems. It is very strange. It is as though I write with all of me, not simply the mind or the heart. I write with my ankles. I write with my knees.”
Unfortunately, it was hard to feel connected to authors whose works I haven’t read, since I had no context for the texts they were discussing. That might be part of the reason I’d put off reading this book for so long, given that I bought it at KLF two years back. It also explains why I wasn’t questioning the book for being outdated (in the sense that the authors questioned have published other works by now), since I delayed the reading of it myself.
Two years from when I bought this book, I’ve read all the authors except for two of them, whose interviews I predictably did not care for. Aamer Hussain (who sometimes had interesting things to say about the language he chose to write in) came off as confrontational and rude, regularly insulting the questions Mushtaq Bilal chose to ask. One wonders, is that a normal way to behave while being interviewed? It was such a bizarre experience, to have the interviewer’s questions be judged as so lacking. Shehryar Fazli (God, the spelling of his name kills every past version of me who got a misspelled certificate or legal document) was another author whose interview I almost skip read, because I haven’t read any of his books. Clearly it would have been better to read their books before jumping into this.
On the flip side, there are a number of famous Pakistani authors I’ve read who aren’t mentioned in this book: Bilal accounted for this by limiting his requirements. All authors not only had to be of Pakistani origin, their work also had to ‘present an active engagement with issues that are characteristically Pakistani’, they must have had some level of critical acclaim both locally as well as abroad, and finally, they had to produce literary fiction (thus excluding those of the genre fiction writing such as Shazaf Fatima Haider, Moni Mohsin, Saba Imtiaz, Omar Shahid Hamid, etc). Some who did fulfill the requirements Bilal missed for reasons he explained in detail: Nadeem Aslam’s literary agency claimed he was not available for an interview, H. M. Naqvi said he preferred to let his novel speak, Ali Sethi said he’d do the interview once his second book came out, Fatima Bhutto our interviewer couldn’t contact, Jamil Ahmad was in ill health, and Daniyal Mueenuddin apparently answered questions so inadequately that Bilal didn’t bother adding him in the final list. Other writers also fulfilled all the criteria except for one—that of their written work not dealing with contemporary Pakistani issues—including Tariq Ali and Zulfiqar Ghose, both prolific authors in their own rights.
The thing is, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this as engaging material for any reader. I obviously really liked it, but that’s because I have a vested interest in Pakistani literature, given how much time I spend reviewing it. And I’m glad that it has been published, because not only will it serve as great material for classroom discussions and reference material, we also need as much material as we can generate about our country’s literature output. But beyond that, would an average reader care much for this book? I doubt it. Frankly, the format and the content are not fascinating enough to urge me to recommend this to just about anyone.
And one final statement before I wrap it up: what in the world is up with that horrible cover design? As someone who works with books, I spend a lot of time engaged in heated discussions with our Design and Sales teams about what colour scheme, illustration, or design we will be using for our book’s covers. Given how much time I know publishing houses can spend finalizing these things, it’s amazing to me that such a boring cover got approved. I guess one can never really learn all there is to know about the publishing process.