Brevity for the soul

Two talented individuals try to help give creative minds in Pakistan a long overdue push with the ‘Life’s Too Short’ Short Story Prize

By Huma Imtiaz

It is rare to see people getting animated about writing, but as of late, the ‘Life’s Too Short’ Short Story Prize has sent a wave of excitement through Pakistan that is usually only seen when books are burnt in large public gatherings. So what is the competition all about?

Being judged by three of Pakistan’s leading writers, Mohammed Hanif (A Case of Exploding Mangoes), Daniyal Mueenuddin (In Other Rooms, Other Wonders) and Kamila Shamsie (Kartography, Burnt Shadows), the ‘Life’s Too Short’ Short Story Prize was launched this year by columnist and editor Faiza S Khan, with the help of bookseller Aysha Raja, and aims to unearth talented Pakistani writers.

Sponsored by the ZZ & Zohra Ahmed Foundation, a philanthropic organisation, ‘Life’s Too Short’ will not only award prize money to the three top winners, but will also publish some of the best submissions as an anthology.

With Pakistani writers winning accolades and acclaim both locally and internationally, it is hoped that the competition will not only help writers emerge out of the woodwork, but will also give them a chance to get their work judged by authors that may otherwise be inaccessible to them.

Faiza S. Khan says she started the competition out of sheer curiosity; “to see who was out there but not from our bubble. Because I keep reading about the same sort of experiences, all largely by people I know socially. I already know their story, time for something different please. So I really wanted to get a wide range of people to write, so that we can read authentic and not manufactured experiences.”

One wonders if the judges were as excited as Faiza was about the competition. “They were wonderful,” replies Khan, “Hanif instantly agreed, Daniyal was happy to do it, and Kamila replied in the affirmative so fast that I thought my e-mail to her had bounced back.”

Khan says that what changed the notion of the competition into reality was Aysha Raja.  “The fact that her bookshop (The Last Word), which caters to a really sophisticated palette was doing well was a sign that there are enough people out there to make a success of a home-grown literary endeavour. There are enough discerning readers to keep a great bookshop going, so why assume that there aren’t tons of potential authors out there?” Other than that, Aysha’s enthusiasm, energy and enormous resourcefulness have made this project go from a good idea to a surefire success.”

So have the entries that Khan and Raja have received so far been from the same group of people who are currently established writers, or are a diverse collection of people participating in the competition? “It’s definitely a diverse group. There have been entries from published writers and some people whose names I can recognise from the local press. But otherwise, it’s a swathe of people who are coming to this for the first time. Not writing, but publishing. We have an entry by a woman who used to write short stories before she got married and then left it, and has now come back to it in her 60s just because of this competition. It’s an extremely good feeling.”

What happens after the competition ends then? Khan says that she would like to see the good entries form an online literary journal and for the competition to be an annual event so that writers know there’s always somewhere for them to send their work. “What I really want is for us all to discover a great new voice, who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to be read by so many people and by other writers, agents and publishers who can provide very concrete rewards for their work.”

Khan says she wants the ‘Life’s Too Short’ Short Story Prize to become the place that people look towards for spotting up and coming Pakistani talent. Khan says there has already been a fair amount of regional interest in the competition, which she feels can only be beneficial all around. “If ever we’ve needed to enter into a cultural war, to define ourselves through something other than the news, it is now. Otherwise we may as well accept that people’s idea of Pakistan will boil down to the superficial observations of foreign journalists.”

The submission deadline for ‘Life’s Too Short’ Short Story Prize is June 30, 2009. Details can be found on www.lifestooshort.pk

Huma Imtiaz works as a correspondent for Geo News and can be contacted at huma.imtiaz@gmail.com

07 June 2009

 

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