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The Pak pack takes over the literary world?

In the last few years, novelists from Pakistan seem to have taken over the literary world. But have they really, asks Bina Shah, herself a Pakistani writer.

books Updated: Oct 26, 2010 14:13 IST
Bina Shah

Recently london’s Asia House hosted a literary event called "Pakistan: A Corona Burst of Talent" – a panel discussion with Pakistani writers followed by a celebration of the Fall issue of Granta, which focuses exclusively on writing, including fiction, reportage, memoir, travelogue and poetry, from and about Pakistan.



"Pakistan is one of the most dynamic places in the world. It is also at the forefront of a cultural renaissance" ran the description of the event. Many others agree, and in India, publishing houses are courting Pakistani authors as never before, eager to pick up the new voices from next door and then pass them on to international audiences.



PakistanBut is all of this talk of a "cultural renaissance" and a "corona burst of talent" an accurate description of a current literary trend, or media hype created to shore up book sales in a time of uncertainty in the publishing world? After all, we still haven’t seen a plethora of Pakistani writers on the international publishing scene. A small group of talented writers have made their way to the top, and it seems they will be leading the way into the future, holding court for years to come.



But for a literary trend to become an establishment there needs to be growth and expansion; there needs to be major investment into the literary scene on many levels; and aspiring writers in Pakistan need to hone their craft much more diligently than they have done in the past.



Pakistani writing has certainly been on a high in recent years, with Mohsin Hamid being shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007 for his novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes won the overall Commonwealth Best First Book Prize in 2008. Daniyal Mueenuddin won the regional Commonwealth Best First Book Prize with In Other Rooms, Other Wonders in 2010; he was also nominated for a Pulitzer prize in the United States.



Kamila Shamsie’s novels set in Karachi across various periods of history have been nominated more than once for the Orange Prize, the premier fiction award in the UK for women’s writing. Uzma Aslam Khan’s Trespassing was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize in the Eurasia region; and Aamer Hussein’s masterful short story collections paved the way for the novella Another Gulmohar Tree and its nomination for the Commonwealth Prize earlier this year.



Besides the "top five" – a construct that may or may not be artificially created by international publishers for the sake of packaging and marketing – many other Pakistani writers are working hard to establish themselves: Feryal Ali Gauhar, Shandana Minhas, Sehba Sarwar, Maniza Naqvi, Sorraya Khan to name a few (again, one has to wonder why the "top five" is predominated by men; and whether this is a deliberate or unconscious bias against Pakistani women writers).



But why the sudden recognition of Pakistani writers who write in English? Previously, Pakistani writers in English were seen to work at an incredible disadvantage given that within the country, there are few readers of English-language literary fiction, and outside the country, their rivals in English-language speaking countries, including India, outnumber them by at least ten to one.



Have Pakistani writers finally garnered the acclaim they deserve for their talents, or are they writing for the international publishing market, spurred on by the sensationalism of terrorism and other lurid political developments in the region over the last decade?

It is definitely true that world events of the last ten years have focused the world’s attention on this country, starting with 9/11, through the decade with the War on Terror, and continuing today with simmering tensions between Pakistan and India, the Muslim world and the Western world, and Pakistan’s own internal conflicts.

“With almost 200 million people speaking nearly sixty languages, conceived under the auspices of a single religion, but wracked with deep separatist fissures”, as the Asia House brief goes, the Western world is dying to understand Islam, Muslim people, and the cultures that go with them. And since Pakistan is the only Muslim country in the world with so many English speakers, and a tradition of writing in English, it seems that Pakistani writers are meeting a fortuitous demand by being in the right place at the right time.

But let’s go back in time for a minute: South Asian writing in English was popularly believed to have begun in India when Salman Rushdie won the Booker Prize in 1981 with the epic Midnight’s Children. Suddenly, India was the place to find fiction that fulfilled one of the major requirements of the Booker Prize: it transported people away to a place they were not familiar with, which Martyn Goff, who ran the prize for 35 years, calls “literary tourism”.

This was reinforced by Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, which went even more remote with its setting of Kerala, even less familiar to readers than Bombay or New Delhi. Roy’s novel won the Booker Prize in 1997, and suddenly, the literary scene in India was on fire.

Over the next decade, British literary agents sought clients from India, international publishing houses set up Indian branches, and local publishing houses mushroomed all over the country. The Jaipur Literary Festival went from being a literary sensation to a literary institution over five short years; and most significant of all, Indians continued their strong tradition of reading English-language novels, welcoming their own authors as hungrily as they previously had the British and American authors, both contemporary and classic.

Yet it would be wrong to say that Indian writing in English never existed before the publication of Midnight’s Children. What about Anita Desai, Rohinton Mistry and Vikram Seth, the forerunners of India-Lit before Rushdie?
Similarly, Pakistani writing in English wasn’t born with the advent of current talent, or the “Pak Pack” as Kamila Shamsie jokingly called it in a recent Radio 4 interview: there have been small waves of Pakistani English writers throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.

Bapsi Sidhwa and Zulfikar Ghose and Adam Zameenzad, then Hanif Kureishi (a British writer, although he wrote about the Pakistani immigrant experience in the UK), Sara Suleri and Aamer Hussein achieved critical acclaim in Western publishing with their fiction, memoir, and academic work, but a critical mass hadn’t been achieved until the last five years, the spotlight on today’s talent overshadowing, somewhat unfairly, the forerunners of previous years. “If five people constitute a wave, that just shows what a drought there was before,” says Kamila Shamsie, which sort of lets the air out of the balloon of all the hype surrounding “the new wave of Pakistani writers”.

It’s more fair to say that Western publishers have just now woken up to the fact that Pakistani writers are a commodity to be nurtured: the arbiters of what’s hot in the literary world seem to have decided to bring all the thoroughbreds under one stable, resulting in developments like the Granta issue on Pakistan and the inclusion of Pakistani writers at the Jaipur Literary Festival.

Concurrently, Indian publishers have played a major part in helping to find new talent hoping to springboard into a larger international market: encouraged by the strength and openness of the Indian publishing scene, Pakistani hopefuls have submitted manuscripts to Indian publishers, obtained publishing contracts, and garnered good reviews. Shandana Minhas’s Tunnel Vision was published by Roli Books, while Shahbano Bilgrami’s Without Dreams was longlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize in 2007 and then published by HarperCollins India.

Within Pakistan, many writers decided to try the local route, turning to Oxford University Press or the nascent Alhamra in the hope that being published in Pakistan would give them enough encouragement to take their work overseas. But while Alhamra published writers such as Sehba Sarwar (Black Wings) and Bina Shah (Where They Dream in Blue, The 786 Cybercafe), OUP’s decision to stop publishing English fiction by local authors was a great setback to aspiring Pakistani writers.

Alhamra also has pulled back on its plans to foster English writing in Pakistan, halting publication of the Alhamra Literary Review and concentrating on other aspects of its business. Another literary journal called Life’s TooShort was recently published in Pakistan, showcasing winners of the Life’s Too Short short story prize; its editors Aysha Raja and Faiza S Khan hope to become a literary incubator for new talent in the country.

Still, the border between Pakistan’s writers in Pakistan and Pakistan’s writers who have an international reach stands as strongly as any border between nations, perhaps even more difficult to cross without the right kind of visa from the international publishing world.

What we see in the Pakistani literary scene right now is a case of the haves and the have nots: on the one hand, the elite group of writers who have, at some point, gained the contacts needed to attract the attention of the literary establishment.

Aided by international literary agents and editors, supported by their publishers’ marketing and publicity departments, on the international book tour and speaking circuit, these writers have made it to the top of the scene. Their novels certainly fulfil the requirements of the Booker prize-winning formula: literary tourism, a “cracking story”, as Tracy Chevalier says, and inventive, creative storytelling that enchants the reader as much as the story itself.

The themes that Pakistani writers have tackled are amazingly diverse, yet all socially and culturally relevant: born out of post-Partition literature, contemporary South Asian writing addressed modern issues of Pakistani identity: the immigrant experience – authors such as Hanif Kureishi and Nadeem Aslam took on this aspect, while Aamer Hussein’s work exists in its own category, seeing boundaries as fluid and identities as more complex than just that of immigrant or expatriate.

Contemporary Pakistani politics are explored by Muhammed Hanif; 9/11 has inspired work by Mohsin Hamid and H M Naqvi. And Aamer Hussein, Maniza Naqvi, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Kamila Shamsie have all explored Pakistani society and its stratifications, from the 1950s all the way up to the 21st century in their novels, novellas and short stories.
While Pakistani writers have a lot to say about current political events, they don’t wish to be pigeonholed into writing solely about terrorism, Islamic extremists, the oppression of women. “Part of having artistic integrity is not having a political position and not standing on soapboxes.

I write what I like,” said Daniyal Mueenuddin in a recent interview with BBC’s Radio 4. “We’re political, but we’re not political with an agenda. That’s just where we come from.”

No matter how tempting it is to address current events in Pakistani writing, some writers, such as Aamer Hussein, concur that this is not generally a good idea. “My stories are located in a historical context. Fiction is rarely a good vehicle for current affairs – that’s the role of reportage.

There are moments of crisis that make me respond immediately and others that I address obliquely or not at all. It took me twenty years to write about the war that created Bangladesh, but during both Gulf Wars I responded immediately.”

There has been some contention that the people who are writing about Pakistan are not those who live in Pakistan, but I think this is an unfair criticism: Daniyal Mueenuddin, Mohsin Hamid and Mohammed Hanif have all recently returned to live in Pakistan after spending years abroad as expatriates.

Besides, one is not bound to live in a country to write about it: take the example of James Joyce, who lived in Trieste, Italy, while writing his novels about Ireland. Sometimes being away from home allows a writer a distance that enlivens and strengthens her writing.

But more importantly, Pakistani writers who have achieved international success have taken it upon themselves to reach out to aspiring writers in Pakistan, to provide the kind of support that means the world to someone who wants to write but doesn’t know what to do with that desire. Many of the prize-winning writers mentioned above have come to Pakistan and taught short courses on fiction; others do readings and signings in the major cities and meet with their fans, giving advice and offering to stay in contact with aspiring writers.

The Karachi Literary Festival held in March 2010 was also a major coup in getting renowned Pakistani writers to interact with literature lovers and bring their world just a bit closer to Pakistanis who need to see what it takes to become a literary success.

Out of these contacts, both formal and informal, we may see the emergence of another wave of Pakistani writers, helped and mentored by the heavyweights. A Booker Prize would be a fitting reward for a hardworking, gifted Pakistani novelist, but having a hand in the larger development of the Pakistani literary scene is an investment that could produce many prize-winners in the future.

Literature has always helped us to define who we are. This might even be one of the most important functions of writing; it is the biggest question that writers address when telling the stories of themselves and of others. Pakistani writers find themselves in the dual role of being storytellers as well as the interpreters of culture and politics to an eager, hungry Western audience.

It’s not an easy balancing act, as Mueenuddin said, to maintain your artistic integrity while writing about things that publishers, readers, and prize-awarding committees want to hear. Pakistani writers who write in English must maintain the balance with grace, style, and integrity.

In doing so, they will enlighten readers both in and outside of Pakistan who have been struggling with the existential questions of identity and belonging for generations to come, while still telling the stories that they truly want to tell.

Karachi was my muse
I stumbled into writing the way Alice fell into the rabbit hole and found herself in Wonder-land. While at college I’d never considered becoming a writer, but coming back and adjusting to life in Pakistan was a challenge: writing helped me to transition back into life at home.

However, there was no real field for Pakistanis writing in English: the big names – Bapsi Sidhwa, Sara Suleri, Zulfiqar Ghose, amongst others, were all living abroad and had been published abroad. So I became an IT journalist. I wrote pieces for other publications as well: Chowk, the Friday Times, Libas,the Dawn, learning how to work professionally, learning how to write in different voices, developing my style.

Hanif Kureishi was a big influence on me, writing about British-Pakistanis: a displaced group of desis with whom I could totally identify, with my upbringing split perfectly between the United States and Pakistan. I longed, too, to write fiction about Pakistan and Pakistanis, and have it appreciated by people all over the world.

The ideas for some short stories began to come through about five years after I’d come back home: Animal Medicine was published by OUP in 1999 and I realised it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Two novels followed over the next seven years: Where They Dream in Blue and The 786 Cybercafe, and a book of short stories called Blessings, all published by Alhamra, a Pakistani publishing house.

Karachi was my muse: the city is so vivid and energetic, so complex and heterogenous and full of so many dualities and pluralities of existence, that ideas for my novels just flowed. By this time the scope for Pakistani writers was starting to widen: I desired a wider audience, too.

In 2006, I started writing a story about a Christian girl raised in a Karachi slum. On the strength of 30 pages, I found an agent in the UK: the thirty or so pages grew into a novel called Slum Child, which was translated into Italian as La Bambina Che Non Poteva Sognare and sold over 20,000 copies. Another novel, A Season for Martyrs, was also published in Italy and won an award for translated fiction earlier this year.

I would have gotten nowhere as a writer without the mentoring, and friendship of some very special people. Ameena Saiyid, the head of OUP in Pakistan; Shafiq Naz, the head of Alhamra Publishing; my agents Anne-Marie Doulton and Rosie Buckman; and my friend Aamer Hussein, the renowned writer all helped me, seeing talent in me when I couldn’t see it in myself.

– Bina Shah’s book, Slum Child, is being released by Tranquebar in India

‘We simply wanted the best writing from and about Pakistan’John Freeman, editor, Granta, talks to Brunch
Why an issue on Pakistan and why now?
There’s just a great collision between the difficult and interesting times in the country and the emergence of a new generation of writers who are addressing them in work that is fantastically original.

How do you put together a representation of a whole nation?
It’s not a representation. We don’t want these issues on a place to be encyclopedias, guidebooks or exact replicas of a place – literature is never that, it refracts and explodes. And if it is good, it is also true – because what is beautiful is true.
We made phone calls, read newspapers and blogs, books, talked to reporters, editors, got in touch with local short story prizes, publishers, translators from many different languages, not just Urdu. It sounds chaotic but the striking thing is how quickly what is very good rises to the top.

Most of the writing in this issue arises from politics and sometimes a need to explain the country to the world. Was that deliberate?
I think Pakistan, as a nation, is in a state of flux like all nations, but its stakes are higher than most, and for that reason writers living there (or who are from there) have to wrestle with what it means to be Pakistani.

How does Pakistani writing compare with Indian writing?
One of our writers made the comment that Pakistani writing is more political, Indian writing sociological – as Pakistanis feel the effects of politics (how power is manipulated) more intensely than Indians. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s an interesting comment.

Mohsin hamid
He made his debut in 2000 with Moth Smoke, but really hit the headlines when his novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007

kamila shamsie
Her novels, including In The City By the Sea and Salt and Saffron, set in Karachi across various periods of history have been nominated more than once for the Orange Prize. Her latest novel is Burnt Shadows

Daniyal mueenuddin
He won the regional Commonwealth Best First Book Prize for his short story collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders in 2010; he was also nominated for a Pulitzer prize in the US

Moni mohsin
A journalist, she wrote her debut novel, The End of Innocence, a coming of age story, in 2006. In 2008, her columns for The Friday Times were collected in a book called The Diary of a Social Butterfly

Mohammed hanif
His very first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, won the overall Commonwealth Best First Book Prize in 2008. Since then, he’s written often for several international newspapers and now is working on his second novel

Nadeem aslam
He won the Betty Trask award for his first novel, Season of the Rainbirds. His next book, Maps for Lost Lovers (2004), is about the immigrant experience. His latest novel is The Wasted Vigil, set in contemporary Afghanistan.