Between the the 14th and the 16th of January, Karachi came to Kolkota as a part of the literary festival. To our absolute delight, a number of Tranquebar writers from Pakistan were invited. Shehryar Fazli – whose debut novel Invitation has been received with curiosity and enthusiasm; Nighat Gandhi – whose manuscript, Alternative Realities, on Muslim women and sexuality, is soon to be published by us; and Bina Shah – who wrote Slum Child – were amongst the guests. While Bina was held back because of a visa delay, the other authors engaged in an enriching conversation about Pakistani writing and its place in the literary firmament.
It’s fair to say that Pakistani writing has come a long way. From Zulfikar Ghose’s The Murder of Aziz Khan, published in 1967 – the first cohesive, modern English novel written by a writer of Pakistani origin, to the work of Bapsi Sidhwa, Adam Zameenzad and Sara Suleri, to the present-day novels of Kamila Shamsie and Mohsin Hamid, there has been a gradual blossoming. So today Pakistani literature is being lauded with terms such as ‘a corona burst of talent‘. Pakistani writers are being feted, their novels being ravenously consumed, their work being applauded by critics the world over. Mohsin Hamid was shortlisted for the Booker in 2007 for The Reluctant Fundamentalist; Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes won the overall Commonwealth Best First Book Prize in 2008; Daniyal Mueenuddin was nominated for the Pulitzer in 2010 for In Other Rooms, Other Wonders; Kamila Shamsie’s novels have been nominated more than once for the Orange Prize.
Some would suggest that the fate of Pakistani English literature is closely entwined with that of Indian writing in English, that the popularity of literature from India acted as a springboard for Pakistani writing’s success. As Kamila Shamsie says, ‘Pakistani writing is like the new young fast bowler on the scene but Indian writing is like the spinner who’s been going for years and whose greatness is assumed.’
Would it be fair then, to compare Pakistani writing in English of today with Indian English writing of the 1980s? Some would think such comparisons are justified, especially if one looks at the milieu of the writers in question. For one, much like the Indian writer of the 80s and 90s, several Pakistani writers come with a complex heritage, without a definite place to call home. Humera Afridi, for instance, published in anthologies such as Leaving Home, was born in Pakistan, raised in the UAE and is now based in New York; Sabyn Javeri-Jilani lives in London; Shehryar Fazli spent many years in North America. Afridi says, of this legacy, ‘I don’t know whether I would have become a writer if I hadn’t been torn from Pakistan. I began writing poetry when I was 16 and, ever since, writing has become a sort of home. The UAE was a hostile and alien environment, where my identity was always being questioned. The desire to compensate for my dubious identity became an impetus for my writing.’
The second point of similarity of course is that much like the Indian writer of the 80s and 90s, limited to the boys of St. Stephens’, Pakistani writers are viewed are coming from backgrounds of privilege.
But Shamsie is quick to emphasize that the trajectories of Pakistani Anglophone writing and Indian Anglophone writing cannot be compared. ‘I don’t think there’s been “the Midnight’s Children” moment in quite so dramatic a way [with Pakistani literature]. Instead we’ve had a cluster of writers publishing and being acclaimed within a condensed space of time. Mohsin Hamid, Nadeem Aslam and I had our first novels out quite a while ago, and Aamer Hussein’s first short-story collection was published in the 1990s. So I think we need to guard against the sense that there was a void until 2-3 years ago which is suddenly crammed full of books that people are talking about.’
Daniyal Mueenuddin, goes on to suggest that it is important to bear in mind the distinction in style between Indian and Pakistani writing. In his view, Pakistani writing is grittier, with a tougher emotional core than its Indian counterpart. He says, ‘We’re not lying in sort of a bath of warm water and reflecting upon, you know, our sort of quirky, funny families. There’s an edginess to our writing, I believe, which is distinctive.’
It is this edginess that leads to the next area of debate – of whether Pakistani literature is reflective of the political climate of Pakistan, and if great writing is born of social or economic chaos. Llosa certainly thinks so when he says that great traumas are stimulating for literature, harbingers of a good period for creativity. Shehryar agrees. And the Asia House goes on to say, in this context, specifically of Pakistan, ‘with almost 200 million people speaking nearly sixty languages, conceived under the auspices of a single religion, but wracked with deep separatist fissures and the destabilising forces of neighbours Iran and Afghanistan, Pakistan is one of the most dynamic places in the world.’
Not surprisingly, Pakistani literature finds itself trying to understand its politics and its society, through stories of religious extremism, class divides, war, dictators and love. Mohammad Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a satirical portrait of the Islamic fundamentalist rule of General Zia ul Haq in the 1980s; Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil chooses modern Afghanistan for a setting; Shehryar’s debut novel is set in a Pakistan only just coming to terms with the political upheavals of the 70s.
Yet Kamila Shamsie argues that not all Pakistani literature engages directly with the politics of the land or the country’s vexed relationship with democracy. She says. ‘If you read Aamer Hussein – who I think is an extraordinary writer – you’ll see that very often he takes another route, highlighting the quieter domestic lives of characters – often women. In some of his stories the grand politically involved figures are men on the periphery of the story and it’s in the internal and domestic sphere that the stories find their charge. And I think that’s also a very necessary component of writing. There’s also a very fine writer called Imad Rehman who grew up in Karachi before moving to the US for university, and staying on there; his short story collection I Dream of Microwaves – very funny – is largely about Pakistani migrants to America, and engages with American history – the migrant dream – far more than Pakistan’s history.’
The third area of debate, predictably, then is whether it’s even fair to pigeon-hole Pakistani literature based on the diktats of geography. The style and thematic concerns of Pakistani writers, from Zulfikar Ghose to Hanif Kureishi, differ so considerably, that it’s easy to ignore the fact that they owe their origins to the same nation. As the blog, Sepia Mutiny mentions, ‘The category “contemporary Pakistani writer in English” holds together as a kind of geopolitical marker, but perhaps it doesn’t correspond to a real body of texts as well as it ought.’
We thought we could throw open the debate to you:
Do you think there similarities between Pakistani English writing today and the early Indian English novel?
Do you believe that great art is born of chaos?
Do you think a category such as Pakistani English writing is even fair?
And finally, which Pakistani English writers do you enjoy reading?
We look forward to hearing from you!