Saturday, February 07, 2009

Paging Pakistan: outtakes from a story about Pakistani writing in English

Slightly atypical post, this, probably best seen as a storehouse. I recently did this story for Business Standard Weekend about the interesting developments in Pakistani Writing in English (PWE) – or Pakistani Anglophone Writing (PAW) if you prefer. But even the generous word-length (1600 words) wasn’t enough to fit in all the responses that came in from the writers I had contacted. So here, by way of supplementing the article, are the full texts of their replies. Am using the questions I asked as anchoring devices and putting the authors’ responses beneath them – apologies if this makes it look like a round-table discussion, which it wasn’t!

There’s been a big buzz around the debuts of Daniyal Mueenuddin and Mohammed Hanif, as well as upcoming titles by Ali Sethi and others. Are we seeing a blossoming of Pakistani writing in English – something similar to what happened in Indian writing in English in the mid-to-late 1980s?

Kamila Shamsie: Yes, and no. A blossoming, yes. But I don't see any particular basis for comparing the trajectory of PAW (Pak Anglophone Writing) to that of IAW. I don't think there's been “the Midnight's Children” moment in quite so dramatic a way. 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. Not only was there not a void, but also we're still at the point where two books of “notable” fiction by Pakistani writers in one year seems momentous. That suggests this “blossoming” still has a very long distance to travel.

Having said that, more is going on with PAW than is often suggested in the various articles about “Moonlight's Children” which tend to trot out the same 4 or 5 names. For instance, last year Shahbano Bilgrami's In Dreams was longlisted for the Man Asia Prize and Shandana Minhas' Tunnel Vision was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers prize. But both these writers were published in India rather than the UK or US and that means they often get left out of the conversation. (Not to be nepotistic, but you might also want to take a look at a book called As The World Changed, edited by Muneeza Shamsie – my mother – and published by Women Unlimited a couple of years ago. It's fiction by Pakistani women and gives a sense of the breadth of PAW as being much wider than often acknowledged.)

Aamer Hussein: I don't read everything that comes out from South Asia and I'm more interested in translations or in Urdu when I do. So I'm wary of talking about blossoming, but it's nice to see how many varieties of fiction are available, and how much attention India seems to give their neighbours' literature, how open they are to our fictions.

Nadeem had a first book out in ’93, Kamila in '97 and Mohsin in '99. Was the boom, then, a question of more titles from them in the 21st century, or more award nominations, or more panels called Pakistani Writing Today (in '97 it was Bapsi Sidhwa, Sara Suleri and me)? They've been writing for a while, and their books haven't really come out in a cluster.

Azhar Abidi: My impression is yes, there is certainly an increasing recognition of Pakistani writing in English as a counterpoint to Indian writing in English but whether that’s a blossoming or not is hard to say. It may just be a temporary phenomenon, but in any event, does it really matter whether the writing is in English, Urdu or Bengali? The writing should be good. It should stand on its own feet no matter what language it appears in. That ought to be the real measure of blossoming, don’t you think? And on that measure, Urdu literature has matured and ripened for over two centuries, but it’s a canon that’s hardly known in the West or even in our own countries for that matter. The two countries have a long and noble literary tradition. It’s not as if there was nothing there before people started writing in English.

Has there been an increase in writing that is chronicling the many faces of modern Pakistan – the different rungs of its society, life in various parts of the country? Have you been following the work of contemporary Pakistani writers?

Kamila Shamsie: The urban centres and the upper-middle class are chronicled to a disproportionate extent because most of the Anglophone writers come from those worlds. (Of course, it is possible to step out of the world you've grown up in). I haven't read all my contemporary writers, but I've certainly read Hanif, Mohsin, Nadeem, Uzma Aslam Khan, Aamer Hussein – am looking forward to Daniyal M's collection (I've read the stories that were in the New Yorker).

Aamer Hussein: Yes; writers like Bina Shah, Shandana Minhas and others are chronicling varied aspects of Pakistani life – and writing for a Pakistani or South Asian readership rather than primarily for publication abroad. Bina, a brave and lovely writer, often sets her work in the less than affluent areas of Karachi, and, in one case, largely in the slums. But most Anglophone Pakistani writers I know of live abroad. I'm no expert, but I feel that in general rural or small town Pakistan doesn't figure largely in English-language fiction. It did, however, in Nadeem Aslam and Moni Mohsin's first novels.

Moni Mohsin: There clearly are more books by Pakistani authors being published in the West now than say ten years ago and yes, most of them are focused on chronicling life as it exists today across a wide spectrum of Pakistani society.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi: I have read Mohammed Hanif's novel and I know that some people criticised it in Pakistan because they felt that it made Zia-ul-Haq less of a villain than he was. But no good writer can write about a character without bringing his own humanity to reflect in his characters. So those who criticize Hanif for making Zia more human are actually complimenting him. I have also read Daniyal Mueenuddin's story "Nawabdin Electrician" and it reminded me of the Urdu writer Abul Fazl Siddiqi, who wrote about these subjects with great mastery. As to the increase in English-language writing that is chronicling modern Pakistan, this may be true at one level but it may not necessarily be a good thing because it reflects poorly on the absence of good Urdu instruction in schools and a general indifference towards our cultural language.

Nadeem Aslam told me that if you come from a country which has a tragic history, and which often finds itself in the news for the wrong reasons, you can't avoid being politically engaged – there's a constant need to explain, to reexamine, to correct misperceptions. Do you share this feeling?

Kamila Shamsie: Oh, you can avoid anything! I'm very interested in Pakistan's history and politics, and in exploring that in fiction. So I do. But 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.

I think of Pakistanis as my audience as much as any other nation, so I don't think in terms of correcting misperceptions or explaining, as though my audience is the world outside Pakistan (that I save for any journalism that I undertake for papers in the UK or US or Europe). But when I examine Pakistan's history and politics in my writing I know that for some people the effect will be to shatter misperceptions, and that's an outcome I'm very happy with. It's just not the reason why I write what I write.

But when a nation is viewed through as narrow a lens as Pakistan often is these days (terrorist males and oppressed women), then merely chronicling the lives of individuals rather than stereotypes ends up being political, doesn't it, even if that isn't the intention? perhaps the climate makes it impossible for Pakistani writing to be viewed unpolitically from the outside.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi: Political engagement has to be defined by each writer for himself or herself. For me, translation of our literary classics is an act of political engagement to stop what is happening to our language and cultural heritage. I have zero interest in writing about 9/11 or Afghanistan but that does not mean that someone who wants to write about these subjects is indulging in an idle exercise. A good writer can make every subject valid and interesting.

Urdu writing is equally strong, engaged and completely secular, but somehow there is an impression, particularly in the West and now also being spread in India, that those who write in the English language are somehow more engaged and better writers than the Urdu fiction writers or those who write in the regional languages of India.

Moni Mohsin: Politics, in my view, is a broad church. Any novel that deals with power structures, however obliquely, is to my mind political. You don’t have to have a terrorist or a prime minister as your protagonist to be politically engaged. And nor do you have to come from a country that has had a turbulent history to write political books. For instance, novels such as The White Tiger and Q&A are unambiguously political.

Although my book, The Diary of a Social Butterfly, appears a light-hearted comedy, its underlying intent is serious: it satirises the insularity, self absorption and frivolity of a privileged stratum of Pakistani society. Even the political disengagement of my subjects is a political statement. But when I write I don’t set out deliberately to challenge my readers’ misconceptions or even explain myself or my society. My starting point is always people – people and stories, which I try and tell as honestly and directly as I can.

Aamer Hussein: As a young writer, I felt compelled to write about Bangladesh, the Gulf War, military rule, the Indian Muslim heritage and partition, albeit obliquely at times. Now, I think that my political engagement is reflected in the ordinary lives and day-to-day activities I write about; but I've become ever more interested in history and its effect on the present. Obviously, I wouldn't want anyone to dictate a political agenda to me, or to feel obligated to let terrorism or fundamentalism hijack my fiction. If I wanted to make overt political statements I'd turn to journalistic pieces, which I rarely write, as I think writers often make asses of themselves when they do. But each one of us his or her own unique way of bearing witness to our times, however small our canvas, whether we use sepia or colour, bold strokes or muted colours.

But I think we should be judged on individual strengths, not necessarily as spokespeople for a 'troubled and misinterpreted' nation. That's like some people who saw Arundhati Roy primarily as a Syrian Christian Malayali voice.

Azhar Abidi: I wouldn’t be surprised if Pakistani writers were getting more political in their writing. A similar thing happened in Latin America, where authors like Fuentes, Manuel Pueg, Bolano and others wrote about the experience of living under dictatorships. Political novels were extremely influential in elevating Latin American literature in the West. It’s quite possible that something similar happens in Pakistan with its unfortunate share of dictators and mullahs.

But I’m afraid I don’t share the view that you can’t avoid political engagement. I don’t want to be the spokesperson for a country, a religion or a people. I have no right to it and I think there is a great risk of misrepresentation.

Have you encountered Indian readers (or readers from any other country) who tell you that your books gave them a new perspective into Pakistani society or the lives of Pakistani people? Do you see literature making a difference in terms of how the international community views Pakistan?

Kamila Shamsie: Yes – both Indian readers and American readers have made that comment on a number of occasions. So literature can play some small part in changing people's views, but it's not going to be more than a small part. Far, far more people get their views from news reports than novels.

Moni Mohsin: The Diary of a Social Butterfly has struck a chord with my Indian
readers, not just because they are intrigued to discover that such people exist in Pakistan but how similar they are to ‘drawing room wallahs’ in India. And of course literature, as arguably the most honest and persuasive form of communication that there is, has the capacity to change minds, win hearts and above all, make people understand the complexity of the human condition. I don’t see why Pakistani fiction should be an exception to that general rule.

As a Pakistani author writing in English, is it easier to get published if you're living in the West than if you're in Pakistan? And is that changing now? What is the publishing scene like in Pakistan currently?

Moni Mohsin: I don’t think it is easier to get published in the West than in Pakistan. In my view the competition is much stiffer in the West. Publishing as an industry is not particularly evolved in my country as yet. There are no agents, publishing houses are few, the number of English books published every year is small, sales are tiny and marketing is rudimentary. But then nor do we have masses of submissions.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi: it is perhaps easier to be published as a writer of foreign origin in the US, Canada and UK, and I will explain the reasons in a second. But for every Pakistani or Indian writer writing in English published here, there are hundreds who are rejected. So if you apply the law of averages on the writing population in these western countries you will find out that Pakistani or Indian writers have more or less an equal chance.

But the reason why writers of foreign origin are sought in these markets is that they bring a different kind of story, a different family dynamic, a slightly different voice which maybe exotic but also not monotonous. One has to be a little clear headed about these things. Publishing is an industry in the West. If these stories were not liked and did not sell, the publishers would not give the time of day to any Pakistani or Indian writers. As long as these stories sell and people want to read them, they will be published. Demographics also play a part. South Asians are a growing population group in Canada and they are also a big and growing group in the US and UK. That also creates a market opportunity for a publisher of a South Asian writer. If he or she is successful then there are long term rewards for a publisher.

India has many English language publishers and a growing market in both regional languages and English. I believe there is a lot of interest in books in Pakistan as well but there is no major trade publisher presence. I have heard that Penguin is planning to open up shop in Pakistan so they must have done their numbers and seen a good fat business opportunity. Currently OUP Pakistan is the only game in town who is professionally organised. There are hundreds of smaller publishers who publish but are not well known, not well-distributed and therefore not very successful. Sang-e Meel Publications in Lahore is quite big but they need to organize themselves on a more professional level. There is also Ferozsons who published many of my favourite childhood reads including the "Dastan-e Amir Hamza". I think that as publishers establish themselves in these territories, the other apparatus will follow, including literary agencies, editors and not to forget the creative-writing schools. (May God save us from the devil!)

Kamila Shamsie: I think it's just a fact of logistics that if you're living in a country where there's a dynamic publishing infrastructure it's easier to tap into that than if you're outside it. Of course the Internet does make it much easier for people in Pakistan to look up agents and publishers, make email enquiries etc – but that doesn't compare to the information you get about submitting manuscripts if you're on a creative writing course, or know someone who can suggest how to go about finding an agent, or can go to literary festivals and hear writers and publishers talk about such matters.

The publishing scene in Pakistan for Anglophone fiction is pretty dismal – so actually right now the most promising publishing market for Pakistani writers is in India. A number of very fine Pakistani writers have found publishers there, and I know Indian publishers are on the lookout for Pakistani writing.

Aamer Hussein: I don't know much about the publishing world; I've never been picked up by a commercial press, and have done about five books with Telegram – a small literary imprint – since the late 90s. I think I already answered the publishing question in part. But OUP, Sama and Alhamra in Karachi and Lahore are producing fine new work, often unpublished elsewhere. My own collection Turqoise was actually composed of stories that had come out in Pakistan first, in a volume called Cactus Town; Insomnia was published almost simultaneously here and there.

Are you concerned about the voices that have been calling for the removal of books by Pakistani authors from Indian bookstores? I'm told that in case there's a trade shutdown in the future, there would be serious repercussions for the distribution of books by many Pakistani writers...

Moni Mohsin: I am concerned but I hope better sense will prevail. After all, if Indian readers should know one thing about the Pakistani authors who have made a splash there recently, it is this: all of them condemn extremism and terrorism.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi: yes, this is a big worry. Trade-ban threats have been flying and if Pakistan reciprocates and shuts down Indian imports, then book imports will naturally suffer. There was a report about the Karachi Book Fair 2008 published in the Dawn of Dec 27: the Indian books made it there but the Indian publishers couldn't. That was very sad and it happened even without an official bans or anything being publicly declared. If things deteriorate further, even the books might be stopped.

What happens to the Pakistani writers published by Indian publishing houses if the trade stops between India and Pakistan? Wouldn't it be ridiculous that a Pakistani writer's books whose subcontinent rights are held by Random House India or Penguin India are embargoed as Indian goods and cannot be distributed in Pakistan? This is not only a loss to the publisher but also to the Pakistani author who will probably sell more copies in Pakistan.

One possible solution is that Pakistan writers do not sell subcontinent rights to Indian publishers, only Indian rights because today it is Pakistan and India, but tomorrow it could equally be India and Bangladesh, in the same scenario. Another solution is that South Asian publishers should find partner publishers in all countries who can take over publishing of a title in the event of such developments.

Yet another solution is that in the event of an embargo of any kind the rights to a title for the country where it cannot be sold will revert to the author until things normalise.

The best solution is, of course, peace.


Also see these related posts: interviews with Daniyal Mueenuddin and Musharraf Ali Farooqi, and a lengthy conversation with Mohsin Hamid. And, of course, the Business Standard story is here.

And some context on the writers above: Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel Burnt Shadows is a multi-generational story that moves from Nagasaki in 1945 to Delhi in 1947 and, over the decades, to Pakistan and New York, examining the turbulence of a century where people have been repeatedly dislocated from their homes and where events from the distant past cast a long shadow over the present. Moni Mohsin’s Diary of a Social Butterfly is a collection of her newspaper columns that playfully expose the workings of Pakistani high society. Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s The Adventures of Amir Hamza, an outstanding 950-page translation of the epic Dastan-e Amir Hamza, was one of the publishing events of 2008, and he’s currently working on a 24-volume translation of the magical fantasy Tilism-e Hoshruba. Aamer Hussein is the author of numerous short-story collections including Turquoise and Insomnia. Azhar Abidi wrote Passarola Rising and has a new book out called Twilight.


  1. Thanks for this, Jai.
    Very nice post.

  2. Kamila Shamsie's books are terribly boring. Her agonizing aunt's book, Sunlight on a Broken Column, even more so. Serious waste of publishing space.

  3. Question, Jabberwock. Are Indian writers in English more determined to display their Anglophone/Westernized credentials? Or are Pakistani? In this great vying for the West's approval, who is winning?

  4. Thanks for the reading list. I'm sending it over to Crossword right now.
    So goodbye blogging! (For a while, I hope)

    Off-topic - shall send you a list of purchases from Dhaka, would be grateful for your opinion of the ten I should view first.


  5. Hallo.You should read this review. You will like it and let's know if you can interview the writer for us...


  6. Looking Forward to your Dev.D review....

  7. Are Indian writers in English more determined to display their Anglophone/Westernized credentials? Or are Pakistani? In this great vying for the West's approval, who is winning?

    Anon 1: I don't understand the question. That's quite a sweeping generalisation you make about "Indian writers" and "Pakistani writers" (both of which are categories filled with many different types of people, who do many varied things for varied reasons). Also, what do you mean by "Anglophone/Westernized credentials"? And what do you mean by "winning"?