October 22, 2018

Of Amateurs and Anthologies: Austenistan is not worth the effort


I think pretty much the only interesting thing about this collection of short stories is the name of this anthology. Austenistan might be an obvious play with words, but it’s still charming and it makes the intent clear–a Pakistani version of Austen’s stories. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much the only time anyone can enjoy anything at all in this pitiful excuse of an anthology, since the stories themselves are just so awful.

Composed of seven stories, you would think at least one of the entries would have the decency to provide good writing, and yet. The foreword from Catherine Jane Knight, founder and chair of the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation, doesn’t provide any support either. Unlike forewords which talk about the content within, which seek to add on to the material by providing context, or a look at the background which led to the book’s publication, over here it feels like Ms Knight wrote the foreword without actually reading the stories contained within. Not only does she provide a generic statement about the stories prove that Pakistani society reflects Austen’s work, she also uses the opportunity to promote her own Literacy Foundation’s charity work. The blatant campaigning for aid is both irritating and liable to leave a bad taste in the mouth of the reader, even before they’ve read a single story. 

I think pretty much the only thing worth recommending these stories is the fact that our Pakistani protagonists suffer from the same expectations and enforced roles as those imposed on Austen’s heroines. However, that’s more of a blanket statement rather than a compliment to the series itself, since this is a fact undeniable. While our writers manage to bring this point across pretty clearly in how women are expected to behave, what was needed was a more nuanced, better-written expression of this very fact. While the mother in the first story (The Fabulous Banker Boys by Mahlia S Lone) worries about her daughter’s personality in much the same way Mrs Bennett clucked over Elizabeth Bennett’s stubbornness, the rest of the disappointing story ruins the effect of this similarity.

Then came Elisha, her father’s pet, with bucket-loads of independence, spirit, and strong personality. No man likes a headstrong and blunt wife, she thought. However, she had to admit that the girl knew her own mind and wasn’t needy. I must teach her to at least appear more subservient and pliant. 

I think one of the limitations of this anthology was that the writers felt the need to encompass all of Austen’s tale from beginning to end within the short word length assigned to them. While the hero and heroine usually take the space of a whole novel to get together, in these stories they are forced to resolve their issues in too short a time for us to care about them. Lone’s version of Elizabeth Bennett’s meeting with Mr Darcy at a party ends with them having cleared all misunderstandings by the end of the story. On its own, the story could be a great representation of Pakistani society. As an adaptation of Austen’s most beloved title, it fails spectacularly, showing us all the places where the author cannot manage to rise to Austen’s level. 

The second story, an adaptation of Lady Susan (one of Austen’s lesser known works, which was never submitted by the author for publication herself), makes the mistake of being an adaptation. On its own, writer Nida Elley’s Begum Saira Returns could have been a fabulous look at a woman who doesn’t restrict herself to the social constructs within which women are expected to live. Slightly departing from the original work, Elley has sketched an image of a women who has always reached for what she has wanted shamelessly, a character trait that is so rare as to be almost invisible in Pakistani female protagonists. However, the vague morality of our character’s actions get lost in trying to trace Austen’s words and actions in our story. In this case, on its own the story could have stood up on its own two feet, maybe. As an Austen adaptation, it’s no good. 

Rumours began circulating that the young bride was being too flirtatious with some of the other women’s husbands. Of course, nobody ever blamed the man, Saira thought, not considered them capable of initiating these flirtations.

Of course, all of the stories feature at least some sort of commentary on the inherent misogyny of Pakistani society, or on the sexism of the marriage traditions we follow. Unfortunately, things that resonated in Austen’s work feel like they lack any depth whatsoever in this collection. This is true even for the characters themselves, who are mostly vain and generally tedious. The wit that is so obvious in Austen’s stories is so very lacking here that it’s like the writers weren’t even trying. Ships that we have all shipped so ardently in Pride and Prejudice or Emma barely elicit any sparks on these pages. In Emaan Ever After by Mishayl Naek, we already know she’s going to end up with Haroon, the Mr Knightly to her Emma, but in this format, the feeling that this is the guy we want our heroine to ultimately end up with is barely there. That might have something to do with the fact that Emaan, like all the other characters in this story, sounds like a vapid, highly spoilt, and ultimately boring character for whom we care not a single bit. Divorced and living with her father, our Pakistani Emma spends her days using teenage text speak and making bad life decisions. Not impressive at all. 

It was ridiculous that instead of thinking of a career – finally – that might actually mean something to me, I was moping over a boy.

Usually, when I review something I try to concentrate on the work and not the writer, because I’m overall a believer in the Roland Barthes idea of a dead author. Unfortunately, for these stories it’s hard not to see the shallow, one-dimensional characters as anything less than a chance for the author to show off about the number of brand names they know. With the exception of only a few stories, almost all these entries feature at least fifteen different situations in which a person’s wardrobe from the top to the bottom is described in terms of which brands they are wearing, right down to which perfume they smell like. Frankly, it’s all kinds of amazing that this anthology managed to gather so many female writers who belong to the tiny 1 percent of Pakistan’s ultra-rich community. Either that, or there must have been some condition put forth before these stories were submitted that ensured that each and every single of them had some unhealthy obsession with major international brands. Nonetheless, the idea that these are authors born with golden spoons in their mouths is overwhelming and eventually a little chafing: It’s fine to read about the super wealthy in one story, or even two, but by the fifth one it’s hard not to roll your eyes at the description of Valentino sandals or honeymoon plans in Seychelles. The Mughal Empire by Saniyya Gauhar had great potential, imagining the repercussions of the Darcy-Elizabeth marriage on Miss Bingley, whose affection for Darcy had been well known, and who now faces the shame of being so publically ignored for someone whom she considers below her station. This premise had an interesting appeal, but unfortunately the chunks of paragraph obsessed with each item of a person’s clothing managed to turn this into a really bad execution. 

Here, she had bought Erum luxuries that most girls could only dream of: handbags from Hermes, Chanel, Bottega Veneta and Prada; shoes for every possible occasion in an assortment of styles and colours from Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin, Jimmy Choo, Saint Laurent, Roger Vivier and Dior; lingerie from Rigby & Peller, Agent Provocateur and Le Perla, and a designer wardrobe from some of the finest stores on Sloane Street.

Some stories barely have anything from Austen novels, using a random line from within the novels to set up a completely different premise and setting. The Autumn Ball by Gayathri Warnasuriya is another story that would have done better on its own, rather than as an adaptation. The problem with being an adaptation is that we then start looking for how it connects to the original. Warnasuriya takes one line about dancing from Pride and Prejudice to sketch a tale of a woman in a slightly unhappy marriage, whose desire to dance keeps getting thwarted by her bore of a husband. As a recently married woman trying to figure out the intricacies of a romantic relationship, I have a warm affinity for stories which feature complex husband-and-wife interactions. Unfortunately, my expectation of Austen’s touch ruined my enjoyment of Warnasuriya’s writing. 

She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, it was all so much more complicated than she thought marriage would be.

This trend of a random line from P&P serving as the basis of a completely new story continues in Sonya Rehman’s Only the Deepest Love–as an aside, I think all these authors should first be told what an adaptation actually means. In this short story, we have our protagonist Samina, who is worried about her younger cousin Sobia’s contentious sex life post-marriage while trying to juggle her own family and work drama. While on the one hand the author brings up a number of important issues, the problem is that she brings up too many topics in too short a time, making it all too fleeting and pointless to actually hit their mark. Gay husband, abusive landowner’s son, privileged and spoiled students, family abuse, second marriages and their effects on children, all this gets mentioned for a period so transitory it weakens the overall narrative. Even the romance feels badly developed and rushed through, making me believe that maybe a longer word length might serve this author better. One major point that this story gained and then subsequently lost was it’s lgbtq+ representation, where the existence of a gay husband and how the wife deals with the revelation of his sexuality could have used more nuanced attention. Instead what you have is an abrupt, hasty ending, as well as a blatantly stereotypical representation of the gay character as a twirly, quirky figure, in what was a remarkable lack of sensitivity to the marginalized group the author was trying to represent. 

‘Sobia’s been fretting all day, Sam,’ Asad said jovially, like an Aunt jokingly complaining about her silly daughter, ‘She was like oh my God oh my God oh my Goddddd, Sam’s sooooooo not going to make it! But I was like tsk tsk, don’t be stupid jaanu, of course she will! And look! Here you are!’ With that Asad did a little twirl, waving his spatula in the air like a wand.

I think I was hoping that the last entry, written by the editor of this anthology, would have been the saving grace of this fiasco, but it was not to be. A story better suited to the capable hands of someone like Sophie Kinsella or Jane Costello falls apart over here: in Laaleen Sukhera’s On The Verge, Roya, who has broken off her engagement to rich but fickle ‘Princey’ (it’s hard to believe that’s an actual name of a character), plans to attend a ball on the day when her fated wedding would have happened. I would tell you what happens next, but the truth is that I didn’t really care, even while forcing myself to read till the end. It was as boring to read as it will be to recount, and masochism is not my thing. Ironically enough, the only character I liked in this story was Myra, the no-nonsense older sister to our air-headed heroine, who barely appears in the narrative. Maybe if we had focused less on our imbecile of a protagonist, and more on female characters who suffer no fools, the story could have redeemed itself. 

Myra had decided to pursue a career early in life and barely got the time to meet men, plus she had almost no patience for fools, which was the commodity largely on offer.

It’s really sad that this anthology doesn’t translate into literature worth reading, because even a casual reader can easily see that Austen’s stories have a very strong parallel to subcontinental traditions, particularly our fixation with families and marriages. Unfortunately, this aspect of social expectation is unable to translate into the sort of biting irony and acerbic commentary Austen had to offer. The writing in Austenistan is awkward and heavily dependent on clichés or slang phrases, in what can only be seen as a ridiculous attempt to make the stories seem contemporary. Punctuation is also a mess, with misplaced commas ensuring that my poor editorial heart is in a constant state of pain. One of my major pet peeves, that of the italicization of the desi word, also happens liberally throughout the book, and while I understand that those things are usually dependant more on the publisher’s style policy, it still serves to irritate me to no end. There’s also the fact that with seven authors and seven titles written by Austen, surely it would have been a smart move to split the stories seven ways in terms of adaptations? Instead we find that the most famous child, Pride and Prejudice, is once again given the most attention. Unfortunately, the reasons for which I loved P&P are completely lacking in this anthology: not only do we not see the kind of complex female relationships that I was exposed to in P&P, what I had to face was a backlash of severe misogyny in a number of myriad ways. And one of my most hated tropes, that of the evil female character being described as indulging in excessive makeup, reared its ugly head quite regularly: 

Emane was a socialite who attended ladies’ committee lunches by day and snorted coke by night. She had ash blonde extensions with a bulbous trout pout and was wearing a sequined Moschino Pepto-Bismol pink mini dress with a crotch-skimming slit that revealed an inch of a Spanx corset. She carried a cocktail in one taloned hand and an Alexander McQueen skull clutched in the other.

Another reviewer put it best when they said that this anthology has the vibe of an ‘unpolished anthology of fan fiction written during a literary club meeting’. Honestly, there is much better writing out there, and not enough time in one’s life to read this kind of atrocious crap. Do yourself a favour, and give this a miss. 

October 14, 2018

Of Dystopia and Desire: Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah is a must read


Literature in Pakistan has seen its fair share of representation in certain circles: books about terrorism and religion are easy to find — and apparently easier to write — since the country can provide such fertile ground for characters and plot lines within these genres to flourish. Much harder to tackle are topics within comedy, horror or, in the case of Bina Shah’s newest offering Before She Sleeps, dystopian fiction. Yet Shah does it with aplomb, her book being a sharp, smart reply to that queen of feminist dystopian fiction, Margaret Atwood, who wrote the 1985 classic The Handmaid’s Tale.


Both The Handmaid’s Tale as well as Before She Sleeps envision a bleak, dangerous future in which sexual reproduction and the rights of women have suffered a harsh punishment. Shah’s book offers another look at the same question posed in Atwood’s story: if, in a male-dominated city the number of women capable of giving birth decreased exponentially, what would they do? In both books, it is the women who ultimately suffer, stripped off their fundamental rights and free will, their worth boiling down to the fact that they possess a womb.



In Before She Sleeps, natural disasters and a nuclear war have laid waste to the land, from which rises Green City, the setting of the story. It is this that sets Shah’s novel apart from other titles in the past, in that the location for this city is South West Asia. While a tremendous amount of dystopian literature has been produced in the West, its trickle to the South Asian regions of the globe has been slow, which makes Shah’s book that much more refreshing to read.



In Green City, a dangerous virus is affecting the female reproductive system, killing women off in alarming numbers. Desperate to maintain population numbers and protect the women of the city, the Perpetuation Bureau — an oppressive, totalitarian government agency — comes up with systems in which women must take multiple husbands and regular fertility treatments in order to ensure that they produce as many children as possible. Carelessly labelled “Wives”, these women must be shared equally between all the husbands, in what is frankly a brilliant overturning of the traditional Muslim interpretation of rules which allow a man to keep multiple wives.



What’s fascinating about this whole venture is that Shah shows women being treated as queens, and yet they are quite clearly completely lacking in any sort of power or agency. While these women are cared for with a degree of tenderness unimaginable in our current world, a select few of them recognise the system for its viciousness in its usage of women and revolt against the set-up, choosing to go down into secret tunnels — literally underground — from where they emerge to provide a completely different type of service to men.



Instead of agreeing to be one of the breeding communities, the protagonist, Sabine, becomes part of a group of women living in a secret hideout called “Panah” (those knowing Urdu will recognise the word and how it encapsulates the refuge these women seek out). These women emerge at night to provide nocturnal companionship to men in the higher echelons of society. These men seek not sex, but rather, companionship and in a complete overturning of the usual plot lines where sex is usually hidden and shameful, Shah’s story depicts platonic company as that which is disgraceful, and thus shocking, to the society our protagonists inhabit.



The story is told from several alternating points of view. We travel with Sabine as she meets a “Client” — a catch-all phrase for those men who have the money and the authority to be allowed access to these secretive women. We then hear from Lin, head of this group of secret women; then from women within this group; and then the men outside it who know of them. Each person, with their shifting point of view, introduces us to a different aspect of this society and to their own notions about what is and what isn’t good within the system. When Sabine, on one of her trips, gets sick and collapses in a public place, she sets off a chain of events that threaten to unravel all the carefully buried secrets, affecting the lives of all who live in or know of this society of closely guarded secrets.



Shah sets up a fascinating world, rich with detail and intricate in its imaginings. While it’s sad that we never get to read from the Wives’ point of view, the women we do meet — Sabine and Lin and also Rupa, another one of their companions — provide us with a complex, three-dimensional look at their lives and the choices that have led them to where they are. The men we encounter — the powerful society figure who is Lin’s lover in the world, the doctor who treats Sabine after her sudden collapse — provide a different outlook, but unfortunately their characters remain less developed than those of their female counterparts. Amazingly, what Shah does best is create a world that still caters to men — an irony in a time and place where the greater percentage of women are dead because of the fatal virus. Throughout the story, the narrative seems to seek to explain how the system struggled and came up with a solution to retain the population, but there is very little discussion about how the women are taught to acclimatise to the new environment, with only the rules laid out in the “Handbook for Female Citizens” proving to be a harsh guide.



There are some obvious flaws in the story, easily identifiable and harder to answer. The biggest is that there are no mentions at all of people who don’t fall within the heteronormative spectrum of sexuality, and no explanation given for why there are no discussions about gender non-conforming identities. It is understandable that Shah might, basing her story in South West Asia, justify this decision on the fact that multiple sexualities are not as yet part of the mainstream conversations or even considered valid and acceptable in these areas of the globe. But it’s still a weak defence for an author based in Pakistan, a country which officially recognised transgender persons as the third gender in 2009, or whose National Assembly passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act this year. There is also, unfortunately, very little discussion about the disease that lays waste to half the population, or what the rest of the world is doing while this is happening in Green City. But since ignoring the rest of the global population in setting up a limited world is a pretty common trait in many dystopian works, we can let this one go.



As a beginning point for those who haven’t yet had any exposure to speculative fiction, Before She Sleeps is a great read. Not only is it a shrewd look at a dystopia that takes into account South Asia’s complicated history with veiling and segregation, it also allows an interpretation that’s global and a commentary on our overall world structure. For those interested in feminist literature as well as works by women of colour, this should be a must read.



***



This review was originally published in Books and Authors on 14 October, 2018. 

September 18, 2018

Of Djinn and Duologies: Sami Shah's Fire Boy is a great starter to South Asian Fantasy

I think the most obvious complaint about this book is the ending. For a duology, it offers literally no closure in any of the plots, leaving everything not open-ended, but rather just… drifting. The ending doesn’t even have the decency of a cliff hanger, and sort of just hangs there. It’s as if Sami Shah wrote a whole novel, then flipped it open roughly in the middle and decided to turn it into a duology (which, it turns out, is actually what happened, since according to this interview it was initially written as a single novel, then split into a duology by the Australian publishers. It was later printed as a single novel by the Indian publisher). 

That noticeable problem aside, this is actually a fascinating attempt at South Asian fantasy, and that’s primarily because of the setting. As a Karachiite born and bred, I have an obvious fondness for stories set in this city, but that doesn’t mean just any story will do. Sometimes the writing can be atrocious, or the characters flat and pointless, and then even the setting isn’t enough of a saving grace. That disappointment thankfully doesn’t arise in Fire Boy, because Sami Shah – following in the likes of works by Kamila Shamsie – writes about Karachi like it’s a character. The city is alive, and filled with the most amazing sort of creatures bound to inhabit a place so dark and dangerous. 


And by amazing I meant creepy and familiar, two combinations I have had very limited experience with in the literature world. As far as urban fantasy goes, South Asia has very rarely been the location for such stories. This makes Sami Shah’s novel, which brings literally every desi horror story character into the plot, so very dear to me and my poor unrepresented heart. While the canon for most avid Pakistani readers has been a western setting of elves, orcs, dwarves and white men trudging around dragon-infested lands, Shah ignores all of that in favour of djinns and churails, supernatural entities that one hears of more commonly in Pakistan in casual conversations, or during late night sleepovers. 

Wahid was seven years old when he saw his first djinn.

Keeping the conversation of whether to spell it as djinn or jinn aside for now, this book introduces us to all these paranormal creatures through the eyes of one Wahid, a teenager whose time is filled with hanging out with his two best friends, worrying about his board exams, and thinking about Maheen, a girl he has a crush on. As a protagonist, Wahid is both whiny and funny, sometimes a pointless character and then back to being an active participant in his story, fluctuating wildly between a character I cared about or someone who was only a conduit for the story Shah wanted to tell. Following the tried and tested trope of The Hero’s Journey, Shah throws Wahid’s life into a tail spin when, on his way home from a party, Wahid along with Maheen and one of his best friends Amir, encounters a fatal accident at the hand of a couple of djinn. When these djinn steal Maheen’s soul, Wahid sets out on a journey to get it back, encountering characters such as the Physics professor trying to channel djinn energy or the young street child known as the King of Karachi, all leading him along a path from where he might trace a lost soul, all the while knowing no one will believe him. 

These things happen. They happen all the time, in fact. And they care not a whit whether we believe in them. 

I think an obvious flaw, and one that has been pointed out in numerous other places, is the fact that the women in this story are basically, well, pointless. They exist only in terms of moving the hero’s story forward, and have absolutely no agency. This is not to say that the book itself is misogynistic – Shah makes it a point to talk about violence against women repeatedly, adding to his narrative characters such as the pichal parree, a common Pakistani myth about a witch with backward-facing feet who in this particular story haunts Karachi’s seaside.

“I am what is left of the woman who dies at the hands of men,” she said. “I am her revenge.”

But the point still remains that Maheen, possibly the only female in this novel to serve a function (and even then for barely any significant part of the narrative), only exists solely so that Wahid can go and ‘save her’. Her soul stolen by the jinns (not even because of something she’s done, but as part of Wahid’s relationship to the supernatural) serves only as a starting point for our hero to begin his journey into the underbelly of Karachi, and eventually to the world of the jinn themselves, accompanied by the most interesting of companions. 

“Who are you?”
“I,” said the figure, bowing grandiloquently, “am Azah-zeel. Some people call me Shaitan. But I prefer Iblis.”


It is only by the saving grace of filling of story with a chockful of desi supernatural entities does Sami Shah retain interest. And the brilliant thing about being one of the first ones to write these stories is that you have a lot of leeway in how to manoeuvre your fictional creations. Amongst the common myths that I’ve grown up with in Karachi is the tale of the mithai left uncovered at night in sweet shops, which jinn then come and eat, leaving empty containers for the owners to pack again for the next night. Shah incorporates all these sleepover stories into his tale, making it a part of Wahid’s journey through Karachi in search of Maheen’s soul. 

The brothers protested, explaining that customers were unlikely to frequent a shop in which they would be slapped by invisible hands … The sufi gave this a great deal more thought, and finally told them to make a gift of the finest deserts they made every day to the djinn. The tree had been cut, the shop built and every day they selected the best sweets from their kitchen and made an offering of them.

My only other issue with the book might be that the violence feels gratuitous in some of the scenes. While I’m not averse to a little blood and gore, having read enough grimdark to get used to the feel, it’s always immediately obvious when it’s necessary, and in this story it’s mostly not. In most of Shah’s scenes, the violence goes overboard, with more intestines spilling out and more heads detaching from body than are really needed. I’m not sure why Shah does this, especially in a story that’s so clearly targeting a YA market, but the extended torture scenes could have been cut. 

Overall though, the story is fascinating, both for people who’ve lived in the city, since there are ten million points of reference to life in Karachi, and also for people who’ve never encountered these specific Islamic or South Asian myths. It might not be the best thing I’ve read overall, but it does manage to hit the right notes on a number of occasions. For that, it goes on the recommended list. 

August 02, 2018

Of Adultery and Aimlessness: Rubab Masuri's Four Broken Strings is a completely pointless novel


Here is a list of reasons why I didn’t like this book:

·         Plot what plot: A woman named Penny has a boring, loveless relationship with her constantly-travelling husband. She gets a job, falls for a man at said job, is in complete denial about her feelings. Makes out with said man, gets mad at man when he tries to talk about their relationship. Gets mad when he tries to get some distance from her. Gets mad when he gets engaged. Ends up being friends with this man, and going back to boring husband. Do the characters grow through this year? Are there lessons learned? Do we ship for anyone ever? Are there any conflicts worth caring about? Nope, nope, so much of the nope.

·         Boring main character: Penny is a caricature of all the horrible tropes that we hope we never see in a woman anywhere. Doesn’t have any strong, healthy friendships, doesn’t like her own company, has no habits or interests to bolster herself up, can’t maintain interesting conversations, has no smart opinions, and is overall such a pointless person that it’s amazing that she’s the protagonist of a whole novel, much less the side character in a zombie apocalypse story who gets eaten first, sparing us all her annoying presence.

·         Misogyny everywhere: Our protagonist judges all other females constantly, has no strong friendships with other women, can barely stand to be civil to her mother or sister in law, indulges in casual misogyny almost constantly, believes women are responsible for keeping a man in a relationship happy, judges the hero for reading a ‘girly book’.. I could go on and on, but I won’t, because such ingrained sexism and patriarchy is exhausting to deal with, and I just can’t.

·         Pointless love interests: Both Penny’s husband and the guy she likes are so tedious that it’s amazing that she is conflicted about choosing between them. What even is the appeal? Her husband barely appears, unless it’s to fight so horribly with his wife that he wilfully breaks apart the one guitar that she actually loves. The love interest, Kabir, is the most unremarkable, lacklustre character ever. It’s hard to feel much about his existence, much less ship them with our heroine. In a story where the main point is the conflict in love, the story spectacularly crashes and burns.

·         Poor chemistry: I get that complex, well-written relationships, even about adultery, can be amazing, can be literature worth analysing and praising. Even though I feel strongly about how horrible adultery is, one of my favourite novels is about a love triangle, and a couple which breaks up because of the adulterous wife. But though Love, Etc. could also be said to be about relationships and nothing else, it still says everything it needs to says about narratives of choice and the complications of love in such beautiful ways. In this story, unfortunately, there is no explicable pull between Penny and Kabir, two unremarkable characters who do less falling in love and more spending time with each other because they’re bored and apparently can’t make good life decisions. Where’s the spark, the chemistry, that undeniable pull so that you want to look away even as you know they’re going to crash together? What makes Penny want to be with Kabir even though she knows she shouldn’t? Absolutely nothing.

·         Really, really bad writing: Can’t stress this enough. And I mean this in more ways than one: bad in terms of sentence structure and flow, and also really, really poor in terms of the words themselves. At one point in the story the word ‘you’ is written as ‘u’. ‘Nough said.

·         Crazy punctuation: The misuse of commas is insane. I understand that commas are a pretty subjective thing; as an editor, the fights I fight are less about spelling – although those do happen – but more about punctuation. Commas are the bane of my existence day in and day out, so to see them used in so horrific a manner does something to my insides, and not in a good way either. I had to fight the itch to take a red pen and start crossing them out. 

The bad stuff went one and on: our characters make fun of people with disabilities, with the word ‘retard’ used as an insult almost constantly. There is barely any complexity to motivations for why people do things. The romance is lacklustre. You are, of course, welcome to read the book itself to ensure that all the things I’ve mentioned are actually true. Usually I quote direct passages from anything I review to provide a reference point or some proof of what I’m talking about, but having read this book once, I could not inflict upon myself the sort of torture required to go through it again looking for extracts. I mean, even masochism must have its limits.

 If you had to grade this novel on a curve, it’s slightly better than the worst thing I’ve ever read. But being slightly than the actual worst doesn’t actually make anything better. Please, do yourself a favour, and stay far away.

July 22, 2018

Of Breaking and Boredom: Mongrel's Book of Voices is a very weak anthology

I don’t care much about prose, and I didn’t care much about this anthology’s first entry. Clutter by Indian writer and poet Uttaran Das Gupta, is, well, nothing to write home about. Or it could be the next big thing, I don’t know. His works have appeared in a number of places and have been shortlisted for a bunch of awards, so presumably it must be good, but unless I really like something - like the second poem in this collection (To The Child by Yusra Amjad) – I’m not interested. Amjad’s work, a 16-line poem with four quatrains, is most effective near the ending, and calls for deeper analysis and discussion.

And I made sure to keep my love safe
Stored away in a cool dark place
My sweet, please believe I cannot explain
How it is grown so sour and strange.

But sandwiched in between these two pieces is Shazaf Fatima Haider’s Pavlova, one of the weaker pieces of this anthology, and such a disappointment to me, since I really liked Haider’s previous novel. Being followed up by just-fine poetry did her story no favours, with New Delhi-based poet Akhil Katyal’s two mediocre poems leading to one of brilliance. His third contribution to this anthology, He was born in 1948, so he’s, at eight lines and more concise than his previous two poems, is unexpectedly good, and definitely recommended reading. I’ve also rarely heard Pakistani cultural figures like Nusrat Fateh Ali mentioned so endearingly in prose, so it was a nice change.

What was also pretty nice was that the next entry Uremia - a super bland and completely pointless story about an old patient obsessed with a nurse - was by a Saudi Arabian writer, which meant I didn’t have to bother reviewing it in detail. Abdullah Wesali won the Saudi Novel Prize in 2016, which means he must write well, so I don’t know what went on over here.

What’s surprising is that I found myself liking the poetry in this anthology more than the prose, which is quite weird, cause I always thought I wasn’t much for poetry. Still, Shandana Minhas’s Dear 24-year-old is smart and well-written and worth discussing. But since I’m crap at properly analysing any forms of writing that aren’t in paragraphs and with a proper beginning, middle, and end, I’m going to leave four lines of her work here, and hope they suffice.

My problem with pedestals is
I’m alive,
So call it what you will my ascension
Is just crucifixion without the nails.

Or maybe I spoke too soon when I said that the poetry was impressing me, because following up from Shandana Minhas was Moeen Faruqi with two average, forgettable poems. I’m not even going to bother talking about them because I don’t have that kind of time in my life. Unfortunately, I had to make time for Amna Chaudhry’s Sonny and Steven, a prose piece of remarkable pointlessness. Nothing interesting happens in this story about a wedding photographer, and nothing much continues to happen until the very end. At this point, I was just turning the pages hoping to come across something worth reading, and Aziza Ahmed’s two-page comic was a welcome relief. Written on two pages facing each other created a great duality for comparison on both sides, with one side under the heading ‘I am my computer’, and the other ‘My computer is me’. It wasn’t particularly original, but the graphics with the text were compelling enough for analysis.

Sadly enough, we had a very short stop at the station of things-worth-reading before we got to ‘critically acclaimed’ (this is directly from the Author’s bio) Egyptian writer and translator Mohamed Abdelnabi’s piece. Titled Like a Novice Disciple, it was a collection of 60 epigrams from a longer work, and I’m sorry to say that it made absolutely no sense to me. It must have made some sense to someone somewhere, presumably, since it’s been published, but witness:

Oh his hand, his fingers, who is he?
I, too, tried to be in love, my goat!
Even on the body of insomnia I left my bite-marks.
Don’t ask for my last word, let me live.

Ookkkay, what now? I’m assuming that’s supposed to be deep, and throws up multiple interpretations if you dig in deep. The thing is, I’m not reading this for my English literature class. I’m reading this for a sort of surface level, mindless pleasure, and I’m not mood to figure out what the hell a goat is doing here. Next, please.

Bina Shah’s Peter Pochmann Goes to Pakistan, which could have been great cause I like Bina Shah, except turned out it was an excerpt. An excerpt from what though? No novel of that name has ever actually been published. Googling this title brings up a 15-page excerpt from this unpublished manuscript present in amagazine, and a mention in a 2012 interview with Claire Chambers, who was looking forward to reading this. Chambers must still be waiting, since Shah’s next upcoming book Before She Sleeps says nothing at all about any Peter Pochmann.

At this point, I was just skimming - couldn’t wait for this anthology to be over - which might be why Rimsha Amjad’s poem Uncoiling did absolutely nothing for me. It was when I got to Soniah Kamal’s The Party Giver that I finally found something worth reading in this anthology. Told from the point of view of a mother celebrating her son’s fifth birthday party, Kamal creates depth and character in a very short period of time, in one I personally thought was the best entry in this anthology. 

Unfortunately, we were right back to the forgettable poetry with Harris Khalique’s entry (I shall not return the borrowed dust) and then even more forgettable prose with Whiti Hereaka’s work (Papatūānuku). Shadab Zeest Hashmi’s five paragraphs of prose about partition and death I also didn’t care for - I’ve read SO MUCH partition literature at this point that in order for it to get my attention it has to be better than brilliant. Maryam Ala Amjadi’s 101 Synonyms for a Single Woman makes for an interesting discussion point but can you categorize this as literature? And so, in this anthology even casting itself as one? Cause that’s literally a list of synonyms with which single women are referred to, which makes for a great starting point for a discussion that never came.  

And because I was so, so bored by this point, I think Imran Yusuf’s Comfort Food in Karachi came across as less interesting than it could have been. The story of a couple having an illicit relationship killed by the family matriarch loses its shock appeal about the corpse being used as food cause I’d already read Roald Dahl’s Lamb to the Slaughter. Dahl’s story features a woman who kills her husband, then cooks his body and feeds it to the detectives who come to investigate her missing husband. The first time I read this, I was horrified at this turn of effects. With Yusuf’s story, it’s a case of been-there-read-that, so I wasn’t as effective as it could have been. What was more effective was Soonha Abro’s An Evening of Illusions, where a moment of staring at someone and reminiscing culminates in a complete change in the last line, effective and powerful in retrospect.

As hard as I tried,
I couldn’t look away;
Until I had stared at you so long
That your forehead lost its angular shape
And became more rounded,
And I realised that

it wasn’t you.

I actually knew Soonha when we were working together, so I was worried about hating her work, cause that would mean I would have to write a horrible review. Fortunately, this is great writing. Mehr F. Hussain’s short story, on the other hand, is not great at all. A young boy, obsessed with his babysitter, is horrified when she leaves, and even more when he realizes she’s gone to get married. What I think the author tried to do was shock us with the age revelation, except the secret is obvious and the execution clunky. At this point, I was just glad that there were only a few pages in this anthology left, and with three poems (two average, one absolutely brilliant) by Vivimarie Vanderpoorten, we were finally, finally at the end.

I feel like I said this a lot but my god there were a lot of pointless entries in this anthology. The only positive I could find was the fact that none of the Urdu is italicized, which was such a welcome relief and probably one of the best parts of reading a book published by a Pakistani publisher. Props to Mongrel Books for having a style policy which doesn’t pander to a western readership. And here’s to hoping they pick better stuff next time.